Thursday, March 23, 2006

"New Orleans, BellSouth in Wi-Fi VoIP Tussle"

New Telephony posts an article today giving additional detail to the story on BellSouth, Wireless, & New Orleans I posted earlier today. Based on presentation N. O. CIO Mefferet made at a Voice Over Network Conference in San Jose, the piece makes clear that the city is confident that BellSouth is attempting to block its WiFi network.

The article recounts a good bit of the heroic story of getting an operations center back online after the storm and the role wireless technologies and plain old geekery played in patching together some semblance of a communications and control network. It's inspiring stuff.

But a large part of to the tale concerns the smoldering resentment of BellSouth. The telecom giant, on Meffert's account, is unrelenting in opposing anything that might someday cut into a profit it might claim. Meffert says:

Although the Wi-Fi network today is critical for the city’s functioning, and Meffert is looking for sponsors, such as Google Inc., to expand it to 100 percent of the city, he reports that BellSouth has opposed the city’s development of the network.

“They say I’m going to compete with them, that government shouldn’t compete with the private sector and that we will be using federal funds,” said Meffert. “We will not go above 512k, which is not a huge network pipe. We are not going into the cable business and the network business, not competing with any of that, and they think we are. They told me that to my face.”

There is a law in Louisiana, passed about a year ago, that bars municipalities from competing commercially with private interests for communication services...

That municipal network legislation includes an exception in emergency situations. According to Meffert, there is now an effort in the state legislature to end that exception, which would force the city to close down its network. “Our lobbyists are saying they politically will succeed,” said Meffert. “We put in legislation to open a window for 512k, and it was killed before it went to committee.” Meffert says, no matter what the state legislature does, the city leadership will not turn off the network because too many citizens depend on it.

Meffert is talking about bills that were shot down in the special session and about bills that are being proposed now for the upcoming regular session. He's also, IMHO, conceding too much upfront. New Orleans went to the legislature hat in hand, humbly asking for the crumb of being allowed to keep its emergency system going in the face of extremely slow rebuild by BellSouth and a publicly announced doubt by the company that all its old infrastructure would ever be rebuilt. BellSouth and its lapdogs in the legislature simply slammed the door in their face.

It's time for New Orleans to learn what two years of battle have taught Lafayette: there's no getting along with these guys. They don't keep their promises and they'll lie shamelessly. I have no doubt that when Meffert says that they've told him some pretty ugly stuff to his face that he's telling the truth. On the other hand there are plenty of reason to disbelieve the public pronouncements of BellSouth; BellSouth's denials fit a well-established pattern.

Meffert and the city of New Orleans would be best served by an aggressive, public attack on BellSouth and BellSouth's law that prevents them from serving their people. This sort of attack is what worked in Lafayette and led to our referendum victory. Private discussions and quiet legislative entreaties are utterly useless with these guys. The current flurry of net commentary on Meffert's VON talk make it clear how easy it would be to pursue this course and how sympathetic the public would be. New Orleans and the Acadiana delegation would make a potent and hard to ignore lobby in the legislature. Somebody pulling in the folks in Lake Charles--who've done a lot with little help or attention--would make it a solid coastal Louisiana trifecta.

New Orleans should fight for complete freedom. It shouldn't settle for a puny 512K network deliberately crippled to accommodate BellSouth. If New Orleans is to have the control of its destiny it so desperately needs, if it and not a handful of out-of-state corporations are to decide what sort of supporting infrastructure shapes its future, then it needs to have a horse in the race that has plenty of room to maneuver.

Repeal the law and watch Lafayette's municipal system take off. Cox and BellSouth would suffer some real competition--which is all they really fear. If BellSouth and Cox pussyfoot around about providing services that New Orleans thinks are vital to its community's revival Lafayette would prove a salutary lesson in what can happen if the incumbents don't pay attention to community needs.

Repeal!!

Lagniappe:
Muniwireless covers the same VON talk.
The Wireless Report also has the story.

update:
The Red Herring Story, "Wi-Fi Fight Brews in Big Easy" with the subhead:
"City CIO says he’d rather go to jail than shut down the city’s free wireless network." was the day's # 4 story at digg.com when I checked in around 6:30

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