Thursday, March 23, 2006

Wi-Fi Fight Brews in Big Easy

Red Herring tells us City CIO says he'd rather go to jail than shut down the city's free wireless network.

Another hurricane season starts in June, but this year it's a political storm that is threatening to shut down New Orleans' jury-rigged Wi-Fi service.

After Katrina ravaged the Big Easy six months ago, Greg Meffert, the city's chief information officer, got downtown businesses back online by opening the city's wireless mesh network—originally deployed to link surveillance cameras—to anyone who needed it. For free.

"Now it is the lifeblood for so many businesses," Mr. Meffert told Red Herring. With Internet service still down in more than half the city, he estimates more than 15,000 people use the city's 512 kbps (kilobits per second) network.

The city now has a daytime population of about a quarter-million, but about a third of the city is still without even basic phone service. The population is expected to swell this summer as more storm refugees return when the school year ends.

With the help of corporate sponsors, New Orleans had hoped to expand the wireless network at a cost of $12 million to $18 million.

"We are talking to Yahoos and Googles to step up and access the rest of the city," he said, noting that Google seemed particularly interested until recently. "A few weeks ago they were kind of vacillating. I am not sure why."

Now telecommunication lobbyists are trying to shut down the network, and Mr. Meffert says it looks like the state legislature will agree. State law prohibits cities from providing more than a relatively sluggish 128-kbps network, but New Orleans offered its faster network as an emergency relief effort.


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