Entering A Hot Zone

All eyes are on Philadelphia these days as the City of Brotherly Love makes a move to become the first major metropolitan area to go wireless. New York City’s Bryant Park, along with several small cities and suburbs across the nation, have already gone wireless. But it’s the all-inclusive scope of Philadelphia’s plan, a bold initiative coming out of Mayor John Street’s office, that has everyone looking.

The plan involves blanketing approximately 135 square miles with wireless antennas, which would transform the city into one massive access area or “hot zone.” For the past two years, Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s Chief Information Officer, has been on standby looking for a way to turn the heat up. “I monitor emerging technologies,” she explains. “I’ve been waiting for things to align, [and] with the advent of mesh technology, wireless can cover a wide geographical area while remaining affordable.”

The initiative is currently in the business plan stage. An executive wireless committee was formed in August 2004 to work with Neff’s office to try to determine the feasibility of creating a citywide public/private digital infrastructure capable of delivering free or low-cost broadband Internet access to the wireless network card in your Wi-Fi 802.11bg ready PC, laptop, or PDA. Deploying the network should cost about $10 million, maintaining it about $1.5 million.

This initiative to offer low-cost Internet access to Philadelphia’s residents nearly came to a halt when a bill that contained a provision forbidding the city to charge the public a fee for any telecommunications-related service was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 2004. However, Philadelphia and Verizon Communications Inc. eventually struck an agreement that allowed the city to provide wireless Internet access as a municipal service, even though Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signed legislation giving Verizon the power to scuttle the project.

Philadelphia already has at least three hot zones — outdoor areas where anyone can sign on to the Internet. “In two and a half months, we had over 1,200 people who logged on and registered for the Website,” says Neff. “The beauty of the network is that you don’t have to wait until it’s completed. It will be functional as we work on building the infrastructure.” Citywide wireless access should also be an attractive incentive for the estimated 6 million tourists who visit Philadelphia annually.

Actual work on the project is expected to begin in June and to be completed a year later. But wireless executive committee member A. Bruce Crawley, chairman and founder of Philadelphia’s African American Chamber of Commerce, can already gauge the impact of wireless technology on the city’s future and what it can mean to the African American community as a whole. “We used to define ourselves by our proximity to Washington, D.C., and New York,” says Crawley, a native Philadelphian. “But now we’re defining Philly by our municipal assets and our business-related competitive advantage. It’s important that African Americans become Internet savvy. This move will benchmark the [digital] penetration of our households and identify [the city] as a major player in