Sunday, October 31, 2004

Advertiser Misses the Point, yet again

The Advertiser introduces a pernicuous bit of misinformation in its article "Consumers still guessing about fiber-optic costs." This reads a whole lot like a story that an editor asigned the intern and then forgot to review. As nearly as I can tell, however, the author is the business editor. Oh well...

The author conflates fiber optics networks with triple play offerings in both the title and the closing sentence of the story. The fact that she recites the technical differences in the middle of the story is only evidence that she profoundly misses the point and has no idea as to what the significance of these differences are.

Truth is, what is hidden from the reader of this piece is that triple play plans are not all created equal and that he difference lies precisely in what is conflated: an all fiber network will simply have the headroom to supply more services and enhanced services over its network. By offering more services an all-fiber network will be able to defray its costs over a larger number of products and, all things being equal, will be able to offer any one of the services for less money. It can offer ehanced services that simply will not be possible over the hybrid coax or twisted pair networks with which it competes. For instance: it is extremely doubtful that BellSouth can supply HDTV over its lines. Given its current architecture Cox will have a lot of trouble supplying many more HDTV channels that it currently does—an issue that looming regulation deadlines concerning local HDTV broadcasts of multiple HDTV streams and the cablecos' obligation to carry those makes very real. A full fiber optic system will have no such constraints and will not need to pray for new technology or regulatory relief to offer a full array of high-end services.

The article does a desultory job of listing, without totaling for the reader, the likely costs of independent elements of the triple play drawn from Cox and BellSouth figures in the region. It would make considerably more sense as an article about the triple play if it added up those figures and compared the services offered with the projected prices. After failing to let the reader know the likely totals for BellSouth or Cox it mentions the widely bandied about 85 dollar price for LUS services and signs off without informing the reader of the most salient point such an article about prices could have made: that LUS has firmly promised to undercut any triple play package in the market by 20%. If the story was supposed to help the consumer guess about triple play costs, as the title indicates, then missing that was to miss the presumed point of the story.

All in all, a sad display.

Advertiser Promotes Attending Fiber Hearings

The Advertiser in its Sunday editorial, Public should attend fiber-home hearings, promotes attending the city-parish council meetings that will discuss LUS' fiber plan.

The Advertiser is right in calling for public participation. There has been little real discussion of the idea beyond the most basic generalities and a discussion of the details of the implementation would go a long way toward establishing a give and take between the community and LUS. .....However I don't really expect a lot of this sort of detail to come out in the context of a council meeting. The format just isn't right. The presentation is to the council and only the council can effectively ask hard questions. Public input is effectively limited to less useful condemnations or endorsements of the idea or the few specifics placed before them. Of real discussion, of the back and forth dialog that fosters real understanding and new ideas I expect none.

That Lafayette will simply not have the opportunity to have a real conversation on this with LUS is a direct product of how Cox and BellSouth have chosen to conduct themselves and the bulk of the blame lies at their door. Neither Cox nor BellSouth would benefit from a lowkey, honest, practical, nonideological discussion of the issue. That is because the honest, practical, ideology-free fact of the matter is that this decision is almost all upside and the downside is very small. A reasonable discussion would have started and ended with taking a good look at the issue of electrification. Has LUS' electrical utility been good for the city? The honest answer is yes. Is the fiber optic initiative similar? The practical answer is yes. The conclusion (after much discussion, no doubt) would be inevitable: going forward would be in the city's best interest. Cox and BellSouth know that. And since Lafayette's best interest has nothing to do with their decision making they decided to throw a fit that deprived us all of the very valuable discussion about how to do it. That is why we should really be mad at BellSouth and Cox.

LUS could have done more, however. It isn't at all clear that the defensive crouch forced on the public utility by incumbent misbehavior is still necessary. In LUS' favor it has to be said that they have been willing to meet privately with concerned citizens and have been responsive to questioning. But that does not substitute for public hearings with diverse groups (like neighborhoods, entrepreneurs, teachers, and techy types) where a back and forth flow of ideas could develop. As it stands now few know the details and only a few can adequately prepare for what is coming. We certainly hope that will change as the plan goes forward. If Lafayette is to gain maximum benefit from the fiber network ongoing conversation will be necessary.

All that said, and with minimal expectations for the hearings to produce the conversation that is most desirable, I still think we all ought to go.

First, of course, to hear what details we can. But also to show support for the larger idea. Rest assured that the Corporations will turn out their paid-for troops for these events. Be certain that the public response time will be full of mean-spirited and pointless sound bites meant to make the council and the public fearful and uncertain. With passage appearing assured supporters will be tempted to stay home. Please don't.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Louisiana Governor Makes Big Appointments

Bayou Buzz reports that the Governor has made her appointments to the Broadband Council. Readers with a long memory will recall the law that established the Broadband Council. The Council is tasked with developing a plan for providing broadband in rural areas of the state.

There is a story behind this simple BayouBuzz listing. The establishing law, as is common, was originally introduced in parallel form in both the house and the senate. Co-sponsors in the Senate were Noble Ellington and Lafayette's Michot.

If Noble Ellington seems familiar it probably wasn't because he co-sponsored what was originally a pretty good bill. More likely it is because you vaugely recall something about a Louisiana senator saying "tolerance is tearing down the foundation of this country" and getting a lot of great publicity for our state in the national media. Now this Noble fellow from Winnsboro took that bill, which was intended to promote rural broadband and handed it over to BellSouth's lobbyists to be refashioned into a bill that would forbid local governments from providing broadband for themselves. Seems a little....odd, contradictory, hypocritical? I think so too. Blanco, the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Police Jury Association of Louisiana wrangled a less onerous version that allowed the project to go ahead but made it much harder for municipal utilities to provide such services. Now this guy Noble is put on the Broadband Advisory Council. Makes some sort of twisted Louisiana-style sense—after all if you are going to actually do something sensible you need to make sure that it has a fair chance of failure. Only in Louisiana.

But the fun doesn't end there: Terry Huval is also appointed a member. Yes, LUS' Huval.

It should make for interesting conversation, don't you think?


Here's the full list of appointees to the Broadband Advisory Council:

Carlo MacDonald, Baton Rouge; Gordon Polozola, Baton Rouge; Terry Huval, Scott; Tommy Williams, Baton Rouge; Senator Noble Ellington, Winnsboro; Representative Francis Thompson, Delhi; Bob Manuel, Ville Platte; Emile Cordaro, Prairieville; Larry Henning, Baton Rouge; Gene Dry, New Orleans; Ted Miller, Arnaudville; Sherman Tate, Little Rock, AR; Cheryl McCormick, Baton Rouge; John Pat Bullock, Shreveport; Roger Stouff, Jeanerette; Judy Brown, Homer


Don't Believe Everything You Hear

Smartmoney runs an article that raises real questions about whether the Bells can hold onto their core business while investing heavily in wireless and fiber. The implication for Lafayette lies in the fact that the Bells are focusing on expanding in those areas where their investment yields the greatest return. But post-LUS Lafayette cannot be seen as a profit center relative to most locales. Residents of Lafayette should be very cautious about believing that any Bell, BellSouth included, will make a business decision to compete just to compete; what they are seeking is maximum profit.

Here's the gist of the article:
Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ), the nation's largest phone company, said Thursday it would consider selling off as much as one-third of its nearly 54 million local phone lines as it reported third-quarter financial results that showed strong growth in less traditional areas like wireless and Internet services.
That's astonishing news even if it never comes to pass. Giving up lines voluntary is like giving up your bread and butter; it just doesn't happen. But what is apparent is that Verizon is willing to consider giving up their crusty, reliable "bread" for the richer fat of their "butter." It isn't that the lower yield (mostly rural) 1/3 of their base isn't profitable. No. It is that the wireless and fiber-feed "sheep" yield more lucrative and profitable "butter." I'm sure that they'd like to keep it all but Verizion in particular has invested heavily in both wireless and fiber (Verizon is the only teleco with real fiber to the home) and they have to finance that in some way. Confidence in the telecom's has been falling as many analyists show concern that they are having their lines taken by wireless phones and more recently by cabelcos like Cox (who, not incidentally, leads the cableco pack in this regard and is introducing telephony in Lafayette). Consequently, investment monies get more expensive or simply become unavailable. They will need to pay for some of this themselves and be willing to demonstrate their own confidence in the new technologies.

