“Earthlink to build wireless Internet system in New Orleans”

The AP reports Earthlink won a franchise from the New Orlean’s City Council yesterday. The franchise covers the entire city. The highlight reel:

Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. has won approval for a wireless Internet network in New Orleans that will be built around a free city-owned system that made its debut last fall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina….

Initially, EarthLink’s system will cover about 15 square miles of the 181-square mile city, including the downtown business district and the French Quarter…

The company also said it would allow competing Wi-Fi providers to use its network for a price…

The city is not taking down its system. In addition to continuing its current operation, it will provide a dedicated network for first responders to disasters…

EarthLink said its free service would operate at up to 300 kbps and its high-speed service would be 3 1/2 times faster. Tolpegin said the free system would operate “as long as the city is rebuilding and it makes sense to offer the service.”

Good for New Orleans. I was really worried that the legislature’s shenanigans would completely torpedo the project. What seems to be happening here is that the city’s current infrastructure and free service will remain in place indefinitely. The description of where the new Earthlink network will debut is in the same area that the city’s network already operates. That only makes sense if the play is to fill in the gaps in current coverage with Earthlinks new service before moving on. That, in its turn, is probably left-over from what seems to have been the earlier plan to build an integrated network. What New Orleans has sacrificed to Baton Rouge’s subservience to the incumbents is ownership of the network that serves it citizens. This is no longer a partnership–it is a straight franchise deal. Earthlink is doing a good and risky thing here and I’ve no desire to denigrate them in any way but the truth is that in the long run the new network will now have no more allegience to the citizens of New Orleans than does Cox’s or BellSouth’s. The citizens will have no real handle over how it is run or who it benefits. Profit and control will flow out of the city and into the hands of absentee owners. It could have been different.

For the more technically minded Sabludowsky over at Bayou Buzz also covers the deal and has a bit more detail on the network hardware–Tropos nodes and software with a Motorola “Canopy” backhaul system. Unless I’m mistaken this is pretty much the setup that the current New Orleans-owned network uses, so they ought to “mesh” well.

Sadly, no one seems to have the details on the deal itself. (Does the T-P really not cover city council meetings? I find that hard to believe. But I’m not able to find the report.) Is the deal exclusive? How long does it run? In other places that Earthlink is building systems there are citizens panels and discounted service for low-income neighborhoods. Will New Orleans get any of that? Will schools be served? Will first responders be able to pull needed bandwidth in times of emergencies? Is there a public service/police element to the contract?– That could save New Orleans a bundle.

Regardless of questions: Good for New Orleans and good for Earthlink. They’re both sacrificing the easy path–and what would have been the less risky path–to serve the people of New Orleans. It’s sad that the incumbents, and a subservient legislature, forced them to take additional risks and sacrifice any element of community control.