New Orleans' central business district is bounded by a gigantic SONET ring.

As William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk, once said, “The future is already here. It is just unevenly distributed.” One part of the world where the future is becoming thick on the ground is New Orleans, where the behemoth Morial Convention Center continues to push the technology envelope.

This past October, the Morial contracted with Intermedia Communications (one of the five largest Internet service providers in the nation). Intermedia celebrated the contract by installing two DS-3 links (the data equivalents of T3 lines). Plugged into the convention center's 100BaseT fast Ethernet network — which itself consists of racks and racks of Cisco routers and switches operating over 300-plus miles of fiber-optic cable — the combination of super connectivity with super network bandwidth gives the Morial “as much data transfer capability as a small ISP,” brags Cyril Duplessis, director of technology services.

Duplessis envisions adding yet a third DS-3 line that will be custom-configurable for clients who bring in their own networks. “We can configure a DS-3 line specifically to meet their requirements,” he says. “Then they can create connections to their big servers on the fly, as opposed to changing out a full network.”

Out of Star Trek

Duplessis, who came to the Morial last summer after a long career evaluating new communications technologies for the Department of Defense, is hardly satisfied with having the biggest, fastest in-house network. He's already looking at new technologies that are literally out of Star Trek. “Remember how Kirk and the crew always knew where everyone was on board the ship?” he asks. “We're investigating technologies that will do that, right now.” He envisions access cards and little swatches of conductive tape that you'll attach to your laptop, cellphone, and PDA, to be monitored by wireless scanners in the convention hall. The cards could carry information that, for example, gives attendees access to any seminar for which they've signed up. It could be great for security — and probably a bit unnerving for privacy advocates.

Duplessis has a lot of other ideas for wireless technology, although he cautions that it is “still not ready for prime time. Until we see 100MB on the show floor, we won't touch it for large events.” When will that happen? He's not saying, but it's clear he thinks the day is not far off when a wireless antenna — which is today flummoxed by 25 cellphones trying to use it at once — will be able to handle three times that capacity. Meanwhile, he is happy to use wireless in non-show-floor environments.

One area in which the Morial definitely plans to stay wired is the huge network that Computer Associates has installed over the years. Beyond the 300 miles of fiber-optic cable in the building, the whole of New Orleans' central business district is bounded by a gigantic SONET (Synchronous Optical Network) ring. “We can now operate at speeds from OC 3 to OC 48,” says Duplessis. (OC 48 is the speed/capacity standard of a coast-to-coast long-distance telephone network.)

A Place for All This

All these technologies — and more — are likely to be applied to the upcoming fourth phase of the Morial expansion. It is still too early to know exactly what the project will include, but Duplessis has high hopes. “I walked into this convention center and felt like a kid in a candy store. We're leaders in convention technology and want to stay that way,” he says. You can be sure if Cyril Duplessis has anything to say about it, that's the way it will be.

Facts and Figures

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has 1.1 million square feet of contiguous exhibition space in 12 modular exhibition halls; 140 meeting rooms; and a 4,032-seat conference auditorium.