New Orleans CIO pushes back against Wi-Fi law

After surviving Hurricane Katrina and helping to coordinate recovery efforts in New Orleans following last year's devastating floods, the city's top IT manager is now fighting to keep a free municipal wireless network functioning at high speeds.

The public Wi-Fi service, set up with US$1.2 million worth of equipment donated by Intel Corp. and Tropos Networks Inc., has been "a lifeline" for New Orleans, said Greg Meffert, the city's CIO and chief technology officer. He added that the network is being used by residents, businesses, public safety officials and building inspectors, who have vastly increased the number of inspections they're doing.

The Wi-Fi network currently runs at speeds of up to 512Kbit/sec. and can be accessed in a 1-square-mile section of central New Orleans. The city plans to expand its coverage area via a deal that's being finalized with EarthLink Inc., Meffert said.

But vendors that offer broadband Internet services oppose keeping the free network's performance levels above 128Kbit/sec. once the state of emergency in the city is lifted. Telecommunications lobbyists point to a 2-year-old state law that sets standards for broadband competition, including the 128Kbit/sec. speed limit on municipal networks.

Meffert said slowing down the city's network would make it "useless" for the building inspectors and for many average users. The push to reduce the Wi-Fi speeds "is like kicking a guy when he's down," he said. "I'm not going to do it."

Bills filed in the Louisiana legislature to let New Orleans retain its current performance levels have failed thus far, but others are pending, Meffert said. He wants to take the matter before a judge, but city attorneys have advised him that any legal action must be brought by citizens claiming that they would be adversely affected by a slowdown. "I guess you could call it a potential fight, but I don't know where this ends," he said.