Archive for Earthlink

Hey, look, I’m on the Internet!

Tonight I’ll be a guest on Charing Ball’s People, Places & Things on G-Town Radio discussing Wireless Philadelphia.

On Wednesday, I’ll be in DC at New America Foundation discussing “The Future of Municipal Wireless.” There’s a rumor it might be webcast, so tune it at noon.

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“The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer”

Tomorrow, New America Foundation will release my report on Wireless Philadelphia. If you read my blog, you know I’ve followed this project closely for the past two years. The report is a summation of my observations, focusing on lessons municipalities and community activists can apply to similar projects in their communities.

As part of the release, New America Foundation (NAF) and the Philly IMC Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) are hosting a public discussion on Wireless Philadelphia. They had originally planned it for 2-5pm at the Ethical Society, but then late last week the City Council Committee on Technology and Information Services announced a hearing for 1pm on Wireless Philadelphia.

Once they found out about our event, the City Council invited NAF and MMP to hold it in City Council Chambers immediately following the Committee’s hearing. So now I would like to invite you all to attend:

The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
1pm: Committee Hearing
2pm: Public discussion
City Hall, room 400

Printed copies of the report will be available at the event. I’ll post a PDF tomorrow, after I catch my breath.

UPDATE: PDF AVAILABLE 

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Horizontal vs. Hub-and-Spoke Relations, or The Emperor has no Invisible Thread

Michael Maranda posted a comment recently to my testimony before the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee. He asked me to expand on one of my recommendations:

  • Promote horizontal relationships among stakeholders rather than hub-and-spoke relationships that all connect to this committee or to any one person or organization.

The original promise in Philadelphia was to tie the city together with “invisible thread.” That’s what Dianah Neff told National Geographic. It hasn’t happened.

In planning the network and passing it through City Council, Wireless Philadelphia solicited input and testimony from a variety of nonprofit organizations. All of those organizations care about the issue of Internet usage and all work with overlapping constituencies. Yet Wireless Philadelphia did not take any steps to foster relationships among them that would encourage synergistic collaborations.

Instead, WP is forming “Wireless Internet Partnerships” or WIPs, a series of one-one-one relationships between Wireless Philadelphia and individual organizations. I am not aware of any plans to connect these WIPs to each other so the groups can form their own partnerships. At best, maybe we’ll see a WIP cocktail hour.

Ideally, the horizontal relationships would extend beyond the organizational level. I’d like to see local conventions where all of the users of the network could gather, and the people who make up these nonprofits’ constituencies could get to know each other. I think these municipal wireless projects will benefit by emphasizing their local-ness and I think the users/local residents will benefit from having stronger social bonds.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Wireless Philadelphia or Earthlink want their customers to have the capacity for collective action or self-management. Not surprising for a for-profit company with meager customer service. But the nonprofit should be trying to build community, not disempower users.

The problem for Wireless Philadelphia is that the only reason for them to exist is to mediate the relationships between the City and Earthlink, Earthlink and the poor residents of Philadelphia, and the WIPs and Earthlink. If all of those entities could relate directly to each other, they’d quickly realize there is no reason for WP to exist.

I think the system in Minneapolis, where the Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee has just released it’s RFP, is better, but not perfect. There, the people that pushed for digital inclusion funding organized themselves, though the efforts were soon co-opted into an official “Task Force.” The result is a community-advised fund at the Minneapolis Foundation, funded primarily through a revenue-sharing agreement with US Internet, the local network operator.

The participants in that Advisory Committee have horizontal relationships with each other instead of all having separate relationships with a new nonprofit, as in Philadelphia. However, I can’t find any list of the members of the committee online (though I know Peter Fleck is one because he’s blogged about it). That makes me concerned that those relationships won’t grow beyond the Committee’s boundaries.

If they want to push that network further, they are going to be swimming upstream. The process of soliciting grant applications from 501(c)3 organizations is notorious for pitting groups against one another and creating secretive one-to-one relationships between applicants and funders.

Minniapolis Digital Inclusion Advisory Committee should consider setting up something like GiveMeaning.com – not to let people vote for recipients of the Committee’s funds, but to promote awareness of the broad variety of initiatives people in the city are doing and to give those initiatives an avenue to raise additional funds.

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Audio from the International Summit for Community Wireless Networks

As I promised yesterday, here is some audio from the International Summit for Community Wireless Networks.