Here's the nut: they don't have the money to do it all. They just don't. Not even the very largest and most progressive, which Verizon is. They will not be able to invest in any but the most profitable tier and will even consider losing huge chunks of their legacy to bridge the gap.

Places like Lafayette were never at the top of that list. And we will be even less likely to raise to that level when we have a fiber optic network of our own that both takes real market share and establishes a cap on the price of the most lucrative services.

Don't expect BellSouth to be able to carry through with any promises it makes in the next two weeks. Reality is closing in on them as it is on all the Bells. They just don't have the resources to do it all and will, inevitably, focus on what yields the greatest return.

Lafayette ordinances step toward fiber-optic plan

In a move apparently required by the interaction of state and city-parish law two ordinances that will be discussed on November 9th and 16th—and voted on on the 16th will be introduced November 2nd. City-parish rules require a two week span between introduction and vote on ordinances. One would officially "adopt" the feasibility study (as required by state law.) The other would create the LUS structure that is necessary to provide the firewall between LUS' new functions and its old services that will meet the requirements that old functions not subsidize the new business.

Blanchard closes his story by noting that "The council will have the option of defeating the introduction of the ordinance, which would effectively defer the matter." That might bear watching. I can't imagine that LUS would introduce this unless they knew the council was willing to put it on the agenda but Blanchard is easily the best-informed reporter on this beat and isn't given to including nonsequiters into his articles.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Ready to get your fiber?

The AP story, Ready to get your fiber?, runs a informative, clear, educational story on the telecom issues of the day. It focuses on fiber deployment (natch) and the author has done his homework on delving into the intricacies of the regulation, differing strategies for using fiber, and the history-based cynicism of some observing the teleco's new promises. (Fiber has been promised for over a decade.) Where a strategy requires technology not yet in place, such as the advanced DSL that will make BellSouth's fiber to the curb strategy tenable, he says so. The story also explores the competitive environment which may well make further telco delay too risky and some of the empirical signs in terms of bids let and equipment ordered that indicate the logjam is actually breaking this time. Nor does it miss the possible change in regulatory environment that regime change in Washington would bring. Tying this all together in a newswire story is a quite a feat. Click on over.

Good reporting and an excellent example of the difference between faux, publicity-release scribbling and intelligent, informed commentary. The author deserves a byline he or she did not get.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

[The Advertiser Notices that] Cox rolls out telephone service

The Advertiser has queued up a story, Cox rolls out telephone service, for tomorrow that is focused on Cox and BellSouth offering new services. The isn't exactly news since Cox has been saying it was going to roll out VOIP in Lafayette in November for quite some time—as we have reported here repeatedly—see the CNET report. The story also let us know that BellSouth has "recently" begun offering DirecTV service. Really? Recently?

It would be interesting to have a little overview piece on all the changes coming to the telecom market in Lafayette. But something like this really doesn't do the job and its desultory focus on triple play items, without actually mentioning LUS, just seems strange. There is a good story in all the changes, however. Cox is about to tie up its capital in merging with itself; BellSouth is getting monopoly control of its landlines back: and Cingular just became the nations largest cell phone company. How do all the changes effect Lafayette? Now that would be a story worth telling.

I do hope this version makes it to an editor before it hits the paper.

Update: 8:00 am 10/28/04
The version of this story that makes the paper: Cox hopes customers take its calls is quite an improvement over the one (still available at this writing) that we saw last night. It shapes the basics into an actual story by seeking reaction from all the potential purveyors of "triple play" options. It still errs in leaving the impression that this is a new announcement and in leaving unremarked the Cox claim to have spent 150 million to "prepare our network here for this service." Had Cox actually done so it would certainly prove the wisdom of LUS which is building a whole new fiber optic system for 110 million. I guess private enterprise is just plain inefficient and we can't expect anything better.... Seriously, a simple question like asking the length of time over which this amount was spent and the the geographical boundaries it refers to would have gone a long way toward helping the reader make sense of a nonsensical factoid thrown out by Cox's Cassard.

But then the educational functions of a newspaper, the idea that a newspaper is to actually inform and help readers understand the world it reports on seem far from what we actually see in the Advertiser. This little bit of uncritical repetition is small in itself but is all too indicative of what we regularly see in reporting on the fiber issue from the Advertiser. It is really unfortunate to again recognize that we have to look to the Baton Rouge paper or the Wednesday publication of a still-new weekly to get decent reporting on this critical issue.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

AT&T Wireless, Cingular merger bad news for consumers

Consumer's Union responds to the FCC's approval of the merger of AT&T Wireless and Cingular in AT&T Wireless, Cingular merger bad news for consumers.

What we are looking at here is a further FCC-sponsored erosion of competition in voice communications. Between the recent willingness to allow the telecos to price competition off their network and this decision which locks up large chunks of spectrum in the hands of a single competitor look for a shrinking market in alternatives not just for landline phones but for their major alternative: cell phones.
Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, added “no matter how you cut it, this merger is anti-competitive. In major cities across the nation, such as Dallas, Orlando, San Francisco, Memphis, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, this merger will allow the dominant local phone company to control 40 percent or more of wireless customers, in markets where they also control 90 percent of residential wireline customers.”

...the merger sets a dangerous precedent that makes it virtually impossible to block future mergers involving Verizon Wireless and the remaining wireless companies. By allowing Cingular to control up to 70 out of 189 megahertz of available spectrum in a market, the FCC is signaling that Verizon can bulk up in the same manner, leaving only enough spectrum for one potential competitor – even with current plans to auction off new spectrum.

With BellSouth/Cingular as the dominant local supplier Lafayette will be at the center of this drift back toward monopoly provision of telephony. If you thought Cox's ownership of the cable monopoly was bad (suppose Cox were buying DirecTV) get ready for her mean sister...

Now more than ever: I want my wifi/wireless CityCell phone from LUS.

Broadband in [Wealthy] Suburbia

The Washington Post article, Broadband in Suburbia illustrates both the promise and the problem of fiber optic networking.

The promise is nicely outlined by the ways in which people are finding to benefit from a speedy broadband connection (and the cable, VOIP and wireless netoworking that will almost inevitably go with it.) From the story:
...their network may fundamentally change the way people think not only about the Internet but also about television and telephone service. Instead of changing channels and getting stuck with whatever is on, viewers in the future may search for shows in the same way they find Web sites.

Some of Brambleton's residents have already found their own television programming online. Zakir Kahn, 30, has used the Internet to download more than two dozen religious movies.

Ashley D. Campolattaro, 33, a stay-at-home mom, the super-fast connection has become more important than her television or telephone. She uses it to schedule play dates for her children and dinners with neighbors and to check references for babysitters. The Internet has become a lifeline for Campolattaro, particularly on days when caring for her two young sons leaves her feeling isolated from the grown-up world.
Of course the problem is that the reporter had to go to a wealthy "designed" community to find such examples because that is where the fiber currently is; and, as the article makes clear, the majority of fiber to be run soon by corporations like Verizon will also be to compact, wealthy locales where the payoff will be quick and lucrative. Unfortunately, it is not only wealthy stay-at-home moms that are isolated by their day-to-day circumstances; lots of not-so-wealthy moms (and their spouses!) feel the same way.

Should BellSouth actually build a fiber network here (not simply talk about it vaugely) they will, without a doubt, run it first to River Ranch. And only maybe and later to the rest of the town. We've got something better going on here. We're damned lucky.

Monday, October 25, 2004

New Content: Q&A with Jim Baller

We've posted a new Question and Answer piece in our interview series with fiber newsmakers:

Monday Conversation: Jim Baller

Baller, drawing on his extensive legal background regarding municipal telecommunications networks remarks on the value of fiber networks, the law, and incumbent strategies. Baller represents LUS and is one of the leaders, perhaps the leader, in the field of telecommuncations law.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Consultant: Telecom plan feasible

The Advocate story that interviews the LUS consultant Doug Dawson, points out a few of the happy consequences of being big:
"LUS' size makes the plan more financially feasible than other communities that have done similar projects, Dawson said.

The reason: economy of scale."
Dawson means mostly that one-of-a-kind purchases like backend electronics are spread over more users and that larger purchases in fiber optics, as elsewhere, get a volume discount. True enough.

