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In the 1940s, Philadelphia became the home of the world’s first electronic computer. But those days of glory are long gone. Since giving birth to the computer industry, the city’s digital capabilities have significantly deteriorated. However, the city’s new plan for a digital-infrastructure overhaul may be exactly what it takes to bring Philadelphia into the 21st century.

Philadelphia’s technology infrastructure is significantly worse than those of comparable cities. Since 2001, the Center for Digital Government has released an annual Digital Cities Survey, which rates city governments according to how they utilize information technology for the benefit of their citizens. Philadelphia has never placed among the 10 top-ranked cities with populations of 250,000 or more.

Allan Frank, the city’s chief technology officer, acknowledged that Philadelphia’s digital infrastructure is about 10 years too old. And in our world of rapidly evolving technology, being 10 years outdated is like living in the Stone Age. A telling example is that the city’s wireless public-safety network transfers data at a mere 1.3 megabits per second, according to Frank. Meanwhile, AirPennNet — Penn’s wireless network connection — can offer speeds up to 54 megabits per second.

Frank has a plan called “Digital Philadelphia” to rebuild the city’s technology infrastructure, renovate its website and revamp the government’s intranet. These technological improvements will enhance public safety, improve government efficiency and lower operating expenses.

Some of his goals overlap with the mission of “Wireless Philadelphia,” a massive failure of an undertaking begun in 2005 and abandoned by 2008. But where Wireless Philadelphia failed, Frank’s Digital Philadelphia seems to be succeeding. Wireless Philadelphia was a partnership with the internet service provider Earthlink simply in order to equip the city with wireless internet. Earthlink abandoned the project when its costs became too exorbitant, leaving the materials it had already constructed behind, according to the blog Technically Philly. Last December, Frank decided to purchase these very wireless-network materials to help him complete his own vision.

Philadelphia’s Division of Technology is looking for support from a number of places to achieve its goal. The city is hoping to partner with Google to become a test site for the development of a high-speed network that can deliver internet speeds 100 times faster than currently possible, but it is competing with more than 1,000 other municipalities across the country.

But even if Philadelphia does not receive the help it is looking for, Frank has significant resources to continue with his ambitious plans. Mayor Michael Nutter allocated $120 million over six years to the Division of Technology, more than enough to get started on the digital-infrastructure overhaul. And if Google does not choose Philadelphia as its test bed, Philadelphians are eager to create the high-speed network on their own. Gigabit City — a recently launched website created by grassroots proponents of establishing a network of gigabit speeds in Philadelphia — boldly proclaims that it will get the job done “with or without Google.”

As Philadelphia’s technology infrastructure is in a very decrepit state, it provides Frank the opportunity to give it a dramatic reinvention. “The bad news is I wish we weren’t 10 years behind,” he said. “The good news is I get to leapfrog from nowhere to somewhere overnight.”

Indeed, even the smallest technological advance seems to be a major victory for the city. Frank announced last month that he will be pushing the city to adopt paperless time sheets. Next month, the city will release an iPhone application for its information hotline, an announcement that has already created a lot of buzz in the media.

“You would have thought I cured cancer,” Frank said.

And in some ways, that’s exactly what he is setting out to do — breathing life back into this city’s dying digital infrastructure.

Prameet Kumar is a Wharton sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is Political Penndit appears on Wednesdays.

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