WIRELESS Philadelphia has always been more about people than technology.
It was - and still is - a groundbreaking effort to create a different Philadelphia, one where everyone can use the powers of the Internet regardless of income. It's about equal opportunity and leveling the playing field. Yes, the project has been battered. But it's still alive - and it should be renewed.
Philadelphia has one of the lowest Internet-penetration rates in the country. Of the roughly 600,000 households in the city, more than half lack Internet access. Most are low-income.
Lack of digital opportunity holds families back. Paul DiMaggio, a professor at Princeton, has shown that 15 percent of those who dropped out of high school and 45 percent of high school graduates use the Internet at home, while 72 percent of college graduates do.
For the five major decisions that people have most likely confronted over the last two years - buying a car, making a major financial decision, dealing with a health crisis, choosing a school or getting additional career training - 53 million people said the Internet played a crucial role.
In the last presidential election, 75 million Americans used the Internet to get political news and information, discuss candidates and debate issues in e-mails, or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or contributing to candidates.
The digital divide limits educational, employment and health opportunities. Eighty percent of high-school students have on-line homework every night, yet less than half of low-income students have Internet access at home. You can't apply for a job as a dishwasher or housekeeper in a downtown hotel without the Internet. Soon, you'll have to apply for college financial aid online.
For people with chronic illness, the Internet provides life-saving information, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But those with chronic illness are disproportionately low-income, so those most likely to benefit from access are those least likely to have it.
In sum, lack of access means less connection, weaker communities, limited employment opportunities, poorer health and less education.
Two years ago, Kofi Annan declared, "The time has come to move beyond broad discussions of the digital divide . . . we know what the problems are. We must now get down to the specifics . . . [of how to] foster and expand digital opportunities."
THE CITY responded to this call, and became an international leader in the movement.
For two years, Wireless Philadelphia has generated great momentum across the city for the mission of digital inclusion. Dozens of community groups, foundations, public agencies and social- service entities have joined the effort. This work must continue.
Imperfect as we all know it is, the network is still up and running - and must be saved. Our digital- inclusion program has opened the world to 1,200 families who never had Internet service before. A $20 million asset and a nationally recognized digital-inclusion movement shouldn't be scrapped just because one company changed its mind. A network controlled by a broad range of local players can be re-engineered for numerous commercial, social and civic purposes.
But, this project is clearly at a crossroads. It can become another one of those Philly things that just didn't work out. Or, at the moment when things seemed most bleak, we say no to the naysayers, seize the moment and make something new. *
Greg Goldman is CEO of Wireless Philadelphia. E-mail him at