Written comments of Joshua Breitbart, Communications Director of Media Tank, before the Philadelphia City Council regarding the Wireless Philadelphia-Earthlink agreement

I prepared a statement, with input from Inja Coates, for the Philadelphia City Council hearing on the pole attachment agreement, the only thing about the wireless network that will come before Council.

The full statement is posted here on the Media Tank website and below, after the jump.

It caused quite a stir. Of the 25 or so people testifying, the only other people raising concerns were a direct competitor with Earthlink’s proposed network and a woman complaining of hyper-spectro-sensitivity disorder who elicited chuckles from the audience. I was dead last (except for the kids of Projecto Sin Fronteras who came in at the last moment) and afterwards a number of people came up to me wanting to know where I was coming from. I even heard that some of the corporate folks were wondering if I was a Verizon front. Hardly.

I did learn something interesting, though. Apparently, Comcast has been talking to Earthlink about bundling a wireless account with its triple play in Philadelphia, assumedly for the laptop crowd. Bad news for anyone hoping that the wireless network would put a dent in the local monopoly (especially if the Comcast-bundle price undercuts the wholesale price).

Written comments of Joshua Breitbart, Communications Director of Media Tank, before the Philadelphia City Council regarding the Wireless Philadelphia-Earthlink agreement

March 30, 2006

Members of City Council, my name is Joshua Breitbart. I am the Communications Director for Media Tank, a small non-profit that is dedicated to working for a more democratic media here in Philadelphia.

I come before you humbly. We do not have a massive membership base that we can use to swing elections. We do not provide direct service to anyone. But we are vigilant watchdogs of the media, both local and national. We look beyond the content of the news and entertainment to see the structure of the media: Who owns it? Who profits from it? Who is served by it and who is shut out of it? I bring that perspective to you today.

I want to thank the Mayor, Ms. Neff, Ms. Robinson, and Mr. Pew for the tremendous vision and energy they have brought to this venture. I have great respect for everyone involved and for all of the people that have come before this committee to speak about the great potential of Wireless Philadelphia. I, too, am excited about the possibilities of a Philadelphia with tens of thousands more residents connected to the Internet and to each other.

The deal Wireless Philadelphia has struck with Earthlink is the envy of our peers across the country looking at potential wireless networks in their cities. Sydney Levy, Program Director for San Francisco’s Media Alliance wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle and said, “Philly’s provisions for digital inclusion set the baseline for what San Francisco communities must get out of any citywide wireless initiative.”

However, I have concerns about this deal and I would like to share them with you today, at this important juncture in the Wireless Philadelphia project and in the future of our city.

Here’s the second part of Mr. Levy’s statement about his city’s prospects: “To our disappointment, Earthlink’s joint proposal with Google in San Francisco does not include a digital inclusion fund.”

I think Earthlink is a good company. I have been a customer of theirs on and off since 1999. They stood up to the FBI’s malicious and invasive Carnivore system in 2000. But they are a for-profit corporation. If you do the math, considering that Wireless Philadelphia expects their five percent to total one million dollars and Earthlink expects to spend $22 million on building and maintaining the network, Earthlink stands to make more than $150,000,000 out of this deal in the first ten years. And with the five-year renewal options, it seems that you are actually signing essentially a twenty-year deal for the lampposts.

At the last hearing, Mr. Pew disclosed a complicated arrangement between Earthlink and Wireless Philadelphia whereby Wireless Philadelphia would cover half of Earthlink’s PECO bill, up to half of their digital inclusion revenue. I’ve lived in a house with roommates before and I know how complicated splitting up the utility bill can be, but that just seems like sleight of hand. If half of the five percent from Earthlink is going back to Earthlink, they should call it two and a half percent.

With that two and a half percent, Wireless Philadelphia has agreed to be the local publicity arm for Earthlink. They have agreed to “raise awareness” about this new service. This venture aims to provide service primarily to people who cannot currently afford broadband access – poor folks. And these agents of the city and all of these non-profit organizations are rolling a bandwagon through the streets saying get on board.

What if Earthlink underperforms? What if the wireless network doesn’t work? What if Earthlink finds it makes much more money off of the wealthy downtown customer with a laptop than off of the household in Kensington with a refurbished desktop?

As I told the Philadelphia Inquirer when this deal was announced, “What’s not clear is how the people of Philadelphia are going to be able to hold their communications providers accountable. We have a hard enough time doing it with Comcast [with whom the city has a direct contract]. It’s not clear how Wireless Philadelphia is accountable to the city government or the voters of Philadelphia.”

My concerns were only heightened by Ms. Neff’s response. According to the article, “Neff said the inherent competitiveness of Internet service would assure that the nonprofit was responsive.”

Maybe that will be enough. It certainly is helpful that the network is open access so we will be able to have multiple ISPs. It certainly benefits us, as Chairman O’Neill pointed out at the last hearing, that Earthlink’s business plan and reputation are tied to the success of this project. But I do not like to be told to trust market forces with something as critical as our communications infrastructure.

I understand that there are service level agreements (SLAs) in the contract between Wireless Philadelphia and Earthlink. But does Wireless Philadelphia have the teeth to enforce those agreements? Wireless Philadelphia plans to raise funds from private and corporate donors. How will that impact their oversight position?

I recognize that I may be painting a doomsday scenario. But these are valid questions that need to be addressed. Media Tank is very protective of our community’s human right to communication and we will point out whenever we see it at risk. So far with this wireless plan, we have been given pep rallies in place of oversight.

I should say that I think this committee did an excellent job questioning the relevant dealmakers when this measure was first brought before the Council. Right now is the most responsive you can ever expect them all to be. After you pass this measure, you will have your pulpit and the indirect budgetary oversight of the office of the CIO, which influences but does not control Wireless Philadelphia. But the deal will be done.

Wireless Philadelphia has said it plans to establish a citizen advisory board. That is good, but limited. I am told that Comcast has a local advisory board, but I spent a week on the phone and never found out who was on it or what its role is.

City Council should establish a true Citizen Oversight Board for all of our local communications networks. Practically speaking, I understand that the city may not want to fund such things. But a Citizen Oversight Board for Communications that was directly accountable to the people of Philadelphia, that had power of subpoena or otherwise had access to critical business information, that had the authority to hold regular public hearings throughout the city, that could advise City Council when appropriate, and that could serve as a megaphone for the needs of all of the city’s residents would help ensure that the potential of this project – and of this great city more generally – is fully realized.

Thank you for your time this afternoon and your critical attention to this amazing and innovative project.

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