A bold proposal: Make New Orleans a 21-century hub

The Washington Post reports on an exciting proposal: Make New Orleans the hub of a super-connected region, with advanced telecom services surpassing anything else in the US or perhaps the world. "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."

The Washington Post reports on an exciting proposal: Make New Orleans the hub of a super-connected region, with advanced telecom services surpassing anything else in the US or perhaps the world.

"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."

 And Sky Dayton, founder of EarthLink, said it's not worth trying to replace all of the destroyed wire-based telcommunications infrastructure. Rather, create WiFi hotspots and WiMax towers to deliver voice and data services unlikely to be wiped out in a similar storm.

Jeffrey Citron, CEO of VoIP provider Vonage, says much could be done to lay infrastructure while the city is still largely abandoned.

"I'd come up with a plan for a trenching system" for major thoroughfares in New Orleans while the city is largely empty and undergoing repairs, he said. High-speed, fiber-optic cables are hugely expensive to lay, so the dominant phone companies have typically been the only ones to do so.

Citron said the city could dig the trenches and make them available, for suitable fees to help cover construction costs, to any carrier that wanted to lay cables to provide services -- including voice, digital television and Internet access.

With more companies potentially competing, Citron said, prices would come down.

 Satellite-based communications offer yet another non-wire option. But, the question still remains, how could wireless access work when the power goes out?

Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future in California, pointed out that many of those high-flown ideas could run up against a fundamental problem: The services rely on electricity, which often goes out during such disasters. The nation must focus on finding more flexible ways of distributing power, he said.