Last week Philadelphia announced it hopes to buy the wireless network from a group of local investors who bought it from EarthLink about a year ago. This on the same day the Feds announced the first batch of stimulus grant winners.
As I finish edits to the revision of my 2005 book on broadband strategy that focuses heavily on Philadelphia as a model for effective broadband needs assessment and planning, it warms my heart to be able to bring the Philly story around full circle for readers. I’m contemplating the role city-owned broadband networks could play in the national broadband strategy plan. The Gates Foundation’s call to wire all of the U.S. institutions (hospitals, libraries, schools) set the stage for this government connection.
But first, let me put to bed one of the criticisms I’m already seeing in a few places. Why buy a network with old (erroneously assumed to be obsolete) infrastructure? I called Tropos, whose access points hang all around Philly to verify my assumption that new 802.11n infrastructure and the City’s fiber lines they plan to integrate with the network will enable it to perform very well.
“The City can seamlessly integrate the 802.11n-based routers from Tropos as well as our latest mobile routers with the existing network’s Tropos 5210 router,” states Marketing Director Denise Barton. “The software is designed to be backwards compatible. Since the network will be mainly for municipal applications, we’re not talking about the general public using it. The old routers will be just fine.”
History and many muni successes favor Philly’s move
The other myth that won’t die is municipalities have failed, so why is Philly doing this again? Practically every muni wireless network project that failed was run by dyed-in-the-wool, free market lovin’ private companies. This includes the original network in Philly. Conversely, dozens of city-owned and run broadband networks used for local government purposes have proven to be highly successful.
Santa Monica, CA switched from its slow moving, expensive communication systems to fiber and saved $750,000 in the first year. With the ongoing savings, they fund wireless video streaming to police vehicles, connect all of traffic signals and traffic cameras, link parking structure signs to the network to tell people if spaces are available and build hotzones for free wireless access.
Oklahoma City and New York City both have citywide government-use networks that were launched supporting one or two applications, and each now supports over 200 applications that collectively save money, increase revenue and improve government service delivery.
Corpus Christi estimates they’ll get $1.6 million in savings over 20 years with their smart meter reading application, and the traffic signal control system is cutting costs, saving time and making it possible to universally manage more traffic lights.
When Houston conducted pilot projects for its smart parking meter application running over the City WiFi network, they saved $20/meter in carrier costs and increased revenue to the City by 30%.
Providence, RI estimates its building inspectors save about 2.5 hours per inspector per day by being able to complete paperwork in the field with its government-use network. You can read about these and other cities’ benefits derived from their networks in my Municipal Broadband Snapshot Report.
Philadelphia has over 2,000 mobile workers. Take the average worker’s hourly salary (wages plus benefits) and assume these workers become only half as efficient as Providence’s workers, so they save only an hour a day. That’s 500,000 hours of personnel time Philly can keep in the field at a time when the city is hard pressed to do more with less.
This is probably not new to many of you. But we’ll likely need to trot these stories out repeatedly as the naysayers come dropping out of the woodwork. What you may not have thought about, though, is the role these communities can play in the national broadband plan.
Bill Gates, the FCC and local government anchor tenants
In October, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sent a note to the FCC advocating for the wiring of all of our institutions. You can read my complete analysis here, but the main thrust is:
- this makes sense because it’s easier to extend fiber from hospitals, libraries and key facilities to businesses and other paying customers than building infrastructure out to these places from scratch;
- many of these institutions (except possibly libraries) represent significant potential on-going revenue as anchor tenants and/or investors to help financially sustain the network, especially if you can cover institutions’ upfront buildout costs;
- the fiber network at institutions gives communities a foundation infrastructure upon which they can build wireless networks;
- these institutions can be a highly influential catalyst driving broadband adoption by giving constituents content and other reason to go online to interact with instituions; and
- local governments are the mother of all institutions and they definitely need to be added to the list.
Since Philly is one of the country’s largest cities (thus high visibility), it has the wireless network and it has fiber, they make the perfect testbed for the Gates institution strategy. Extend some of that Foundation grant money to Philly that was recently announced. And if the broadband stimulus grant proposal for public computer centers in the city wins, throw that in the mix too. Then watch or stage-manage how the elements come together to provide coverage for those who need it the most, even if the city itself is not driving broadband adoption.
Urban areas are likely to continue to be left out of the lion’s share of the broadband stimulus money. And unless someone really fights hard for them, there’s a chance they may not benefit much from the FCC’s efforts to reform the Universal Service Fund either. Therefore, this proposed exercise may be doubly valuable as a means of tackling the digital divide in urban America.
You can read some of my other analysis on the state or broadband and potential next developments in our march to better broadband at my blog, Fighting the Next Good Fight.