A Fine Line Between Grassroots and Astroturf, and an Invitation to Cross it

Ahead of today’s hearing, a consultant working for, I assume, Wireless Philadelphia sent the following notice to some community members she’s been getting to testify before City Council and otherwise support the WP-Earthlink deal:

For those of you that I have met with, I have been clear, that my expertise is in the community programs – not the politics of the City of Philadelphia. That being said, I feel that I must personally request your continued and visible support at Wednesday’s Hearing on Wireless Philadelphia.

The Wednesday Hearing is the fourth one to discuss this program and I feel that it is time to move the project out on committee and to a full Council Hearing for vote and – I hope – approval and deployment. WIRELESS NOW! NO MORE DELAYS!

If you are available to stop by the Hearing at 2:00 in room 400 at City Hall that would demonstrate the strong citywide and community support for this project that we know exists. If you are comfortable bringing a sign or placard with a message around WIRELESS NOW, that would also be appropriate.

If you want to speak briefly on the need to move forward quickly, just fill out a card when you arrive. And – if all goes well, you may be invited to share your thoughts with the press. It’s time to stop the delays and move forward. I need to be at another event in DC, but your presence in room 400 at 2:00 would really make a difference. Stop by if you can – and feel free to bring other advocates with you! THANK YOU!

I just sent the following response to the same group:

I agree that everyone should come to the hearing, but not to rally in favor of Earthlink’s network. I think we need to let them know that the community has its eyes on this process.

This deal is worth $200 million of our money. As someone who has attended all of the City Council hearings on this matter, I have to say that the Councilmembers’ questions have been insightful and important. I am as skeptical of politicians as anyone, but Council’s oversight is completely legitimate.

Our representatives have every right to ask for clarification on the PECO rates and on Earthlink’s subcontracting practices. If they don’t get that information now, it might be another 20 years before they get to ask any more questions.

[Consultant,] I appreciate all of your work engaging us in this process. I certainly understand why anyone who works for Wireless Philadelphia would want to see this network deployed A.S.A.P. As an Internet-obsessed wonk working for a local non-profit, I want to see it get going myself.

But no matter how much we rally, it won’t be our network. So, while I encourage everyone to support the wireless project, I suggest we all do it with a bit of healthy skepticism. I’m sure Earthlink would love to become the Comcast of wireless networks.

If any of you are at the hearing today, please say hi. I’ll be the white guy not wearing a suit.

Respectfully submitted,
Joshua Breitbart

Communications Director
Media Tank

ps – For an easy-to-understand breakdown of the wireless contract, check out this report: http://www.newrules.org/info/philly-earthlink-contract.html

A much better notice went out earlier in the day from Hannah Sassaman from Prometheus Radio Project, who has been keeping a close eye on the wireless plan:

hello all,

just a heads up — tomorrow is the last big hearing that the city is organizing on the municipal wireless project. the city is about to enter into a formal contract with wireless philadelphia, the nonprofit set up by the city to manage a wireless network built by earthlink. please consider stopping by — wednesday, april 26, 2006, at 2:00 pm, in room 400, city hall. please come if you can, and forward widely!

there are many, many questions about how our community needs will be served by this new network. will wireless philadelphia and earthlink make it possible for community organizations to help get their neighbors online? how many of us will need to buy expensive wireless devices to supplement the wireless coming from the streetlights? and will the important community content – like the videos produced at scribe video center, the content hosted at the IMC, and the community newspapers and websites scattered across the city – be marginalized or promoted to users of the network

immediately after the hearing, city council’s joint committees on technology & information services, and public property & public works will vote on whether to authorize the city’s plan, so there should be a pretty big crowd. this is a big chance for the earthlink executives to see that we are watching them — and that we’ll be there to make sure they deliver the Internet service our city needs.

My question is, how are they going to tell the boosters and the watchdogs apart?


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