Saturday, March 03, 2007

New Orleans - City OWNED wireless

Wireless, powerless

Craig Morris 07.12.2005

A city-owned WiFi is to get the economy of post-K New Orleans moving

A good three months after being flooded, New Orleans may be dry, but around half of it is a wasteland. If a second hurricane had hit the town in 2005, New Orleans might have been lost for good. It was a close call: in December, a few days after the end of the official hurricane season, [extern] hurricane Epsilon spun a path out into the Atlantic - the 14th hurricane in a record year, and the first hurricane in December from the Caribbean since 1954. Now, the city has to rebuild quickly in preparation for next year's hurricane season.

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Before becoming mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin was general manager at the New Orleans branch of Cox Communications, a provider of cable TV and Internet access. No wonder Nagin was already talking about setting up a WiFi for New Orleans as an "option" during the election campaign of 2002. In pre-K New Orleans, public officials were already using Voice over IP, and the police department had begun using the WiFi to keep an eye on certain parts of town with high crime rates via Web cams.

When Katrina struck, the WiFi was the communication platform that survived the best. Only a few transmitters - devices the size of a shoe box installed on street lamps - were damaged, usually when the pole fell down. In contrast, ripped telephone lines lay on the streets and sidewalks even when the poles were still standing. Wireless is not only more mobile than landline, but also harder to take out of operation.

A picture of a bedroom in a house just a few blocks from where the 17th St. levee broke. As you can see from the watermarks, the water was 5 ft. high inside. The owners of this house will tear it down and move away from New Orleans. Photo: a friend of the author's

"Taxpayer-funded competition"

Nagin sees this WiFi as an opportunity to put New Orleans back into the national spotlight as the first city in the US to provide its citizens with free Internet access at speeds up to 512 kbps. He can only do so because a state of emergency has been declared in the Crescent City.

Commercial Internet providers are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of having to compete with competition from the public sector. In many states, the law even prohibits the public sector from offering wireless access to everyone for free upwards of a specific speed. Companies argue that they would otherwise basically be having to compete with offers subsidized by a tax dollars. In Louisiana, the limit for free wireless Internet access and therefore been set at 144 kbps.

But in these desperate times, Nagin does not care. New Orleans desperately needs something to get the economy going again. His proposal to turn the Big Easy into a second Las Vegas, with casinos as far as the eye can see, did not exactly meet with the approval of New Orleanians. New Orleans has a strong identity, and it has little to do with gambling - at least, that's the way a lot of locals see it. Many New Orleanians do not see why the city should be built up at all if it's going to lose what sets it off from the rest of Americana.

So for the time being, Nagin can do what he wants with his WiFi. His office also announced that it would be very willing to uphold the law and limit access for private users to 144 or even 128 kbps (which would still be at least twice as fast as dial-in connections) as soon as things have returned to normal Will the law still be the same in Louisiana by that time?

The concern that Internet providers have is easy to understand as long as we forget how often tax dollars finance the development of new technologies, which are later turned over to private companies so they can make profits. The Internet is one of the best examples: it was first developed by the US military for communication during a nuclear war and later became popular as the World Wide Web among businesspeople and citizens.

The term [extern] digital divide has been coined to describe the lack of access that the poor have to the Internet, which largely remains the playground of wealthy Americans, especially when it comes to fast Internet connections. On the other hand, restricting free wireless connections to 128 kbps seems to be a fair compromise. After all, as is well known, the killer applications for fast Internet are pornographic videos and peer-to-peer networks. 128 kbps more than suffices for other applications, such as e-mail and "normal surfing." So the cheapest solution for all citizens would be a wireless city network with speeds twice as fast as dial-in connections.

How slow can you go?

Nonetheless, at least one employee of BellSouth was upset when he heard about the city's plan to set up free wireless access for everyone at the end of November. BellSouth had previously announced that it would be donating one of its buildings damaged by Katrina to the city, but the BellSouth official stated that it was retracting this offer to protest the citywide WiFi.

Chris Drake, the city's WiFi project manager, told the author in a telephone interview that the mayor's office was sticking to its plan to set up a citywide WiFi. Drake also claimed that BellSouth had, in the meantime, indicated that it still wanted to get rid of the building. He is speculating that it makes more financial sense for the provider to donate the building to the public sector and write it off than to renovate it. After all, BellSouth does not want to move back into it.

So while the city believes it can't lose, BellSouth's reasoning speaks volumes: Will it be reducing its staff in New Orleans for good?

In September, the city posted basically no tax revenue at all. The figures for October will probably not have been much better, which is why the city began firing all of its staff that was not mission-critical. In November, the city slowly began to come back to life; in the meantime, you can hear live music just about every night, though the selection of acts is not yet what it used to be. And many businesses have either not yet reopened, such as the giant [extern] Whole Foods market, or have closed for good. Even major corporations like Shell, which gave its name to the city's [extern] largest skyscraper, have announced that they will only be returning all of their staff when the city is working properly again. For example, almost all of the schools in the city are still closed. A Catch-22: New Orleans has to rebuild to get businesses to come back, but it needs the businesses first in order to rebuild.

One of the first concerts after Katrina took place on September 30: [extern] Walter Wolfman Washington played at the Maple Leaf, but the bar still had to get its power from a diesel generator because the grid was still not working. At the end of November, around 40% of New Orleans still did not have power, and a lot of houses still did not have power even in the parts of town where the grid was working. The problem is that the local power company, Entergy, insisted that an electrician check the power lines and fuse boxes in houses that were submerged before power is restored. But because Entergy filed for bankruptcy shortly after Katrina, it no longer had the staff to perform all of these tasks quickly. Only in the past few weeks has the number of electricians been increased thanks to a loan from the parent company.

The WiFi will certainly help get the economy going again, but the most serious questions have not even been asked yet: What are we going to do with the 40% of the town that is not even livable yet? What parts of town will be abandoned forever, and when? And who is going to make these decisions? It certainly will not be a mayor who wants to be reelected.

From the wealthy neighborhood at the Lakefront to be poorer districts in the 9th Ward: everyone took a big hit. The city of New Orleans originally planned to use BellSouth's building for its police officers, most of whom are still living on a ship on the Mississippi because they lost their house. But the ship has no space for their family members, some of whom have been evacuated to the far reaches of the country. Now, the Christmas season has started, and the people who worked around the clock for weeks to save the city are still living like sailors on the high seas three months after Katrina.

Even those who are keeping close track of events in New Orleans are apparently shocked when they visit town for the first time. The National Resources Defense Council is even warning people not to visit New Orleans yet because the city is contaminated. I will be going back soon for a few weeks to report directly from New Orleans.

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posted by u2r2h at Saturday, March 03, 2007


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