Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Special Session: Wireless?

"The Call" for the upcoming special session to deal with hurricane related questions came out yesterday evening. Such calls are what make as special session "special"--they are specially called to deal only with the issues raised in the official proclamation. So the very first fight of any special session, and possibly the most important fight, occurs before the legislature ever convenes: the fight to get on the agenda. So its worth noticing that the very last item in the Governor's call for a special session is one on wireless broadband that is presented in a very different typeface than the rest of the document. A late addition? The item:
Item No. 41: To legislate relative to construction of wireless internet networks for the establishment of basic and reliable communications among state and local law enforcement and emergency agencies.
That sounds sensible enough, especially in light of the fact that post-mortems on both the 9-11 and Katrina/Rita disasters have listed communications failures as the top problem encountered in reacting to the events.

The trouble with that sensible, comfortable explanation is that there is no immediately visible reason to legislate "relative to" construction of "basic and reliable communications among state and local law enforcement and emergency agencies" since there is no legal impediment to doing so right now and it is impossible to imagine that the state intends to open up new funding resources at the state level to help localities build such considering the current state of the budget.

As always, state politics are murky, but the most likely explanation is the New Orleans proposal Mike wrote about a little earlier. The impetus behind that suggestion was not to "construct" a wireless network for public safety use -- that was already in place and they were free to add as much more as they could afford for that purpose. Since New Orleans wireless net was easy to repair and get running after the storm it's sensible to think that New Orleans would want to upgrade it and extend it for public safety reasons alone. The wireless network only became controversial when the city allowed its citizens to use it for as long as the emergency lasted. Both Cox and BellSouth disliked the idea; BellSouth did so publicly, loudly, and with a threat to take back the "gift" of a building to the New Orleans Police department. The firestorm of national criticism that ensued resulted in some subsequent mealy-mouthed statements from BellSouth's Louisiana President Bill Oliver but as far as I know that building still hangs in the balance.

What New Orleans really wants is to be allowed to let its citizens use the wireless network even after the emergency period ends. Prior to the 2004 "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" the city would have been free to use its resources to serve its citizens in any way that they wanted to be served. That act is all that stands in the way. So what New Orleans seeks is an exception from the act for its wireless system--and, in all fairness, to allow other communities to do the same.

It's a whacky half-measure of the sort for which Louisiana has become famous. In what other state are chickens not animals for the purposes of the animal welfare laws but are animals for the purposes of butchering them for sale? We'd add to that inglorious list of nonsense that wireless is not broadband when deployed by the government but is for all other purposes. What should be sought, instead, is the repeal of an unwise law that has not only served to frustrate the will of the people of Lafayette but also to endanger all the people of South Louisiana. It has been more than amply demonstrated that Louisiana's local governments cannot count on the Feds and state will be dicey for decades to come. The state legislature needs to stand aside, quit favoring Atlanta-based corporations in telecomm issues and allow our people to take care of themselves at the local level. The only viable message to the state now is: Get Out Of Our Way. Let us take care of our own.

All of South Louisiana should join together for repeal of BellSouth's law.

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