I recorded three sessions:

Holistic Planning & Deployment of Wireless Networks

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/13137393/view]

Shaping the Research Agenda for Municipal and Community Wireless Networks and Access to Broadband

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/13140423/view]

Economics of Community Wireless Networks in Developing Countries

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/13139463/view]

You can follow the links (click where it says ODEO) to see the session descriptions. Of the three, I recommend listening to the “Holistic Planning & Deployment of Wireless Networks” session. In that session, Michael Maranda from Chicago, Peter Fleck from Minneapolis, Robin Chase from Boston and Dana Spiegel and Michael Lewis from New York City each discuss their city’s respective projects.

I went through the trouble of pulling out Robin Chase’s comments from that session because the Boston story, which I blogged about last year when the city’s task force released their report, remains a severely underreported success story in the municipal field.

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/13140503 /view]

As I wrote in my article on the summit,

The Open Air Boston request for information describes a non-profit network owner that only provides wholesale access, but that does so in such a way that there is practically no barrier to entry for retail service or application providers. (When the portion of the Boston RFI emphasizing the desire for an open source solution was read out loud before the breakout sessions on Sunday, the audience broke into applause.)

The price target for service on the Boston network is $10-15 a month, which they believe they can get to precisely by cutting out the money grubbing cablecos and telcos.

The deadline for responses to the RFI is this Friday, so you better get cracking.

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The Ethos Group: Thoughtful Infrastructure as a Platform for Media Reform

There are two panels today with moderators from The Ethos Group:

Dharma, Sascha, and I are the principals of The Ethos Group, which we launched back in June.

To clarify the strategic underpinnings of our work and to make the case for building new, more democratic, community-defined infrastructure, we’ve composed a statement.

In short, digital convergence (the consolidation of multiple media into the single, digital medium of the Internet) and wireless technology (affordable networks that use open, unlicensed spectrum) make this a critical juncture in telecommunications history; now is the time to examine and invest in broadband infrastructure.

The Ethos Group is also very fortunate to have been awarded a grant from the nascent Media Democracy Fund to conduct and compile research in this field. We are seeing an explosion in research on and experimentation in wireless, but there is no one-stop-shop for information and there are many gaps in the knowledge.

More importantly, corporate wireless ISPs and their allies are learning at a faster rate than the community advocates who have to face off with them over the future of their local communications infrastructure. With this new support from the Media Democracy Fund, we aim to level that playing field.

Come to the panels to learn more or contact us.

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New Report on Municipal Wireless

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has just published a new report called “Localizing the Internet: Five Ways Public Ownership Solves the U.S. Broadband Problem,” arguing for municipal ownership of new wireless and fiber optic networks.

The report’s author is Becca Vargo Daggett, whose presentation I’ll have the pleasure of moderating at the National Conference for Media Reform.

The argument is persuasive. There is clearly a need for more aggressive public involvement in broadband depoloyment and the affordability of wireless is a great opportunity for that. Giving this opportunity over to private corporations is double the loss.

As Becca shows, the potential financial payoff from public ownership is substantial. The report only implies that there are additional paybacks from general economic development and “secondary effects.” And it makes no mention of digital inclusion or the other potential social benefits, even though those form at least as compelling an argument for government involvement, especially in low-income areas.

There is a section called “Public ownership ensures universal access.” It’s true in theory, but it does suggest a level of faith in government that I don’t share. “Publicly owned road, water and sewer, and sidewalk networks connect all households without discrimination. All have access to the same services,” the report says.

In Philly and New York, and probably many other cities, different neighborhoods get very different levels of service – from their trash collection, road repair, police protection, schools, etc. – mostly based on wealth and income. I don’t know whether a government agency or a private business bound by a service level agreement (SLA) is more likely to provide service evenly across the city. Somebody’s still got to enforce that SLA; at least in Philly, that seems like a long shot if you look at the Comcast example.

Different models are probably appropriate for different places. There are mechanisms for holding governments, corporations, and non-profits accountable, and accountability is really the key.

That was why I was ready to accept the idea of an Earthlink-owned network in Philadelphia. Given its track record, I don’t trust the city government to get the job done and I thought Wireless Philadelphia could be a good mechanism to hold Earthlink to account. But the gutting of the advisory board process and the narrowing of the WP mission have left that in doubt.

We’re now seeing the real effects of the city’s abandonment of the plan originally laid out in the WP business plan, which was to have the non-profit own the network and offer wholesale access to a variety of ISPs. Now we’ve got all of the drawbacks of a non-profit intermediary (more bureaucracy, less accountability, more overhead) and none of the benefits of ownership (which Becca lays out in great detail in the report).

Thanks, Becca!

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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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