Philly releases Wi-Fi RFP

In a major initiative to provide their citizens and business with affordable high-speed Internet access, officials from the city of Philadelphia unveiled an ambitious plan to deploy an estimated $10 million Wi-Fi network by the summer of 2006.

Officials yesterday unveiled the plan and released a Request for Proposals that Dianah Neff, the city's chief information officer, thinks will attract from eight to 15 vendors for the project and the city wants to start construction in August.

'To successfully compete in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, world-class cities must position themselves on the cutting edge of technology,' Mayor John Street said in a prepared statement yesterday when city officials unveiled the detailed plan. 'We are taking an historic step to make Philadelphia a more attractive and appealing city in which to live, work and visit.'

Leading up to that citywide effort, several vendors ' many of whom are expected to bid on the project ' are deploying wireless hotspots in various neighborhoods at no cost for one year.

The pilots will allow the non-profit group Wireless Philadelphia, which was established by the city to manage the initiative, to look at the various wireless technologies, including network performance and other concerns, and see how the network can help the various neighborhoods, including businesses, schools, and non-profit groups operating there. By the end of May, participating vendors and manufacturers will have established nine such wireless hotspots in business districts, low-income neighborhoods and other areas.

'It helps promote the project so that when it comes fully live they will have seen the seen the benefit and value and want to subscribe to the network,' said Neff, who is on the 20-member Wireless Philadelphia group.

Hewlett-Packard, in partnership with six other wireless equipment manufactures, will build two such hotspots by next week: one in the Historic Mile area and a lower-income Hispanic neighborhood called Norris Square. Other vendors working on other pilot hotspots across the city include Cisco and SAIC, Nortel and Verizon, Juniper and Proxim, and several others, said Neff.

Enrique Barkey, director of Hewlett-Packard's Worldwide Civilian Agency Solutions, said they will install the technological infrastructure ' including antennas, servers, other equipment, software and backend support ' in the two designated areas and provide project management support for the Norris Square pilot. He said that his company has performed similar work domestically and internationally, such as in South Africa and India, to help bridge the digital divide.

The company plans to bid on the citywide initiative. 'I have not seen anything as well put together, as well thought out as what he city of Philadelphia is doing,' he said, adding when the citywide network is built out it will probably be one of the largest metropolitan Wi-Fi deployments.

'For us it'll be a great reference and we do see the replicability (of this initiative) country-wide and not only from the technology perspective but from the business model perspective behind it,' he said.

For the Historic Mile area pilot, Barkey said he expects about 1.5 million to 2 million people to use the network. That is a tourist area, which includes the Liberty Bell, Independence Park, and Betsy Ross's house. The city itself gets about 27 million visitors annually, said Neff.

'It'll give us a great opportunity to test our occasional user concept for business travelers and part of the process will be to track the usage,' she said referring to that area.

In the Norris Square neighborhood, the city and company will work with organizations, schools and business there to help provide donated and refurbished computers ' along with training and education ' to about 30 families, 20 to 25 small business users, and 50 users from the nonprofit sector. The city will also work with another company, which will donate its services, to build a bi-lingual Web portal in English and Spanish for that community.

Neff said the portal will contain information about health and social services and links to needed government services. The portal ill be free for one year and then that company will use advertising revenues to support it in the future.

Interested companies have until late may to respond to the RFP for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance f the city-wide wireless communications network, she said. A panel of technical experts ' not related to any of the equipment manufacturers ' will work with the Wireless Philadelphia group to conduct the evaluation and selection, she said. Contract negotiations will occur in the beginning of July and construction in August. Officials want the entire city covered by late summer 2006.

When it is built, the non-profit will provide access to private Internet Service Providers, institutions and other nonprofits at low wholesale prices and the find rate to the end users will be below $20, said Neff. She added that communities and ISPs have been very supportive of the project, while the telecommunications and cable industry has been very critical.

'The criticism from the telecommunications industry is you can't do it for the price we're talking about,' Neff said. 'Other agencies say you can and we've vetted it three different ways. The RFP will obviously will be the ultimate test if we were right.'

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