Sunday, December 12, 2004

Tar Babies on the Broadband Council

The good intentions behind the creation of the Louisiana Broadband Council crashed into the reality of how that council is configured on Friday.

The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that BellSouth lobbyist Tommy Williams sent the council off the rails in its second meeting by asking for a definition of broadband and then asking how the council will identify who doesn't have it.

Well, it didn't take long, did it? Mr. Williams knows or should know that his company actually helped pay for a study (PDF file) of broadband availability in Louisiana that was released earlier this year. In fact, that study helped bolster the need for the creation of the Broadband Council.

The study used a pretty much useless definition of broadband: anything over 56 kbps line speed. As a result, it painted an overly rosy picture of broadband availability in the state. What it also found, though, was that real broadband — anything above 256 kbps — was not so widely available and was very expensive to the point of making, say, a T-1 line or its equivalent, beyond the reach of most businesses in non-metro Louisiana.

Governor Blanco, in the BayouBuzz piece by Steve Sabludowski linked to in the first paragraph, had this to say about the importance of broadband access to Louisiana's economic future:

"High-speed computer access can become as important to the development of our state — the rural areas specifically — as phones and electricity were in the past. Broadband connections are a vital piece of infrastructure in the 21st century, just as important as rail and highway connections were in previous centuries."
Viewed in this light, one could make the case that the high cost of bandwidth particularly in non-metro Louisiana is an impediment to economic opportunity and growth.

Now, let's see. Who would provide that overly-expensive broadband? Uh, my guess is phone companies and cable companies. Look at the make up of that Broadband Council. The legislation that created the council created a body that is heavily influenced by special interests — read that "incumbent phone and cable companies."

The list of spots reserved for incumbents reads as follows:

-- Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (one seat). BellSouth got that one.
-- Louisiana Telecommunications Association (one seat). The Louisiana Telephone Association got that one.
-- Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (one seat). A company called New Phone got this seat. The fact that the seat exists at all is curious, since rural local exchange carriers are not required to open their networks to competitors, so there are no competitive local exchange carriers in rural areas where the bandwidth problem is acute.
-- The cable industry got two seats, one for the big companies (dba the Louisiana Cable Telecommunications Association) and one for the small companies. Carlyss Cable Company got that seat. Carlyss Cable is a subsidiary of Cameron Telephone.
-- Wireless companies got a seat (Alltel got it).
-- Interexchange Telecommunications Companies (long-distance) got a seat and the seat went to an attorney representing that group.
-- Satellite companies got a seat (Auto Comm Engineering Corp. got that seat).
-- Internet Service Providers (ISPs) got a seat and that one went to Infinity Solutions.

Then, there are the hidden incumbent votes on the Council. Those include:
-- Allen Doescher of the Division of Administration's Office of Information Technology (OIT). Doesher is a veteran state bureaucrat whose fingerprints are all over the history of technology efforts in the division. Doescher's' purview includes the Office of Telecommunications Management (OTM) which has operated as an in-government subsidiary of BellSouth for just about all of its existence.
-- PSC Commissioner Dale Sittig. Dale is a nice guy (he's from my home town of Eunice), but he's been one of several rubber stamps on the PSC for whatever it is BellSouth has wanted.
-- Representing the Louisiana Senate on the council is Senator Noble Ellington. Senator Ellington, you may recall, was author of the bill which created the council. But, he was also author of the BellSouth/Cox inspired bill (SB 511 later changed to SB 877) which sought to bar all municipalities from the network infrastructure business.

One member of the commission that caught my eye is Carlo MacDonald. He's landed one of three "Rural Private Business" positions on the council. Now, Carlo MacDonald is a wireless technology leader, but his business is based Baton Rouge via Camsoft Data System and Verge Wireless. Not exactly rural. Wonder what's up with that?

The rest of the council consists of representatives from various state agencies and departments, plus a handful of other interest groups like the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Police Jury Association. The LMA appointed LUS's Terry Huval to its seat on the council, so that's at least one person on the board who has some special insight to the nature of the obsfucation and deception that is the incumbent way of making an argument.

The point here, then, is that we'd best not expect much out of this Broadband Council. The incumbents (with their allies) are well-positioned to gum up the works — at least so long as progress is defined as doing something that actually responds to the interests of rural businesses and consumers. Actual rural interests (and people who can articulate them) are scarce.

The intentions are good and, I think, pure. But, the fact that the council is formed in such a way as to give the parties responsible for the problem of high-priced bandwidth the ability to control the council will likely doom it to failure.

It didn't have to be this way. How? Why, by putting the interests of consumers first — not the interests of the companies responsible for creating the problem the council was created to address.

We'll figure this out one day.

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