Monday, November 29, 2004

Louisiana Broadband: Renewed Interest in State Fiber

From The Town Talk in Alexandria:
"Louisiana has a buried treasure, an untapped resource some state senators want to unearth."
Indeed it does. The story, Buried treasure of fiber-optic cables excites La. officials, by veteran political commentator John Hill marks a new layer of interest in Louisiana's fiber optic resources.

The story centers around fallout from the initial meeting of the Louisiana Broadband Council; an organization strongly supported by Kathleen Blanco whose purpose is to bring broadband to rural Louisiana. In a nutshell the story that Hill tells is one of a technology deal done right. Louisiana received rights to fiber optic cable in return for rights of way along the states major highways and interstates. That fiber has largely gone untapped with much of it still unlit and the rights to some unused portions even in dispute. State officials now see a huge potential for enhancing rural quality of life, Louisiana's economic development and state cost-savings.

Go take a look, the story is well worth a close read in its entirety and Hill has a reputation for having his finger on the pulse of Louisiana politics.

But there is some backstory that might help put some of this in context...and help make some of the long-term implications clearer.

Backstory—Some Relevant Telecom History:
During the telecom boom everyone and his cousin was out frantically laying fiber in hoping of striking it rich in telecom getting rights-of-way turned into a huge deal for companies laying fiber on dreams but without much cash—cash being the traditional form of payment for rights to use public property. State did various things to encourage building fiber in their area but Louisiana apparently pioneered the idea of trading the rights to passage for rights of use. It gained a lot of attention but was far from the sure play that Hill's informants make it retrospect. The telecom boom became the telecom bust and big chunks of the state fiber were owned by entities like the now bankrupt emblem of modern corporate corruption, Enron. The telecom bust came in part as a consequence of technologies that made made each strand of fiber capable of carrying more, much more, data than had been envisioned when the cable was first frantically laid. It was cheaper to rework the electronics on lit fiber than to light up new ones and much fiber from that era has never been made ready for use. That body of unlit, disconnected fiber is the famous "dark fiber" that has resulted in a glut of supply for "backhaul transport"—and that oversupply has aided in making telecom cheap in spite of a huge capital investment in new infrastructure.

Backstory: The Broadband Council enabling legislation
Another piece of interesting and ironic backstory concerns the law enabling the Broadband Council. That bill, in its early House incarnation was meant to parallel an identical bill introduced in the Senate. Introducing parallel bills is a common way of speeding the process and lowering the need for messy reconciliation conferences between slightly different versions of a bill that tend to result from introduction first in one house and then in another. Where this story went awry was that BellSouth, in a maneuver that confirms its legendary lobbying abilities, was allowed by the house sponsor (the "honorable" Noble Ellington) to hollow out the bill of everything but its docket number and replace it with a telecom bill that would have prevented Lafayette (or any other public agency, but it was deliberately aimed at Lafayette) from beginning a telecom utility. This move was made necessary because of Lafayette's clever timing—they made their announcement after the deadline for introducing new bills in the legislature was past making the tortured legislative maneuver of gutting a pro-broadband bill with anti-broadband bill the only way out. Blanco's intervention, a dramatic one apparently in which she is reported to have metaphorically "locked" the principals in a room until they came up with a "compromise" which met her specs resulted in the current less onerous bill which merely increases the cost of the project and imposes new regulatory schemes that are not borne by the incumbent providers. All in all national commentators have regarded this law as a victory for the municipal braodband movement; an opinion which I find difficult to share with much enthusiasm.

Hill's story presents the original Broadband Council bill as an initiative of Blanco's; a characterization that I have not heard before but which makes sense of her strong and swift reaction.