But that simplest of all demographic advantage over other communities, size, will likely render other benefits as well. Anyone wanting to do a proof-of-concept shakedown for a well-funded consumer-oriented project over broadband will look first to size and for those that want a large sample size Lafayette, as the largest municipal build out of high bandwidth optical fiber will instantly be in the running. Specialty services that anticipate that only 2 to 10% of the population will ever purchase will likewise need a large installed base to make even a trial sensible.

But Lafayette's demographic advantage doesn't stop with size. Lafayette will also be the most diverse city to sport a municipal fiber optic network that makes its services available to every citizen. Most fiber builds are in cities that, lets look at it straight on, are whiter than carrera marble and most often wealthy enough to afford it as well. Wealth and community cohesion have been almost prerequisites for fiber to date. And even when those prerequisites are met a corporate provider does not price fiber cheaply or run it to the poorer parts of town. Lafayette will have a larger percentage of minority and poorer citizens than any community with a comparable broadband infrastructure. Should LUS follow through with its commitments to foster the ownership of inexpensive computers more of the barrier to entry for wide adoption of fiber by all segments of the community will be removed than will be the case in other locale. Lafayette will offer a window into a community which is 25 years ahead of its time in terms of widespread adoption of broadband technology basics.

—The demographic advantages that Lafayette will bring to the table will go far beyond volume discounts on start-up equipment.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Coffee N Fiber-Repeats every Saturday

Coffee N Fiber will be, as usual, at CC's coffee on Johnson. It's an ongoing thing. Good Coffee and Good conversation.

Friday, October 22, 2004

A high-fiber diet; Fiber-optic lines are taking root in smaller towns, bypassing cities like Baton Rouge.

Doug over at LUSFTTH has turned up what appears to be an old Baton Rouge Business Report article from late August. Missed it then but is sure is fun to look over now that our fiber project teeters on the edge of a full committment. It sounds like maybe the capital city is a little envious?
Fiber to the home is gaining momentum first in smaller cities. That's a turnabout from the usual deployment of new technologies, which generally start in denser areas where there's more money to be made before being rolled out to less profitable markets.

Smaller cities like Lafayette are getting fiber because their public utilities, owned by the residents, already have the poles and lines that make it more economical to run fiber...
Kind of a nice turnaround, isn't it?

Tri-Cities Reinforcement

The Lt. Governer of Illinois steps in to back the Fiber for Our Future Initiative.
It's great stuff and applies to our situation as well as to the mess in Illinois. I'll let him speak, he does a good job:

From the Beacon:
Saying he wanted to ensure a "fair fight," Illinois Lt. Gov. PatQuinn came to Geneva Thursday to announce his support for the citizens group Fiber For Our Future and the Tri-Cities broadband referendum on the ballots in Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles on Nov. 2.

Quinn warned voters about expensive direct mail and other advertisements by SBC telling them not to vote for the referendums. Those ads, he said, are paid for with their customer's dollars and don't tell the whole story.

He compared Fiber For Our Future's battle against SBC to the biblical story of David and Goliath.

"The citizens are going against these big Goliaths with all the money, and the Goliaths are going to tell us their way," he said. "Remember who won? We believe in competition in America. If big companies can define the 21st century and say it's only their way, we could end up really getting socked as consumers."

"Instead, trust local officials, trust people who are from the community, trust people who really want to have the kind of wide open competition that our country believes in," he said.
From the Daily Herald:
[Quinn] held up a photocopy of one of the direct-mail pieces from SBC and said the companies were going to spend a lot of money to squash the referendum.

The direct-mail piece suggests the referendum question puts taxpayer money at risk, even though in St. Charles and Batavia, the question prohibits the use of tax-backed financing, and in Geneva, the ordinance backing the question does.

"The people who ought to decide the future are the people who live in the community," Quinn said.
The venerable Chicago Tribune also runs an informative story but you'll have to register to get at it.

Its always nice when state-level politicians get it. (Lafayette has benefited immensely from the quiet support of Governer Blanco.) This should help the citzen's initiative which has been massively outspent on the publicity front by the phone and cable companies.

If you can help, they can still use the money. Check out the PayPal donation bug on their homepage.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Incumbents Running Scared: An Economic Analysis

One thing that comes through in qoutes from Huval in the [not online] Advertiser Advocate article "LUS plan changes look of telecommunications," and in the feasibility study itself is a pretty steely-eyed determination to out-compete the incumbents on both product and price. The LUS strategy will be simple and competitive: offer more for less. Should LUS do this consisitently, and I have no doubt they can and will, they will be the dominant carrier in their footprint. A footprint, incidently, which Huval hints may expand into the parish. (Mayor Langlinais of Broussard is undoubtably happy to "hear" this said publicly.)

This story implicitly raises the question of whether Lafayette will have multiple fiber optic networks in the end. My own thoughts on this are on the record: I believe that it is unlikely.

Consider: One thing that LUS' strategy has done is to cut off a retreat into low-end products—analog telephone and video—for both incumbents. LUS' projected equipment buys make it clear that they intend to provide these legacy services indefinitely. LUS has also cut off any attempt to colonize high-end services: LUS' fiber, its committment to advanced services such as Voice Over Internet Protocal and Video on Demand make it clear that there will be no room at the top of the heap for the incumbents to reap special profits off of high-end customers. There will be no uncontested areas of profit for the established incumbents. None. They wil have to decide to compete head to head with an entity that has the trust of local people, that is pumping its profits directly back into the community (in the form of lowered prices, government revenues, local construction, and local jobs), that is offering a superior product in each category, and that is offering it for a lower price. In the face of such daunting competition it has to decide to dump a big chunk of change into a small town (by its lights) ahead of schedule (or face LUS being the established incumbent when it gets around to it). It will have to spend this money anticipating that it will never have the percentage of the market that it enjoys anywhere else it will choose to spend its fiber dollars.

In a nutshell: the incumbents will have to choose to invest heavily and early in a place where they can never expect their rate of return to equal what that same investment will garner almost anywhere else.

I don't expect them to do it. No matter what they say in the next month or so... it just doesn't make financial sense and that is all they are really about. (Unlike LUS which does have other, community-based values that might well lead them to persevere in a similar circumstance because they value low prices for citizens and the community development consequences.)

But, the objection can be raised, "They really expect LUS to fail; they will simply do what private enterprise does and out-compete the governmental body." No. Honestly that won't happen and the incumbents won't believe it unless they've taken to drinking themselves the koolaide they've been offering the public. I know this flows against ideological correctness and may seem counterintuitive but that sort of reasoning substitutes ideology for a dispassionate analysis of what really is---and businesses like those the incumbent have haven't survived by believing their press releases. If you need evidence look no further than the fact that the Cox and BellSouth have so frantically opposed the very idea. They know, they know very well, that once this is built LUS will hold all the cards.

LUS will not have to make a profit. Break-even is good enough. It isn't good enough for any private enterprise. Not only that, private companies have to make their money back pretty quickly. They most certainly can't wait twenty five years. LUS can. LUS will stretch it out that long without batting a eyelash.

The raw, and terrifying truth is that the competitive advantage that LUS holds over its competition is that it actually cares about its citizen/consumers. It is willing to cut its profit to naught to benefit them. It is willing to wait for a very long time to get its money out--if it benefits them.

And that is why the incumbents are running scared. As well they ought.

Attribution corrected 10:10 10/22/04

The Advocate Follows Up on Fiber News

The Advocate's Kevin Blanchard does two follow-up stories on Tuesday's release of LUS' the fiber optic network feasibility study. On the front page of the Acadiana section is "LUS feasibility study shows planned course." On the financial end the story does a quick summary of the plan's take rates, break-even dates, cost categories, and revenue sources. The print version has nice graphic of the projected movement to a positive cash flow by 2011.

More interesting to readers, i suspect, will be the political aspects, with Durel again showing strong support for the idea saying that "There's been overwhelming support for what LUS is doing." and the administration plans to "proceed as fast as we can." On the incumbent side of the equasion Durel dismisses expected opposition:
... anything those companies say now will likely be "smoke and mirrors," ... "After all these months, none of them came forward with a plan, a vision for the future," Durel said.
The inside story, "LUS plan changes look of telecommunications," [not online] (with an informative sidebar on the services that LUS will be offering) takes note of the changing landscape of telecommunications in Lafayette, noting Cox's upcoming triple play and BellSouth's changed regulatory status in regard to its established fiber to the curb strategy. The truth of the matter is that both of these strategies have been in the works for a long time and that the difference that LUS' plan might make is chiefly in regard to moving Lafayette to the head of the line for these developments rather than leaving it to its "normal" place way down queue. (On the likelihood of that, more later.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

News From the Tri-Cities

The Daily Herald, a Tri-Cities region newspaper carries an interesting and useful report that goes a long way to undercut the claims about municipal telecommunications networks that the incumbents everywhere use to try and frighten communities.

