Philly to attempt wireless plan

By Rich Magda
October 28, 2004

Cecelia Francisco

Wireless Philadelphia could have people surfing in the streets. The campaign to create a free, open-air wireless network spanning the city’s 135 square miles plans to deliver Internet service to over one million people, making it the strongest push for Internet accessibility among large cities.

The plan involves placing thousands of radio wave transmitters in traffic control devices and atop streetlamps to provide high-speed broadband connectivity at all points within city limits.

Philadelphia’s Mayor John Street and Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff are spearheading the campaign, working with an executive committee to generate financial plans and logistical solutions. According to, the executive committee will also work to establish a cooperative deal with private wireless Internet providers.

Street is optimistic about the role city-wide wireless connectivity will play in the future of Philadelphia. “Philadelphia hasn’t had a first in technology since the Univac,” he said in a recent news release. “Just like roads and transportation were keys to our past, a digital infrastructure and wireless technology are keys to our future.”

Current estimates put the cost of the open-air wireless project between $7 and $10 million, and according to Neff it would cost an additional $1.5 million a year for system maintenance.

John McIntyre, director of ITR, agrees that a free and vast high-speed wireless network would be a promising progression for the city, but is concerned about cost and security issues.

“The cost has been misrepresented in early releases,” McIntyre said. “The projected $7 to $10 million is misleading, and it doesn’t include on-going maintenance, upgrades, or a help desk. A help desk could end up costing $5 million alone, if the city can support it.”

McIntyre wonders what will happen if a mass of users attempts to log-in at the same time, in the same place. “If 20,000 people try to log-in at the same time, people will get bumped off,” he said. “It isn’t possible with the current technology to funnel that much data through such narrow pipes.”

Network security issues concern McIntyre. To provide popular Internet features like Instant Messenger, a tool of two-way communication, the network would have to involve open radio waves. According to McIntyre, two-way open radio waves could be vulnerable over a free and vast wireless network.

McIntyre believes technology will continue to improve each year, with regular upgrades to enhance network efficiency. In a few years, “wireless will be as robust as wired high-speed Internet is now,” he said. “This can probably be done. Cost concerns me, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Being first matters – it really does.”

Posted to the web by Cecelia Francisco

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