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Philly's Neff faces questions over Wi-Fi plan

Philadelphia thought it had the go-ahead for Wireless Philadelphia, even after the state tried to outlaw it. Now CIO Diana Neff faces doubting City Council members and continued lobbying from Comcast.

Philadelphia CIO Diana Neff was in the hot seat last week as the City Council questioned her about the city's ambitious plan for  city-wide  wireless broadband, the Philadelphia Enquirer reported.

Neff's estimate of the bill for her plan to provide wireless broadband Internet across the entire city has increased from $10 million to as much as $18 million, taking into account deployment, maintenance and support. While the original plan envisioned free Internet for all, the current plan is targeting household payments of $10 to $20 a month.

"This program is vital," Neff said. "It is a very powerful initiative that will impact businesses big and small in the city of Philadelphia." She tried to assure members of the Philadelphia City Council that the city would not be on the hook for the bill. "We are not looking to the city to back this venture," she said.

But city council members seemed unconvinced.

"I really did not hear a case of why the city of Philadelphia should get into this business," Councilman Michael Nutter said during a committee hearing. "If the subscriber rate is not what you expect it to be, who will be responsible for making up the gap between your cost and your revenue?" 

One wireless vendor, Closed Networks,  said Wireless Philadelphia was unnecessary because they already provide wireless service for about the same $20 a month the city is looking at. But Closed only covers about 50 of Philadelphia' 135-square-mile territory. That huge gap is the exact reason the city sees a need to enable access for all.

Of course Closed Networks is not the most interested provider. That would be Comcast:

Several Council members said they had received critical briefings on the effort from officials at Comcast, which could face competition from the plan.

"Because of numerous financial and technological questions about the city's plans, and the substantial risk to Philadelphia's taxpayers, we have not endorsed the city's efforts," David L. Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, wrote in an e-mail message. "Investment in a competitive, challenging and risky business like broadband is something better left to private companies."

 Intersted in Muni Wi-Fi? Be sure to watch Dan Farber's interview with Neff.