New Orleans May Lose Wireless Network

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In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans built a free wireless Internet network, covering downtown and the French Quarter. It's the only network of its kind that's owned and operated by a major U.S. city. But once Louisiana's governor lifts the state of emergency in the region, the network will become illegal.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans built a free wireless Internet network for the central business district and the French Quarter. It's the only such network owned and operated by a big U.S. city. But once Louisiana's governor lifts the state of emergency, the network will become illegal. Still, a city official vows to keep the system running.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports from New Orleans.

JEFF BRADY: Once Katrina's winds died down, New Orleans' chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, surveyed the damage to the city's IT infrastructure. Access to private high-speed Internet networks through cable and telephone companies was pretty limited. But he found that a network of the city's anti-crime cameras, mounted on streetlights, was still pretty much intact.

GREG MEFFERT: We said well, you know what? This is something that we could actually turn into a WiFi network, both for the public safety people and for citizens. And then it just took off from there.

BRADY: Meffert says thousands of people have logged onto the network. He says one person came up and actually hugged him for bringing free Internet access to downtown.

At a trendy coffee shop in the French Quarter, nearly every table has an open laptop computer on it. Kelly Matthews(ph) is looking at available apartments. She is using the coffee shop's wireless at the moment, but agrees to sign off and connect to the city's instead.

KELLY MATTHEWS: And it's connected at two bars out of five.

BRADY: Matthews tries to reload the apartment site again.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, it's a little bit slow.

BRADY: After 34 seconds...

MATTHEWS: It's finally downloaded the entire page.

BRADY: Matthews lives about five blocks away. She's never been able to pick up the city's network there. She likes the idea of a free city wireless network, but says it just doesn't work well enough to rely on it. Greg Mefford would like to expand the network to serve more people, but he's running up against state law. He says the city has to go through a long public process that could include a referendum vote before competing with private companies. The only exception is a state of emergency. Governor Kathleen Blanco doesn't plan to lift that declaration soon but eventually, when she does, the network will be illegal. Sharon Kleinpeter with the local cable company, Cox Communications, says the law was passed two years ago after long negotiations. She says the New Orleans delegation even voted for it, which she says is why lawmakers have rejected New Orleans' call now to change the law.

SHARON KLEINPETER: Why would we need to do this? Everybody agreed two years ago that it was a perfect instrument, and held hands together and supported it. So, my sense is that they would love for us to find out what the problems are, work them out and let's just go on about our way with the protections that are in place.

BRADY: The city, and specifically Greg Mefford, say this isn't the end of the fight.

MEFFERT: I can't sit there and say well, I'm sorry, I just don't want to break this law, so ya'll, you know, you guys are going to have to go figure something else out. I just, I just can't go there. So, so we're just, regardless of when the emergency is lifted, we're going to keep this network running.

BRADY: Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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