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

The Ethos Group’s report, The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer, has been posted on the New America Foundation’s web site. The report is stirring debate and will continue to as the discussion of life-after-EarthLink moves forward. That should put it–and challenges to it–at the top of muni officials’ holiday reading list.The Ethos Group’s report, The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer, has been posted on the New America Foundation’s web site. The report is stirring debate and will continue to as the discussion of life-after-EarthLink moves forward.

Before its public release late Wednesday, it generated a pointed response from Greg Goldman, the CEO of Wireless Philadelphia, who characterized it as a demand for public ownership of the network infrastructure. Glenn Fleishman ran a lengthy critique of the report on Wi-Fi Networking News, summarizing the it as “a case study of what went wrong in municipal wireless, starting as the premise that public ownership with private operators working as contractors is what was called for by Phila. stakeholders and common sense, and that the non-profit that should have run the network has accomplished little.” He followed with a number of point-by-point challenges to statements in the report.

To be honest, I’m still sorting through its 64 pages and weighing the arguments inside. To be sure, the report is a critique–and often a scathing one–of the evolution of Philadelphia’s network or, more specifically, of Wireless Philadelphia’s partnership with EarthLink. It focuses heavily on the outcome’s departures from the original guiding dream and is most critical of the fact that the Wireless Philadelphia of today is not operating in accordance with the input garnered from the public debate and community input that went into the plan early on.

It is also sure to galvanize debate over the merits of public v. private ownership of municipal networks. But I’m not sure that’s the point. Like Glenn, I have a number of reservations about the why in which the evolution of Philadelphia’s network is characterized in the Ethos Group’s report. As he correctly points out, much of what happened in Philadelphia occurred out of necessity. The city just did not have the financial resources to take on the commitment of owning and operating the network. Thus, EarthLink’s offer to do so emerged as an attractive alternative.

OK. Having gotten that out of the way, the Ethos Group’s insistence on maximizing public input into the design, implementation and ownership of public projects is….well, the word “noteworthy” seems like a crass understatement. As the debate over the report and the relative merits of public and private ownership continue (and they always will as they always have in the past), the public part of the equation should never lose sight of the public it’s there to support.

I happen to disagree with the report’s assessment of how well Wireless Philadelphia has done that. The group has a remarkable track record of galvanizing community support behind its effort despite the shifts and turns it took early on just to make the network a reality. That’s not to say its future is rosy. The Philadelphia Bulletin ran an in-depth account of discussion at Wednesday’s hearing on the network’s future. Public ownership, it seems, could be back on the agenda–although this iteration would not likely conform to the original vision either.

Nevertheless, the Ethos Group’s report contains numerous noteworthy and valuable recommendations on garnering public input into proposals for municipal wireless networks and on sustaining open communications and community involvement in the process of developing them.

I encourage you to read it, decide for yourself and, please do, comment below. As always, we welcome your input.

Click here to read The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer.

Comments

  1. Glenn Fleishman says

    One major problem with this report is that they appear to look to Boston as the potential success story of the model they think is the best. I like Boston’s model, and have written positively about it, because it’s an interesting alternative. But I have also thought it would be nearly impossible for Boston’s non-profit to obtain the funding to build the network given the current climate. And that’s turned out to be true so far.

    There’s really no money to build the public networks of the type the report suggests should be built — even if the authors could be provably correct about the benefits and the correct mode of ownership compared to others.

  2. “There’s really no money to build the public networks of the type the report suggests should be built — even if the authors could be provably correct about the benefits and the correct mode of ownership compared to others.”

    Actually there is plenty of money as long as we are prepared to look beyond the dichotomy of corporation/state.

    See http://www.copowi-project.com for a review of the report and a funding solution.