As I write this, the fate of the city's WiFi system hangs in the balance. The system's builder and owner, EarthLink, is desperate to sell it. If they can't, they may simply pull the plug — as they have in other cities.
The city says they're helping EarthLink look for a buyer. But I'm curious to see who'd put up any cash for the failing system. Certainly, the city shouldn't. On a citywide scale, WiFi has been costly to build, pricey to maintain, and its technology works badly at best.
The system that EarthLink built for Philly is already a dinosaur. And even if this dated network survives, it will soon face killer competition. The private sector has already laid claim to WiFi's successor, WiMax. Comcast recently joined with Sprint, Intel, Google and others, who together are plunking down $3.2 billion to build the cheaper and beefier technology in 100 metropolitan markets by 2010.
So, is it bye-bye, WiFi? Maybe. Though maybe it doesn't matter anymore.
Because what is alive — and quite well — is the noble goal behind WiFi: making the Internet accessible to all. Though, ironically, neither EarthLink nor WiFi's nonprofit administrator, Wireless Philadelphia (WP), can take much credit for helping many across the digital divide.
Who runs the broadest highway, right now? I was surprised to learn that it's the Free Public Library.
According to Sandra Horrocks, the library's vice president, the main library and its 53 branches brought some 1 million people to the Internet in 2007. No, that's not the number of total visits to the library. Horrocks insists that 1 million individuals queued up to use the Library's 750 Internet terminals. And if the snaking lines at lunchtime are any indication, it's a service that should be expanded.
In contrast, WP, whom the city charged with building a bridge to the future, has barely blazed a trail. Last year, WP set a very modest goal of bringing 2,000 new clients to broadband. To date, they've served only 1,000.
Like EarthLink's system itself, WP appears barely functional and is probably an anachronism.
Originally, WP was supposed to work with public schools, getting computers into the hands of students. The children were to bring the technology home, in effect teaching their parents. It was a compelling concept.
But instead of partnering with schools, WP tried to work with community service agencies — like those helping the unemployed find jobs. In theory, these service agencies would buy broadband at a discount from WP, and then give it to their clients. Only there haven't been many takers.
It's sad, but WP may have outlived its usefulness before it's done much. Part of the original need for WiFi was broadband's high cost and limited availability. In 2004, you basically had a choice of Comcast, which at the time was about $60 a month.
Since then, Verizon started providing broadband on ordinary phone lines for well under $20 a month. Compared to the monthly price of cell phones, broadband is a bargain. Likewise, computers are cheaper and friendlier.
By any measure, the digital divide is narrowing. And if people need a hand across, the Free Library already has a large cadre of trained information experts: librarians. As always, their service is free.
So, instead of propping up WiFi or WP, we should be investing in an institution with a proven track record. Expand library hours, add more terminals and watch the line between the digital haves and have-nots disappear.
Philly doesn't need to build a new digital bridge to the future. We have a great one already.