Thursday, April 06, 2006

New Orleans to Defy BellSouth's Law

New Orleans is preparing to defy BellSouth's law. Wired News reports that:

A showdown may be looming over a free wireless internet network that New Orleans set up to boost recovery after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city.

Calling the network vital to the city's economic comeback, New Orleans technology chief Greg Meffert is vowing to keep the system running as is, even if it means breaking a state law that permits its full operation only during emergencies.

Wired, not completely accurately, reports that:
The system, established with $1 million in donated equipment, made its debut last fall in the wake of the hurricane disaster. It's the first free wireless internet network owned and run by a major city.
While offering the network to its citizens without charge is an historic first the network was already up and running but was only used for public safety functions. All the city did was beef it with donated equipment and make what the people already owned available to them after the storm.

Wired characterizes the Battle of New Orleans thusly:

... a state law, passed two years ago in response to other attempts to establish government-owned internet systems, dictates the network can run at 512 kbps only as long as the city remains under a state of emergency — a declaration still in place more than seven months after the storm.

Once the state of emergency is lifted — and no one has said when that might take place — state law says the bandwidth must be slowed to 128 kbps.

Meffert says the reduction will make the service virtually useless for businesses and others trying to re-establish commerce in the city.


Hundreds of similar projects in other cities have met with stiff opposition from phone and cable TV companies, which have poured money into legislative bills aimed at blocking competition from government agencies.

The story goes on to report on the current status of the Louisiana law at the bottom of New Orlean's wifi status:
Bills to allow New Orleans to keep the network operating full-time at 512 kbps failed during a recent special legislative session. Several similar bills are pending in the current regular session, but Meffert says city lobbyists give them little hope of passage because of opposition from the telecommunications lobby.

"We've been told in no uncertain terms those bills are going to get shot down," Meffert said.

Meffert gives up to easily. While there is a bill, offered by a New Orleans legislator, [SB 211] to simply exempt wireless from the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act that does resemble the failed special session bill in intent the other bills are radically different. They do more than enable New Orleans to provide wireless networks: the best of them free all Louisiana communities to pursue whatever alternative makes the best sense locally. Full Repeal [House Bill 245] is the most obvious solution to a law which has, frankly, proven dangerous to public safety as well an infringement of the rights of local communities to tend to their own needs. Meffert and New Orleans needs allies; New Orleans is entirely too used to going it alone and it shows in Meffert's response to adversity. The law that was proposed during the special session was deeply flawed and alienated potential allies. Its failure should not be read as prefiguring telecom success in the current session--especially if New Orleans abandons its current narrow strategy and allies with communities across the state to completely repeal the law that stands in their way.

Terry Huval's guest editorial in the Advertiser yesterday points the way toward that coalition. The New Orleans and Acadiana are two of the most influential caucuses in the legislature. If the municipalities in those areas swing their delegations solidly behind repeal of a law which only serves to protect companies like BellSouth and Cox from competition they richly deserve repeal is a real possibility--and the only alternative that could garner the widespread support necessary to free New Orleans.

The people of this state need to band together and retake their rights to help themselves. New Orleans and Lafayette getting together on repeal is the necessary first step.

Small print for out-of-state readers not familiar with our situation here in Louisiana:

The story quotes BellSouth's Merlin Villar desperately claiming that BS is not opposing BellSouth's network and that BellSouth's law does not "...prevent New Orleans or any other local government from providing Wi-Fi service." These are simply lies. They are intended for the national readership of such articles. Nobody in Louisiana pays the least attention to such obviously false claims. BellSouth threatened New Orleans in the same way it threatened Lafayette, with economic retribution for launching a competing service. BellSouth has its lobbyists out in force in the legislature right now. Again that's something anyone from Louisiana can simply observe. Villar's claim that the law does not prevent "Wi-Fi service" is nauseatingly misleading. Using BellSouth's logic its law doesn't prevent local governments from offering "fiber-optic service." It only prevents cities from offering more than a useless 128K of connection speed over any telecom system wired, wireless or semiphore. So, sure we could spend millions on any network if we wanted--we just couldn't offer the public anything of value. That's too deceptive to be called anything but a lie. If you're not from Louisiana you need to be aware that when your time comes that these guys will say anything.

I can't help but feel for Villar; it must be embarrassing and humiliating to be told to say this stuff. Bill Oliver, the Louisiana BellSouth president, should do his own dirty work. Or better yet, start being a bit less disingenuous.

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