Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Philly Stake With WiFi...Mmm

What's the best tasting action in Philly? It's an investment stake in citywide WiFi and it's got a lot of mouths watering in Philadelphia.

Seems a bit hard to swallow, seeing as Earthlink just bailed on a similar metropolitan wireless system in the very same city. This isn't a duplicate effort. It's the same system under new ownership. A group of local investors believes that they can succeed where Earthlink failed. Seems a bit nervy until you look at the details of their plan.

First of all, access will be free to consumers. Well, that certainly quiets all the grumbling about having to pay twenty bucks a month for spotty coverage. Philadelphia Internet users were lukewarm, to say the least, to the original Wireless Philadelphia service plans. You could get a reduced rate of half that by proving hardship under the Digital Inclusion plan. But even that much can be a barrier for the economically disadvantaged.

Free is much better. Who is going to complain about free? The obvious question, though, is who is going to foot the bill for all this free service?

The answer is a combination of paid access for business users and advertising for everyone else. The press release also mentions integrated wired and wireless access for larger users such as hospitals, universities and corporations. There may very well be enough profit in high bandwidth and converged network services to foot the bill for all the laptop users sitting on park benches and students researching their homework assignments.

Whatever shortfall there is from business and organizational payers is expected to be covered by advertising revenue. Access to the system is via network controlled landing pages that can easily be populated with ads as well as information of local interest. If done well, this could be quite lucrative. After all, the lure of free service is going to result in tens if not hundreds of thousands or more visitors every day. That's advertising space worthy of newspaper and TV types of advertisers.

Wireless Philadelphia is off to a running start with their ambitious Internet service plans. Earthlink had already built the lion's share of the network before they decided it was financially unworkable under their pay-for-access plans. The new operators have only to finish the job to provide complete coverage and get going on their services to business users.

How well this all works out remains to be seen. Civic pride by businesses and other community leaders with a stake in its success are certainly important in getting the revenue stream going. There is also a civic improvement aspect to including those who are always left foundering in the wake of technical progress. There have already been initiatives in Philadelphia to donate both refurbished laptops and Internet access to families in need.

With the recent FCC feelers about establishing free public-access wireless Internet service nationwide, the time for universal broadband does seem to be at hand. When seen in the context of improving the educational base of a city or the nation, with higher level skills leading to more employment opportunities and less need to put people on the dole, municipal broadband could be considered an investment that will pay back in years ahead. Education alone could justify public support as a way of modernizing our school systems. But in these tight economic times, a cleverly managed citywide WiFi network that is designed to pay its own way while providing free public access is a very appetizing solution indeed.

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