Thursday, April 13, 2006

NPR : "New Orleans May Lose Wireless Network"

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" ran a piece today (realaudio link) on how New Orlean's might be forced to give up its free WiFi system--and on the city's dramatic promise to defy state law if necessary.

The story sets the conflict up pretty simply as a matter of a state law that prevents New Orleans from continuing after the state of emergency ends and talks to Meffert, CIO of New Orleans, and to Sharon Kleinpeter of Cox. (Local color is provided by an interview in a "trendy coffehouse in the French Quarter.")

It is an accurate story and fun to listen to but like so much in the national media about local issues it misses some pretty crucial points.

They miss, for instance, that the law in question was not aimed at New Orleans, but at Lafayette. When Sharon Kleinpeter defends the law as something New Orlean's legislators voted for the interviewer is no doubt unaware that no one ever anticipated that the consequence of trying to reign in Lafayette and to block the future her plan represented would leave New Orleans in the lurch after Katrina. Her representatives certainly never voted for that. Of course the truth is that New Orleans' didn't particularly care to back up the small city across the basin and the compromises that Lafayette felt forced into have rebounded on the city. New Orleans apparently has yet to join Lafayette in asking for repeal--a repeal which would return to them the right to do whatever they want with their own property (without having to defy state law).

More seriously, it misses what's been widely reported and never publicly resolved: that the real target of the city's ire is BellSouth (soon to be AT&T). BellSouth has threatened to take back the donation of a building to the New Orleans' police over this issue and by all accounts is the force blocking the repeal of the wireless portion of the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act in the Louisiana Legislature. Cox is earnestly against its repeal too...but the real story is BellSouth/AT&T vs. New Orleans; not the city vs. the state.

NPR has had folks in the region reporting on Lafayette's referendum, so there should have been a little institutional memory available.

But NPR would have no way to know that Sharon Kleinpeter's snippy remarks that the "everybody agreed two years ago that it was a perfect instrument" and that legislators were now hesitant to change it because everyone agreeed back then that it was a good law is purest balderdash. Legislators are hesitant to challenge the most powerful lobbying force in the state, BellSouth, and they are hesitant to challenge the industry that now controls a majority of the television sets in major markets, the cable guys. What makes Ms Kleinpeter's remarks laughably misleading is that it was Cox, not the municipalities, that came back the very next year with the now infamous Broome Bill that changed the referendum portion of the law and tried to get the state to fine Lafayette 900,000 dollars if its citizens went ahead and voted to provide cable with a little competition. Nobody thinks it a good law, but Cox was the first to demonstrate its disappointment by trying to change a law it had just approved, not New Orleans.

Granted, in the flush of making an agreement that looked livable some florid language was used and people are no doubt now deeply embarassed by remarks that blessed it as "model law." (For the record, LPF stalwarts consistently objected to the compromise and Mike Stagg was the lone voice to object in the hearings.)

But it's hard to complain too loudly about NPR's lack of memory about the issue and it less than full analysis of the question when our own lacks in these departments are so evident. After all NPR's got three minutes and 8 seconds for the story but we have to live with the consequences of our memory lapses. Truth is New Orleans didn't exert itself for Lafayette during the initial legislative battle and Lafayette didn't particularly try to protect other cities when it reached its forced compromise. Lafayette spiked the parts of the Broome amenments that were most damaging to it and let more onerous referendum requirements fall on cities with few resources to fight huge corporations. This time through New Orleans is repeating history by just trying to get its wireless exemption passed. And Lafyette, while showing the good sense to at least offer a full repeal, appears to be ready to settle for much less. Everybody is ignoring the franchise bills that hang out there threatening a huge expropriation of local rights of way to lock local communities out of any control of their own property in order to back an AT&T/BellSouth plan that limits its souped-up DSL plans to no more than half of Lousisiana's people.

No, we've got nothing much to criticize NPR about. Lafayette and New Orleans need to ally on repeal before the post-hurricane opportunity passes. The Louisiana Municipal Association needs to recognize what Michigan's Municipal Leaguee understands: that the ability of towns and small cities to determine their own future is seriously threatened by state and federal franchise laws. It's pretty clear that pursuing every locality's immediate interests has led everyone to a dead end. If Louisiana learned anything in the last two years it is that relying on outside interests like BellSouth is an invitation to betrayal. Nobody alone has the support they need to pass laws that protect the interests of their individual community. We need a firm alliance on all municipal telecom issues. We need to rely on ourselves. Ben Franklin got it right:

We should all hang together, or surely we will all hang seperately.


Update 4/14/06: Boing Boing, supposedly the world's most popular blog, links to the NPR story on New Orlean's WiFi. I'm sure it will do traffic at NPR a world of good. It'd be nice if it did New Orleans' some good as well.

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