Thursday, March 23, 2006

BellSouth & Wireless & New Orleans

One of the few bright spots in New Orleans' slo-mo recovery has been the widely praised free municipal WiFi network that has filled in the blank spots left by the slow rebuilding of the city's telecommunications infrastructure. Articles from venues such as Forbes have praised the city's verve and willingness to find creative ways to do for itself.

A lot of national attention has focused on the ability the wireless mesh network showed in bouncing back from the storm's devastation. The traditional networks showed no such resilience and are still not able to support the city's need as a quote (my emphases) from a recent ComputerWorld article shows:

...as the lone public communications system left in the city, it also carries VoIP traffic that is the lifeline for many city businesses, said the city's CIO, Greg Meffert.

The storm wiped out wireline phone service and cellular networks...

"We still have a third to a half of the city blocked out for telecom and power," Meffert said.

The mesh creates a Wi-Fi cloud over the downtown business district and the French Quarter, with the bandwidth segmented for public safety and public Wi-Fi...

He said the situation is likely to continue indefinitely because the traditional wireline phone companies say they will not rebuild in the city for a long time. "We're letting this Wi-Fi technology become indigenous infrastructure to help bring the city back," Meffert said.

He said businesses have no alternatives, so law firms are actually doing business over VoIP out of coffee shops, "as long as it's in the cloud."

Four months ago, the city population was 50,000, and now it's 250,000. "The wireless network is part of what's making them able to come back," he said.

Given the fact that the wireless network is proving a workhorse in providing service where BellSouth can not or will not rebuild its been hard for many people to understand BellSouth's well-documented and remarkably mean-spirited opposition to the city's wifi network. (This is largely a matter of experience, folks from Lafayette have become familiar with BellSouth's unwillingness to let a community do for itself what BellSouth refuses to do for them.)

It's no secret that BellSouth has been pulling jobs out of New Orleans, that it's rebuild effort has been slow to the point of obstructionism. A lot of that is explicable by assuming a cold-hearted business calculation that demands a certain size return on investment and doesn't much value loyalty. You deal with large corporations with no organic ties to the community and that's they way they think.

You'd think that same cold calculation would apply to the wireless network: what they don't intend to supply they could leave to others without injury to themselves. Why do they buy themselves such bad press and political trouble if they don't intend to do it themselves?

Because, it's now revealed, the DO intend to do it for themselves. When they get around to it. And, astonishingly, as a product that would charge businesses extra for wireless as a backup to BellSouth's slow repair of their primary, landline services. The city stepping in and quickly just making public property freely available is embarrassing. But the real issue is that BellSouth really doesn't want the community to help itself cheaply if it foresees the chance to make a buck off the failures of its aging infrastructure.

From the Reuters story, BellSouth to test Wi-Max, sells wireless as backup:
"Coming into hurricane season, BellSouth is also starting to push its existing wireless service as a backup option to help businesses maintain data links between offices if services on the wired network are disrupted.

BellSouth, operating in nine southeastern states, used wireless technology last year to help provide communications in New Orleans after hurricane floods drenched the city's wired networks.

'There's a higher level of customer interest in these solutions based on the hurricanes,' said Michael Bowling, vice president for development at BellSouth."
Astonishing. Part of this story is that BellSouth is just as willing to stand in the way of state efforts to build a wireless emergency network as it is to stand in the way of a municipalities like New Orleans or Lafayette doing so. A bill promoting a statewide wireless emergency system in the recent hurricane-themed special session of the legislature died, according to its author, because of "telecom" opposition. In Louisiana that really means one company: BellSouth.

BellSouth is not a good corporate neighbor. Their interests diverge from ours and they are not in the least afraid to promote their interests over ours. It's time we recognized the reality of the situation and started acting as if we understood it.

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