Broadband Internet access, in Philly as in every major city, is a critical issue. That’s why, in 2005, then-Mayor John Street announced the Wireless Philadelphia initiative. The ambitious plan was set in place to blanket the entire city with one gigantic, affordable Wi-Fi network and add another “Philadelphia first” to the history books at a time when the city could have used the good press.
Wireless Philadelphia was a brutal failure. The network, the construction of which was contracted out to Internet service provider Earthlink, was supposed to go live in late 2007. Then its deadline was pushed to early 2008. The relationship between the city and Earthlink got complicated fast, and ultimately the Atlanta-based company failed to make enough money from the project to sustain it. After axing its municipal project in New Orleans, it backed out of Philadelphia as well.
That didn’t help the city’s most underserved neighborhoods, many of which have abysmally low levels of broadband Internet access. As many as 55 percent of Philadelphia residents don’t have at-home access to the Web, according to one estimate. This fact is expected, naturally, to have serious consequences for the city’s future. A report released recently by IBM and the city estimates that by 2030, some 600,000 Philadelphians will lack the digital skills necessary to compete in the job market.
Mayor Nutter seems to be making digital literacy and Internet access as much of a priority as his administration can afford to. On April 5, Nutter unveiled Connect Philly, a service designed by Technically Philly that allows residents to find local Internet access points online or by sending a text message to 215.240.7296. After texting their address to that number, which can be done from just about any cell phone, citizens will receive a list of the nearest cafes, libraries and other public locations from which they can access the Internet.
The company sees public-interest initiatives like this as a necessary part of the new media landscape. “It’s a great example of what journalism can be,” says Wink. “Brian did reporting on digital-access issues, found there was a lack of understanding around access to wireless hotspots and found there was no clear data set.” Kirk then coordinated the partnerships he viewed as necessary to ensure Connect Philly was properly publicized. Technically Philly’s relationships with city officials, Kirk says, don’t jeopardize the site’s objectivity—they enhance its reporting. He likens it to the Inquirer collaborating with the Philadelphia Police Department to publish official data about crime in the city. “We’ve grown to become a convener and catalyst for the technology community here,” says Kirk. “We think news operations should take action and assume responsibility, when appropriate, to better that community.”
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