NO free muni-WiFi shuts down

New Orleans cannot catch a break. First, it was hit by Hurricane Katrina. Then, FEMA's hapless director Michael ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job") Brown, having failed to do anything to prepare for the storm, was put in charge of reconstruction (mercifully, he was shown the door after two weeks--or the city would still be under water). There was a glimmer of hope, as Intel, Tropos Networks and Pronto Networks donated equipment to the city to build a free city-wide WiFi network, but you guessed right: The system is now going off line, to be replaced by an EarthLink system. EarthLink's network will initially cover the French Quarter, Garden District, Algiers and the Central Business District, and will expand later as demand dictates.

Flood or no flood, the incumbents' mercy was limited. They insisted that the speed of city's free WiFi would be capped at 512 Kbps--but only as long as the official state of emergency remained. When the government lifted the state of emergency, the network speed would be rolled back to 128 Kbps, more or less the speed of a crippled snail. What with this reduced speed and the possibility of interference with EarthLink's network, New Orleans' IT director Mark Kurt decided to shut the system down. "Once EarthLink has deployed their network, we will remove our equipment, and redeploy elsewhere as the situation warrants," he said. "The other wireless networks that have been set up by the city for temporary facilities and public safety will continue to be operated by the city as long as they are necessary and funding is available."

EarthLink said it would provide service at 128 Kpbs for free as long as the city was rebuilding, and that it will charge for higher-speed service. Locals say that since the definition of "rebuilding the city" is not precise, they fear EarthLink will shut down its free service sooner rather than later.

For more on the shutting down of New Orleans muni-WiFi:
- see Eric Bangeman's Ars Technica report