Philadelphia -- the city that loves wireless

Dianah Neff, the city of Philadelphia's CIO, is leading Wireless Philadelphia -- a citywide, 135-square mile, digital infrastructure project to help citizens, private businesses and public agencies get hooked on wireless technology. She recently talked to SearchCIO.com about how she plans to make it happen.

Whose call was it to take Philly on a wireless route? I had been watching what was going on in the wireless industry. The FCC announced the 2.4 GHz WiFi that would be unregulated 5.8 GHz WiMax. The price points had come down, and the standards had emerged. I looked at that and applied it to the needs of what Mayor [John F.] Street was looking to do -- he had final say. How did you get the mayor to sign on? As CIO, I need to align technology...

with the goals of the administration. When I saw what the mayor wanted and the goals of the city, I saw how wireless could help the city and meet the goals the mayor set. I put together a proposal showing how wireless can benefit the economic blueprint of the city. Why did you decide to take the entire city of Philadelphia wireless? Because it would help in economic development. It would help us overcome the digital divide. Today, only 58% of our residents have access to the Internet. To be a 20th century city, wireless is where the work needs to be done.

We want all people to have affordable access to the Internet. We did a survey that shows that 76% [of our residents] said the cost was the reason they did not have Internet access.

How many users do you plan to support?
We have an entry level of about 80,000 and plan to go to about 200,000. Where are the benefits?
We have some estimates that say we could generate 3,000 new jobs over five years. For example, we have a grandmother who supports her daughter and granddaughter, who made candles. She created a Web site and sold her candles over the Internet using wireless access. We also have a gentleman who refurbished an old warehouse and made it into leased art studio space with wireless access. Five out of the 12 artists requested wireless, and he worked the cost of it into their rental fees.

We also plan to raise the Internet connectivity from 58% to 80%. We are working with school districts and parents to access homework online and other initiatives.

Who's paying?
This will be funded by taxable bonds or bank loans and will be paid back by subscriptions. How much will it cost those private citizens to subscribe?
Depending on the final technology and the service providers we choose, we're looking at $10-$20 per month at the low tier with a minimum of 1m-bit upstream, and downstream with higher rates, depending on the level of service. For example, if you're a small business and you need a T-1 connection, the rate will be more. For universities we'll have another rate. What is the TCO of the project?
We expect that it will cost $10 million to build the network and an additional $5 million to cover operations. Once we get the network up and running, we expect it will cost $2 million to operate each year. But that may change when we see the RFPs. The network will be done by summer/fall 2006 and the initial loan will be paid back about four to five years from that time.

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