My interview with Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia

My editor put my interview with Greg Goldman up on the site last week. I conducted the interview in October. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

Some of his answers were vague, perhaps because he didn’t realize I knew the details of the project. At one point I asked where people’s donations would go to. He said,

And so I’m determined that as much of that dollar is as humanly possible is going to go to the actual services, which is going to be the hardware, the software, the tech support, the internet education, and the 9.95 accounts that are provided by Earthlink. So I think we can say to people, really clearly, for every dollar you contribute, a needy family in Philadelphia will have one day of complete internet. I’m making it up, but you know what I mean.

I followed up with a specific question about the paying of the electricity bill and servicing the loan from PAID, both of which will suck up a big part of WP’s income, and he said, “Ooh. You know too much.”

I guess he hadn’t taken the time to Google himself or any of his staff, because this blog is pretty much the first thing that comes up. I think he has since, though, because when I saw him at the W2i convention, he introduced me to someone from Earthlink as a “gadfly.” Hmmm…

In the interview, he said the proof of concept phase would be completed by December 1 and the entire network would be complete by October 2007. I have no idea if that’s still on track because as far as I know, Wireless Philadelphia has not disclosed any of the data on the test area. I do suspect, though, that Minneapolis’s system will be complete before Philadelphia’s.

Wireless Philadelphia should publish as much of the proof-of-concept data as they can under the agreement with Earthlink. I have my doubts about the hardware they’re using. Dianah Neff, the person who initiated this whole project but left before it was finished to take a high-paying job with the consulting firm she hired when she worked for the Mayor, told the MuniWireless conference in Minneapolis that WP could still pull the plug on the whole thing, leading some to speculate that there might be a reason to pull the plug. Releasing the test data would reassure us that we didn’t buy a lemon.

Goldman also revealed that they still haven’t worked out the rate with PECO. And he’s negotiating from exactly the position Earthlink wanted him to: guilt. “How much money should we really have to pay PECO when there are people out there who don’t have the access? So for every $100,000 I don’t have to pay to PECO and can provide those direct services to individuals, that’s only going to improve our city.” Nevermind that for every $100,000 he doesn’t have to pay to PECO, that’s a $100,000 Earthlink doesn’t have to pay to PECO, too.

He also denied that the number of committees was an annoyance in such a way that made it perfectly clear they’re an annoyance. But he put a nice positive spin on it:

Look. It’s just the reality. At this point in the process, what good end could possibly be served by my complaining about that? It is what it is. It got unanimous council approval. I’d like to see a list of the things that got unanimous council approval over the last seven years. I bet you it’s a pretty short list. So if I have to staff up a couple of committees, for unanimous council approval, bring me some more.

I mean, look, I’m not saying I relish it, you know. Or, oh boy I have to go staff another committee instead of raising money or, you know, doing other things. But I can tell you that, you know, I really, am just, what’s the point? I’m going to look at that as a positive, and certainly as I head into the first one, you know on October 19th, I’m going to look to those people to help me. Help me raise money, help me reach out to the community, help become ambassadors for this program and for this mission of digital inclusion. Yeah, so a lot of committees. But it also means that there’s a hell of a lot of buy-in for the project.

I sent a follow-up question (not included in the interview) asking about the Community Advisory Board Derek Pew had described for City Council and for which he said WP would be soliciting applications. That’s the meeting Goldman was talking about on the 19th. Apparently, it’s become an “‘Advisory Committee,’ comprised of members selected by most of our City’s elected officials.” So the one mechanism for community input has become the fourth or fifth mechanism for City Council involvement.

This is frustrating because the real hope of this project is not just that a few thousand more people could start using the Internet, but that you could use technology to unite a city as large and varied as Philadelphia.

Greg Goldman’s vision is much more limited. He sees Wireless Philadelphia as a charity, like the one he used to run that brought nourishment to people with AIDS. He’s trying to fulfill a critical need for suffering people in a dignified manner.

This feeds into the second problem with his style, which is that there is so little transparency at WP. I don’t think they’re intentionally secretive over there. I think they just have a limited view of who they need to communicate with. It’s not the city as a whole. It’s the rich when they want their money, the poor when they want them as clients, and city officials to keep them bought in.

