December 01, 2005

So New Orleans is getting free citywide WiFi. And surprise surprise, people who are frightened of technology and have NO FUCKING IDEA that it's 2005 are bitching up a storm. Hi, would you guys stop saying smug idiotic things like "so THIS is where my Red Cross donation is going?" The Red Cross and FEMA are in the business of emergency management and disaster response. They don't run cities. They have nothing whatsoever to do with WiFi (see below), and no your money is not going toward that. Whatever you think of those organizations, I bet you'll agree that they both have their hands pretty full right now.

Second, why is it always one or the other with these critics -- why can't an annual budget include a gradual year-long WiFi rollout AND the normal city services? And third, no it's not just a luxury for the wealthy idle class. If you can scrape together a couple hundred bucks, you can buy a crappy Dell laptop and use it to scour Monster and send out resumes. Or you can go to the library and use their computers.

It's absolutely necessary for a modern-age metropolis, especially one as troubled as New Orleans, to provide internet access to its citizens and businesses -- it's THE way we communicate now, and it's not like all those unemployed people whose homes got thrashed can afford to buy into one of the telcos' expensive broadband plans.

Sure New Orleans is still largely without power, and electricity beats internet. But the idea is that BOTH those things will be up and running in the coming year.

Update: I missed Chris Drake's statement that FEMA will be shouldering some of the costs of running the network. But again, I see this as a "helping the city get back on its feet" measure, not a permanent one. The comment below reinforces why wireless communication is necessary (and not just for "blogging" and "web surfing," as a few ignorant knee-jerks put it).

Interesting comments. As the person responsible for building the network, it is fun to see all the comments from the proverbial peanut gallery. I totally understand some of the thoughts from the outside world. Let me give some thoughts... Understand that the Mayor and all of the City are fighting this battle on many fronts. Today alone the Mayor went from meetings with Feds, to the tourism center announcement, to our WiFi announcement, to a tour of the recovered areas, to a Christmas Tree lighting, to a Town Hall meeting. Yes, New Orleans East, the 9th Ward and Lakeview have a long road in front of them and a lot of uncertainty. But the areas of the City where commerce (and some damn fine restaurants) have returned desperately need communications as a key element of the continued recovery. The CBD, French Quarter, Warehouse District, Uptown, Algiers, etc. were all largely unscathed and are in full-blown operation, have full power, gas, water, sewer, trash and other services. But businesses need communications and data to run. This gives them that. 512Kbps is not perfect, but it is great for people who have nothing. There are thousands of laptops in the City and people who need the connection. And all of this overlooks the MAIN purpose for the network we are building. That is to serve the needs of the City itself. We have Police, Fire, EMS, Safety and Permits and other City officials doing way more than their normal work load. Allowing them to access video in the field, file reports remotely, dispatch, etc. via this network is a tremendous force multiplier that we desperately need. Intel, Tropos and Pronto have donated hardware and engineers/expertise. Motorola has donated time from their engineers. And our guys have ramped up our skills and now deploy up to 15 nodes a day, all while still meeting our normal (if you can call building a 150 person Emergency Operations Center with computers, Internet and Voice over WiFi in 4 days normal) IT obligations. FEMA will pay for much of the network going forward (capital costs) as part of the permitting and inspecitons process and it will actually lower the cost of that project for all of us because we need fewer inspectors that way.

This is an exciting time and an exciting model for Muni WiFi. We do hope to have the law modified or overturned and be able to offer better service as the network builds out. But it is working great and we have over 200 registered users by the end of the first day today.

Thanks for reading, and everyone come to New Orleans for some good food and a good time. And enjoy the free WiFi. We tested Skype calls today, and it rocks. :-) See you all at Mardi Gras 2006.

Chris Drake
Mayor's Office of Technology
City of New Orleans


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