Can Philly Repurpose Old, Unused Wireless Equipment?

After finding a warehouse full of unused and mostly obsolete Wi-Fi equipment, the city is trying to salvage any value from the original $2 million purchase.

by Claudia Vargas, Philadelphia Daily News / November 17, 2015

(TNS) -- Dozens of shrink-wrapped boxes containing unused wireless network equipment have been stacked away for years inside a city warehouse, the City Controller's Office has found.

The equipment was part of a $2 million purchase the city made in 2010, with federal grant money, to launch a public-safety Wi-Fi system. The plan was eventually put on hold and the equipment has been rendered obsolete, city officials said.

Following the discovery of the unused equipment, City Controller Alan Butkovitz is asking that the Nutter administration conduct an assessment of the wireless equipment to determine its value and compatibility with current technology. He suggested in a letter to Mayor Nutter that the city use the equipment as a bargaining chip in the Comcast franchise agreement deal. Perhaps, he suggested, the equipment can be used to provide wireless access to more Philadelphians.

"Now is the ideal opportunity to communicate with Comcast about the wireless assets and if the equipment can be utilized to meet the objectives of the latest agreement," Butkovitz said.

The boxes, which contain parts to the defunct EarthLink citywide wireless network, were found by the Controller's Office during a routine review of equipment and inventory, the office said yesterday. The value of the equipment is unclear.

In the late 2000s, EarthLink invested $57 million in infrastructure and routers to build a citywide wireless network. That plan eventually failed and the city bought EarthLink's partially built network and support equipment, including the unopened boxes in the warehouse, for $2 million, city spokesman Mark McDonald said after the controller's finding. He added that the purchase was made with federal Homeland Security funds.

"The plan at the time was to create a Wi-Fi system for public-safety uses, by police and firefighters," he said. "It would have been a communications system backing up the radio and enabling officers in the field to communicate."

The city's plan was put on hold when, in 2011, Congress passed a bill to create a nationwide law-enforcement Wi-Fi system. That federal initiative has hardly moved forward.

"As a result, the system and the equipment purchased by the city was rendered redundant," McDonald said. "Indeed, the system is essentially obsolete and outdated. ... The bottom line is that the city has no interest in building out the old EarthLink system, using the old equipment."

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