Friday, October 15, 2004

BellSouth Spokesman Channels Bert Larh

BellSouth's regional spokesperson in Lafayette was apparently channeling actor Bert Larh in his beloved role as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz on Thursday. Huffing and puffing about how a recent FCC ruling cleared the way for BellSouth and other incumbent carriers to build their fiber networks without having to afford access to those networks to their competitors, the spokesperson tried to make it sound like Lafayette streets would — any day now — be clogged with trenchers from his company burying fiber optic lines in every neighborhood in town.

Making an exceptionally vague claim about the company's policy to roll out fiber to the curb technology throughout its system — without citing any kind of time frame for what would be a massively expensive project in BellSouth's nine-state service area — John Williams gave the Baton Rouge Advocate the impression that this FCC decision make a BellSouth fiber rollout in Lafayette is imminent.

Uh, not likely.

The second paragraph of the story is the doozy that must be parsed in order to appreciate the deception that rests at the heart of this BellSouth statement.

Here it is:
BellSouth will start working toward a fiber-to-the-curb network in all its regions, including Lafayette, BellSouth Regional Manager John C. Williams said Thursday.
The operative phrase here is "will start working toward." It is worth noting that since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, BellSouth and the other regional Bell operating companies have been working towards a long list of goals and objectives for their system. BellSouth is a big system. Nothing happens overnight.

Don't give up hope in the boys from Atlanta: Lafayette will — one day — be among those markets that BellSouth will see fit to bless with the kind of infrastructure that will be an asset to this community in an economic development sense. Of course, by that time, the comparative advantage that such an infrastructure might have brought here will have been diluted due to its prevalence elsewhere.

BellSouth recently sold off revenue producing assets and borrowed billions of dollars to help finance its share of the cost of Cingular's buyout of AT&T Wireless. SBC, BellSouth's partner in Cingular, announced a $6 billion fiber optic initiative when the appellate court first ruled in support of the RBOCs' ability to exclude competitors from new fiber networks. BellSouth has yet to announce such a plan for its system and no dollar figure has ever been mentioned. With them all worked up about LUS plans to invest a little more than $100 million in a fiber network here, it's hard to imagine where BellSouth will get the resources to undertake so massive a project across its entire service area.

Declaring intent is a long way from delivering on that intent.

The central change that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 drove through the telecom industry was to allow carriers like BellSouth and others to invest their dollars where ever they saw fit. That meant, they were unshackled from the need to offer uniform services at similar prices to all of its customers, regardless of location. This was the heart of the Universal Service doctrine. Prior to deregulation, BellSouth had to offer the same services in Mamou that it offered in New Orleans and at roughly similar rates. No more. The result? A little thing known as the Digital Divide.

That is, by allowing the RBOCs to invest their dollars where they could make the best return on their investments, telecom investment dollars naturally gravitated towards the large metro regions which, as a result, got new services first. Smaller communities got those services later — if at all. The playing field is no longer level.

The court decision to allow the RBOCs to exclude competitors from their new fiber networks did not reinstate the service equivalence requirement, so there is no reason to suspect that Lafayette has moved any further up the BellSouth hierarchy of priorities than it was prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to uphold that right to exclude.

So, BellSouth's spokesperson is attempting a slight of hand here by implying that, because BellSouth intends to one day have fiber to the curb technology be its dominant infrastructure, it will soon be burying glass strands in a neighborhood near you. At best, a BellSouth initiative in Lafayette is several layers of metro markets down from approaching top priority in its nine-state service area.

The one shot that BellSouth does have of making its spokesman's prediction of BellSouth going fiber-to-fiber with LUS would be for the company to engage in delaying and stalling tactics such as lawsuits and regulatory challenges to the LUS plan. Those tactics will come and they will work for a while, but even delays of that length will not be enough to enable BellSouth's corporate bean counters to figure a way to leap frog a Lafayette initiative ahead of those in more densly-populated (read that "lucrative") metro markets in that nine-state footprint.

Put a detailed Lafayette fiber plan on the table with a price tag, a construction schedule attached, then, commit to it, BellSouth! Otherwise, this kind of "let me at 'em" posturing rings every bit as hollow in Lafayette today as they did when the Cowardly Lion used it in Oz.

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