James Dao reports: If Mayor John F. Street has his way, by next year this 135-square-mile metropolis will become one gigantic wireless hot spot, offering every neighborhood high-speed access to the Web at below-market prices in what would be the largest experiment in municipal Internet service in the country.
City officials envision a seamless mesh of broadband signals that will enable the police to download mug shots as they race to crime scenes in their patrol cars, allow truck drivers to maintain Internet access to inventories as they roam the city, and perhaps most important, let students and low-income residents get on the net.
Experts say the Philadelphia model, if successful, could provide the tipping point for a nationwide movement to make broadband affordable and accessible in every municipality. From tiny St. Francis, Kan., to tech-savvy San Francisco, more than 50 local governments have already installed or are on the verge of creating municipal broadband systems for the public.
But Philadelphia’s plan has prompted a debate over who should provide the service, and whether government should compete with private industry, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas or low-income urban communities. Telecommunications and cable companies say that municipal Internet networks will not only inhibit private enterprise, but also result in poor service and wasted tax dollars. They have mounted major lobbying campaigns in several states to restrict or prohibit municipalities from establishing their own networks.
“This is a growing trend, but an ominous and disturbing one,” said Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan. “The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.”
Philadelphia officials say that will not happen here. Mr. Street has said he will try to raise corporate and foundation financing so the strapped city does not have to pay the network’s $10 million startup costs. He also says the city will recruit private companies to help operate the system, asserting it will earn enough revenue to be self-sustaining.