Doing business in the Big Easy just got easier. In an effort to make living and working in post-Katrina New Orleans as appealing as possible, the city is experimenting with an Internet network that is free for all users. The system-which uses wireless Internet routers mounted on streetlights to beam signals throughout the city-marks the first time that municipally-owned and -operated Wi-Fi has been offered to the public without restriction or cost.

“Now, with a single step, city departments, businesses and private citizens can access a tool that will help speed the rebuilding of New Orleans as a better, safer and stronger city,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said in a public statement when the first part of the network went live in November. “This is how technology fuels collaboration.”
Only the central business district and the French Quarter are now within the network, but the service will eventually be expanded to cover the entire city. City officials are already using the system for a variety of recovery-related functions, such as speeding the approval of building permits by allowing contractors to quickly process paperwork without traveling back and forth to city offices.

New Orleans is not the first city with a municipal Wi-Fi network. But in cities such as Philadelphia and Tempe, Arizona, users must pay a small fee for access. That has fueled a debate over the fairness of allowing city-owned systems to compete with telephone and cable companies and private Internet carriers. Because the city networks are often more affordable and can reach areas that fall outside commercial coverage, companies have successfully lobbied several states to prohibit or restrict municipally-owned systems. Although Louisiana has passed a law limiting municipal Wi-Fi networks to speeds that are only one tenth to one twentieth of those typically provided by private carriers, New Orleans´s current state of emergency allows the city to skirt the law. Once the state of emergency is lifted, New Orleans will have to obey statewide restrictions, but city officials aren´t worrying about those for now.

“My number-one job is to restimulate the economy,” said Greg Meffert, a deputy mayor and the city´s chief technology officer, when the system debuted. “This network is going to be the backbone of a brand-new, never-fully-tried set of technology visions.”