Wednesday, November 17, 2004

History in the Making

Like John St. Julien, I spent about six hours in the Council Meeting room at Lafayette City Hall last night watching, listening and participating in (for under three minutes) the discussion over whether the Consolidated Government Council would vote to move ahead on the fiber to the premises project that Lafayette Utilities System (LUS) has been evaluating.

It was a long, but worthwhile night. I was happy to go, though I'd watched the first of the two public hearings on the feasibility study via Acadiana Open Access last week.

What follows are my impressions from the night's events. It's not a news story and it's not a compilation of notes. It's just what I saw, heard and felt while there.

Perhaps the most startling thing about the night was the near total absence of substantial opposition to the LUS plan. BellSouth had a rep in the audience. I heard Cox did, too, but I didn't recognize that person.

There were 3.5 opponents to the plan.

One opponent based his opposition on the ideological notion of reserving projects like this for the private sector. The fact that no private sector company has expressed any willingness to undertake such a project in Lafayette didn't shake this opponent's resolve. He thinks a fiber network like this is a great idea, but his belief is that government should not be doing infrastructure work like this.

The second opponent to the plan based his opposition on what I believe to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the capabilities of wireless technology and a fundamental misreading of the forces driving bandwidth demand. This person is happy with his DSL and believes he will be so for the foreseeable future. Should the day come when DSL does not meet his needs, then he thinks a free Wi-Fi network would pretty much take care of things.

In my view, he's wrong on the wireless capacity issue because the emerging bandwidth needs driven by HDTV alone will outstrip the capacity of the most robust wireless technologies within a couple of years, when broadcasters are forced to switch to HDTV signals and cable systems are forced to carry those signals. These signals are capacity hogs. Theoretically, in homes with a single TV, a robust wireless network powered by, say, Wi-Max might be sufficiently robust to handle those signals. But, what about other network services such as telephony and Internet services? Where will the bandwidth for those services come from? Yet more infrastructure?

Current estimates are that home bandwidth needs within five years will reach the 100 megabit range. No distributive wireless network technology today has the capacity to meet that need.

What is driving that bandwidth demand growth? More robust programming, like HDTV, online gaming, and other emerging technologies that are tied to the entertainment industry.

As was explained at last night's meeting, no information infrastructure is more adaptable or more scalable than fiber optic lines like the plan being considered by LUS envisions. Upgrades take place via equipment at the ends of the network, not to the network itself. As I pointed out in my brief remarks, the phone companies and cable companies are validating this fact every day with the billions of dollars they have committed and are spending on new networks which are ALL based on fiber infrastructure. Wireless can be an adjunct to fiber but it can never replace it.

The third opponent based his opposition to a reading of a 1965 LUS bond covenant which he interpreted to read as requiring competing entities BellSouth, Cox and others to leave the telecom business once LUS gets into it. The city/parish bond attorney said that was an incorrect interpretation, that it applied only to electric, water and waste water services that were part of the bonds sold under that specific covenant.

The half opponent wants to see LUS partner with private sector providers in building the system and providing services. The fact that LUS will continue its wholesale bandwidth operations for companies selling to large businesses apparently is not a deep enough level of private sector involvement. The most telling argument against this kind of public/private partnership came from LUS Executive Director Terry Huval, who cited problems associated with similar partnerships in other communities.

There was another opponent to the plan, but I apologize for not catching the drift of his criticism of the plan.

I considered leaving after hearing after John testified, but decided to stay and be present when history was made by the council.

Before the vote came, each of the councilmen made a statement about their views and their vote. It was clear that they all took the issue seriously and had devoted a great deal of time on their own researching this issue, particularly what this kind of infrastructure will mean to Lafayette's economic viability and to the creation of opportunity here. They also had listened carefully to both the opponents and proponents of the plan.

What was abundantly clear — and what was stated plainly by a number of council members — is that it is the track record and credibility of LUS's leadership under Terry Huval that carried the day over whatever lingering doubts any of them had about the project. Huval and his team carried the council and the expectation is that they will carry this system — and this community — to success down the road.

At 11:15 p.m. — five hours and forty-five minutes after the hearing started — the council voted 8-1 to accept the feasibility study and to begin the detailed engineering that will result in a business plan.

It was a momentous occasion and one that I believe will be looked back on in years to come as a significant day in the history of this community. I was proud to be there.

No comments: