Thursday, February 09, 2006

New Orleans' Wireless Bill

The New Orleans-sponsored wireless bill that Mike covered recently made it to the Senate Wednesday.

It exempts New Orleans' current wireless system from the Municipal (un)Fair Competition Act that you've seen objected to here. It would allow New Orleans to continue to offer its current wireless system to the public even after the state of emergency that currently exempts it from the law is ended. It seems obvious that the city of New Orleans could allow its citizens to use their own property (its existing wireless emergency and security network). And that's the way it was before the passage of M(u)FCA. Such decisions shouldn't involve the state, much less the pack of corporate lobbyists working for BellSouth and Cox.

But the best way out of that situation is not to try and cobble together a law to exempt one set of technologies from another, bad law.

The best solution is repeal.

The real problem with M(u)FCA is that it writes the interests of the current, corporate telecom providers into state law and makes the state their agent for enforcing those corporate interests. This allows BellSouth to wheel the whole apparatus of the state from the legislative auditor, to the Public Service Commission, to the courts into play to delay, make more expensive, or block municipalities from offering services that neither BellSouth nor Cox intend, by their own admission, to offer. More laws simply exacerbate the problem. It gives the incumbent providers more tools with which to frustrate local communities.

The proposed law will surely serve the incumbents in the same way. Already the process of bending the law to incumbent purposes has begun.

One noticeable change from earlier drafts is that, regardless of the bill's title, "The Municipal Wireless Internet Act," the latest version doesn't apply to municipalities at all. Instead, sole decision-making power is vested in the parish executive. That means that in Lake Charles the elected mayor will have to go hat in hand to a fellow appointed by the Calcasieu Police Jury to serve as "Parish Administrator" who will be vested, by state law, with the sole power to make the decision for Lake Charles about how Lake Charles (and Sulphur and Iowa) uses its rights of way and resources. How palatable will that be for Lake Charles' popular mayor? It leaves a relatively minor appointed official in a position to dictate to Lake Charles whether it will have a public wireless network and just exactly how it will be built and run. (If he doesn't get his way, he can simply rescind his solitary decision to allow it at all.) Madness, pure and simple. And it reeks of the sort of "compromise" that Lafayette has had such trouble with. Since Orleans Parish is the City of New Orleans, this doesn't have much effect there. But for a bill which represents itself as being all about preparations for the next hurricane to have so misunderstand the situation of the "other" Louisiana city devastated by Katrina leaves one with real questions about how seriously this bill is intended to serve the whole state.

Additionally, I have serious questions about another paragraph in this bill that wasn't in a draft version I saw and commented on earlier. That paragraph reads:
The Parish may provide wireless Internet services for free to subscribers at a minimum rate of 1024 KB per second or may charge for the whole or a component of the services. During an emergency declared by the governor or the parish president or the duly elected administrative head of the parish, the parish president or parish administrative head may increase the wireless Internet speed.
That reads very ambiguously to me. Can the "administrative head of the parish" decide to "increase" speed to 2048 KB only during an emergency (even if he declares it)? Is 1024 the most or the least that parishes will be allowed to offer under normal circumstances? Normally I'd read minimum to mean "the least," but the context seems to mean that it is a normal limit...and I can think of no reason to declare a lower limit on this service. Why?

My confusion and concern are reinforced by an interview with the person who drafted his bill, Steve Sabludowsky, held with the CTO of New Orleans, Greg Meffert, covering the issue of this wireless law for New Orleans. Here's Sabludowsky asking the question and Meffert answering:

Why is 1028 Kilobits important as a minimum speed?

It is the minimum usable speed for use for very basic web applications and communications. It is also not a threat to true broadband, and other valued-added providers.

That really makes me uncomfortable. Meffert is clearly interpreting the "1028" (surely a misprint of 1024) as the least that is both usable and not a threat to the incumbent providers. He understands it as the most that will normally be available. And Sabludowsky does NOT correct him.

I've written Sabludowsky for clarification and have yet to receive a reply. He's been a reliable correspondent and I expect to hear from him. When I do I will post here.

But if my concerns are correct, this would be "a really bad thing." They and everyone else in the state would get crippled municipal wireless that was deliberately made marginally useful in order to avoid threatening the current corporate interests. They could invest real money in themselves to serve serious emergency needs that the current providers are not in the least interested in serving themselves. That would be okay with BellSouth and its agents in state government. But the citizens would be limited by state law to using 1/50 or less of the rated capacity of the system for their own, free, nongovernmental use. Why?

What really confuses me is the political naivete of this proposal. A bill like this needs allies in other communities. The need for emergency communications is absolutely real and your natural allies are all the cities and communities below 1-10. How does this bill serve those potential allies? Not all that well, frankly. It flagrantly ignores the situation of the "other" major Louisiana city extensively damaged this last hurricane season by excluding the city from deciding its fate altogether and handing over control to an appointee of a police jury. If you think this makes any sense, you don't understand Louisana politics. If you think Lake Charles doesn't already resent its interests being ignored while it methodically goes about taking care of itself while the state and New Orleans thrash, you don't understand human nature. The governance provisions of this law are a huge mistake...and that mistake seems unlikely to be accidental to me. I, for one, pointed out that an earlier, milder version of this mistake would be politically divisive. Lake Charles is merely the most glaring example. Hammond, Morgan City, Abbeville, Erath, Delcambre, Cameron and every other town below I-10 has to be asking itself why the police jury should dictate when the city is the natural entity to actually deploy the system. Many, many more systems would be deployed if every city were free to go its own way. And maybe that is why they aren't being allowed to do so.

Lafayette, the hub city of the Acadian region least damaged by this year's storms, has chosen after a pitched battle with the incumbent corporations to build its own fiber optic network to secure its telecom future and in the course of the battle has developed a huge resentment for the M(u)FCA. Local representatives have been beating the drums of repeal for months. Watching New Orleans try to carve out an exemption for its choice instead of allying with an ongoing repeal effort that would leave it with unlimited capacity to serve its beleagured citizenry has got to raise questions.

I wish New Orleans would have taken a different path.

The right way is repeal of a bad law. Not the imposition of another layer of bad legislation.

This is not the way forward for South Louisiana.

Update: In correspondence with Steve Sabludowsky he's confirmed that the 1024 KB is an upper limit--that speeds above that would indeed require an emergency.

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