Baton Rouge’s Downtown Wi-Fi Shuts down

JoVoGo, formerly Verge Wireless, is shutting down the wireless network in downtown Baton Rouge. Again. The Verge network was purchased by US Wireless two years ago collapsed in less than a year as a month-long outage destroyed whatever customer loyalty the network had and was subsequently bought out by JoVoGo a year ago. JoVoGo returned Carlo McDonald, the head of the original network, to the helm but with a pair of well-connected locals to grease the path as we reported last year. The original PR release proudly touted the ownership of the influentials:

Don Powers served as the Executive Vice President of the Chamber of Greater Baton Rouge where he was employed for 18 years. Most recently he was associated with Congressman Richard Baker of Louisiana where he served as Public Information Officer following Hurricane Katrina. He also assisted Spire Capital Group, LLC out of New York in analyzing the Louisiana capital area for potential Venture Capital investment. Prior to serving at the chamber, Mr. Powers was with HNTB Corporation, a national architectural engineering firm. Jim Brewer recently retired as Assistant Chief Administrative Officer from the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBRP) Mayor-President’s office where he served for the past 27 years. As Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Jim served as a senior advisor to the Mayor on all matters of public affairs, communications, and outreach to the general public and national community.

The current article in the Advocate says the system will be shutting down Sunday “for at least a few months.” and mentions the discouraging earlier history of failure and McDonald’s involvement. That becomes significant when McDonald talks about his (new) company acquiring a network “last year” whose equipment was “nearly obsolete.” That should have been no surprise since it seems very likely that was equipment McDonald originally installed. Shutting down the network seems nearly an afterthought as McDonald described the decision to take it down immediately as a consequence of the fact that service had become so “spotty.” Why hadn’t the network been upgraded as the PR release a year ago anticipated? But even more puzzling McDonald is now talking as if the connections that the JoVoGo venture were founded on were never pursued:

MacDonald admitted that he never specifically asked for a financial investment from the city. But he claims to have discussed the potential of a partnership several times over the years with members of Holden’s staff and other city-parish agency officials who seemed interested.

That makes it sound as if the former head of the local chamber with federal connections and a long-time administrative officer for the city-parish not only didn’t produce but didn’t even try. In the words of the ad: Wassup?!

My guess is that the Baton Rouge wifi net is dead and won’t be coming back from this second burial.

It ought to be clearly noted that this is a simple business failure: the private groups that ran this network couldn’t get it running well enough to attract retail subscribers and failed to find other institutional and public supporters to help fund it. It failed even after two business collapses surely reduced the capital cost to pennies on the dollar compared to the original investment. If it does resurrect itself again it will be on the basis of public support, not private financing.

Community support—and even community ownership—is essential to the survival of community resources like a publicly-available telecommunications network. Pretending that it can be done on a purely private basis (even by the well-healed and well-connected) has proven a questionable model, and not only in Baton Rouge. It would be far more sensible at this point for Baton Rouge to buy up the existing, installed base a fire-sale prices, use it for (entirely legitimate) public safety purposes and gradually build out a competitive wireless network to invigorate its still struggling riverfront downtown area.

Except, of course, that AT&T and Cox wouldn’t like it — and that their 2004 “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” makes it nearly impossible to do anything so sensible without engaging in a major knockdown-dragout fight with deep-pocketed and influential opponents.

So, likely, nothing will be done. And Baton Rouge and cities like her will have to do without a valuable resource.

2 thoughts on “Baton Rouge’s Downtown Wi-Fi Shuts down”

  1. Kip Holden – As a life long resident of Baton Rouge, and as an employee who works in downtown Baton Rouge, I can tell you that Public Wifi downtown is one item that will help attract more people to downtown which is what you have been preaching for the past 5 years. Please bring it back, work out a deal with Cox Communications since they now have lines run throughout downtown.