What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate


JOHN F. STREET, the mayor of Philadelphia, perhaps put it best at the announcement of a new corporate headquarters for the Comcast Corporation early this year: "As Microsoft is to Seattle and Coca-Cola is to Atlanta, Comcast is a symbol of Philadelphia's growth and innovation." So imagine if the city of Seattle decided to make Linux a cornerstone of its civic software strategy, or Atlanta sponsored a program that made Snapple the official beverage of its school system.

That's basically what has happened with a plan by Mr. Street to put Philadelphia on the map with Wireless Philadelphia, a new municipal wireless Internet service that, if all goes as planned, would be a City Hall-sanctioned competitor to Comcast. (Although Comcast would probably prefer the analogy of Atlanta making something less palatable -- like carrot juice, the official school drink -- it doesn't think Philadelphia's plan is going to fly.)

Municipal wireless programs have become a hotly debated subject, thanks to the recent news that Philadelphia has selected EarthLink Inc. to build and run its new network and that mighty Google has proposed to play a similar role in San Francisco. The general idea -- one that itself is subject to much expostulation -- is that broadband Internet access is too expensive in the United States, which risks falling behind countries like South Korea and Japan in this area.

Wireless Philadelphia is intended to put the city on the map, both in proving its technological chops and in bridging the digital divide with poorer residents who don't tend to have high-speed Internet services if they have Internet service at all. On the face of it, the fact that the city is moving ahead without Comcast's involvement - indeed, over Comcast's open derision - raises a lot of intriguing questions not only about wireless Internet services but also about how much brotherly love has been lost between the nation's largest cable operator and Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city.

It also illustrates the frustration that Brian L. Roberts, the chief executive of Comcast, must feel: his company has signed up more high-speed Internet customers than any other and churns out buckets of cash, yet it has a sagging stock price because the market perceives that any number of unproven new businesses are going to usurp its position. Add Wireless Philadelphia -- brought to you by the people who regulate aspects of his business -- to the list.

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Monty Solomon
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