New Orleans Looks at Wi-Fi to Help Connect Residents

City officials said Friday they are seeking bids from companies that can bring wireless Internet access at no cost to taxpayers, welcoming proposals over the next 30 days before choosing a firm to provide soon after.

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(TNS) — City Hall is seeking a firm that can bring free public Wi-Fi and "smart city" technologies to New Orleans as officials seek to bridge gaps in internet access for some residents.

City officials said Friday they are seeking bids from companies that can bring wireless internet access at no cost to taxpayers. The city will welcome proposals over the next 30 days and choose a firm to provide the service soon after that.

The end goal is to help close digital deficits in neighborhoods that have little or no access to the Internet and to use smart city technologies to improve city services for residents, officials said.

Smart city technologies include automated street lights, synchronized traffic signals for better traffic flow, advanced water meters and gunshot detection sensors, among others.

"We believe that Internet connectivity is an essential part to living and to opportunities in our city, and we are dedicated to finding solutions to make that happen," said city Utilities Office Director Jonathan Rhodes.

The new technologies will "improve transportation, improve quality of life and support our public safety agencies and the delivery of those services," added city Chief Information Officer Kim LaGrue.

The move comes as the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need for residents to be able to quickly and reliably access the internet from their homes and businesses after public agencies and businesses closed to visitors and employees for much of the past year.

New Orleans school officials, for example, quickly learned that as many as one in four children do not have internet access or a reliable computer in their homes. That meant public school leaders had to figure out how to put a laptop and a hotspot in the hands of students to allow them to work remotely while schools were closed to in-person learning.

The city further estimates that between 30% and 50% of its residents don't have internet access at home, Rhodes said. To test how to resolve that problem, the city launched a pilot Wi-Fi program last year to provide internet service at public recreation facilities.

Now, the city is seeking a firm that can provide low-cost or no-cost internet access to city residents on a broader scale.

When completed, public Wi-Fi could be accessed outdoors, or at specific locations such as public parks and community centers. But the main goal is to ensure people can access it from home, Rhodes said.

"We want to make sure people are connected at their kitchen table, where they do their homework and their work," he said.

According to a request for proposals posted to the city's website, the city is seeking a fiber network that will connect 430 public and Sewerage and Water Board sites. It is seeking a network that will deliver internet to homes at speeds of 1 gigabit per second or higher, and to businesses at 10 gigabits per second or higher.

Wi-Fi access would be offered at community centers, within targeted community zones and at public parks, the RFP says.

New Orleans' move to become "smarter," meanwhile, is part of a trend among select cities across the globe to use real-time data and technology to drive their decisions. In Oslo, Norway, light, heat and cooling sensors are helping to cut carbon emissions; in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a monitoring system for bus drivers has greatly reduced the number of accidents involving public buses, according to that city's Road and Transit Authority.

LaGrue said New Orleans is open to all sorts of smart technologies but is focusing on those that improve transportation, public safety response, and energy services. The RFP says the city wants to focus on floodwater detection, smart wayfinding and kiosks, smart lighting and smart traffic management.

Overall, firms should expect to spend between $20 million and $50 million to provide the services, LaGrue said.

Rhodes said companies can use a mix of federal and private funding in their proposals, but the project shouldn't come at a cost to taxpayers.

"We wish we could have had this out yesterday, especially given that we've been through a year of the pandemic, and there are too many people that haven't had the connectivity that they have needed," he said.

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