Big Easy Wi-Fi

Why, oh why is New Orleans launching a free citywide wireless network? At a time when the hurricane-ravaged city is still largely unlivable, with tap water still undrinkable in some areas, with the local power company saying electricity and natural gas won't flow in some neighborhoods until February, with many homes and businesses still waiting for phone and cable- TV service to work again - with all that still to handle, why did New Orleans last week start a city-owned, open-to-the-public Wi-Fi system that's nominally aimed at attracting tourists, conventions and new businesses?

Because it could. And because that's what technology is for.

There's nothing special about the technical details of the project. Like other municipal wireless systems, the one in New Orleans uses a mesh network of antennas mounted on existing utility poles. The signals piggyback on a fiber backbone designed to connect security video cameras installed before hurricane Katrina hit. The Wi-Fi service started last week in the central business district and will expand into tourist haunts such as the French Quarter in the weeks to come.

In short, if you squinted hard and ignored the mess surrounding it, the New Orleans citywide wireless system wouldn't look much different from the one launched one day earlier in Tempe, Ariz. (except that Tempe's is a paid-subscription service and New Orleans's can't run at full Wi-Fi speeds, thanks to a state law hobbling government-owned wireless systems).

But not everyone is happy about the New Orleans launch. After all, New Orleans isn't Tempe. Tempe wasn't emptied three months ago by a hurricane. With so much work yet to do on core services, more than a few people are asking why New Orleans is installing a frill like free Wi-Fi before there's a functioning city underneath it.

Short answer: Because it can. Literally. New Orleans can't restore water or gas or electricity or phone or cable service any faster than it already is. Entergy and BellSouth and Cox Cable and the city's water department are patching things up as quickly as possible, but that requires repairing the existing physical infrastructure. Water and gas pipes have to be purged of flood water. Power, phone and cable wires have to be repaired or restrung and tested. That's a slow, painstaking process.

But sticking Wi-Fi antennas on light poles? That New Orleans can do - and fast, too.

More than that, Wi-Fi is something New Orleans can use right now. No, not for the tourists (who aren't there anyway). But for police, fire and emergency personnel. And building inspectors. And contractors filing permits. And the same power, phone and cable workers who are busy restoring the city's more traditional infrastructure.

This isn't a gimmick to lure tourists, conventioneers and businesses back to the Big Easy, though that's the way the politicians trumpeted it. One more time: There aren't any tourists or conventioneers. There aren't enough customers to support new businesses. If tourists, conventioneers and new business were its purpose, throwing up a quick Wi-Fi system in New Orleans is something that would make sense to do later, not sooner.

No, that "rebuilding New Orleans with a wireless future" jazz just makes a better sound bite than saying, "We installed Wi-Fi now because we can do it quickly and the improved communication will speed up the process of putting the city back together."

That's what technology is for. It's what technology is good at, when we use it well: solving problems faster, and in ways that wouldn't be possible otherwise. It's not a frill. Sometimes it's the best solution we have.

Why Wi-Fi in New Orleans? It's a fair question. And in New Orleans, this time at least, technology is a pretty good answer.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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