By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 3, 2005
Hours after New Orleans officials announced Tuesday that they would deploy a city-owned, wireless Internet network in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, regional phone giant BellSouth Corp. withdrew an offer to donate one of its damaged buildings that would have housed new police headquarters, city officials said yesterday.
According to the officials, the head of BellSouth's Louisiana operations, Bill Oliver, angrily rescinded the offer of the building in a conversation with New Orleans homeland security director Terry Ebbert, who oversees the roughly 1,650-member police force.
City officials said BellSouth was upset about the plan to bring high-speed Internet access for free to homes and businesses to help stimulate resettlement and relocation to the devastated city. Around the country, large telephone companies have aggressively lobbied against localities launching their own Internet networks, arguing that they amount to taxpayer-funded competition. Some states have laws prohibiting them.
BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher disputed the city's version of events.
"Our willingness to work with the mayor and the city is still on the table," Battcher said. "We've been working for over two months on this building . . . we are a little surprised by these comments."
Battcher said Oliver spoke directly with the mayor on Tuesday after the WiFi announcement and told him they needed to continue to work through issues regarding the building. He said BellSouth is awaiting the mayor's response.
The police have been scattered in hotels, precinct stations and other makeshift locations since the headquarters was ruined in the hurricane and had been preparing to move to the building after months of discussions with the phone company, city officials said.
The building suffered basement flooding and needs some repairs but has 250,000 usable square feet of space.
Greg Meffert, the city's chief technology officer and a deputy mayor, said he is saddened that BellSouth finds the city's network so objectionable.
"It's a once-in-a-century opportunity to truly show the entire world what can be, instead of just what is, and help write future history in the process," Meffert said. "It's a damn shame they don't see that."
The wireless network covers the central business district and the French Quarter, and the city plans to expand it as the people return.
The network also is used by law enforcement and other city agencies to help speed recovery. Eventually, the city intends to outsource operation of the network's business and consumer services to a private firm, officials said.