No More Free MuniFi for New Orleans

The municipal WiFi network in New Orleans has been the subject of a lot of debate. Clashes with incumbent carriers, a CIO that says he’ll go to jail to save the network, and then a deal with Earthlink to build a private Municipal wireless network. And that meant one thing – the city’s access to a free WiFi service had a short time to live. Perhaps as little as a few more months.

According to an article published last week in the New Orleans’ paper the Times-Picayune, the free public network will be taken down in favor of Earthlink’s subscriber based and temporarily free network. Though this may not have been widely publicized, the plan to transition to a paid network has been in the works for a while. Back in May Earthlink had told us that the free service on its network would only be temporary and that the city’s own network would likely be dismantled. New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert said back then that he hoped the free service would be available for as long as possible.
We spoke with Clifton Roscoe, the General Manager for Earthlink’s Municipal Networks in New Orleans, this morning and he said that the public network would be dismantled as soon as Earthlink’s network was up and running – hopefully by end of this year. It will cost Earthlink between $2 million to $3 million to build a network that covers a 20-square mile area.
When asked about how long the temporary free service would be offered, Roscoe said the company would revisit the decision in the second half of next year. So, probably only a few more months of free for New Orleans residents. Earthlink likely hopes that shutting down the city’s free WiFi service won’t hurt its attempts to bring in customers, though it is hard not to imagine negative feelings amongst the users of the free network.
“Our business model is a paid service,” says Roscoe, pointing out that the partnership with Google to unwire San Francisco is an exception. Earthlink needs the subscriber numbers to make back its investment in muniFi. Earthlink’s recent earnings show that the company gained 47,000 net broadband customers, and a third quarter loss of $3.2 million. No wonder free isn’t in the works.