Wireless Philadelphia: An Interview with CEO Greg Goldman

Greg Goldman is first permanent CEO of Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization working to make the whole city wireless. Digital Communities correspondent Joshua Breitbart spoke with him recently about the challenges ahead for this wireless initiative.

by / December 22, 2006
Greg Goldman is first permanent CEO of Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization working to make the whole city wireless. Goldman has a background in the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors. He was most recently vice president of Korman Communities, a Philadelphia-based residential real-estate company. Prior to that, he was executive director of the Metropolitan AIDS Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance (MANNA), a local organization that delivers nourishment to people with HIV/AIDS. During his six-year tenure, that organization's service capacity and budget more than doubled, and its reach extended to include all 11 counties of the tri-state region. Digital Communities spoke with him about the challenges ahead for Wireless Philadelphia.

DC: What is the current status of Wireless Philadelphia?

Goldman: The initiative is running on parallel tracks. The first track is EarthLink and their installation of wireless routers in the proof-of-concept area -- that's a 15-square-mile rectangle of north Philadelphia. That's the installation and technical, mechanical track. The other track is Wireless Philadelphia as a nonprofit -- that's what I lead. We're trying to primarily develop programs in concert with the EarthLink build-out that can meet the digital inclusion mission and vision that have been set out by the mayor [John Street], Dianah Neff [former CIO] and others in the city, when Philadelphia decided to reach for this.

DC: When is the expected completion date for the first part of the project?

Goldman: Right now, we're looking at Dec. 1 for the installation to be completed. Then there will be a period of testing, primarily mechanical testing, according to the quality of the network's functioning, that needs to meet certain service-level agreements contained in the network agreement between Wireless Philadelphia and EarthLink. So December for the build-out, the switch-on, and then the testing period will take a small number of weeks after that. Once the tests are completed and accepted, then we begin the build-out of the network across the entire city.

DC: If the test area goes according to plan, when will the whole system be completed?

Goldman: The completion target date is end of October 2007. I think it's important people understand that it's not Star Trek. It's not something that fits into a 50-minute segment, and it's all done at the end. It's a complicated thing. I think that it's going to be a great way to deliver Internet service and make service accessible to every household in Philadelphia. It's going to drive prices down across the board for Internet access. It's going to make the entire city an outdoor hotspot for people who subscribe to the network. There are going to be 10 square miles scattered throughout the city where people will be able to get free access. So there are wonderful opportunities and elements associated with this, but it's also trucks, poles, lights, electrical hookups, PECO [Pennsylvania's largest utility and a division of Exelon Energy Delivery], and the streets department and permits.

DC: It's been challenging because to get the whole thing off the ground, there had to be this huge push in momentum and hype. And now the main question everybody is asking is --

Goldman: "Where is it already?" I think people need to understand, this is a big city. It's an old city; there are a lot of small streets; there are a lot of issues; there are old institutions. Just the simple relationship that needed to be negotiated with PECO. PECO delivers the electricity. PECO owned light poles, but the street lamps are owned by the city. It doesn't take a huge amount of imagination to understand that it's a complicated arrangement when you're talking about 4,500 street lamps that need to be identified, accounted for, located, permitted, etc. And that's not bad -- it's just one of those things.

DC: The agreement with EarthLink requires Wireless Philadelphia to pay a portion of the company's electricity bill, but when the agreement was approved by City Council, the rate PECO was going to charge had not been settled. What is the status of negotiations with PECO?

Goldman: We're negotiating. How do we deal with the electricity situation and the whole PECO situation? How do we make PECO a really responsible partner from a financial perspective and not a partner that can really hold down the objective of digital inclusion? How much money should we really have to pay PECO when there are people out there who don't have the access? So for every $100,000 I don't have to pay to PECO and can provide those direct services to individuals, that's only going to improve our city because of the way we're structuring this in relationship with the school district and with other programs that are pointing people toward economic self-sufficiency. This is a tool for economic self-sufficiency. So are we going to pay PECO more or are we going to try to uplift our community? And I fully intend to make that distinction quite clear to everybody -- including PECO.

DC: But the upshot is that the rate or how it's going to get paid is not resolved.

Goldman: The honest answer is that it's not resolved. It's in place and there are things happening. But I certainly don't consider the existing situation to be final and resolved, and I know the city administration doesn't either. We just really hope to be in a great partnership with PECO and Exelon, to achieve something great for Philadelphia.

DC: Will additional funds need to be raised to pay for the digital inclusion services, given that payments are still being made on the $1.4 million loan from Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. that the project used for start-up costs?

Goldman: There's a part of this that's going to look a lot like a traditional nonprofit. We're going to be doing special events. We're talking to the foundations; we're talking to wealthy individuals; we're going to have direct or e-mail campaigns to ask people to contribute. That's what MANNA does, that's what the Boys and Girls Club does, and that's what your local neighborhood association does. Some of that is going to look very similar to that.

DC: Philadelphia is not the wealthiest city in the world. Are you concerned that you will have to pull from other projects since there's a limited pool of money?

