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September 15, 2005

Philly CIO Grilled on Plan by Council

The Philadelphia City Council grills Dianah Neff on Wireless Philadelphia (reg. req.; get login at Bugmenot): Let's keep in mind that some council members are opponents of the mayor; some are interested in his office. Issues were raised about whether the projections of revenue and expense will turn out to be accurate.

The issue of cheap DSL raised its head, as it has since prices plummeted in light of the wireless plan. Verizon is now offering DSL for as little as $15 per month for a full year. Neff pointed out, this article says, that these plans require long-term commitments and have no price guarantees after the initial period. Further, this $15 per month plan is 768 Kbps down, 128 Kbps up, according to Verizon's Web site. The Philly project wants 1 Mbps in each direction as basic service; that might be why access point estimates jumped from 1,000-2,000 up to 3,000.

Comcast has been briefing the council, and a public statement said the company fears the city will be putting taxpayers at risk. Yeah, right. I keep seeing these statements, and I keep asking: when did it become the business of companies that are offering competitive services to municipalities to be "concerned" about taxpayers? They're not. These companies exist to pull as much profit out of a given service as possible. That's the nature of a publicly owned and traded firm, right? So this pretense of public mindedness is total crap--or they're betraying their executives and shareholders. Drop the pretense and just say that you can't compete with municipally funded or franchised broadband, and argue the merits of that point in the marketplace.

A local firm, Closed Networks, says they serve 50 square miles of Philly already with wireless broadband offered at prices starting at $50 per month. But that's grossly not specifically correct. At their site, you can see that you have to have a specific site survey and commit to one or two years of service. There's a $50 setup fee for a one-year commitment, waived for a two-year commitment. Their site doesn't describe what you get in terms of speed for $20 per month, although it seems like you get whatever the fastest speed they can reach you with above some minimum Kbps. The site notes frankly that apartment buildings might be an issue because the landlord has to agree to allow antennas.

The Wireless Philadelphia plan differs from this offering by using a mesh instead of a point-to-multipoint approach. It also aims to provide full coverage from the get-go: interior access will require a CPE bridge, but the idea is no external antennas. Because it's a digital divide proposal, housing projects and apartment buildings are absolutely part of the target market, and will have to receive coverage. Because they can use utility poles and access, it'll be easier to beam Wi-Fi at a building instead of having to receive and redistribute it.


Although we likely have similar interests in seeing the ultimate success of wireless broadband access in the future, the most recent developments regarding the project is consistent with what I've read and heard elsewhere.

The business plan is conspicuously lacking in terms of any useful financial models despite constant references to the aforementioned models. Maybe I've skipped it, but I couldn't find it and I would expect some sort of transparency in order to deflect critcism.

Despite having right-of-way from the city, I think the use of this *mesh* will require more wired access than most people anticipate. Prior deployments have shown that this specific technology requires wired access every 2-3 hops.

Finally, you speak as though self-interest has no place in the construction and support of this plan. Remember that "Greed is good". In this sense, multiple conflicting self-interested parties come together to create a stronger solution through their conflict. Personally, I think the resulting Darwinian process is preferable to one in which the any central authority determines what is and is-not in the best interest of the populace. So note that they are indeed self-interested, but there's no need to cast that in a negative manner...

If the city had sufficient factual support for its project, then let it be revealed. If not, then despite self-interested reasons, the project clearly doesn't have merit.

Boy, so much to say. And on some things I'm a skeptic and other a supporter.

In general I am aa big supporter of municipal wireless. But I do think that Philly is set up for a big fall.

There is no way that they will deliver 1Mbps symmetrical via a wireless mesh under any kind of real load (ie more than a few customers on each node) using standard 802.11 MAC for the mesh. (Which almost all of the current "leading" mesh equipment vendors use)

There is no way that they will be able to get the support of the area, indoor CPE and bandwidths at the price point/density they plan.

That being said, they probably could get the coverage they want for only 4 - 8 times the number of nodes. But they will have to find a vendor that uses some form of non-contention based MAC for the Mesh (Something like SkyPilot, but I do consulting for them so I am biased there)

And I agree with Chris that even with all this, they will need a lot of higher tier backhaul links into the mesh even with something like SkyPilot.

So I do feel that muni-wireless for ubiquitous Internet connectivity is a common good. That Municipalities are about the only entity that can have the right "business model" to do it (ie it can't be done by regular shareholder based businesses).

But almost all of the RFI/RFPs from cities are off by 1/2 or more on the cost (but are within an order of magnitude) on the cost with today's technology.

There is also an issues on managing 10 - 30 thousand mesh nodes for an urban area that has not yet been addressed, but I do think that will be doable at some point in the not too distant future.

I'm weighing in as a Philadelphia resident. Do we have any reason to expect that Comcast, Verizon, et al would make a good faith effort to blanket the city with wireless access? No--we don't even have public access cable.

Furthermore, Comcast required tax breaks and give aways before they began building their new office tower. Comast is flush with profits while cable prices continuously increase (See profits released in August). Yeah, right, Comcast couldn't afford to build an office building. Meanwhile, many people here avoid using Verizon Wireless for cell service because Verizon's landline service is so poor (people wait all day for a tech to connect them but no tech ever shows). And Verizon does have the most expensive cell service.

So have Verizon and Comcast given Philadelphians any reason to trust them? Absolutely not.

Here's my question for Diana Neff and the city of Philadelphia: why was Love Park wired before the Free Libraries? And why can't we at least start by offering free service to the schools and libraries (pretending for the moment that both instituions have enough computers) and whoever else can access those unsecured networks will have free service.

The current turmoil in Philadelphia is about one thing: huge corporations like Verizon and Comcast retaining their ability to issue expensive bills and poor service and to not have to answer to anyone.