Saturday, February 18, 2006

State Legislation: No Wireless Bill Passes

The call for first 2006 special session anticipated a wireless bill to facilitate the construction of an emergency wireless system that would serve all levels of government during a crisis. That session ended yesterday with no action on any bill, including the resolution that would have only requested that the problem be studied. I'd thought that one was slotted in for uncontested, feel-good passage but, like much else about this session, good-sense, much less feel-good was not on the table.

It's absolutely true that we need to improve emergency communications and that wireless should be part of that mix. Both the 9-11 commission and analyses done immediately after the storm focused on communication failures as costing lives and engendering unnecessary confusion.

While a good law, based on a good plan to solve the problem would be invaluable this session wasn't the moment for it.

Primarily, Louisiana had bigger fish to fry: keeping the water out of peoples' homes and getting them back into those homes should and did take precedence over this issue.

But the secondary problem with the session lay in the call. As I understand it the folks who pushed for wireless to be in the call that defined the limited topics the session was called to consider wanted to protect New Orleans' free, public, wifi network from the unintended consequences of the Local Government Fair Competition Act--especially that part which would have closed the system to public use. So the backers were extremely disappointed to find that the governor's call made no mention of public use, an absence that led to the bill drafted for that purpose to be ruled "beyond the call."

From that moment there was no urgent constituency for any communications bill and various alternatives died on the vine.

The proposed New Orleans-sponsored bill would have tried to exempt wireless technologies from the provisions of the "Fair" Competition act and streamlined the decision-making process by locating decision-making authority solely in parish executives. These, while understandable impulses, just aren't practical or wise.

Removing wireless from the matrix of technologies available for emergency use makes little sense. It cripples any attempt to build a truly powerful and reliable system. Wireless bounces back from storm damage wonderfully. But it is largely useless during the hurricane itself and is subject to interference both from other wireless systems and atmospheric conditions. The gold standard for reliability and capacity remains buried wireline--be it copper of fiber. Louisiana's' roads are lined with dark fiber; a very usable portion of it reserved for state or local governments in return for right-of-way concessions. Little of it is now used for any purpose. The political story is familiar. BellSouth owns the state contract to provide state agency telecommunications, a contract that it is said is BellSouth's single largest single contract. Using that dark fiber for state agency communications would cut that bill dramatically. Somehow that dark fiber never gets used. Using our fiber for emergency purposes ought to be in the mix of solutions considered. (And letting the state use its own resources to dramatically cut its costs for every-day use in this moment of fiscal desperation should be a no-brainer. I'm not taking bets that it will even be discussed.)

The attempt to locate power in parish executives was simply misguided--a detailed critique of that mistake was posted earlier but the underlying mistake lay in shifting control of an essentially local question away from local people and their well-adapted practices for getting things done and vesting it in some plan --any single plan-- designated at the state level.

The solutions to our emergency communications problems are political. Much will be made of technical interoperability and bandwidths and ways of knitting together disparate types of carriers and protocols. Some few of us may find that interesting. But fascinating technology is still just technology. The solutions will remain political.

The State of Louisiana needs to take control of its own telecommunications resources and to allow the localities to do the same.

On state level that means stiffening its spine and defying BellSouth's lobbyists and campaign machine by lopping huge unnecessary annual tribute to BellSouth out of the budget.

On the local level it's easy and cheap: Repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act and let local governments find creative and, yes, profitable means to serve their own communities telecommunications needs free of state meddling.

You can bet that the next regular session will consider emergency telecom. Interested parties in the public should plan to protect their interests now. (The corporations surely have their strategies in place now.)

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