From Community to Municipal to Corporate, or How We Never Owned Wireless Networks

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is reminding us in Philly how good we have it, but also how much we have lost since we first glimpsed the possibility of citywide wireless broadband. PDP plans to contract with US Wireless Online to wireless the downtown area in time for the All-Star Game this summer.

As in Philadelphia, the plan is not restricted by Act 183. The issue for Verizon is the spending of city money. (As much as Verizon hates competition, they hate socialism more.) That is not happening in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. In other words, it is a misnomer to call either a municipal project. They are corporate wireless networks: private-private partnerships.

(Note the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article says the Councilman plans to hold hearings on the Wi-Fi issue in the next few months. If you know anyone in Pittsburgh working on this issue, please put me in touch. The time for them to act is now.)

Wireless Philadelphia, Philly’s non-governmental organization, has a mission to close the digital divide and reduce the cost of city government and we expect it to be accountable to the City. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is accountable to the downtown businesses and has a mission to “differentiate the real estate Downtown.” That’s why they dismissed Earthlink’s pitch to wireless the whole city. Residents and kids be damned.

Unlike Pittsburgh, Philadelphia has the option of also building its own network, thanks to the backroom deal the City struck with Verizon to secure passage of Act 183. The contract between the City and WP is not exclusive, insofar as I understand it, even though the contract between WP and EL is exclusive. (I’ll discuss in a later post how the Philly deal is de facto exclusive.) Pittsburgh could only attempt to contract with Earthlink, US Wireless Online, or another provider to build out the entire city without Verizon’s permission.

This scenario also hints at what we’ve lost as a result of the Philadelphia model. In Philly, we went from community wireless, right past municipal, to corporate. Many people are still referring to the Philly and San Francisco plans as “municipal,” but unless the city is paying for it, operating it, or owning it, it is not a municipal network. If it is paid for by a corporation, owned by a corporation, and run by a corporation, it’s a corporate network.

How did that happen? One problem was that many (though not all) of the so-called “community wireless networks” were actually civic wireless networks. Rather than community-based efforts to solve local problems, they came from a small group of technologically-endowed people wanting to contribute to their city. This becomes a problem when the city or a corporation moves in. If people’s only connection to the project is access to the technology, they will not care who provides the technology. If there is no sense of ownership of the project, there will not be a sense of loss when wireless’s first responders are shoved aside.

In Philadelphia, there was so much attention from the citywide RFP and Verizon’s successful attempt to block municipal projects through state legislation, that no one thought to switch their vocabulary when the City itself was taken out of the equation. So a city administration acting in our name but without our involvement pulled a bait-and-switch. And now all of the major citywide wireless networks being built around the country are corporate, not municipal.

These developments are giving new urgency to Pennsylvania HB 2466, the “green light” provision introduced by State Representative Mike Sturla to amend the muni-broadband restriction in Act 183. It is important that we reassert government’s role in building this infrastructure. This is especially true for smaller cities and rural areas, where the Earthlinks and US Wireless Onlines will not be as quick to submit a bid.

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1 Comment

  1. the neighborhood provision that’s linked in the article above — “They wanted to go citywide, but we don’t represent the entire city,” he said. His goal was “to differentiate the real estate Downtown.”

    extremely counterproductive. what’s the economic benefit to a city just pumping up one section of town? i guess it’s marginally appealing to travellers, but it seems more like south philly vs. center city paintball to me…

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