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New Orleans to offer free Wi-Fi

The Big Easy is building its own wireless Internet network--and it plans to offer free access to all citizens.

The Big Easy plans to be the first major city to offer free wireless Internet access to its citizens in an effort to entice businesses and people to return to the city after the devastating hurricane season.

On Tuesday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced the city's plan to cover the city with Wi-Fi Internet access within a year. And unlike other citywide wireless networks that have been proposed in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, New Orleans plans to operate the network itself.

Part of the network will be secured so that it can be used exclusively by the city to provide communications for municipal agencies like police, fire, and building inspection departments. The additional bandwidth on the network will be opened to the public to provide free Internet access to all citizens.

"We haven't made a decision on whether we would bring someone else to run the network after it's built," said Chris Drake, project manager in the mayor's office of technology. "We have to operate half the network anyway, so we will have to see how it goes and assess the cost and effort that goes into it."

The city has already begun building the network, using equipment from start-up Tropos Networks, the same company that is providing equipment for Philadelphia's Wi-Fi network.

The network will initially support download speeds of 512kbps (kilobits per second) and upload speeds of 384kbps per user. But these speeds will have to be ratcheted back to 144kbps in both directions after the mayor's declared state emergency is lifted in order to comply with a state law that restricts Internet access speeds on services provided by municipalities. The city is already planning to challenge the new law, Drake said.

About 10 square miles of the city have already been covered with Wi-Fi including the central business district, the French Quarter and the warehouse district. Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, the New Orleans police department had already built a Wi-Fi network using Tropos access points to do video surveillance in some of its high-crime areas. After the hurricane, Tropos and Intel donated more equipment to help the city get back on its feet.

New Orleans plans to expand the existing Wi-Fi network to different regions of the city as it becomes repopulated with residents and businesses. The estimated cost of the project hasn't been disclosed.

Proposals for citywide Wi-Fi have been popping up all over the country in the past year, prompting stiff opposition from cable operators and phone companies that fear cities will have an unfair advantage in the fight for consumer communications spending.

But city officials in New Orleans say that cable and phone companies can't offer services that meet the city's needs. BellSouth has introduced a fixed wireless service using pre-standard WiMax technology for $69.95 per month. Mobile wireless service is available from Verizon Wireless over its new EV-DO network, which costs about $60 per month. But Drake said that these solutions are too expensive.

"We have a lot of people who need to roam throughout the city," he said. "And it's expensive to buy the necessary EV-DO cards and subscribe to the service. Wi-Fi is much more cost-effective. It's available in just about every laptop today."

Drake also said that Wi-Fi service is much more reliable and resilient than traditional emergency communications systems.

But commercial service providers say that New Orleans may soon find out that it's not easy to offer a consumer communications network.

"Typically cities have core competencies that include things like sweeping streets and keeping neighborhoods safe," said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "But building, running and maintaining a wireless network is a whole different ball game. We think that municipalities that are looking at offering wireless service to their citizens underscore the value proposition that we have in the marketplace."