Private Sector Anchors New Orleans Telecom Revival

Published December 1, 2006

New Orleans officials have announced they will shut down the city’s municipal wireless network to avoid interference problems with EarthLink, which has been constructing a second, more widespread WiFi network under a city contract awarded in May.

The city system, which had been operating at 300 kb/s, slower than conventional WiFi, had been available for free.

The decision, coming in the face of more than $1 billion in private investment and new fiber and wireless build-out in New Orleans, ends more than a year of effort by the city government to take a competitive role in the rebuilding of the city’s telecom network.

Like much of the city’s infrastructure, the telecommunications network suffered massive damage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to hundreds of poles and miles of copper lines, BellSouth, the city’s local exchange carrier, lost 34 central offices, nine of which were completely destroyed.

The city courted controversy when Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced plans to use the emergency wireless system as a springboard to develop a free citywide municipal wireless service, a move that would have required a change in Louisiana law. BellSouth opposed the idea for fear it would discourage private investment.

In March, city officials, speaking to USA Today, accused BellSouth of attempting to shut down the city wireless service, a charge the company denied. Exchanges grew less heated after Nagin backed down from the municipal plan, choosing instead to award a city contract to EarthLink, which plans to spend some $15 million over the next three years on the new wireless network. The company agreed to continue free service for a limited time.

Meanwhile, BellSouth is investing $1 billion in the rebuilding effort, which includes replacing 100,000 copper pairs that connect homes and businesses to the network. The lost central office switches have been replaced with up-to-date gigabit Ethernet switches and routers, which will be able to support fiber-to-the-home platforms, according to Network World, an industry newspaper. BellSouth is also setting up a “pre-WiMax” service for area businesses.

At the same time, Verizon has replaced aerial fiber routes acquired in the MCI deal with new buried routes. It also had to replace several signal regeneration facilities.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of IT&T News.