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Big Easy WiFi to Go Dark

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Another symbol of the civically unified, we're-all-in-this-together spirit of the post-Katrina era is set to disappear from New Orleans in the next several months. The city-owned free WiFi network covering the downtown business district, which helped keep many small businesses operational in the aftermath of the hurricane as they connected to the Internet from cafés, bars and libraries, will go dark sometime after the first of the year, once the new wireless network being installed by EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) goes live in the Crescent City.

The EarthLink system, built with equipment from Tropos Networks Inc. and slated to cover 20 square miles of central New Orleans including the central business district, the Garden District, the French Quarter, and the Algiers neighborhood, will include a free option that will provide users with a 300-Kbit/s connection. The for-fee service will cost $21.95 per month and supply a 1Mbit/s link, says Clifton Roscoe, EarthLink general manager for New Orleans.

The city network, Roscoe acknowledges, "was one of the few things that got them through Katrina. But we agreed that it's probably better from the point of view of network interference, that once we have our network up and functioning and working as advertised, they take theirs down and redeploy it someplace else."

That "someplace else" has not been specified yet, and New Orleans city officials did not reply to requests for comment on this story despite repeated requests. Former CIO Greg Meffert, who vowed to keep the free city-provided network up and running as long as possible, resigned last month. IT director Mark Kurt told the Associated Press that the city will redeploy its WiFi nodes elsewhere "as the situation warrants."

Also to-be-determined is just how long EarthLink will continue to offer a free service in the beleaguered Gulf Coast metropolis. In other cities, such as Philadelphia, EarthLink plans to offer a cheaper, $9.95 "digital inclusion" rate. In New Orleans, the company will also allow a transition period, with both networks running, before the city system goes dark.

"The free tier is set up to last indefinitely," says Roscoe. "It's our way of helping rebuild New Orleans."

The New Orleans network is part of EarthLink's three-pronged initiative to move from being a traditional ISP with around 5 million subscribers to becoming a "total communications provider," as Roscoe puts it. The three areas the company's focusing on include municipal networks (as well as government and commercial wide-area WiFi systems), a voice-over-IP service, and Helio, its joint venture with SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) to provide mobile phones and social-interaction services to the youth market. Helio is headed by EarthLink founder Sky Dayton.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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