Sunday, February 17, 2008

New Orleans' Wireless Network

Earthlink recently decided to pull out of the municipal wireless market and that decision has caused consternation in cities from San Francisco, which thought it had been promised a network, to Philadelphia, where one has already been built. Not getting the same media play is New Orleans' wifi network which has been operated by Earthlink for a while.

The Times Picayune story quotes the company's director of muni wireless indicating that if a free wireless tier exists it means that not enough people will buy the service to make it viable.

But that's not what his vice-president said not long ago. The blunt explanation then was that "cheap wifi is too slow." In fact the mesh network technology that promised to make the networks cheap has the side effect of making it slow. And slow, in communications tech is undesirable.

The knock that I heard on the New Orleans network is that it was slow and spotty--at any price. Cheap WiFi was too slow.

Earthlink's decision to divest itself of its muni division means it will not be investing any more cash in remedying the defects in its design that it readily admits. Any new purchaser that comes in may get the network for cheap--but will have to retool it extensively and expensively to make it a viable solution for the people of the city. My guess is that it won't happen. Instead, the network will slowly fray, go down bit by bit, and one day, as we saw happen in Baton Rouge, the final parts of a once-proud alternative network will be unceremoniously turned off and the people of the city told that the equipment that is still functioning is not worth salvaging.

That will be a sad ending to a network that was a bright spot in the city's early recovery. Initially it was cobbled together immediately after Katrina out of a system intended to transmit video surveillance for city police by clever city techs. It was New Orleans' most useful communications network during the initial chaos and its resilience added to the aura surrounding muni WiFi. Tech-oriented volunteers quickly beefed it up into a community-wide system using donated equipment while Bell-South and Cox slowly tried to get their systems back up. An inspiring story, bu the story from there was predictable: Bell South and Cox objected to the competition as soon as they had anything back up at all. New Orleans couldn't get the support to change a Louisiana law initially aimed at Lafayette which forced it to provide speeds so slow as to be unusable. The city was forced to hand it over to Earthlink so that the network could offer something like usable speeds and now Earthlink is folding. The slow decline of a hopeful sign has been sad and depressing. I suspect the end is near. I hope I am wrong.

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