Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Neutered Wireless Bill Clears Committee

LaFonta's wireless bill (HB 1188) made it out of the House's commerce committee yesterday but was neutered to near meaningless by amendments offered by its sponsor.

Gone are clauses that would have repealed the Local Government Fair Competition Act for wireless technologies which was the cause that was at the heart of the original bill. What has been substituted is a one-year extension of the right of disaster-stricken communities to run a wireless network for one year after a declared state of emergency is lifted--but only if it is free and unsupported by advertising. It extends the life of New Orleans' WiFi network.

Gone with the hope to free cities from state interference, one has to assume, is the millions of dollars in investment in infrastructure that had been promised by Earthlink. (That investment, which was to fund a free, ad-supported wifi indefinitely, will not be legal.) Microsoft's promised support was to have integrated wireless capacities into its mix. That portion will no longer be worth investing in either. You have to ask yourself what high-tech companies must think of a state who refuses their attempt to provide New Orleans with free recovery infrastructure and resources in order to protect the profits of incumbents--especially when those incumbents aren't offering to do anything remotely similar to help out.

There is a silver lining: The current version of the "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" allows a municipality to offer any service it wants to the public if the speed is restricted to 144 k--an effective ban since that speed is basically useless. The new law, if adopted unchanged, would raise the number to 512 k. That's the current speed cap on New Orlean's free network and the provision will presumably allow that network to continue to operate at that speed even after the ban is reinstated. That's a real value. For New Orleans. But only if the city can afford to support it without the fees or advertising that would have kept it from being a drain on the treasury. New Orleans may well decide to do so--chiefly because a skeleton of the network is already paid for and because large swaths of the city remain without phone service. (Ironically, expanding the current network to included underpopulated areas of the city as was recently planned will directly benefit BellSouth by lessening the pressure on it to provide its traditional services.)

For other communities--the new speed is not much of a concession. 512 K is simply not a fast enough speed to justify building a new network. 512 k, even reliably provided, is slow under present conditions. It would be a waste of the public's resources to build a network with no possibility of expanding to meet the needs of the public that would be solely responsible for funding it.

Even with all the reservations noted this bill, and more pointedly New Orleans, still deserves support. It's passage will allow the city to continue to serve its citizens in some fashion and in Louisiana these days we can apparently hope for little more.

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