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"Everyone thinks the free service is working, somewhere," Thornton said. "We're just not exactly sure where."
New Orleans' Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert said a thousand people use the system, which runs on donated equipment at 512 Kbps -- faster than dialup but not as speedy as broadband.
But Joe Laura, owner of local internet provider Superior Wireless, is not so sure. Laura said his thriving business is proof that not many people are using the city's free wireless. He's swamped with 95 percent corporate clients, a big increase from before Hurricane Katrina. They gladly pay for his service, he said, because the free one is inaccessible or weak.
"The city is making it sound like everyone can have free access," he said. "But with New Orleans the way it is right now, we have problems even helping an RV park with full connectivity." Laura does not think the problem is unique to New Orleans. Other cities are struggling, too. "Hooking up an entire city with free Wi-Fi access is just not logistically possible, especially with the state our city is in."