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Intelligent Infrastructure
The Big Easy's Wireless Boost
Dan Frommer, 12.01.05, 6:00 AM ET

New Orleans officials hope a new municipally owned wireless network will
help lure businesses and residents back to the hurricane-ravaged city.

While parts of the Big Easy remain without services as basic as water or
power, officials have unveiled the first phase of what could become a
citywide Wi-Fi network.

Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast in late August, causing massive
destruction to both property and infrastructure--knocking out millions of
phone, cable and other communications lines and facilities--many of which
still have not been brought back online.

Now, as one of the rare rebuilds of an entire metropolitan area from the
ground up, New Orleans is becoming a prime testing ground for new ideas and
new technologies.

One of the earliest and broadest such efforts involves Wi-Fi technology that
will combine a citywide video surveillance network and a public Internet

With this service, anyone using Wi-Fi devices, ranging from computers to
palmtop organizers, can now access the Internet for free in New Orleans'
French Quarter and central business district. Though some regulatory and
strategic uncertainty lies ahead, officials say they hope to expand the
network to saturate the city limits within a year, focusing especially on
low-income areas that were particularly hard-hit when the levees burst and
where phone service has still not resumed.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, criticized by some for his government's
sluggish response following Katrina, says he sees the network as integral to
the city's repopulation.

"With a single step, city departments, businesses and private citizens can
access a tool that will help speed the rebuilding of New Orleans as a
better, safer and stronger city," Nagin said.

Greg Meffert, the city¹s chief information officer and executive assistant
to the mayor, has compared New Orleans' technological rebuilding with a
colossal corporate startup.

"There's a bit of a 'Sim City' element to this place now," Meffert said,
referring to the popular 1990s city planning computer game. "New Orleans is
becoming the ultimate testing ground to prove that these 'out-there'
concepts can work."

Meffert's entrepreneurial background in the private sector includes founding
and managing several tech firms.

The New Orleans network uses an infrastructure known as a wireless "mesh."
More than 100 access points currently make up the system, developed by
Silicon Valley-based Tropos Networks. The shoe box-sized devices, mostly
mounted on street lamps, seamlessly push data through the air using 2.4
gigahertz radio waves. The mesh structure links wirelessly to its fiber
optic backbone using Motorola's (nyse: MOT - news - people ) Canopy
technology instead of wires.

Tropos donated 50 wireless units to deploy the network after the hurricane,
and Intel (nasdaq: INTC - news - people ) bought another 50 units for
donation. Tropos says between 20 and 25 units are required to serve each
square mile of coverage. Pronto Networks, whose portal software helps
control access to the network, also donated services.

New Orleans joins Philadelphia and other large American cities that have
either launched or are planning wide-scale municipal wireless networks. What
makes New Orleans' network distinct, however, is its unique metamorphosis.

Before Katrina, New Orleans had installed Tropos wireless access points in
several neighborhoods to support video surveillance cameras for local law
enforcement, hoping to lower the city¹s violent-crime rate.

Following the hurricane, the city¹s depleted infrastructure furthered its
widely documented communication breakdown. But once the surveillance
network's wireless units were reestablished, city workers could use the
Internet when even cell phone service was unavailable.

"The wireless network allowed us to be much more automated after Katrina,"
Meffert said, noting that his staff has shrank by more than 1,000 people
since the hurricane. "With the network in place, our staff electronically
filed 110,000 inspection reports of flood-damaged homes in four weeks."

Meffert says an important caveat to the network is its dual-use
functionality for both government and public Internet access. City workers
have access to a separate, secure network--using the same infrastructure--to
expedite field work, from police reports to damage assessments.

New Orleans' launch stirs the debate surrounding city governments that
compete with commercial service providers by offering free or inexpensive
Internet access. These providers, primarily telecommunications and cable
companies, have successfully lobbied many states to limit the maximum speed
available on municipal networks.

Louisiana is one of those states, so municipal networks may not offer
transfer rates faster than 144 kilobits per second (kbps)--roughly three
times the speed of dial-up access. But because New Orleans is in a state of
emergency, Meffert explains, it can temporarily disregard that ordinance.

Today, the network runs at 512 kbps, enough to support Internet usage beyond
e-mail and Web surfing, including voice communication services, which
Meffert says could be invaluable if disaster strikes New Orleans again.

Meffert says the city hopes to overturn the legislation and maintain the
network's faster speed for the long run, despite the looming threat of legal
action against the city.

"After a hurricane, a tornado, a flood and being homeless for three months,
getting a subpoena doesn¹t scare me a lot," Meffert said. "It¹s my job to
rebuild this city and we need this network--any wrinkled feathers that come
out of this can¹t be my concern."

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