"Hillbilly Wireless Guys"


In These Times reports:

During a September 27 House hearing, discredited ex-FEMA chief and one-time horse-whisperer Michael Brown was asked about the profound failures of communication among those supposedly in charge of responding to Katrina. Many first responders were cut off from communication for days, and local elected officials were reduced to using TV and radio network appearances to communicate with the federal government. What he was supposed to do, he retorted, "Drop a whole phone and radio system into New Orleans, lock, stock and barrel?"

Well, that's just what Paul Smith and about a dozen fellow wireless technicians did. With just a modest amount of equipment, their all-volunteer team managed to get wireless internet and phone service into a dozen shelters in northern Louisiana in less than a week.

An interesting interview ensues with Smith, who works for the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology. This being In These Times, no one challenges him when he complains that "we have a market system in which we build for today, not for the eventualities of the future." (He goes on to complain about the central-planning decisions of those exemplary free-market institutions, Congress and the FCC.) But it's a very useful ground-eye view of how the federal bureaucracy's communication system broke down, and how a network of volunteers was able to do better.