There is a chance Hurricane Katrina will provide an opportunity to reframe one of America’s most important long-range public policy issues. The opening came on Nov. 29, 2005, when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that, as part of its economic recovery strategy, the city would create a wireless network offering free broadband Internet access to residents and businesses.
After two months of public rhetoric about “thinking outside the box” and using Katrina as an opportunity to build a better New Orleans, here at last was a genuinely innovative and practical proposal. You’d think the mayor would be showered with praise, and he was in some quarters. But the friendly folks at BellSouth, who, in the old New Orleans, had offered limited broadband access for $60 per month, were less than pleased. According to The Washington Post, within hours of Nagin’s announcement BellSouth had withdrawn its offer to donate one of its unused buildings to serve as a headquarters for the New Orleans police department, which is still operating from improvised offices scattered around the city.
For anyone who has followed the long-brewing storm over the future of broadband Internet access in America, BellSouth’s reaction came as no surprise. In several municipalities around the country, governments have sought to implement broadband as a public utility only to be met by howls of protest and legal obstruction from the big phone companies and cable providers. The telecom giants view public ownership as unnatural interference with the free market. Never mind that the Internet was created with federal tax dollars. Governments have no place on it now that it’s a cash cow. “There ought to be a law,” the telecom executives said. And, in 14 states, their lobbyists have managed to ban municipally owned broadband systems.