Most usefully the article notices that municipal utilities have a very different understanding of what constitutes success than do their corporate rivals:
"But when it comes to defining success, it's clear there's a much different point-of-view between towns such as Glasgow and telecom giants such as SBC and Comcast.

Some of the towns seem far more concerned with building a better community than paying off their debt. They view telecom services as public utilities that can be funded by proceeds from other utilities. And, they believe, without their efforts, residents and local economies would have lost millions of dollars as they sat on the sidelines of the digital revolution."
While the story also repeats the canards of the Freedom and Progress Foundation studies without directly contradicting them (canards we attacked in reference to the fiber forum and Bristol, Virginia's system) it does provide a good view into the the way that communities and municipal providers see the story and will allow readers to form a bette

The lead case in the series of case studies in this report was Billy Ray of Glasgow, Kentucky. Billy Ray, readers will recall, was our second interviewee, after Annie Collins of the Tri-Cities. He hits home runs with some of his facts: the Glasgow cable TV utility hasn't raised rates since 1989, with prices remaining at $14.95 for a full complement of digital channels, it now offers 4 megabit-per-second Internet access for about $25 per month, and the difference between average cable rates nationwide and what Glasgow's customers pay for it means that more than $30 million has stayed in the local economy. The Progress and Freedom Foundation may not think that is success but I'd bet that most of the citizen/consumers of Glasgow do.

It's good to see reporters starting to look beyond incumbent propaganda, however dressed up in academic garb, and dig into real cases to uncover some sense of the truth about these issues.

Now if we could just convince the Advertiser to show the same sense of responsibility toward the educational functions of reporting....

Feasibility Plan Media Roundup

The media have posted their digests of LUS's feasibility study. (I posted the basics on the voting date and public forums from last evening's council meeting yesterday) They are worth a pretty careful read. What's new is in the details rather than the basic direction of the proposal.

The new version of the feasibility study has a more realistic breakdown of adoption rates, and target market penetration for various services than the previous draft version released under pressure from Cox. Other interesting tidbits for those who are following closely include hoped-for bond rates, break-even points for the (25 year) bonds, breakdowns on the proportions of the money going to various hardware installations and the like.

At the Advocate: Council sets fiber-optics plan vote

At the Advertiser: LUS fiber study released; no fees finalized

At LUSFTTH—Doug posts a bit on what to expect in the coming weeks from the opponents. I feel sure that we'll see more disinformation.

Doug also expects FTTH announcements from the incumbents. I doubt it—suggestions that they might, intimations that really they'd already planned to do so, flashy stuff on what they might do if they decided on a wholely different business and technological strategy here than in the rest of their footprint—we might hear about that sort of stuff.

But actual announcements, No, I'd be very surprised. The incumbent strategy if FUD, Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, and they don't seem to have it 'em to actually compete. Their strategy at every level from the federal to the municipal is to pursue monopoly power and to frighten and mislead anyone who might stand in their way. An example: In my judgment the incumbents nation-wide, with BellSouth leading the way, have just run a number on Chairman Powell and the FCC. They've crawfished out of previous deals they'd made to allow access to competitors in order to get into the long distance market by holding the threat of not running fiber to the home over the FCC. Powell caved on that, giving in to both to the demand to cut competitors off their system and to giving FTTH regulatory status to mere fiber to the curb, in effect subsidizing BellSouth's current strategy without requiring them to give up anything or speed up deployment at all. Craven. The FCC is supposed to be the one running the show on our behalf—not acting as agents for the monopolies they are supposed to regulate. We need some new commissioners and with any luck we'll get that soon.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Tri-Cities Locked in Battle

The outrageous incumbent campaign in the Tri-Cities continues. You ought to take a little trip over to the Fiber For Our Future website for a vision of just how dirty telecom and cableco's can fight when they get a chance.

The incumbents have poured money into a fear-based public relations fight to shut down a referendum that would allow locals to seek private funding to build a pooled municipal utility. If the funding cannot be found the build will simply not occur.

The basic issue of truth in advertising aside, at least the fiber for our future folks have got to have the advantage on the basis of design sense. You really ought to take a look at the latest mailer. The designer should be taken out back and given a stern talking-to.

Of course its pretty easy to lie to the public and generate unwarranted fear when the opposition has about 3,000 dollars to oppose a corporate blizzard of glossy mailers, daily full-page newspaper ads, and push polls. On the other hand the good guys' big media buy has been a clutch of yard signs. Geez...you can give to the cause via PayPal at the Tri-Cities Broadband home—and get a chance to look at their full gallery of incumbent misinformation.


Mark your Calendars

The city-parish council and the LPUA have set a date, tentatively, for a vote on adopting LUS' fiber-optic feasibility study: November 16th.

The feasibility study, received from the Competitive Communications Group, will be discussed on both the 9th and the 16th. The statement read at the council emphasized that the procedure was to designed to conform to Act 736 the inaptly named, Local Government Fair Competition Act. You can look to the Act 736 for information about what the feasibility study must cover as well as what it need not reveal ("commercially sensitive marketing information.")

All signs are that the feasibility study will handily be adopted by the council but that will hardly be the end of the matter. If history in other locales is any guide—and it certainly has been to date—the incumbent providers will attempt any delaying tactics they can muster with legal entanglements being the tool that comes easiest to hand.

Cox proves you can go home again. It's just REAL expensive!

Cox Enterprises announced today that it reached an agreement with its once and future wholly-owned subsidiary Cox Communications and will buy the outstanding shares of the cable company for $8.5 billion.

As the story says, the new price ($34.75) is about 8.6 percent higher than the original offer Cox made to Cox of $32 per share. The deal is expected to close by mid-December, at which point getting information about the internals of Cox Communications will become almost as difficult as getting unpleasant facts heard at a Bush/Cheney cabinet meeting.

This story has some interesting facts about the debt incurred by this deal.

For those of you keeping score at home, the higher price per share of the Cox offer to Cox is $600 million higher than the original offer of $7.9 billion. In local terms, that's the cost of five or six proposed LUS fiber to the home projects, depending on the final plan.

Put in perspective, it means that the Cox family prefers to paying off shareholders instead of investing in the future of this community. That was made clear by the original offer. The sweetened deal means that the family is at least five times more interested in unfettered control of the cable company than they are in the economic viability of this community. Or, Cox would rather spend an extra $600,000,000 buying paper than investing in fiber in Lafayette and a few other Louisiana communities where it provides cable services.

Stirring Endorsement of Fiber Optics—for Government

An editorial in the Advertiser lauds the fiber backbone, citing its use in video-based court proceeding that increase security and save money.

Hey, the Advertiser takes a principled position on the burning issue of fiber optics....

Its hard to know what to say about such tepid, safe editorializing. There's a real fiber issue out there for the Advertiser to deal with and they seem unable to see what is obvious to both the public and its elected leadership: that competition is good, and that LUS' fiber optic network will benefit the community as a whole.

We've got three newspapers in Lafayette; two are owned by a large out of state news corporation and one is locally owned. Guess which one has endorsed a fiber optic network.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Let the Price Wars Begin

The Advocate has a breaking news story,Cox Communiations offers phone service, that reports that Cox will begin offering VOIP to its Baton Rouge customers tomorrow, Tuesday the 19th. They are straightforwardly targeting BellSouth and offering their new service at a 10 percent discount BellSouth prices. There is a discount as well for buying into their "triple play" of VOIP, digital cable, and internet.

Announcements in other venues (CNET, internetnews.com) promise that VOIP will be coming to Lafayette, among other locales, in November or before the end of the year.

Cox is throwing down the gauntlet. If Cox's new service makes significant inroads BellSouth has nothing to respond with but price cuts of its own. It ought to be fun to watch.

