Will Philadelphia Wireless Collapse of its own Weight?

The Philadelphia City Council has delayed a vote on what turns out to be four contracts involved in the EarthLink deal to build a 135-square mile wireless network in the City of Brotherly Love, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday. The delay is a major setback for the Philadelphia project, which has been closely watched by municipal wireless advocates as a model for other cities to follow. From the Inquirer:

[Mayor John Street’s] administration had hoped Council members would approve the effort in a committee vote yesterday, which would have cleared the way for a final vote as early as March 23. But the meeting adjourned without a vote after legislators said they needed more time to read the convoluted series of agreements involving the city, the quasi-independent Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, the city-created nonprofit known as Wireless Philadelphia, and the Atlanta-based Internet firm EarthLink, which is to build and operate the network.

The contracts reportedly number in the hundreds of pages and the council says it needs time to review them all. The earliest a vote will come is April 13. Wireless Philadelphia originally had hoped to get the deal approved last December. Although delays on other municipal broadband initiatives have been blamed on interference from incumbents phone companies, no such political countermeasures are apparent here. It seems the wireless project, which until now has enjoyed good momentum, has run smack into the machinery of the city bureaucracy. The situation points toward the inherent problem of getting things done efficiently in government. It just doesn’t happen. The contract now faces scrutiny of 17 council members each with his or her own constituent agenda. EarthLink has the right to terminate the deal if it is not approved by the council’s summer adjournment. While no taxpayer money is at direct risk, the project is beginning to take up a lot of city resources while it essentially remains stuck in one place. Until now, the implication has been that there was a single overarching contract between the city and EarthLink, which will fund, build and operate the network. Sunday’s report revealed that there are, in fact, four separate pacts that need to be approved. ï A deal between the city and Wireless Philadelphia to have the nonprofit manage the initiative and administer social programs aimed at helping low-income people access the Internet. ï A deal between Wireless Philadelphia and EarthLink under which EarthLink would build, operate, and own the wireless network and promise the nonprofit a share of its proceeds. ï A deal between the city and the industrial development authority that lets the authority rent access to city-owned lightposts to EarthLink for use in mounting the network’s 4,000 wireless transceivers. ï A deal between the authority and EarthLink under which EarthLink would rent lightpost access for roughly $74 per lightpost per year. Yet another contract, between Wireless Philadelphia and Peco Energy to provide electric power to the transceivers, is still being negotiated.