A tad bit more backstory: Backhaul
An important but obscure (because both technical and financial) part of this story is the role of "backhaul" costs in making the state's fiber important. A major constraint on the state or municipalities or even local, civic-minded entrepreneurs bringing affordable broadband to Louisiana is the continuing cost of providing the link between the (essentially free) national internet backbone and the local provider. The onramps to the "national information superhighway" are owned. An analogy might be useful: it is as if in order to get from your local roads, say Evangeline Thruway, to the Interstate you had to pay a substantial toll to use the onramp. As crazy as it seems this is the situation that the citizens of Lafayette, should things unfold with LUS' plan as we now expect them to, will face: they will be paying private providers a toll to go from a system they own (municipally) to a system they own (federally). The feds could help out here; if they were willing to defy the big telecom companies.

The consequence of this is to make it expensive for a local entity, be it EATEL, Kaplan Telecom, or LUS to provide even a small fraction the capacity that their fiber systems are capable of. Any new fiber system could provide 100 megs of bandwidth to each user out of the box. The local difference in cost between 5 and 10 and 100 megs would be all but nonexistent. Once it rides on the national backbone the differential costs to the provider would also be varnishingly small. The only reason not to provide users with practically unlimited bandwidth is the well-founded suspicion that it the providers did so then users would use it...And the cost of backhaul bandwidth, that toll, would shoot through the roof.

The state could help, through this potential network of state fiber, local governmental agencies like LUS reach cheaper access points. —And the feds, if they so chose, could make available a state and local portal onto the internet itself. With Utah and Iowa moving rapidly toward state-wide municipally-based fiber networks and Louisiana showing the potential to join them it might be politically possible to ask for such. (A rhetorical question: Would you as a presidential candidate want to go into the Iowa Caucases having failed to back a telecom measure backed by local pols in every small town in Iowa? It might be enough to bring Al Gore back onto the national stage.)

Backstory: Secondary Technologies
There has been a lot of chatter about "new technologies" in Lafayette's fight for fiber. And in places where folks don't have the institutional resources of Lafayette's power-producing utility these new technologies may be the only possibility for bringing affordable broadband to citizens. The unacknowledged weakness of most of these technologies is that they are deeply, deeply dependent on having the sort of big broadband link that, practically speaking, only fiber can provide. An example: WiMax.

WiMax is supposed to provide miles of coverage at high bandwidth and is said by folks that fail to really understand to provide competition for the services that run over fiber. Leaving aside fantasies of unachieved but projected "breakthroughs," using unlicensed spectrum as a basis for reliable provision, or finding enough of the sort licensed spectrum that will give WiMax the range its boosters claim, we'd be better off assuming only what we can do now with the technology and spectrum available now: make "cells" about twice the size of the current WiFi cells at somewhat higher bit rates. In that instance, to provide any sizeable number of folks through a single net access point (one point might serve several "towers" by having the towers relay data,) you would have to have fiber to the tower to carry away the backhaul data. Only in the very least populated areas would another method of carrying away the data be useful. (Microwave and point-to-point WiMax bridges are discussed as ways of getting to the fiber for very thinly settled rural areas.)

Fiber, cheap, accessible fiber is crucial to realizing all the other fantasies of providing access to rural and poor areas of urban centers. Louisiana's potential fiber network could be the critical link that makes initiatives in those areas technically and fiscally conceivable

Add to this the immediate benefit of getting BellSouth out of the state's pockets in the absolutely senseless provision of intrastate telephony (a point mentioned by Doug Menefee and long championed by my co-conspirator on this site here and elsewhere, Mike Stagg) and you have a compelling reason for the state to push ahead fast. The state could even use LUS' telephone switch; an already planned purchase which LUS could conceivably make very robust if they thought that they could lease out the usage--for cash, or perhaps in trade for backhaul on the state fiber. Nice to think about, no? The only thing standing in the way is BellSouth and other incumbent providers. Considering Kathleen Blanco's demonstrated courage in this area, I am hopeful.

I've championed on these pages the idea of a state-wide network of municipal providers a la Utah's Utopia with Lafayette as the central node, providing the technical expertise and hardware to make the system go. Perhaps I've been thinking too small. Maybe the state government should join the party.

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