A City Council committee yesterday approved plans to buy a wireless network that once promised to make Philadelphia one big public wireless hot spot, but will now mainly be used by the government.
Under the Nutter administration's plan, the city will buy the wireless network from a local investment group for $2 million. It will mainly be used by city government and emergency workers, although some public access will remain at libraries, parks, recreation centers and elsewhere.
"There is no model anywhere to give away free Internet," said Chief Information Officer Allan Frank. "The fallacy in the old model was that, somehow, you could spend millions, put up Internet and it would somehow pay for itself.
"Access to the Internet, last time I checked, is not a constitutional right. Neither can a city afford to provide free Internet."
The purchase from Network Acquisition Co. LLC follows an almost six-year journey, after EarthLink Inc. installed the network in 2005 with the goal of providing low-cost, citywide Internet access. It was part of former Mayor John Street's vision to help bridge the "digital divide" in the city.
But EarthLink backed out of the Wireless Philadelphia initiative in 2008, after it couldn't sign up enough customers.
NAC bought the wireless network in June 2008 with the intent of expanding it and offering free service across the city, but the city announced plans to buy back the assets of the network in December for $2 million.
"NAC got the deal from EarthLink, and that deal was passed on to us, essentially," Frank said.
The Council's Committee on Public Property and Public Works approved the Nutter administration's plan. It now needs full Council approval.
Frank said that one of the benefits of acquiring the wireless assets - including equipment on buildings and utility poles across about 80 percent of the city - would be the implementation of an internal city government-communications network.
"The purchase of the wi-fi network is a very substantial move to move the city to become what I call 'digital Philadelphia,' " Frank said. "One big part of it is to recognize that the whole mobility thing is the core way we live and do business."
The network would support public safety by improving wireless efficiency for emergency communications and by giving the city the ability to deploy cameras to "areas currently without video surveillance capabilities," Frank said.
About 80 percent of the city is covered by the network. Frank said the rest of the areas would be covered in three to five years.