City officials are in the planning stages of an ambitious project to make Philadelphia the first city in the country to offer wireless Internet access to anyone within the city's 135 square miles.
"Our intention was to be the first to bring the benefits of affordable broadband communications to residents, businesses and visitors, so they can access technology anytime -- and anywhere," said Luz Cardenas, spokeswoman for Mayor John Street.
Street has appointed a 14-person Wireless Philadelphia executive committee to oversee the planning and logistics of the project, which is headed by Dianah Neff, the city's chief information officer.
In addition, Drexel, Temple and La Salle universities are assisting in the creation of business plans, funding objectives and marketing and management strategies.
"We must prepare our business and citizens to face the challenges of the future," Street said in a press release.
The plan calls for an initial $10 million investment to set up the infrastructure and an additional $1.5 million yearly for maintenance costs.
The "wireless mesh" network technology to be implemented will connect hubs across the city, created by thousands of transmitters. Most likely, the transmitters will be placed on top of lampposts to optimize direct lines of sight for radio signal transmission.
The city already has a successful wireless Internet initiative in operation. An estimated 1,300 people regularly use wireless services at Love Park, according to Neff, and additional areas of coverage are slated to be opened in the near future.
Cardenas emphasized that expansion of public wireless capabilities fits in well with municipal economic development plans.
"We can make Philadelphia more known for technology-based services, and so expand business opportunities. This is one huge step for us," Cardenas said.
Neff added that public installation of technology infrastructure would be an incentive for companies that would otherwise be reluctant to invest in developing such networks.
Usage will also extend to utility and safety communication networks and off-campus connectivity for grade school and college students, as well as coverage for traditionally poorer neighborhoods, where it is hoped that small businesses can excel once Internet access has been made available at public cost.
Currently, technological capabilities will only allow wireless Internet access outside, as any interference -- metal or thick walls -- will degrade access or cut it off completely.
Penn officials have already been informed of the city's intentions, and while Penn has not been asked for financial help, it has offered support for the idea of public wireless access.
"We salute the city's efforts," said Robin Beck, Penn's vice president of Information Systems and Computing.
"As we are a more and more mobile community that wants to stay connected, this is a significant move on the part of the city to support the community."
However, there is some concern over how implementation will work in areas close to campus, and around other existing wireless networks.
"If we can't achieve interconnection, we should hope that, at least, we will not be interfering with each other's systems," said Michael Palladino, associate vice president of networking and telecommunications at Penn.
Palladino referred to the practice of "leaking," in which broadband access can be hijacked for use by nearby users with wireless cards. This can slow access for everybody connected to the network, especially if some users are downloading large files like movies and games.
The dynamic wireless mesh technology allows easy installation of additional circuits in cases of network overload. However, it is unclear how many users a citywide network would support efficiently.
The plan might face additional obstacles. For instance, public control of wireless Internet access will threaten traditional networks owned by such companies as Verizon and Comcast.
Neff noted that the support of these companies will be necessary for connecting the wireless networks to the wired hubs. Additional business opportunities will come later, as city officials plan on opening the management and operations of the infrastructure to corporate bids once setup is complete.
The proposed investment costs are on par with implementation and labor costs for wireless setup elsewhere.
Among others, the cities of Orlando, Fla., Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. have similar plans for larger-scale wireless "clouds," mostly in cooperation with one or more commercial partners.