BROOKE GLADSTONE: If all goes according to plan, the summer of 2006 will see Philadelphia launch the United States' first city entirely accessible to wireless internet. The service will blanket Philadelphia's 135 miles, so that any Philadelphian will be able to get on line, and with the costs subsidized, the mayor says every citizen will be able to afford it. The city first decided to take on the project when it found internet providers ignoring low income neighborhoods, and those same internet providers have tried to block the plan, by legally challenging the city's right to make wireless internet access just another public utility. Dianah Neff is the chief information officer for the City of Philadelphia. Dianah, Welcome to OTM.
DIANAH NEFF: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, if all goes according to plan, this would be the largest internet accessible municipality on the planet. Why is Philadelphia going to all this trouble?
DIANAH NEFF: It is important to us that we be able to overcome the digital divide and we not leave another generation of families and individuals behind that can't participate in the knowledge economy. So we think this will be a stimulus. We're enhancing the potential for our community to be successful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you mentioned the digital divide. Obviously, you'll be giving everybody access to the internet, but will they have a computer, or will you be providing those as well?
DIANAH NEFF: That is a part of our program. It is not just to provide the internet - it's not build it and they will come. We are working closely with non-profits and the community business districts and our schools to make sure that we get computers into the homes as well as training and education.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. What's it take, in laymen's terms, to blanket a city like Philadelphia with Wi-Fi?
DIANAH NEFF: Well, we have 135 square miles. We believe that about 3,000 devices will cover the entire city. We are going to go out for a request for a proposal to solicit probably a consortium of companies to design, build and maintain that network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But who has the internet now?
DIANAH NEFF: We have about 64 percent of our households that have computers. Only 58 percent have connection to the internet. The number one reason cited - 76 percent of the time - was cost or access to high speed broadband. This will be funded through bonds or bank financing, and then will be repaid through revenue generation by people subscribing to the network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But regular companies who would like to provide this service are really worried about what Philadelphia is doing. Verizon and the City of Philadelphia have been locked in a bitter fight over this whole thing, and spokesmen from these companies say why are you going to turn this wonderful information superhighway into another crappily-run public utility?
DIANAH NEFF: [LAUGHS] Well, one, it's not going to be a poorly-run public utility. We are going to contract this out with a professional organization who do this. We're going out for a request for proposal to select the best vendor out there. The city has had six pilot areas, one square mile, and we've had an opportunity to test it out. And then we will monitor to be sure that the network is performing, that it's kept up to date, that the customers are satisfied with the service that they're getting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other cities, I understand, and correct me if I'm wrong, there's been an arrangement where cities who were thinking of doing this will give the local, say, telephone company say 14 months to get their own project off the ground, and if they don't, then they'll step in. You just felt that you could do it better?
DIANAH NEFF: Oh, we felt we could do it quicker. It's not just the 14 months. It's two months for them to respond to the request. They have 14 months, then, to build it, and then they can ask for another 12 months' extension, and at the end of that time, they could tell the community that they don't want to do it, and then the community can go off and do it. Also, you have to remember that the existing DSL and cable companies do not provide nomadic outdoor capabilities. That is an important element of this project. That is not accessible today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. But it could be, couldn't it? They could build that on the very same light poles.
DIANAH NEFF: That's correct. And they may bid on the RFP. There's no exclusion from deciding that they want to put in a proposal to build the network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they can build it, but they can't set the price for it.
DIANAH NEFF: That's correct. You know, remember, one of the initial goals was an affordable broadband, and if you're a family that brings in 28,000 dollars a year, 40 to 50 dollars on top of your telephone and your cable service is not affordable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The main reason people don't have broadband, they cited, is cost. But the main reason why I don't have a car is cost. That doesn't mean I'm expecting the government to subsidize one for me.
DIANAH NEFF: No. And yet, think of the billions of dollars of subsidies that the telecommunications companies have been given over the years to deploy the wired environment that we have today. We believe that if we're going to be competitive and survive as a great city, we need to make sure that our population have the training and education and access to the internet. Virtually every job today requires some basic computer skills and the ability to transact over the internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dianah Neff, thank you very much.
DIANAH NEFF: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dianah Neff is the chief information officer for City of Philadelphia. [MUSIC]
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