Thursday, March 16, 2006

Laissez le mesh roulez!

Fascinating presentation from Greg Meffert, CTO of the City of New Orleans, which went through what sounds like a very interesting and fortunate accident of history just ahead of Katrina. With a daily murder rate averaging 1.7 per day prior to the storm, the city deployed surveillance cameras meshed together using Tropos kit. Mr. Meffert said he had expected the City to be heralded across the country for its WiFi-enabled efforts in crime-fighting - and then the storm struck. Luckily, via having the solution in place for public safety, there was already a fall-back option using a technology which was already familiar and well-penetrated into the residential base, which worked and was totally independent of the telcos. Mr. Meffert said that the city population has now returned to about 250k from a low-point of 50k half a year ago, though 1/2 to 1/3 of the city still has no electric power - thus there is no incentive for the incumbent to restore service in affected areas any time soon (he later said 40% of people in the city have no phone service). Citizens returning to New Orleans get free WiFi "when they get water," according to Mr. Meffert. Telcos still typically do not [publicly] ackowledge that connectivity is a utility, but the people of N.O. are getting re-educated, albeit in extremely unfortunate circumstances. Who else will take the lesson, and why did it take the worst disaster in American history to prove the point?

UPDATE: In a later session in the afternoon, Mr. Meffert was asked how he would respond to industry lobbyists who would oppose muni-WiFi in principle. "Physically," he responded. He went on to say that the State of Louisiana emergency legislation opened up a loophole which allowed the City to circumvent the 128kbps limit in offering internet connectivity under the comically named "Telecommunications Fair Competition" law (the WiFi network now offers 512kbps and up). One bill currently before the state legislature seeks to close the loophole, and if passed, the City will break the law and fight the fight. "I can't just turn it off," Mr. Meffert said.

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