UPDATE 6:00 am, 10/19/04: The final version of the story has appeared online and it contains further details of the plans being offered by Cox and a response from EATEL. In Ascension parish Cox will be going head to head with EATEL's new fiber to the home service-based version of the triple play. The locally-owned telephone company will be putting its service into operation early in the coming year.

Lisa Froman, spokeswoman for Eatel, said the Gonzales-based telecommunications company is headed in the same direction with so-called "triple play" service of phone, Internet and television service...

"This whole bundling idea is going to be very important to us in the future," she said.

Froman said Eatel is not building its fiber network outside Ascension "just yet."

While Eatel is not going after new telephone customers in East Baton Rouge Parish, when it entered the market it undercut BellSouth's prices by about 20 percent.

A BellSouth spokesman could not be reached for comment.
All very interesting. Especially the implicit threat from EATEL to build it fiber beyond its home in Ascension parish.

An earlier Advocate story also hinted at EATEL's long-term plans:
Eatel's plan is to eventually connect all of its Louisiana and southern Mississippi customers by fiber optics, which Ahern said will be the platform for the next half-century.

"Over the last 130 years, telephone companies have relied on copper, and we've spent a lot of money trying to make that copper do more. So, we can provide DSL service over copper today," he said. "Now we've decided it would be better to provide fiber to the home and let that take us out for the next 40 to 50 years.

All of this can only be good for consumers.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Going Offline for Online News

Its gotta be some sorta obscure irony that the most interesting, in-depth Lafayette stories on broadband and LUS' fiber optic network are pretty much unavailable online.

Get thee to your corner restaurant, local convenience store or favorite coffee shop and pick up the latest Independent for a really worthwhile story and two substantial sidebars. An embaressment of riches for your local fiber digester.

The base article gives the story the space it needs and runs the gamut from potential revenue for the city to development possibilities to glimpses into the technical issues.

What is most interesting, and most valuable is the slowly emerging details of the project rollout and probable implementation. Its heartening to hear LUS opening up a bit. We learn, for instance, of an initial roll-out of 40 million intended to limit the financial risk by testing the take rates with real subscribers. We discover that the system will be "capable of" 40 megs down and 20 up, that out-of-state contractors are already swarming off the Interstate and down Evangeline Thruway, that roughly half of the outlay will be in labor, a bit more about contentious digital divide issues, and that competition in cable has resulted in rates 15 to 41 lower than in areas (like ours) without real competition. There's more but you'll have to ferret out your own copy.

There's a meaty sidebar on EATEL being slowly forced out of the local market by FCC rulings (a point made here--and repeatedly) and BellSouth's determination to shut others out of the last mile connection to the home. It gives readers enough background for them to begin to understand why line leasing was initially mandated and what the feds are retreating on when they turn the monopoly back over to the inheritors of Ma Bell. The story also hints at what the community might be losing in terms of support of community activities by the retreat of EATEL to its home base to build its own fiber network.

A little stranger is the "Lafayette Unplugged" sidebar which gingerly takes a look at the noticably insubstantial claims by a local man that he intends to build a wifi network to cover 50 square miles inside the city. More credibly, but less positively, it also cites Terry Huval saying how easy it would be for LUS to add a wireless net to the fiber build. (Shades of my quintuple play fantasy.) LUS making a wireless play makes a lot more sense as I see it. And I want my VOIP phone on top of that.

Higher Internet prices, fewer choices under FCC broadband decision

Consumers Union has issued a blistering indictment of the recent FCC regulations change that further accelerated the recent trend toward closing the Bell networks to competition saying:
The FCC today took our country one giant step closer toward solidifying a two-company domination – the local cable and telephone providers -- over the consumer Internet market

The policy of promoting high-cost broadband access dominated by cable and telephone companies who are allowed to discriminate against competitors and overcharge consumers is not working...The evidence that this approach has failed is overwhelmingly clear
• In the three and a half years that Michael Powell has been Chairman of the Commission, the U.S. had fallen from third to eleventh in broadband adoption.

• The cause of the failure of high speed adoption is clear, Americans are being overcharged by the cozy duopoly of cable and telephone companies. Cross national comparisons of price show that Americans pay fifteen to ten times as much, on a megabit basis, as consumers in Japan pay. Three years ago the price in America was three or four times as high.

The current fracas here in Lafayette makes it easy to see what Consumers Union is talking about: when it comes down to it Cox and BellSouth are quick to ally up to prevent real competition from entering the fray. And real competition is defined as anything that would really drive down the price of telecom services.

Coffee N Fiber: Time N Place (N Topic?)

The Coffee N Fiber meeting will be held at CC's coffee on Johnston (near College) Saturday at 10:00 am.

The topic of the day is all too obvious given today's breaking news: What about that BellSouth? Will this new FCC ruling really make a difference? Hey, where is Cox in all this? Could Lafayette end up with three fiber networks? Would that be desireable? Possible?

And if we don't find that all that interesting (hah!) we could always talk about what sorts of new services could be developed if we had pretty much unlimited in-system bandwidth. (But metered outbound and inbound to system speeds.) The limit on giving us all big pipe bandwidth seems to be the cost of backhaul. But that wouldn't apply in-system...

Be there or...

BellSouth's little bit of handwaving: An Analysis

A set of stories in the Advocate and the Advertiser preempts a blog article analyzing the new FCC ruling I was just working on. The Advocate story: Ruling opens door to BellSouth and the Advertisers': BellSouth broadband just got easier will no doubt really roil the waters on LUS' fiber optic plan.

Here's the exciting lead paragraph in the Advocate's version:
A Thursday ruling by the Federal Communications Commission will open the door for BellSouth to begin building out its fiber-optics system in Lafayette, a BellSouth spokesman said.
And here's the more mundane facts of the matter:

It doesn't make any difference at all.

And the authors of those articles ought to be in a position to see why.

That lead paragraph is actually pretty misleading, and only technically true, as the following paragraph makes clear: Mr. Williams is speaking hypothetically, and really about all of BellSouth's enourmous geographic area. There isn't anything special about Lafayette (nor is there likely to be).

The back story is that the FCC, pretty cravenly in this writer's judgment, extended the regulatory relief intended for fiber to the home projects to fiber to the "curb" projects. BellSouth and the other baby bell operating companies won't have to share their lines with the likes of EATEL or ATT if they can get their fiber closeto homes and businesses and divide it up between users over copper and pretend it's as good as a real fiber to the home connection. Nonsense. Of course the FCC had already effectively let BellSouth run companies like that off their lines by allowing them to raise their lease prices so high that such companies could not compete. Competition is already all but dead. So its hard to see just how much difference this makes practically speaking.

No, as far as I can tell, it changes exactly nothing in regard to building a fiber to the home network in Lafayette. No one but LUS is offering to do to build Lafayette a modern fiber to the home system. BellSouth is not announcing a build in Lafayette—or anywhere actually. I don't expect them to. This decision was widely anticipated and SBC used the opportunity to announce a speedup in its fiber build out. BellSouth is noticeably silent. Mike calls the sort of noise we hear from Williams in the Advocate story the roar of the cowardly lion. He's dead on.

Cox's hybrid system is already in place and is already tightly closed to competition. You'll notice that not having to open their networks to competition has not led Cox and other cablecos to develop fiber to the home systems. No, the FCC is being a bit disingenious about this. They actually hope to encourage competition between networks (rather than within the current phone network via leasing) and to give the Bells additional incentive to catch up in a race they are losing.

Cox remains the more likely candidate to provide real head-to-head competition with LUS. BellSouth's tactical disadvantage vis-a-vis Cox remains. BellSouth wants to shut out the competition as tightly as Cox does and now they can but that has not resulted in Cox building an all-fiber, modern network here or elsewhere. And it will be even less likely to result in BellSouth doing so.

Happily, if the remarks by LUS and city-parish officials are any evidence, they recognize this.

Their serene response is justified: Nothing has changed.

Let's hope the council is equally difficult to stampede.

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.

Council moves forward with EATEL cable plan (but not Cox's)

The Ascension Citizen carries news that EATEL's franchise for east Ascension (the parish is split by the Mississippi) is moving forward at an expedited pace. The Cable TV franchise will use the fiber optic network that EATEL is in the midst of installing.

EATEL's entry into the market will make East Ascension one of the very rare places to actually have real head-to-head cable competition. Lafayette is hoping to join Ascension parish in this competitive situation.

