New Lines of Communication

A National Guardsman searches for hurricane survivors in New Orleans. Many telephone poles and cell phone towers were destroyed in the storm.
A National Guardsman searches for hurricane survivors in New Orleans. Many telephone poles and cell phone towers were destroyed in the storm. (By Tom Fox -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

As crews rush to restore basic telephone and Internet services to areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, some executives, academics and analysts are urging a more ambitious approach: Make New Orleans and the surrounding areas super-connected communities, with advanced services that surpass what is available anywhere in the country, if not the world.

With many poles and wires reduced to sticks and spaghetti, cell towers down, miles of streets still flooded, and parts of the region uninhabitable for the near future, these experts see the perfect opportunity to deploy new systems that otherwise might be too expensive or disruptive to build.

The result, they say, could be a bonanza of higher technology at lower prices for businesses and consumers, more robust emergency-responder systems and an ability to provide high-speed Internet access to poorer segments of the population often left off of the information highway.

"The area ought to be a beacon for 21st-century communications in the United States," said Rey Ramsey, chief executive of One Economy Corp., a nonprofit organization that helps bring high-speed Internet service to inner-city communities. "We ought to go state of the art, and state of the art with a purpose."

Ramsey, who also is chairman of Habitat for Humanity International, said recreating New Orleans as a technology and communications mecca could be a key to its revival, drawing back shuttered businesses that are considering relocating and attracting new ones.

In addition, he said, "there needs to be an intentional effort to make sure that these benefits extend to poor people directly."

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday announced a series of steps and proposed funding to help get the region's system running again.

And a broad hurricane-relief bill being drafted by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) would earmark money to help low- and middle-income residents and businesses buy or lease computers and get access to high-speed Internet access at affordable prices.

But for several executives and analysts in the telecommunications world, that would be just a small beginning, though they acknowledge that their ideas are best-case and might never be enacted.

Sky Dayton, who founded Internet provider EarthLink Inc. and more recently has focused on wireless ventures, said the area need not bother reconnecting all its downed lines and should instead rely on existing cellular networks and additional systems known as WiFi and WiMax, which provide high-speed Internet access.

Dayton said the cost of such a network would be relatively low -- "a rounding error in the context of rebuilding a city." A series of small, electronic devices on top of buildings or lampposts and take signals from central towers and push them around to houses, offices or other "hot spots."

Such networks can also deliver Internet-based telephone service.

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