I don’t want to sound like I’m sour because white laptop users like me are not at the table. I’m sour because all of the community organizations from around the city that Karen Archer Perry was keeping involved in the process are now basically closed out. They should be participating in town hall meetings and other discussion forums that don’t cost $200 a plate.

If you’ve got an opinion on this, you have until 5:00 pm today to respond to the Reformers’ Roundtable questions for the METRO regarding the success of Wireless Philadelphia and Mayor Street’s promise to move people from waiting in line to being online:

1) How would you rate the ease of use of municipal Web sites? What improvements are needed?

2) How has Mayor Street fared in his 1999 campaign promise to make the city run online?

3) What does the city need to do to ensure that the Wireless Philadelphia initiative is successful and efficient for both municipal and citizen use?

Send your answers to all three questions to josh.cornfield@metro-philly.com; post them below, too, if you don’t mind. Be sure to answer all three questions and include a brief bio and picture if you want them to publish it. It might be your only chance to be heard on the topic.

Read my past articles on Wireless Philadelphia.

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2 Comments

  1. 1) How would you rate the ease of use of municipal Web sites? What improvements are needed?

    Where is our Philadelphia commons? Please don’t say phillyblog or philly.com. Philadelphians need a connection to local bloggers, independent media outlets and social services. I fear a startpage that looks like MSN or AOL, not something that is truly dynamic, developed for and by the people who use it. If we’re about to bring a large sector of the population online, many of who will be using the internet for the first time, we need to show them the real power of the internet: to build communities. It sounds silly to send people to the internet for community building when they could knock on their neighbor’s door, but consider: in a time when many of our neighborhoods are losing their cultural heritage, and they’re worried about speaking out about crime in their neighborhood because they feel alone, it’s never been more important.

    2) How has Mayor Street fared in his 1999 campaign promise to make the city run online?

    My friends from out of state who follow this stuff ask me what it’s like to live in the first Wireless city. I think we’ve lost the race, and cried wolf before it actually showed up.

    3) What does the city need to do to ensure that the Wireless Philadelphia initiative is successful and efficient for both municipal and citizen use?

    Computers. Good computers. Many of the free computers low-income families receive are terrible, and come without operating systems. I’d like to see Wireless Philadelphia use this opportunity to set an example: instead of giving those in need “just enough,” that is computers which are already outdated and won’t last very long, let’s give them the best. New computers with fresh operating systems and professional programs like Quicken and Microsoft Office. This isn’t just about the internet, it’s about computer literacy and bridging the digital divide.

    Steve Bozzone works with teens and adults as a Digital Arts instructor in the North-Central neighborhood of Philadelphia, also an organizer for the Philadelphia Independent Media Center (www.phillyimc.org).

  2. hannahjs said

    The example that Goldman brings up in the interview — describing the difficulty of applying for city benefits, the paperwork, queueing, and waiting required — is representative of the traditional difficulties families face when engaging with the City on any level. Applying for food stamps, checking on the health and safety of a friend or family member in jail, researching real estate or tax records — each city department is a fiefdom painted by its own rules, regulations, forms, and figures.

    Standard municipal websites that streamline the process for interfacing with the city — hell, websites that save your basic information from one session to the next — might do a lot to ease the burden of paperwork on folks and make the internet really impact people’s lives. If Goldman defines digital inclusion as “the effort to enable people who lack access to the Internet to get connected and receive the tools they need to use that connection to improve their lives” then this is a first step.

    I can’t find any city websites that help with food stamps, housing issues, or engaging with family members in prison — if others have links I’d love to see them.

    I like the idea that Josh and Goldman discuss in the interview of using Wireless Philadelphia to connect existing programs already helping families to hurdle the bureaucracies.

    The Form You Currently Have to Fill Out:
    http://www.dpw.state.pa.us/General/FormsPub/003670865.htm

    Trying to Help Folks Get Food Stamps:
    http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/article.php?id=965
    http://www.hungercoalition.org/pressroom/foodstampoutreach.html

    Benefits:
    http://www.thebenefitbank.com

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