What’s So ‘Free’ About Philly’s New Wi-Fi Plan?

BY Megan Tady

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Nearly 20 percent of Philadelphia's population lives in poverty. That's one-in-five Philadelphians who would surely struggle to purchase a laptop or home computer and pay for costly Internet service.

Without a computer and the knowledge to get online wirelessly, “free Wi-Fi” isn’t truly free and accessible. Offering the service to people without computers is like telling a child to pick out anything in the toy store as long as she can pay for it.

Essentially, that’s what’s happening in Philadelphia right now – not the toy store spree, but what the city has called “free, city-wide Wi-Fi.”

Once upon a time, in 2004, the city of Philadelphia declared that digital inclusion – meaning computer literacy and online access for all residents – was a reachable goal. But while making lofty proclamations, Philadelphia’s government rejected public input for nonprofit ownership of the wireless network, instead granting a corporate provider, EarthLink Inc., an exclusive contract to own and operate the service. (A nonprofit organization, Wireless Philadelphia, was created in conjunction with the Earthlink contract to help low-income households get online.)

Three years later, Earthlink abruptly bowed out of the Wi-Fi business in Philadelphia and – after offering to transfer its network to either the city or Wireless Philadelphia for free - – was about to remove the wireless routers it had installed throughout the city.

Then, last month, the newly created Network Acquisition Company (NAC) stepped in to take over EarthLink’s network – to the relief of social justice and media activists. They had pushed the city to take over the network before it died, so that it could live up to its original promise of connecting everyone, including low-income residents and communities of color, to the Internet.

But while NAC’s business plan includes “free community Wi-Fi” for the city, it comes with a catch. The company’s wireless network will essentially only be available outdoors – it isn’t designed to pierce walls – and NAC will not provide customer service assistance. NAC’s plan is to offer a more reliable wired/wireless service to local businesses, hospitals and universities that the free wireless network can piggyback on. If you don’t have a laptop, a desktop near a window that can pick up weak wireless signals, or the funds to buy a signal booster, you’ll be excluded from what was Philly’s “digital inclusion” plan.

“The original vision of the former mayor (John Street) was about the digital divide – free wireless access indoors and outdoors to anybody who wanted it,” said Beth McConnell of the Media and Democracy Coalition, one of the groups leading the charge for Philly Wi-Fi. “This new deal does not prioritize digital inclusion. It’s not about getting poor people online.”

Wireless Philadelphia will continue using the network for its outreach and education work, and its CEO Greg Goldman recently wrote in an email that the nonprofit’s core mission of digital inclusion is “fundamentally unchanged” under the new agreement with NAC. But McConnell says she’s yet to see the details, and it’s unclear how Wireless Philadelphia’s mission will manifest itself within the new framework.

Nearly 20 percent of Philadelphia’s population lives in poverty. That’s one-in-five Philadelphians who would surely struggle to purchase a laptop or home computer and pay for costly Internet service. In this digital era that seems to require citizens to participate online for just about everything – from running a business to connecting with old flames to finding dirt on political candidates – that’s one-in-five Philadelphians who are being marginalized.

Todd Wolfson of the Media Mobilizing Project, another group fighting for digital inclusion in the city, said that basic “survival issues” are linked to the Internet.

“If you go to a library in Philadelphia and look at the public computers, the chances are there’s a line of 20 people who are waiting two to three hours to get 30 minutes on the Internet,” he said. “And they’re doing that because maybe they need to apply for college. Maybe they need to apply for a job. Maybe they need to report that there’s a pothole in their street, and now the city only takes those reports online.”

While everyday tasks are inextricably tied to the Internet, movements for social change have never seen a better organizing tool. But if so much of the organizing for social change is happening online, how are communities offline – who are often the most affected by economic and social injustices – included in the movements? And while the Internet also offers citizens an opportunity to counter mainstream media’s spin, how do offline communities tell their stories?

“The possibility of the Internet is to help these communities get their voices heard, to organize, to make civic change in Philadelphia and beyond,” Wolfson said.

NAC alone shouldn’t shoulder the blame for creating a “free Wi-Fi network” that doesn’t live up to its name. Where is Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, in all of this, and why is he allowing what was one of the nation’s most promising and progressive Wi-Fi plans to slip away?

Certainly, Washington has a role to play as well, both in shaping Philadelphia Wi-Fi and helping all Americans access the Internet. For starters, Congress and the White House could make widespread access to high-speed, affordable Internet a priority and open up high-value spectrum on unused parts of the television band that would make Philadelphia’s wireless signals reach beyond a kitchen window.

Activists like Wolfson and McConnell in Philly aren’t backing down. They recognize that a “free Wi-Fi network” that keeps access out of reach for so many isn’t really a network at all; it’s a bubble. How tragic that it’s so close, yet so far away.


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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InTheseTimes.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.

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