New Orleans Seeks Lift From Wi-Fi Network

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

Last week 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 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 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 IS COMMITTED

Cox New Orleans vice president and regional manager Greg Bicket agreed that the Wi-Fi service might help 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 come back faster, it’s in the city’s and Cox’s best interests,” Bicket 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 a month for a value tier with 256-Kbps download speed, to $54.95 for a premier tier at 5 Megabits per second.

“It is a competitor, but I think it’s an option that’s strictly of convenience,” Bicket said. “Where it works and when it works it’s handy, but it’s not a replacement for true high-speed Internet for business or residences. The person who opens his laptop in a coffee shop goes home and hooks up to high-speed Internet. They’re kind of co-existing technologies.”

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 is making progress. So there are providers in a lot of the locations where people are.”

Nagin is a big technology booster. “This project improves our ability to operate efficiently,” the mayor said in a prepared statement. “Now, with a single step, city departments, businesses and private citizens can access a tool that will help speed the rebuilding of New Orleans into a better, safer and stronger city.”

Still, Bicket maintained Wi-Fi doesn’t stack up to Cox’s Internet service. “He [Nagin] understands technology, but I just don’t think there’s a substitute for a reliable high-speed connection,” Bicket said.

Intel Corp., Tropos Networks and Pronto Networks donated much of the equipment for the Wi-Fi network, which the Mayor’s Office of Technology is installing.

Two different networks will run on the same infrastructure, with the first a secure network that is only available to official city departments, such as the police. The second is an open-access network that provides citizens and businesses with a free Internet connection.

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