May 3, 2006 5:00 PM PDT

Philly Wi-Fi project passes final hurdle

Philadelphia's citywide Wi-Fi project overcame its final hurdle Wednesday, as a city council committee approved measures to allow the contractor for the project, EarthLink, to hang equipment from city-owned utility poles.

The joint committee for education and technology approved a bill that included amendments addressing concerns held by some city council members.

Specifically, the committee members demanded more documentation from EarthLink ensuring the company satisfies the city's requirement to deal only with contractors and vendors who have a history of working with diverse groups, including minorities, women and disabled persons.

The council committee also demanded more governance and oversight of the new nonprofit called Wireless Philadelphia, which will oversee the citywide Wi-Fi project and will also provide training and low-cost computer equipment to low-income families. A deal was brokered that increased the number of board members from a maximum of 11 to a maximum of 25.

As part of the deal, each of the 17 city council seats will be able to appoint a representative for the Wireless Philadelphia board. The mayor's office, city controller, district attorney, registrar of wills, sheriff, and clerk of court of sessions will also be able to appoint one member. The remaining seats can be filled with members of the community at the discretion of the chairman of the board.

Even though the Mayor John F. Street's office had awarded EarthLink a contract to build the citywide Wi-Fi network back in October, the city council still needed to give its approval for EarthLink to use 4,000 city-owned utility poles to install the radio equipment.

Now that the bill has been passed out of committee, the full city council will vote on it on May 11. Representatives from the mayor's office and from the city council said the approval is almost guaranteed to pass the full city council in its current form.

"The vast majority of bills that pass out of committee are enacted," said Kia Floyd, deputy secretary of external affairs for Mayor Street. "There were some concerns by council members not on the joint committee, but even if they are still not satisfied with the amendments, there aren't enough of them to likely sway the voting."

Construction on the network will begin a few weeks after the final approval is granted, said Don Berryman, an executive vice president at EarthLink. The company expects the entire project, which will blanket 135 square miles of Philadelphia, to be completed within 18 months.

EarthLink plans to charge consumers about $20 per month for 1Mbps downloads. Economically disadvantaged users will be charged $9.95 a month, while other Internet service providers will be charged a wholesale rate that allows them to sell access for $20 a month or less to retail customers, the city said.

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