Will Wireless Philadelphia fulfill Mayor Street's soaring vision of a city where all residents enjoy affordable Internet access or will it end up like man's early attempts to fly by strapping on homemade wings and jumping off a cliff?
The grimmer view dominated yesterday's City Council technology committee hearings into Wireless Philadelphia's pro-gress.
Councilmen Frank Rizzo Jr. and Brian O'Neill were appalled that Atlanta-based Earthlink, Inc. - the Wireless Philadelphia provider that recently announced it was getting out of the wireless-city business - did not show up to testify.
O'Neill said he had received a statement "allegedly from EarthLink" on a sheet of paper with no letterhead and no signature, so he had no idea who wrote it.
"This is pretty sad in terms of a corporate response," O'Neill said, adding that he felt there is a "real possibility" that "they're going to depart" Philadelphia.
Rizzo called EarthLink's absence "a disgrace."
"You ask EarthLink to come and they say no," Rizzo said. "You ask how many customers they have [in Philadelphia] and they can't tell us or they won't tell us."
Rizzo said that despite EarthLink's alleged $20 million investment here, he has never seen it advertise its services. "I don't think the average citizen knows what it would cost to be a customer," he said.
Terry Phillis, the city's chief information officer, testified that EarthLink has built 75 percent of the city's projected 135-square-mile wireless network, but has not provided completion dates for the rest, including major areas in the Northeast, O'Neill's district.
City Solicitor Romulo Diaz said the city's contract compelled EarthLink to finish the wireless network and then maintain it or hand it over to another provider.
Wireless Philadelphia's chief executive, Greg Goldman, testified that the city "stands alone among all cities" in attempting to bridge the "digital divide" by giving low-income people the same wireless Internet access that higher-income people enjoy.
Goldman said that Wireless Philadelphia already has set up 613 "digital inclusion" accounts - free laptop and access bundle with low-cost service - for low-income citizens and will connect hundreds more as donors provide rebuilt laptops and funding.
Mayor Street, who did not attend the hearings, said: "It's clear to me that some people want to make something out of the fact that EarthLink has problems, but we have something very special here that shouldn't get lost in the shuffle.
"That is, this is the best effort in any city in the country to help poor people bridge the digital divide.
"This network will do great things for this city but people will have to be a little patient. We negotiated a great deal for the city of Philadelphia, and I'm not going to comment on EarthLink's problems. I only know EarthLink is committed to keep its contract with us, and I'm happy about it." *