Interestingly Cox's franchise agreement is not moving forward. Cox and the parish have been in "negotiations" for almost three years with a major sticking point being Cox refusing to allow the sale of advertising on a public channel that the parish council contractural agreement with management allows. The parish council appears none to happy that Cox has presumed to tell them what is legal. Cox now appears to be caving in, allowing the station to sell "sponsorships."

Cox, belatedly, appears to be learning what happens when people have a choice: they don't tend to put up with the sort of shenanigans they had to tolerate when a the service was a monopoly. Competition is a bear...

Belated Coffee N Fiber Report

Coffe N Fiber met at CCs on Johnson for a spirited discussion last week. Sorry guys for the delay in posting a review, my week got out of hand and I just lost track of it.

I particularly had fun talking with an EE student from UL about the potential of the system for him; the kind of work that it might spawn and his hopes for staying in Lafayette. He'd been wondering about specializing in telecom. My guesss is that he now thinks it a good idea. He'd like to stay home if he can... The EE student was particularly taken by a brief conversation about the possibilities of a Linux-based cable settop box that would double as a real cheap computer; seems he thinks he could set up a tidy part time business servicing such a think and doing software installs.

I passed on the word I got from a recent conversation with the folks at LUS that aside from the triple play three that anyone could buy wholesale bandwidth for any purpose. That's popular. But they want to hear it from LUS. I can't blame them.

We had fun talking about stuff like the possibility of unlimited in-system bandwidth. (It's looking like the limits on what folks get at their home or business will be largely determined by backhaul costs rather than any in-system constraints.)

One guy who showed up has a sideline business of installing satellite systems. According to him installations have really jumped and have stayed up since local channels came online, stressing the installation system and keeping them running behind. (One of the other guys there might get into to that installation game for awhile too.) My guess is that Cox has more problems locally than just LUS.

Anyway, it was all fun stuff to talk about. Between the conversation and the coffee it was enough to wake a fella up pretty thoroughly.

I presume that this Saturday's meeting will also be at CC's on Johnson at 10 am. More when I get confirmation.


Thursday, October 14, 2004

TriCity update: Broadband ads to be nicer in '04

Against the background of a truly nasty '03 campaign the TriCities is prepping for another vote vote on fiber. The Daily Herald (a Chicago suburban paper) carries an article focusing on the new advertising campaign that is being waged in the Tricities. It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that the advocates are badly outgunned by enourmous corporations that they face.

Readers will recall Annie Collins from our interview a while back:
"Annie Collins, organizer of Fiber For Our Future, said the group will be waging a campaign with its Web site, fliers and about 1,000 yard signs. The entire effort will be funded by less than $3,000 in donations from around the country."
Tri-Cities Broadband, the FFOF website, has links to the two latest pieces of telecom misinformation. Frankly, they aren't "nice" regardless of the newspaper headline. They both trade on raw fear—fear which is totally ungrounded and which the incumbents know is dishonest. These guys just don't want the competition. You really should go take a gander. And then write a little note of congratulations to our stalwart council that they didn't put us in a position to have to deal with this sort of gradu.

We'd like to renew the call for contributions that we made earlier. Please consider contributing to Fiber For Our Future; the most convient way is to jump to TriCity Broadband website and use their PayPal button. Thanks! Every buck counts.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Councilman undecided on LUS telecom plan 10/12/04

According to a Blanchard article in the Advocate Chris Williams is questioning LUS' plan, asking for reassurances on universal service and digital divide issues and mouthing the incumbent's talking points:
Williams said his support will hinge in part on whether LUS still intends on hooking up each residence in the city of Lafayette and whether it intends on following through on the idea of providing low-cost to free computers for lower-income residents. ...

"Now we just need to make sure that the risks involved warrant this," Williams said.

Williams said he also is concerned whether the plan would be fair to Lafayette businesses that already provide similar services -- such as Cox and BellSouth.
No doubt the performance I saw last night and blogged below is in at least some significant part a product of the conflict reported in this article and needs to be interpreted in that context. Mayor Durel was making the journey to the Martin Luther King community center to testify in public and before Williams constituents that he was still in favor of the idea of pushing computers into the community and that the price savings that constitute the immediate benefit to Williams district would be substantial. He discussed a few more details of his plan for 'free' computers last night and cited a higher discount, 25 to 45%, than the official feasibility study mentions.

Its hard not to see Williams' raising the issue as much beyond a political ploy to push commitments to digital divide issues out into the public consciousness. I can't credit that Williams' could possibly vote against LUS on this—his constituents are too clearly major beneficiaries—and I can't credit that all involved don't recognize this. But LUS and the city-parish have to desire unanimity on this and Williams is using that to push for a clearer commitment to getting a computer in the home who'd have a hard time affording one.

The other stuff is window dressing: universal service is a solid commitment to which LUS has never wavered and given its' utility worldview never will; the nod to the "local" business of Cox and BellSouth is transparent a smokescreen—if Williams isn't outraged by the antics of these outsiders he hasn't been paying attention.

I can't say that I like the window dressing stuff...it's never a good idea to mislead the public into believing that areas of agreement are insecure just to engage in a little arm twisting...but I do like the idea of bringing parts of the LUS plan that are not visible into the light of public discussion. And the digital divide issues are one of the elements that we really ought to be talking about and getting public input.

This is certainly an area in which public discussion and buy-in are crucial. Let's talk about how to best make sure that new public services benefit us all.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Closing the Digital Divide, Lafayette Style

The Cell Phone Model—A Lagniappe Plan

If the phrase "digital divide" is unfamiliar the idea is not: "Thems as has, gets." Access to information technology divides the information haves from the have nots. Typically, as broadband technology comes to a community the higher speeds, while a good thing in itself, also has the effect of increasing the gap between the haves and the have nots. Those who have flock to empowering communication technologies, and those that have not fall behind in this new arena.

But Lafayette is not typical, and promises to be less typical yet. Joey Durel, speaking at Councilman Williams' Real Talk meeting tonight, talked about the possibilities for narrowing instead of increasing the digital divide in Lafayette using some of the most concrete language we've seen to date. He's started talking to citizens...and he's confident enough to have also talked to ABC news about it, he announced tonight! While tentative plan, still needing to pass financial muster, the outline is visible: Lafayette is hoping to follow a cell phone model and give away a computer with long-term triple play contracts.

The cell phone model follows the simple and famous logic of razor blades. —Give away the razor and make all your money on follow-up sales of blades. LUS is hoping to be able to give away computers with long-term contracts and make up the cost with the expanded sale of its services. Add to that universal service—a utility will run service to anyone who wants it unlike private providers—and a cost that Durel says will be from 25 to 45 percent cheaper than current costs and you have a recipe nearly as good as your grandmother's gumbo. High Tech and Broadband that really is available to all and that brings the community together instead of separating it.

Whether or not this version can be made to fly the more important point is the determination that is being shown to take on the problem in a direct way. If you can't quite afford to give it away then sell the razor/computer at a serious discount pay out the difference as a few dollars each month on your telecom bill. Or embed it in the settop box. Regardless, all that is finally required is the heart to do it. And Durel, at least, seems to have it.

But the basic idea is neither strange—it's a standard ploy to develop a market—nor financially irrational—with 278 dollar Linux-based WalMart computers and free open source apps the cost of developing a deep local market could even be a good business decision.

Do you remember Lagniappe? That's Lafayette. Just a little something extra.

Go LUS!

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Phone Line Alchemy: Copper Into Fiber

The New York Times runs an article this morning that clearly lays out a point we've been making on these pages for a while: BellSouth, with its brethren baby bells, is in a long term bind. Their business is dying and their competition in the land line business, cablecos like Cox, are moving in for the kill as they begin to offer phone service. The only way to stay in the game locally—as well as nationally is to move to fiber in a final and full way. The article makes the point succienctly:

The new offering is part of a multibillion-dollar bet by Verizon and the other Bell companies. They are gambling that by going door to door to replace century-old copper wire technology with high-speed fiber optic lines, they can hang onto their most valuable asset: a direct line into the home of each customer.

Verizon and the other regional Bell companies are losing customers by the millions as people drop their old phone lines in favor of cellphones, e-mail and ever cheaper phone services from cable companies.

