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Philadelphia's WiFi Program Off to Shaky Start

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Philadelphia's WiFi Program Off to Shaky Start

Technology

Philadelphia's WiFi Program Off to Shaky Start

Philadelphia's WiFi Program Off to Shaky Start

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Philadelphia was the first major city to start a wireless network. The City of Brotherly Love was supposed to be a showcase for Earthlink, the company that's providing the service. But WiFi is off to a rocky start in Philadelphia.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, on Mondays we talk about technology and today we'll look at municipal wireless networks. Hundreds of cities around the country have projects in the works and Philadelphia was the first major city to start one up.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, on Mondays we talk about technology and today we'll look at municipal wireless networks. Hundreds of cities around the country have projects in the works and Philadelphia was the first major city to start one up. The City of Brotherly Love was supposed to be a showcase for Earthlink, the company that is providing the wireless service. But Philly WiFi is off to a slow start, as Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports.

JOEL ROSE: Orange fliers advertising Earthlink WiFi are all over Philadelphia this summer. One day Jim Maloney came home to find one hanging on his doorknob.

The initial promotional price sounded pretty good so he signed up. That was over a month ago. He says he still hasn't had much luck getting it to work.

Mr. JIM MALONEY (Subscriber): I've gotten online two times. One time I got online I was online for about two minutes and I got kicked off. I got to try and redial again here. And the other time I was on maybe not even 30 seconds.

ROSE: He didn't get online at all when I was there. Maloney says he spent a hundred bucks on a special antenna to bring the outdoor signal inside.

Mr. MALONEY: I've tried every spot in the house. So I went up to the roof. I went in to the other side of the house, held it outside the window.

ROSE: Blogs and electronic bulletin boards are rife with similar stories of dead spots across the city. Don Berryman is a vice president at Earthlink.

Mr. DON BERRYMAN (Earthlink): It's not perfect today. As we build out an area we drive around, we talk to customers, we move our equipment around to perfect the signals.

ROSE: The Atlanta-based company won't say exactly how many customers have signed up for the Philadelphia service so far except that it's 10 percent less than the company had projected. The network isn't even finished yet. Earthlink hopes to complete it by the end of the year. But critics of municipal wireless are already starting to gloat.

Ms. SONIA ARISSON (Pacific Research Institute): It's not turning out like they thought it would. It's not as easy. It's not as cheap.

ROSE: Sonia Arrison is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think-tank in San Francisco. Arrison says these kinds of public-private partnerships often fail, because government and business don't mix.

Ms. ARRISON: If it's not working, it's just not working. For the average consumer it's like, okay, well fine, then I'll just go to a different provider, and I think that's going to be a very big problem for Earthlink.

ROSE: The company says it's now taking another look at WiFi projects in other cities. The Philadelphia network is based on a subscription model. Other municipal networks are free but supported by advertising. Forrester Research analyst Sally Cohen says to be successful, city-wide networks will have to combine both of these approaches and more.

Ms. SALLY COHEN (Forrester Research): The business model that has varied sources of revenue are the ones that are going to be the most successful and that may include consumer subscriptions, it may include ad revenue for consumer access, it may include an anchor tenancy with the government.

ROSE: The demand for wireless networks will grow, says Earthlink vice president Don Berryman, as more consumers pick up handheld devices like the much-hyped iPhone.

Mr. DON BERRYMAN (Earthlink): You'll see more and more of those devices over time. And with the ubiquity of the WiFi network in a city like Philadelphia, it will really make a great add-on for all these things.

ROSE: In the meantime, city official say the network is working to close the digital divide between rich and poor. Ann Nadine Barber(ph) lives in North Philadelphia. She says she doesn't need WiFi but the Earthlink service has given her broadband access to the Internet at a price she can afford.

Ms. NADINE BARBER (Subscriber, Earthlink WiFi): Everything now is computerized. If you go put in for a job, you need some computer skills.

ROSE: Barber's daughter, Victoria Johnson, is a high school junior. She logs on to show me, of course, her MySpace page.

Ms. VICTORIA JOHNSON: Well, here is a political argument between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, because I'm doing a little research on that and the upcoming election.

ROSE: Johnson says having Internet access at home is helping her get ready for college.

Ms. JOHNSON: I love computers. I love working hands on, but really I want to go into criminal law. But if I wouldn't go into criminal law, computers would be my second choice.

ROSE: So far, Johnson says her WiFi service is working just fine.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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