The biggest political battle in wireless networking is happening across the Atlantic. US cities are trying to put in Wi-Fi "hotzones" to give blanket access across large areas. Despite early enthusiasm by local governments, service providers protested. They wanted to stop public sector activity that might impinge on their own profits.

Philadelphia has been the focus of all this. A public hotzone project there catalysed laws that could prevent public Wi-Fi - but the project is going ahead due to an agreement with provider Verizon. Doubts about the technical suitability of Wi-Fi have been refuted - it's a technology that works and is available.

Philadelphia's chief information officer, Dianah Neff, spoke with Network World Senior Editor John Cox about what will be involved in blanketing the 135 square miles of the city with a Wi-Fi mesh. Here's an edited transcript.

There was last-minute controversy around the passage of Pennsylvania House Bill 30, a reform of the state's telecom statutes. It included a provision, for which Verizon lobbied hard, that limits what cities and towns can do to create networks like the one you're talking about. Tell us about what happened.
We'd been aware of HB 30. It had been around for 18 months and had been dormant. All of a sudden, at the 11th hour of the lame duck legislative session, it's sent to the state senate, with no notification. We had about one week to mount a campaign. We mounted a grass-roots campaign to get the governor to veto it. He eventually signed it, but the city got a waiver out of that (Verizon agreed not to oppose the Wireless Philadelphia project). We approached Verizon for a compromise, the governor put a little pressure on, and we worked it out.

What's your view on these kinds of restrictions that are being passed?
It's bad for the state and for the country. The US has slipped from being third in the world in broadband deployment to being seventh. If you slow that, we'll continue to slip.

Why would that be a problem?
It's in the ability to deliver new services and products. Think about how the World Wide Web has impacted our way of doing business, our work and play. If it takes 15 years to roll out broadband fibre to the curb, the world will have passed us by. It costs an average of about $18 to pass a house with Wi-Fi. But it costs $7,800 to $10,000 for cable and $2,000 to $3,000 for fiber. You're able to uplift everyone with those lower wireless LAN costs.

So, what's the status of the Wireless Philadelphia project?
The executive committee (presented) its recommendations to the mayor (in December), and next we'll put out a request for proposals. . . . We'll make an award and start deployment in the summer.

Where did the idea for this citywide, broadband wireless access come from?
In April 2003, I presented to the mayor a briefing paper. He asked me to do a pilot, and Love Park (near City Hall) was selected for an outdoor wireless LAN mesh net. We deployed an 802.11b network in June 2004. It was wildly successful with virtually no advertising. It was expanded along Ben Franklin Parkway to Boathouse Row. All these are mostly public spaces. But there were also wireless LAN pilots funded by outside sources in other areas. One is the People's Emergency Center, which works with homeless and disadvantaged families in West Philadelphia. They created a small wireless project (PDF file) of about 40 homes. Cisco later funded the expansion to cover 100 homes.

What made you think that a citywide net was valid, economically and socially?
Part of my job is to watch emerging technologies and align them with the mayor's goals, and Wi-Fi is one of those targeted areas. With the 802.11 standards, the cost points and what Mayor (John) Street was trying to do with his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, they all seemed to fit. The mayor appointed the stakeholders to an executive committee and asked us to put together a business plan.

Realistically, how many companies actually make a relocation or expansion decision based on whether a city has a wireless access network?
If you don't have this broadband infrastructure, you don't make the short list of locations the companies consider for moving or expanding. They look at questions like: Is your city known for being a technology city? Does it support innovation?

None of those questions individually are the reason why a business will move. But based on the input we got and the market studies we've seen, this is definitely a requirement.

How much will all this cost?
The capital spending will be about $10 million. About $1.5 million will needed yearly to run and maintain that network.

Where will the money come from?
From the start, the mayor said it had to be 'cost neutral' - any upfront dollars would have to be paid back, and we'll have to charge fees both to maintain the network and do various education and other programs that will help residents and small businesses make use of it.

Programs such as what?
It's about putting in the training and education and, in the case of the disadvantaged, the computer equipment in their homes. It's also working with small businesses to help them be able to use the Internet so they can be competitive. It's about improving the quality of life. Our schools have been working diligently to wire, or unwire, their campuses. But they need to reach into the home so families can communicate with teachers and administrators, access homework assignments and grades. Today, there is no affordable broadband access that's in all the neighbourhoods.

How have you dealt with the philosophical issue of offering such a network as a city service instead of leaving it to the private sector?
We did 13 stakeholder focus groups: Each member of the (Wireless Philadelphia) executive committee brought in people from health, or tourism, or education, from our small-business chamber, and our minority chamber. They all supported it. There were concerns and issues. For example, they didn't want it to be built with city dollars. Another concern was obsolescence: Would the net generate enough money to keep it up to date? We spent considerable time discussing that and coming up with recommendations to generate cash flow to sustain and upgrade the system during a five- to seven-year time frame.

What options did you consider for funding this wireless LAN?
We considered everything from public access organisations funded by grants to a government-run net funded through capital dollars, and everything in between. One option is a private consortium model - you pay them to build it. Or the public utility model: to run it like a water or sewer service. Another is a cooperative wholesale model: The government or a nonprofit organisation contracts to have it built, then using a wholesale rate structure, have ISPs or other providers deliver services over that infrastructure.

If this city net is to be relied upon by businesses, how do you plan to handle issues like QoS and service-level agreements?
All this was part of the discussion. Should you create an organisation to install and run the net, or contract that out? There was discussion on what our requirements were. We had to go through all those issue of financing, governance and technology.

How will this kind of network actually address the so-called 'digital divide,' where disadvantaged families lack computers and broadband access?
We're not naive enough to think that you 'build the systems and they will come.' There has to be education and training, and programs to get computers into the home.

The People's Emergency Center, for example, works with homeless and low-income families to get housing and then works to get them back on their feet, with training and job-hunting. They use the Internet to do this. They're getting kids involved; they're providing low-cost refurbished computers. We think this is a scaleable and very applicable program for other communities in Philadelphia and, in fact, around the world.