New Orleans Seeks Lift from Wi-Fi

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In a sense, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin will be competing against his former employer, Cox Communications Inc.

Nagin unveiled what was called the country’s first municipally owned, free wireless-Internet service in the hurricane-ravaged city. The Wi-Fi network is already up and running in the French Quarter, the central business district and the Warehouse district of the “Big Easy,” and it is expected to be available throughout the city within the next year.

Cox offers Internet access as part of bundle of services, along with video and voice, in New Orleans. Nagin is the former general manager of that Cox system, which had 270,000 video subscribers when Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29.

At a press conference, Nagin said the city hopes the wireless network will speed up the rebuilding process in the “Crescent City.” For that reason, Cox voiced support for the Wi-Fi initiative, even though it’s a potential competitor.

Cox New Orleans vice president and regional manager Greg Bicket agreed that the Wi-Fi service might help to bring residents back to the Big Easy and, thereby, help its recovery. He said Cox has expressed its commitment to rebuilding New Orleans. “To the extent that this helps people to come back faster, it’s in the city’s and Cox’s best interests,” he said.

The Wi-Fi network will be a “permanent amenity,” according to the city. As long as the city is under a state of emergency, the service will have download speeds of 512 kilobits per second. After that, per restrictions under state law, the speed will decrease to 128 kbps.

Cox New Orleans said it doesn’t view the Wi-Fi offering as a real threat to the variety of Internet-access services it offers at various price points. That ranges from $24.95 per month for a value tier with 256-kbps download speed to $54.95 for a premier tier at 5 mbps.

In addition, Cox and other companies have made progress restoring service in areas hit by Katrina, according to Bicket.

“We’re getting towards 99% completion [of service] of habitable areas,” he said. “And I know BellSouth [Corp.] is making progress. So there are providers in a lot of the locations where people are.”

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