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New Orleans may face Internet showdown

A showdown may be looming over a free wireless Internet network that New Orleans set up to boost recovery after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A showdown may be looming over a free wireless Internet network that New Orleans set up to boost recovery after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city.

Calling the network vital to the city's economic comeback, New Orleans technology chief Greg Meffert is vowing to keep the system running as is, even if it means breaking a state law that permits its full operation only during emergencies.

He says he's ready to go to court, if necessary.

"If you can get to the Net, you can do business," Meffert said.

The system, established with $1 million in donated equipment, made its debut last fall in the wake of the hurricane disaster. It's the first free wireless Internet network owned and run by a major city.

The system uses hardware mounted on street lights. Its "mesh" technology passes the wireless signal from pole to pole rather than through Wi-Fi transmitters plugged directly into a physical network cable. That way, laptop users can connect even in areas where the wireline phone network has not been restored.

Touted at first as much for its symbolism of New Orleans' recovery as for its utility, the system's usefulness now far exceeds early projections, Meffert said. He estimates that the network gets thousands of users a day.

Hundreds of similar projects in other cities have met with stiff opposition from phone and cable TV companies, which have poured money into legislative bills aimed at blocking competition from government agencies.

In New Orleans, the network operates at 512 kilobits per second, much faster than dial-up connections but slower than high-speed services offered by private companies.

But a state law, passed two years ago in response to other attempts to establish government-owned Internet systems, dictates the network can run at 512 kbps only as long as the city remains under a state of emergency — a declaration still in place more than seven months after the storm.

Once the state of emergency is lifted — and no one has said when that might take place  state law says the bandwidth must be slowed to 128 kbps.

Meffert says the reduction will make the service virtually useless for businesses and others trying to re-establish commerce in the city.

Bills to allow New Orleans to keep the network operating full-time at 512 kbps failed during a recent special legislative session. Several similar bills are pending in the current regular session, but Meffert says city lobbyists give them little hope of passage because of opposition from the telecommunications lobby.

"We've been told in no uncertain terms those bills are going to get shot down," Meffert said.

David Grabert, a spokesman for Cox Communications Inc., a major telecommunications provider in New Orleans, said the company backs the state's Fair Competition Act, which would end the city's legal authority to continue operating the system at full speed after the state of emergency ends.

"We believe the Fair Competition Act was established to provide safeguards for private industry," Grabert said. "Efforts to repeal it do raise concerns."

BellSouth Corp. says it does not comment on pending legislation, but its regional director for southern Louisiana, Merlin Villar, denies the company's trying to shut down the city's system.

"The law does not prevent New Orleans or any other local government from providing Wi-Fi service," Villar said in a statement.

Meffert said many devastated areas of the city likely will not have private Internet service for years. He said the city is prepared for a showdown — new law or not. The system will stay up, regardless, though Meffert said he expects court challenges.

"In the end, it takes a federal judge to issue a restraining order," he said. "Until that point, if that point ever comes, we'll keep running it. It's a lifeline to these people."