New Orleans pulls plug on municipal WiFi plans

by Pam Radtke Russell, Times-Picayune

The City of New Orleans will give up its hard-fought battle for a free city-provided wireless Internet network once EarthLink Inc. finishes building out its initial wireless system, according to the city and EarthLink Inc.

The wireless network that is run by the city for citizens will be taken down to avoid overlap between the two systems, said Mark Kurt, the city's director of information technology.

Greg Meffert, the city's former chief information technology officer, who arranged the deal with EarthLink, said he planned to maintain the city's portion of the system, and have EarthLink build around it.

The city, though, has apparently changed that strategy, and that's not a bad thing, said Mark Lewis, president of the Louisiana Technology Council.

The city, he said, isn't set up to handle communications. "They are in the business to provide government services," he said.

"Once EarthLink has deployed their network, we will remove our equipment, and redeploy elsewhere as the situation warrants. The other wireless networks that have been set up by the city for temporary facilities and public safety will continue to be operated by the city as long as they are necessary and funding is available," Kurt said.

EarthLink intends on providing wireless service to 20 square miles of the city, in the Garden District, Central Business District, French Quarter and Algiers, by the end of the year, said Clifton Roscoe, EarthLink general manager for New Orleans.

Having both the city and EarthLink systems running in the same spots might cause interference, Roscoe said.

The Atlanta-based company began constructing a wireless system in New Orleans in September by starting to install its access points. Next, individual radios will be installed around the city. Once the system is running, it will be turned on, but EarthLink won't necessarily announce that the system is up until the entire project is complete, said Deisha Galberth, a spokeswoman for EarthLink.

The free service, which is faster than dial-up access but slower than other high-speed Internet options, will be provided as long as the city rebuilds, according to EarthLink. The company has said it hopes to profit from the deal by selling higher-speed wireless service to those who want it. It also plans to continue building out the system if there is demand for it outside the original 20 square miles.

The city's small Wi-Fi network in the Central Business District and a portion of the French Quarter, which was started just after Hurricane Katrina, enabled businesses that no longer have offices to operate out of coffee shops, restaurants and bars in the days and months after the storm when there were few communications options available.

But, the city's efforts were opposed by other Internet service providers who said the city was essentially taking business away from them.

The city tried to push through state legislation that would have allowed it to continue operating its system indefinitely, but those laws weren't approved by the state Legislature.

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