Goldman: No. I just don't look at it like that. I think this is an extremely unique project. And I think there's plenty of money in Philadelphia to fund it. I can't guarantee the dollars -- certainly not -- but I can certainly guarantee the passion that I'm going to employ to go get them. And I'm not going to let people give me that line about, "I gave at the office or whatever." Give me a break. We're not talking major dollars here. We're talking a couple million dollars a year -- in the grand scheme of things, a very small drop in the bucket. So no, I look at it really quite differently. I look at it from the perspective of, this is a cool project that people want to participate in, and want to be successful, and one of the ways people can help to make it successful is by contributing their financial support to it.

DC: What is the status of Wireless Philadelphia's digital inclusion programs?

Goldman: I think we're getting somewhere with that. There's a challenge there too because there are so many players on the field. But Philadelphia's trying to start small and very clear. That's what the POC [proof of concept] is also. Our first objective is to identify a digital inclusion project or couple of projects within the proof-of-concept area to make it clear what digital inclusion is. Digital inclusion is the effort to enable people who lack access to the Internet to get connected and receive the tools they need to use that connection to improve their lives. So the deliverable is computers, software, local technical support, relevant Internet education, and a high-speed Internet account for the household -- pretty straightforward. And we're going to deliver that through existing organizations in the community that people already know, that they are already related to, that already have related services around a technology education and other forms of economic programs oriented toward helping people become economically independent.

I'll give you a perfect example. People for People is an organization in north Philadelphia, a large, successful, multifaceted human services agency. They have everything from a charter school to employment training programs, literacy, you name it. They also are becoming an EARN [Employment Advancement and Retention Network] Center. This is a service that's related to TANF, which is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It used to be called welfare, now it's called TANF. So low-income, mostly women with children, can participate in TANF and receive financial support over a short period of time and be helped off welfare through employment training programs, including technology education. TANF qualifies people economically. Digital inclusion has an income requirement for 130 percent of poverty. The idea is, through participation in this particular program, one would automatically qualify for participation in Wireless Philadelphia's digital inclusions. When you're trying to help folks at the lowest economic strata in an urban area like this, it's very difficult. It's very difficult to live at the lowest economic strata of society, and one of those things is that to get anything you need, you have to go stand in this line and this line, and you have to prove to every single one of those people that you're poor. You have to show your crumpled pay stub or income statement; you have to show your Social Security card; you have to drive your kids around or find a babysitter, whatever. It's not streamlined.

And as I'm very fond of saying -- probably too fond because it's a stupid thing to say -- but the cool thing about the Internet is, it's cool. And so what we want to do is deliver these services to qualified people in a way that's as cool as the Internet itself. So that people want to participate in it and aren't going to say, "Uh, you know I'd love to, but I'm not going to go wait in that line or stand for two hours to show my crumpled stuff to somebody, and then have to wait in another line to pay for it." The idea is qualification and payment processes that dovetail with existing programs in the community, existing processes that people already have to participate in, A. B, a clear set of deliverables to the qualifying individual: hardware, software, tech support, Internet education and the Internet account. And C, value added to the organizations already trying to help these people become economically independent. That's not an elevator speech. I need to get it down to an elevator speech.

DC: One interesting aspect is these organizations that have been doing this work, and Wireless Philadelphia can unify them.

Goldman: Unify them, and bring added value to what they're trying to accomplish. If we can package a bundled program about what digital inclusion is and deliver those in clear, affordable packages to existing community-based organizations, people are going to be that much more likely to want to participate in those programs, and then they get this stuff at the end.

DC: And conversely as you said, if you make it more complicated than getting food, they're going to get food first and not get to the digital inclusion.

Goldman: It's not a necessity. We want people to think of it as a necessity. Maybe for you it's a necessity, for me it's a necessity, for people in the economic mainstream it's becoming a necessity. But if you've gotten by without it forever, you have to be turned on to it before it becomes a necessity for you to begin with.

DC: One concern from City Council was that the council had created new committees and put new people on existing committees, which would commit you to endless meetings. Is that happening? Or do you foresee that happening?

Goldman: It's just the reality. At this point, what good end could possibly be served by my complaining about that? It is what it is. It got unanimous council approval. If I have to staff a couple of committees for unanimous council approval, bring me some more. I'm not saying I relish it, or, "Oh boy, I have to go staff another committee," instead of raising money or doing other things. I'm going to look at that as a positive. I'm going to look to those people to help me -- help me raise money, reach out to the community, become ambassadors for this program and for this mission of digital inclusion. So a lot of committees.

But it also means that there's a lot of buy-in for the project. And I think that's where leadership comes in. I think I'm up to the task, but my intent is to lead those committees and those processes. It's all about adding value. There are a lot of processes attached to this, and a lot of elements that are not attached to the average initiative. But this is not the average initiative. It's an extraordinary initiative. And so, if I've got to staff up a couple of committees, bring 'em on. I don't know if I'll be successful, but I'm going to at least give it my best shot to try -- to try to turn those into tools for digital inclusion.