Wireless Philadelphia has taken the next step in providing the entire city with Wi-Fi access, announcing that EarthLink will build, manage and fund the network. According an article in the Washington Post, EarthLink officials have said that the company would pay the network's estimated $10 million to $15 million cost by itself. While private sector funding for the project is a welcome development, it does not answer the question of whether or not a Wi-Fi network is an appropriate solution at all.
The goal of Wireless Philadelphia is to provide low-income citizens with cheap broadband access, at $10 a month. (Regular customers will be offered the same service for $20 a month, more than Verizon's current offer of $14.95 for DSL). While a noble endeavor to bridge the "digital divide," the question remains: will it work? Dianah Neff, the Chairman of Wireless Philadelphia, brings up an interesting point in this debate.
"If you were to ask the teleco, they would say, well, 90 percent of the city is covered. But if it's at a fee that people can't afford, if they don't have the computers and the skills to use them, having it there hasn't helped you overcome the digital divide."
Well, at best, Wireless Philadelphia would only address one of the digital divide problems by offering Wi-Fi service at a slightly discounted price to a segment of the population. But then again, does that even help if the low-income customers can't afford computers? What's next? A program to provide low-cost computers to the citizens of Philadelphia so as to justify their Wi-Fi network? And then the third part of the digital divide would need to be addressed through classes for the customers to learn to use the computers that the city is providing. Seems like a tall order for the city to fill.