[...] Fiber, which carries digital information as pulses of light rather than electric current, is not new. For years, phone carriers have been laying fiber between their municipal switching stations, on long-distance routes and across oceans. But only now are the regional Bell companies, having lost 16.3 percent of their local-line customers in just the last four years, laying fiber to residences.


What this article misses is that while some Baby Bells, like Verizon, are grasping the nettle, and seem willing to begin the expensive push to the home that might allow them to survive, others like BellSouth and SBC are not. BellSouth with its massive commitment to wireless is not announcing signficant fiber to the home projects. Perhaps it simply can no longer afford to; the commitment to wireless is drying up available capital and their dropping credit rating will make it more difficult yet to raise the necessary money.

Without municipal providers of bandwidth like LUS whole regions of the country might well move from the landline duopoly of cable and telephone to a situation is which the cable slowly works its way into the same monoopoly it has over the provision of cable TV in the realms of telephony and internet provision. That is clearly, IMHO, what Cox is working toward with it promised launch of VOIP locally.

I think I join much of Layatte when I say that is not an end that is devoutly wished.

Go LUS!

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Disinfo Alert: “Important Leaders”

Code Orange,
The disinformation alert status has been raised to code orange
A code orange alert has been issued by Lafayette Pro Fiber indicating a HIGH risk of disinformation attacks



For guidance in securing the information safety of your family and friends please review the Lafayette Pro Fiber Citizen Guidance page.

THREAT ALERT INCIDENT: 'IMPORTANT LEADERS'

The latest from Cox is a letter dropped into the mailboxes of "important leaders" of Lafayette that privately and personally repeats disinformation long since discredited in the larger public sphere. (By the way, where do you suppose the got this list? I'd be interested in speculations.)

This represents a dawning understanding on the part of Cox that the battle for public opinion is lost. Apparently, the battle for the council, at least for the moment has also played out to failure for Cox and BellSouth. So what's left? Damn little. What they are trying here is to scare as many "important leaders" as they can in hopes that a backchannel whispering campaign will derail an apparently unanimous vote on the council.

Its typical of Cox to try this sort of half secret, totally misleading game. (You might want to review the saga of TJCrawdad) At some point you have to wonder why BellSouth doesn't dissociate themselves from this "ally" who certainly is a much greater threat to BellSouth than LUS could ever be and whose tactics have got to be causing local governments to tar BellSouth with Cox's questionable tactics.

But back to the misleading stuff: We've got a copy of the piece available as a PDF file for your examination (page 1,), (page 2) with only the name and address of the innocent marked out. It's not a mass mailer though—each individual is addressed by name.

Let's quickly list the scary, misleading stuff that Cox puts in this little bit of gossip bait; some tidbits from the letter that are wrong or misleading:
  • 'government-controlled' —as if that was inherently evil somehow?
  • 'staggering costs' —Not when you consider how much the people stand to save in telecom services when LUS starts operating. See Billy Ray's interview for a glimpse into how much communities can save by being the owner rather than the customer of essential telecom services.
  • 'credible third-party research' This can only evoke a bitter laugh. There is nothing credible or "third party" about the bought and paid for hired guns they have brought into Lafayette. See LPF's "Academic" Forum article which exposes the committments of these folks and our Forum Report from the event itself.
  • 'failure'—Marietta—Not just an apples and oranges comparison but an apples and rotten oranges comparison. Marietta never served nor intended to serve a single residence. The promoters of this scheme apparently hoped to cash in on one of the shakier of the dot com ideas: wholesaling bandwidth outside the core community. Bad idea. And nothing to do with municipal utilties except that the bad idea was promoted by a municipal entity. The new mayor dumped the project at a loss as part of a campaign promise. It isn't clear that it was really a good idea to sell off...leaving this observor to wonder who bankrolled the new mayor's campaign. (I know, that might be excessively cynical.)
  • 'failure'—Bristol, Virginia. Utter nonsense, widely discredited. See, for instance our Blowing the Whistle Over Bristol. Notice, if you will, the increase in rates silliness they accuse the Bristol utility of. As if Cox had managed to hold their rate increase during the year in question to 15%.

Cox then proceeds to raise vauge and formless fears. 'Taxation.' 'Local folks are incompetent.' This portion of the letter is a letter-perfect example of the tactic of FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. See the ProFiber examination outlining the origins of this loser tactic and the use to which telecoms have recently put it.

I have to grant that this is getting to be a long and humorless examination of the letter paragraph by paragraph but if Cox had the courtesy to be deceptive only once or twice my job would have been a lot easier. With that in mind, on to the next example: They tell these 'important people' that Cox will provide them with fiber. (If you submit your business plan and they examine and approve it!) They don't tell you how much it would cost. That's because you don't want to know. Building a special fiber connection for one location is prohibitively expensive—they know this is a smokescreen and that no one could ever afford to take them up on the "offer." Then they close the paragraph with the simply incorrect claim that they provide "fiber to the home" connections to the residents of University Courtyard Apartments. It's simply not true. They provide a "fiber to the curb" arrangement where one box, the equivalent of the one box that LUS would hang on each home, is placed at the "curb" and fiber runs to it. That bandwidth is divided up between all the residents of the apartment complex. It is not fiber to the home; not even nearly. Cox is well aware of how these things are categorized. They hope the readers of their missive are not.

Of course, at the end they urge their readers to call their councilmen, trying to enlist them as fresh foot soldiers in a FUD war they have been losing to date. I urge these influentials—and all who view themselves as worthy even if Cox does not—to instead call Cox and ask them for a rate schedule to provide fiber to their address. And wait for a call back. Be prepared to wait awhile....

Coffee and Fiber Meeting

The morning's Coffee and Fiber will be at 10 this morning at the CC’s on Johnston and South College. I shoulda mentioned this yesterday but was too busy talking about the possibilities of fiber with some of the system's engineers (and, I admit it some Friday night partying) to get back to blogging duties.

Try and make it. It should be a very interesting discussion.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Cable controversy still not resolved

An article in the The Ascension Citizen Online details an unsual conflict between a cable company and a local government.
The chairman of the parish's strategic planning committee said last week he is prepared to tell Cox Communication to "take there (sic) cable and leave" the parish if their do not agree to terms outlined by the council.
The immediate issue is the parish's desire to sell advertising on the government access channel.
(Councilman) Beiriger said Monday he refuses to allow a private company (Cox) to dictate "to us what we can and cannot do."
Lurking in the background, and not so far in the background, is the fact that impending competition is what emboldens this local government to suggest to Cox that they can take their cable and shove it. Normally defying the cable provider and suggesting they might pick up and leave would be politically risky. Suppose they did? What local government could stand the viewer anger?

What allows Ascension parish to defy Cox is that local telecom provider, EATEL, is currently laying down an optical fiber network to its customers, and is promising to be more cooperative when they start providing a competing cable TV service.

It's a new age adawning and Cox is slow to adapt. Both customers and local governments won't be so easily browbeaten when there is competition.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Save the Baby Monopolists! Please!!!

The Times of Acadiana continues to waste perfectly good trees by affording space in their paper to the ramblings of Eric Benjamin.

In his latest commentary, Benjamin claims that the draft feasibility study for the LUS fiber plan downplays the risks inherent in the venture. Among the risks that Benjamin says LUS should consider is "the possible destruction of two large companies that employ thousands."

Uh, the $100-million-plus LUS plan risks destroying the publicly traded, multi-billion BellSouth and the soon-to-be privately-held Cox Communications — which has an estimated stock capitalization value in the range of $21 billion, based on the cost of taking the company private?

E.B. call home!!!

Granted, there are risks in the LUS plan as outlined in the draft feasibility study. However, there are risks in undertaking anything worthwhile.

But, the idea that the LUS project might put either BellSouth or Cox out of business is farcical. This is not to say that Cox does not post a mortal threat to BellSouth's business in south Louisiana — I think it does. But the LUS project and this market are so insignificant to both BellSouth and to Cox, that neither company is willing to invest the small fraction of their annual revenues that it would take for either of them to deploy a fiber to the premises plant here.

Cox's parent company is spending $7.9 billion to buy the 38 percent of the stock it does not now own in order to take it private. BellSouth is coming up with an even larger amount to cover its share of the cost for Cingular to buyout AT&T Wireless. Still, with all those billions whizzing around, neither company can find the relative pocket change (to them!) that it would take for either one of them to deploy a project similar to the one being considered by LUS.

