Saturday, April 26, 2008

New Orleans' Wi-Fi Gone

It'sa gone pecan....or less colloquially and jocularly: sic transit gloria.

New Orleans' Earthlink WiFi network, launched with much fanfare as the leading edge of public-private partnership in muni networking in the days after Katrina is gone--completely. As Earthlink abandons its network of city-wide wireless networks New Orleans will not be left with even the truncated, city-services-only networks of Corpus Christi or Milpitas, Calif. In those cities Earthlink was able to give the networks to the city and cut its loses. But in New Orleans neither the city nor anyone else apparently was willing to take it. Earthlink will remove its networking equipment as it folds shop in the Big Easy.

This is the last whimper of a story that started out bravely. One of the shining moments of New Orleans municipal government after the storm (and there were shining moments) was the way it hacked together a working telecommunications system in the hours after the storm passed through by quickly repurposing a network of wifi connected cameras to serve basic police, fire, and emergency communications—long before BellSouth (now AT&T) began to get itself back together.

As the city stumbled to its feet it announced that it would use that network, expanded by volunteer workers and donated equipment, to provide basic voice and data communications for its citizens who BellSouth and Cox admitted would be without phone and data service for many months. (At right a Washington Post graphic from a story showing the core of the city unserved three months after Katrina.) For several months battered New Orleans could proudly claim to own North America's only big-city wifi cloud. BellSouth and Cox ignobly objected, using as a basis Louisiana's (un)Fair Competition Act; a law that BellSouth had recently pushed through the state legislature in an attempt to first prevent and then to at least cripple Lafayette's plan to build a fiber optic network. (A plan which has since come to fruition.) The incumbents demanded that the city jump through a series of legal hoops meant to make it all but impossible to build community-owned telecommunications networks and, in any case, to delay ones progress indefinitely. New Orleans, lead by a former Cox executive, bravely refused to be cowed, cited emergency exemptions, and—backed by Governor Blanco—continued to provide the basic services private corporations were unable to quickly restore to the community.

BellSouth and Cox eventually, of course, got their way when emergency regulations expired and the Louisiana legislature refused to reform the law in light of post-Katrina realities. New Orleans turned its community-owned network over to Earthlink who had entered the municipal market aggressively. But then the public-private muni network bubble burst when the limitations of wireless networks in general and WiFi networks in particular became obvious.

The only large muni network still standing is, as far as I know, Minneapolis'. There the city owns the network and provides substantial anchor tenant fees to the locally-based operator and builder who, in exchange for a long exclusive lease shouldered the expense of construction. (Interestingly for close watchers of Lafayette's network, the city started with a substantial fiber ring and factored in an extensive expansion of that fiber network as part of the bid specs for building the wireless network. Minneapolis owns a fiber backhaul backbone for its network--which may well be part of the explanation for its generally acknowledged above-par network performance.) Retaining ownership of the network was not a path open to New Orleans as BellSouth's law forced an outright sale. For the same reason, New Orleans could not take the network back and run it or and lease it to a private provider as Minneapolis has successfully done. We'll have to see if the lack of municipal competition will result in the bevy of new services for New Orleans and Cox and AT&T have claimed would result from eliminating "unfair" municipal competition or whether, just perhaps, places like East Ascension parish and Lafayette where small local providers --public and private-- are going up against the big boys are the places where good deals and new services are rolled out first. Anyone want to bet on whose populace actually gets the better deal?

The last act for New Orleans brave WiFi experiment has now played out. In substantial part it ran aground on the implacable opposition of Cox/AT&T, the irresponsibility of the state legislature, and the poor business planning of Earthlink.
Sic transit gloria

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