Philadelphia broadcasts change

City's Wi-Fi project attracts worldwide attention

Philadelphia Wi-Fi network milestones

April 7Request for proposal issued

April 18 Pre-proposal meeting

May 5 Proposals due

June 30 Project award

July 5 Negotiations begin

Aug. 31 Citywide project begins

Summer 2006 Project to be completed

Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief information officer and ex-officio board member of Wireless Philadelphia, said the city is fielding questions from all over the world as to how it is implementing a citywide wireless network offering Internet access.

Scott Hamrick

Cities from around the world are knocking on Philadelphia's door, wanting to know how the City of Brotherly Love launched a wireless network for businesses and citizens.

"They wanted to know how we got started, how we built the political support and dealt with the political issues that arose, and about the different funding and business models," said Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief information officer and ex-officio board member of Wireless Philadelphia. More than 30 cities and municipalities from as far away as Europe, Asia, and South America have inquired about the project, she said.

The Wi-Fi project initially was assailed by Verizon Communications Inc., which argued that city officials were going beyond the bounds of traditional government activity by providing wireless Internet connectivity to the public. But the city prevailed and on Nov. 30, received a waiver from the state legislature and a pledge from Verizon not to sue to stop the project, Neff said.

The project differs from other municipal wireless networks previously established in that it provides wireless connectivity not only to government agencies, but also to businesses and citizens in a 132 square-mile area to boost commerce and bridge the so-called digital divide. If the project stays on schedule, the network would be fully operational by summer 2006.

Philadelphia began with two proof-of-concept pilot projects in 2004, followed by four pilots in public areas and six neighborhood pilots, all scheduled for completion this month, Neff said.

Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are among the U.S. cities that contacted Philadelphia about its Wi-Fi project, Neff said. Some cities are working on requests for proposals for their own wireless projects. Minneapolis issued an RFP April 13 for a project with similar goals.

"It's a trend that is taking place not only in the United States, but all over the world," said Enrique Barkey, director of worldwide civilian agency solutions for Hewlett-Packard Co., which is conducting pilot projects in two parts of Philadelphia.

"We see a great potential in this market," he said.

Christopher Baum, vice president for public-sector research with market research firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., said other major cities throughout the nation will follow in Philadelphia's footsteps regardless of whether the project is successful.

"The success of Philadelphia will determine the speed, but not the direction, because everyone is going there," he said.

 

PROVING THE CONCEPT

Philadelphia plans to award a contract by June 30 to a consortium of technology companies, Neff said. The $15 million project will be funded through taxable bonds. Construction is set to begin in August following the final contract negotiations.

The city did two proof-of-concept pilot projects at its own expense last summer. The other 10 pilot projects, which began in January and cover areas of roughly one square mile, are being implemented by the private sector at no cost to the city.

In addition to Hewlett-Packard, other companies involved in the Philadelphia pilots as prime contractors or subcontractors include Avaya Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Juniper Networks Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., Science Applications International Corp., Tropos Networks Inc. and Verizon.

The pilots will determine the level of effort required for wide-scale deployment and for screening of manufacturers and equipment, Neff said. Philadelphia will review monthly data from the companies conducting the pilots and will monitor the initial deployment, throughput, performance and maintenance, she said. The city also will monitor the level of service provided through toll-free help lines.

The companies responsible for the pilot projects have agreed to continue operating their pilots for between six months and nine months until the citywide network is deployed, Neff said.

Except for SAIC, none of the top systems integrators in the state and local market are participating in the pilot projects or bidding on the opportunity. The reason might be that the project won't generate enough long-term profit to justify the initial investment, especially if integrators can't take a solution to other cities, said Jim Krouse, state and local market analysis manager at market research firm Input Inc. of Reston, Va.

"The major systems integrators are thinking, 'If I can't use this as a fulcrum for a major scalable solution that I can replicate across every city out there, then why am I bothering with it?' " Krouse said.

However, a Wi-Fi project would interest integrators that want to use it to enhance applications for homeland security or for emergency health care administered by doctors, hospitals and emergency medical personnel, he said.

Hewlett-Packard, the prime contractor and systems integrators on pilots in the city's Historic Mile area and a lower-income Hispanic neighborhood known as Norris Square, is bidding on the citywide opportunity, Barkey said.

'BRAGGING RIGHTS'

Gartner's Baum attributes the willingness of so many companies to invest upfront in the project to their wish to demonstrate their ability not only to handle the citywide implementation but also to handle other projects.

"There is a tremendous market potential not just in the developed nations, but also in the developing nations," he said. "There are bragging rights associated with it."

Philadelphia has established a non-profit group, Wireless Philadelphia, to oversee the citywide implementation, Neff said. In May, a nine-person board will convene to run the group. Its responsibilities will include designing and deploying the network and handling contracts with the Internet service providers, Neff said.

The board will have to work its way through several governance issues related to the citywide network, Baum said. It will need to address privacy concerns, use of the network for possible illegal activities and the possibility of network collisions. For example, the board will have to protect against collisions that would occur if another large entity, such as a college or university, decides to establish a wireless network in the same area, he said.

Even if the board manages to stay on top of these issues, it's not clear whether Philadelphia's ambitious Wi-Fi project will succeed, Baum said.

"We don't have the practical experience yet to know if they are going to be successful," he said.

Senior Writer William Welsh can be reached at wwelsh@postnewsweektech.com.

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