Benjamin would be easier to take if he simply announced that his chosen field was science fiction, rather than maintain the pretense that this stuff constitutes commentary. He might get paid better, too.

Fiber Optic Plan Vote part II

Both the Advocate and the Advertiser carry stories discussing the upcoming October 26th hearing and probable November 2nd vote on LUS' fiber optic network feasibility plan. (Oddly, the Advocate's does not appear online.) They are both pretty insightful and worth tracking down to read. Blanchard at the Advocate emphasizes the continuing draft nature of the plan and the anxiousness of some council members to get a final version Taylor at the Advertiser emphasizes the tentative nature of the vote—quoting Durel as saying that there will be more votes downstream which will also be crucial.

The two emphases likely reflect in their own ways the underlying tension of the moment. The council members want to see a robust finalized plan in enough time to scrutinize it before they vote and some are beginning to get nervous in public about that. Durel's downplaying the vote as interim seems likely to be one way of dealing with that quite legitimate anxiety.

But make no mistake about it. The November 2nd vote will set the course. That will establish the community's direction and by all accounts will move Lafayette firmly onto the track of building a fiber-optic network for its people. It will be very hard to change that direction once the train has picked up steam. The November 2nd vote is the crucial one.

UPDATE 10/7/04: The Advocate story has finally appeared online. Its worth the trip over to read. Go to: http://www.2theadvocate.com/stories/100704/new_optics001.shtml

The Fiber Vote is Coming-Early!

I hear from two real reporters who were at the council meeting this evening that there will be a public hearing on LUS' feasibility study on Oct. 26 and that the proposal will likely go to the council for a vote on Nov. 2. Scuttlebut is that the vote is locked up for fiber and I'm hearing that from so many places that I am begining to believe it.

A November 2nd vote would be about two weeks faster than the schedule I had heard. Wonderful. LUS has been following a keep low and move fast strategy vis-a-vis their opponents and this fits well into that approach.

Check out the morning paper. You should be able to get a little fiber with your coffee tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Cell-Phone Battles Taking Investment Toll

There has been a fair amount of business news recently expressing doubt about Cingular's ability to easily absorb AT&T Wireless. According to a brief on Techweb, Standard and Poor downgraded Cingular, SBC, and AT&T wireless' credit rating.
"The cell-phone wars are taking their toll on BellSouth Corp. and SBC Communications, as well as on their jointly backed Cingular Wireless cell-phone service provider, as Standard & Poor's Ratings Services lowered its ratings on the three companies. Cingular has been struggling to integrate AT&T Wireless into its system."
This will increase BellSouth's costs and make it less likely that they can upgrade their core infrastructure. The investment shift to wireless may be a good idea for the company. (Or may not--it is pretty clear that recently shed wireless investments in Latin America were never a good idea) What is clear is that they are milking the cash cow that they have to invest in wireless and that this isn't necessarily in the best interest of those customers that provided the dollars. We'd most likel prefer that they upgrade the systems we are using.

One nice thing about a municipal utility is that the money that comes from its owner/customers will remain in the region and will be used for system upgrades or to support local community services.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Coffee and Fiber Report

Jon Fitzgerald, fiber factotum, forwards the following Coffee and Fiber Report:
"Discussions by anonymous citizens (anonymity being the only house rule) started around 10 AM @ Mello Joy. A wide range of topics, surrounding FTTH, were discussed in the truest Socratic spirit; topics ranged from exciting visions of ubiquitous open wireless networks, all the way to the whole bandwidth as a utility issue. Just think of the fun if 4 citizens show up."

"Next ‘Coffee and Fiber’ will be held @ CC’s on Johnston and South College- 10 AM Saturday the 9th"
Conversations over coffee are an honored tradition of Acadiana. Sound like a great way to spend some out of the house time to me.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

New Content: Q&A with Barry Katner

We've posted the latest in our our "Monday Conversations" series. Katner represents World Wide Packets, the company who serves Provo, Utah. Lafayette recently had a visit from the Mayor Billings of Provo, whose network setup sounded intriguing. Katner's company supplied Provo (and hopes to provide other municipalities like Lafayette) with basic network designs, architectures, and hardware. Mr. Katner responds to questions about his company and its technologies.

TiVo and Netflix Deal goes Through

Remember that TiVo/Netflix deal that I posted about with such wild enthusiasm? And the despondent entry later because it looked like the story was a mistake?

I should have stuck to my opinion that it was just too good an idea not to be true. The deal has been inked! I am back to my original enthusiasm. Making it work still requires that TiVo convince to the major studios to go along with an Digital Rights Management system that they are uncomfortable with—and fought at the FCC. But, I repeat, remember iTunes. The big recording commpanies didn't like Apple's DRM either. But once it was made clear that they could profit—and provide a credible alternative to piracy—those objections evaporated. They will again.

It's gonna be huge. For all the reasons I laid out earlier.

All we need is big bandwidth. There are ways around that. Multicasting is one. Of which more in a later post. But they aren't very good ways. Lafayette will be perfectly positioned to take advantage of this when the moment comes. With a nice true broadband connection it could be real Video On Demand. Just order and watch, no waiting for a download, no hoping it is already on local storage. And that part of the TiVo/Netflix service will need a nice big testbed. I offer Lafayette, eagerly, happily, gleefully.

Of course I can't walk away from this without repeating my little fantasy about how to eliminate the digital divide: opt for a linux-based TiVo settop box, partition off a portion for an X-11 Graphical User Interface, drop in open office and one of the free, pair that with an open source browser, use the TV screeen for an admitedly low-quality monitor and BAM...a low cost computer in every household with digital cable. At a stunningly cheap price, especially when you consider that you get cable TV and a little internet connected computer. TiVo has been trying to get in as a cable settop box supplier for a long time. I'd bet they'd be willing to cut a real deal to have a full-fledged proof of concept location.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Help the People of the Tricities!

Annie Collins, who was our first Monday Conversations interviewee, has appealed to Lafayette for help in their fight for Fiber. The pro-fiber group there needs money or design help to counter an ad campaign by the Comcast and SBC, the local equivalents of Cox and BellSouth. They are going up for a second vote on their proposal on November the 2nd.

Annie represents "Fiber for Our Future" a group of citizens who have been fighting the good fight in the TriCities region of Illiniois—a cluster of cities near Chicago. They went to a referendum in 2003...and lost. The incumbent providers there, SBC and Comcast, unleashed an overwhelmingly expensive blizzard of disinformation using tactics like dual push polls, glossy brochures, a large ad campaign, mail campaigns that blanketed the regions and more, all of which quite deliberately misrepresented the plan and blatantly attempted to confuse the real issue with claims that were intended to make people uncertain about what was proposed and what realistic alternatives were open. The cities had to rely on citizens like Annie to promote the plan because of legal restrictions on cities mounting a ad campaign to "promote" new services. The Fiber for Our Future band was overwhelmed by the campaign to which they were not in a position to adequately respond.

The people of Lafayette owe the TriCities a debt of gratitude: their experience, coupled with our initial, very similar, experience of Cox and BellSouth's "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt" campaign demonstrated that allowing the city to be pushed into a referendum by the incumbents would be simply result in an unfair media onslaught that would only serve to confuse the issue. Since Lafayette, like the TriCities, would be legally prevented from defending the idea only the incumbent spin and disinformation would be available to citizens. The Council, wisely in this writer's opinion, chose not to cave in to pressure for a referendum which would have inevitably resulted in the people of Lafayette being systematically lied to and mislead. Without the experience of the TriCities and similar cases elsewhere Lafayette might well have been enticed into that trap.

After the incumbents won in 2003 they thought they didn't need to worry any longer. Service remains subpar and prices for cable, amazingly, jumped more than a third. They didn't count on Annie and her band who have roared back with a new plan and recently won petition drives for a spot on the ballot in all three cities.

They need our help now and are trying to raise money or any other sort of support. If you can help or have ideas get in touch with Annie at: acollins@tricitybroadband.com;
Their postal address is: 9 N. Lincoln St, Batavia, IL 60510
Checks can be made out to: Fiber For Our Future.

More info at the Fiber For Our Future website.

10/6 UPDATE: Fiber For Our Future has put a PayPal Bug on their website. Travel to their front page, click on the pay pal button and you will be brought to a secure site where you can quickly and easily contribute any amount, large or small. A nifty web tool.