Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Battle for a Free Wireless Network in New Orleans

The Chief Technology Officer of New Orleans, Greg Meffert, and Earthlink, are my newest heroes. They're taking on communications giant Bellsouth in an epic battle over controlling internet access. I happily posted in November that New Orleans was providing free wireless internet service. However, it turned out that you can only access it in a few areas, and they are quite a distance from where I live and work. Originally I understand that the network was converted from a wireless mesh network along St Charles Ave for surveillance (especially during Mardi Gras), so that the downtown area is basically all that it covers. But Mayor Nagin and Meffert had plans to expand it throughout the city. New Orleans was going to be the first city in America to offer free Wi-Fi. Cool.

But then an angry Bellsouth got involved. First they withdrew an offer to donate a building to the New Orleans police department. Then they pulled out the big guns, and lobbyists convinced the state legislature to keep with a state law that prohibits cities for offering anything more than a 128-kbps connection except in times of emergency. Basically, 128-kbps (kilobytes per second) is way too sluggish to be functional. The current free Wi-Fi service is at 512-kpbs. Moreover, lobbyists are trying to close the loophole so that even in times of emergency, the limit is 128 kpbs. Bellsouth won't comment on pending legislation. But a spokesperson for Cox Communications claims that free Wi-Fi is in violation of the Fair Competition Act. It seems clear that our government is working for businesses, not for the citizens. New Orleans wouldn't have free Wi-Fi. Not cool. Not cool at all.

New Orleans then approached Earthlink and asked if they would take over and expand the wireless network. Earthlink agreed. They said they would provide a 15 square mile zone with free wireless access at 300 kpbs. They also said they would provide a premium 1 megabit service throughout the city for about $20 per month. Earthlink is applying for a telecommunications franchise license to make this possible.

In the meantime, what can we do? First, residents of Louisiana can contact our state representatives and let them know how we feel about their actions. Second, people who live anywhere could leave a comment on Earthlink's blog about this news. Third, you can contact Greg Meffert and ask how you can help.

For more information on this topic, check out The Library Chronicles
and The Red Herring and this AP article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I discovered your blog when you wrote about EarthLink's Wi-Fi efforts in New Orleans and linked to Earthling. I've been enjoying reading it since, particularly because my undergrad degree was in comparative religion. I'll be in New Orleans May 5-8 attending BrainJams ( ). Will you be participating as well?