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New Orleans to deploy free wireless Net system

Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans will deploy the nation's first municipally owned wireless Internet system that will be free for all users, part of an effort to jump-start recovery by making living and doing business in the city as attractive as possible.

The system, which Mayor C. Ray Nagin is scheduled to disclose at a news conference today, also will be used by law enforcement and for an array of city government functions, such as speeding approval of building permits.

Much of the equipment to run the network was donated by firms, but New Orleans will own it and operate all its components at the outset. The system, which uses devices mounted on streetlights to beam out fast Internet connections for wireless-enabled computers, is scheduled to be operational today in the central business district and the French Quarter and to be expanded over time.

''Now, with a single step, city departments, businesses and private citizens can access a tool that will help speed the rebuilding of New Orleans as a better, safer and stronger city," Nagin said.

But the move probably will stir an already roiling national debate over whether it makes sense for localities to launch their own systems.

Cities around the country are studying or have deployed ''wireless fidelity," or WiFi, networks, because they often provide more affordable Internet access than private carriers and can help bridge the digital divide in low-income areas or because high-speed Internet access is not provided by either telephone or cable companies.

Telephone and cable companies oppose the moves as unfair taxpayer-funded competition and have successfully lobbied several states to prohibit or restrict the networks.

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