Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Council Meeting December 21st...and Rumors

I went to the council meeting earlier tonight and enjoyed watching LUS take one more step toward Lafayette's fiber-optic future. The council gave them permission to move one more step, the step of applying to the state bond commission for their permission to issue the bonds. It was clear that it will still have to come before the council again to approve the actual issue. (Lord, this is a drawn out procedure.)

Rumor #1
There was an odd little vignette during the approval project when councilman Williams asked a series of sympathetic questions, got his answers and showed what appeared to an outside observer as general good will toward the project. Smiles on both sides. But he made an excuse and got up before the actual vote and wasn't there when the vote was taken. I heard the rumor tonight, for the second time that, Williams is being careful because he wants to run for Cravin's seat when it comes open. BellSouth does pack a wallop on the state level.... ' Course this bit of rumor could be all wrong; and honestly it seems a little far fetched. What difference could this minor absence make. But it makes a kind of sense out of an odd moment.

Rumor #2
But by far the most significant rumor came from Bill LeBlanc who says that he and group of people including his fellow council presenter Neal Breakfield are about to launch a petition drive to put the fiber proposal on the ballot. I am not sure they realize what they are getting into. A petition of the sort the charter envisions requires 15% of the voters. That requires an army of folks walking the streets to get at least 20% of the number of registered voters. (You have to account for the inevitable spoiled signatures and signatures by folks who are registered to vote.) The task has to be completed in six months. It think it extremely unlikely to succeed. And it will be costly--so costly that I do not believe that it can be done without a big investment from the incumbents. A small crew of good-hearted men won't be able get it started in any real way. In short order any petition drive will be the creature of Cox and/or BellSouth. And then the real ugliness will begin. If you think that the initial round of incumbent ugliness was bad with its push polls, public tantrums, intimations that our elected leaders were incompetent rubes, and an utterly offensive "academic" forum were bad just wait.....

And just for the record I talked to Bill LeBlanc for a while in the parking lot. For long enough that I am sure his wife was as miffed as mine at his tardiness. ---But Mr. LeBlanc struck me as good-hearted and upright. I do think he is wrong. And that he has badly misinterpreted some of the technical material he has presented to the council--for instance on wireless technologies--but I think he's well-motivated. I just wish he hadn't thrown in with the big corporations on this one. He's the kind of fellow you'd enjoy having a good conversation with over lunch. Know what I mean?

They've got a website at www.fiber411.com. Give it a look.

This story will be in Advocate tomorrow. More when I see that..... and think a little.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had the same tolerance for Mr. Breakfield and Mr. Leblanc, but their incessant attempts to diffuse perhaps one of the most important developments for our community in a long time has tainted me. Mr. Leblanc just seems highly misguided, despite any "research" he may have performed. Mr. Breakfield kind of miffs me though. I still have trouble comprehending how a self proclaimed techno-geek would possibly want to derail a plan that could put an immense amount of bandwidth right in his own home for a fraction of the cost that incumbents would charge. Maybe he's just a conspiracy theorist that believes the government is always out to get ordinary citizens in anything they do.

John said...

Hi Anon,

I sympathize with your response and confess that it paralleled my own before I talked to Bill. This chance is so large and so rare (our utility gives us a huge break not available, for instance, to Baton Rouge) that it maddens those of us who see the potential to see neighbors oppose it for what we believe are seriously misguided reasons.

I do think that underneath a lot of the non-incumbent opposition--which is surprisingly thin, incidentally--is a reflexive, unreflective dislike of all government and a similarly unreflective belief that all "free enterprise" is good. Once you've started viewing the world through that distorted lens it's all too easy to engage in cherry picking "research" and misinterpreting stuff in fields that are not home to you.

The key way to get folks to rethink this is (I think,I hope) to point out that free enterprise, as wonderfully as it works in competitive markets, doesn't work at all in monopoly situations and that a fiber-optics network is even more likely to be a monopoly than is coaxial cable. Monopolies are bad, very bad, and lead to higher prices, poor service, and the death of innovation. Having a locally controlled utility company own the monopoly is miles better than having some multinational own it.

Think about it: In a private monopoly every motivation drives toward profit maximization. A rational actor in that situation will charge as much as they can possibly charge without destroying the market. Their objective motivation is to extract every penny they can from customers and without good old healthy competition to bring them in line they will act in line with their obligation to their owners to extract the absolute maximum return.

A citizen-owned utility has to please its owners too. But in that case the owners _are_ the customers. The owners have no motivation to exploit themselves and, in fact, CAN'T. Anything that they charge above cost goes into the municipal coffers and offsets the taxes they'd otherwise pay for to provide municipal services. (LUS provides 25% of City funding--knock them down and not only do you pay more for electricity but you pay 25% higher local taxes, instantly!) Or the citizen-owners could decide to pay higher taxes and take their "profit"in the form of rock-bottom rates. But either way the only question is how does the owner/operator choose to receive their benefits.

In natural monopoly situations, and I am convinced fiber-optics is one,the rational person prefers a local, citizen-owned utility. You can't deny that real monopoly situations exist. You just have to decide how to deal with them. LUS' solution is a great one.

Anyway, I do think that not everyone has thought it through this way. And while I think the logic of this pretty much inescapable I am sure that some will not agree. They can still be good hearted. But, hey, I still think they are misguided. :-)