Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More on New Orleans' WiFi

Today we see a bit more information emerging on New Orleans surprise WiFi network. Both the Advertiser and the Advocate carry the same AP story by Sayre, a regional business writer. Not much new emerges in that story but the city's motivation, and the likelihood of opposition from Cox and BellSouth is clear:

Greg Meffert, the city's technology director, conceded that private providers might have problems with the system.

"In the end, my job is to work for the city and what the city needs," he said. "I'll stand behind that."

For those among us who crave a bit more detail I've been able to find a couple of articles with a little more than was in the original Washington Post. One is from CNet a techy forum, and the other is from NOLA.COM, the online face of the Times-Picayune. First, they are a lot clearer than earlier stories about what New Orleans will be first in: the first large city to offer city-wide, free wifi. It's clear as well that the network is actually being opened up rather than built from scratch. A Tropos-based network that provided police surveillance and was used for city functions has been repaired and it is this network that provides the infrastructure for the service launched Tuesday. From NOLA:
The city service is running on the back of a fiber optic-based communications system that was created before the storm to operate city security video cameras on the tops of streetlights.
You'll note, I hope, that even for this limited functionality (the system is severely throttled, be closed down to a small fraction of potential bandwidth) a fiber-optic backbone is considered essential. Funding the bandwidth for even them most sparse large-scale mesh network is inevitably bandwidth intensive.

If you're in New Orleans hears how you'll log on:

Network users must use computers that are equipped to receive WiFi signals. The network appears on the computer under the name CityofNewOrleans.

First-time users must register with the city and select a user name and password through a Web site that appears when a network connection is made.

With bandwidth throttled to 512 megs my guess is that the system will be most comfortably used for email. To get web access that doesn't drive you crazy you'll probably still need to drive around to find good signal. My guess is that New Orleanians will learn to recognize the boxes and that people will learn to park under those streetlights. (Warning: those are the same poles that are most likely to have surveillance cameras, so you probably shouldn't do anything your momma would disapprove of while sitting there.)

Every story, and I do mean every one, notes the likely opposition from the incumbent providers. NOLA reports that:
Managers from both companies learned about the WiFi network only in recent days from media reports preceding Nagin's press conference, spokesmen for the companies said.
The few comments the press has been able to pry out of Cox have been ambiguous at best and BellSouth has refused to comment in any way.

What is clear is that New Orleans is chaffing under the load of pricy wireless carriage from the incumbents and resentful of state roadblocks to serving the public with publicly-owned networks.

"We haven't made a decision on whether we would bring someone else to run the network after it's built," said Chris Drake, project manager in the mayor's office of technology. "We have to operate half the network anyway, so we will have to see how it goes and assess the cost and effort that goes into it."

While I had hoped that New Orleans would be freed to install municipal utilities as a consequence of the storm it was only a hope. It's great to see it happening. It'd be even better, at least in my opinion if they'd firmly adopt the Lafayette model of a publicly-owned municipality that returns value to the city instead of draining it to Atlanta. With Nagin the former head of Cox New Orleans I thought that unlikely. Now its just a small step away from reality.

CNet says:
The city is already planning to challenge the new law, Drake [project manager] said.
That's what needs to happen. Not only for New Orleans and Lafayette. But for Lake Charles, Alexandria....and all of Louisiana's hard-pressed municipalities. Louisiana will be struggling to make ends meet for years. What we can do for ourselves we should do. And politicians at the state (and federal for that matter) should leave us alone and let us do so.

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