Tuesday, November 30, 2004

"NPR : Rural Areas Demanding High-Speed Internet Access"

Hey, one of the nice things about the net is that not all your information has to be pulled down through the medium of text--though you couldn't tell it by reading this blog. So, for something a little different, I'd like you to direct to the aural medium of NPR--you can listen to a bit of your news today.

NPR's Morning Edition is running a series called "Digital Generations" which, it appears, will mostly focus on how different age cohorts use the internet and technology differenty.

The first installment in the series, however, looks at basic access noteing that folks in rural areas and the elderly are the two least-served populations. The show speaks with an older woman in Kurtztown, PA who was able to get inexpensive broadband through her municipality. They talk with her about how her family helped get it set up and motivated her use.

The story does what NPR does best--put a human face, or rather a human voice, on what would otherwise be a pretty cold story about the penetration rates of various technologies among the rural aged. Give it a listen at: NPR : Rural Areas Demanding High-Speed Internet Access

State Fiber: Let's Ask the Right Questions

Whew! The state's fiber assets make the front page of a daily newspaper in Louisiana run by it's largest news organization. A state senator from north Louisiana, in effect, exclaims "Shazaam! This could be a good thing!" And the Governor says the state is going to use this fiber — one day — after more study is done and after we figure out how to let BellSouth and other phone companies make money on the deal.

This is, on the whole, positive news. The only negative is that, it is clear from reading the story, that the boys from BellSouth and other phone companies have been 'working' governmental leaders in an effort to underplay the potential that this fiber offers our state.

The fact is that there is so much fiber in the ground in Louisiana, owned by companies that are within a hare's breath of bankruptcy court, that State Government could buy dark (unused) fiber along any of the many routes that criss cross the state at rates that would amount to little more than pennies on the dollars that it costs to construct those networks.

Among fiber, wireless technologies, and even satellite technologies (did you know that LPB owns a piece of a broadcast satellite in geosynchronous orbit?), there is no excuse for any Louisiana business, residence or public institution to be without broadband technology — and I'm not talking about residential grade DSL which is just an insult masquerading as bandwidth in the hands of phone companies.

About the only thing worse is to have ideology masquerading as public policy. That is precisely what is going on when the first concerns expressed are for the well-being of the phone companies, rather than for the businesses, residents and communities that could otherwise be served by the bandwidth that could be delivered via the fiber assets the state now owns and/or could cheaply purchase.

Why should the state be concerned about the fate of BellSouth? As the state's primary telecom contractor, BellSouth has seen to it that the Office of Telecommunications Management (OTM) operates as little more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of that company. OTM sells telephone service to other state agencies. According to a series of reports by the Legislative Fiscal Auditor, OTM does not have the analytical tools at its disposal to determine if they are being (or have been) properly billed for services for which they paid the telecom companies.

Why this was allowed to take place becomes clear when you realize that OTM is funded exclusively by the profits it makes off of services it sells other state agencies. That is, the more they are charged, the more they can charge their 'customers,' and the more money OTM, in turn, makes. What is missing from this arrangement is ANY incentive to control or otherwise check costs.

A basic rule of life is that the status quo exists for the benefit of some; the identity of those beneficiaries can sometimes become known when the status quo is questioned or attacked.

The state is spending somewhere in the range of $60 million a year right now on voice, data and video services. Just about every penny of that money is going into the coffers of BellSouth and other investor-owned phone companies.

There are technologists out there who will tell you (as they told me three years ago) that, using this state fiber and soft-switch technology, the state could cut about 35 to 40 percent from its existing telecommunications bill — ANNUALLY. That is, the state could save about $20 million per year on its telecom services bill if only it would recognize the value of its assets, use some new technologies, and act in the best interests of itself and the tax payers of the state.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology is at the core of this new telecom technology. As stories about increasing corporate adoption of VoIP technology show, not only are there straight dollar savings to be garnered, VoIP also delivers entirely new functionality and productivity to the desktop of users. So, thinking only in terms of the potential $20 million in annual savings vastly under estimates the potential impact of VoIP technology on the operation of state government. Not only could the state save money, but it could actually operate more efficiently.

I read somewhere recently that the state faces a $1 billion deficit about two years out from now. Gee! You would think that new cost-saving, productivity enhancing technologies such as VoIP would be getting a good look by state government.

You would be wrong.

The folks at OTM (that is, the folks who have the greatest stake in maintaining state government's telecom status quo) have actually gone out of their way to prevent the potential of VoIP from becoming known in state government. OTM helped kill a VoIP pilot project at McNeese State University a little more than two years ago at a time when universities in other states were just beginning to garner headlines for their VoIP network success stories. Thanks to the obstinacy of OTM and its leadership, for a couple of years there was not a single state VoIP project afoot in Louisiana. I have not checked recently; that may have changed. I doubt it.

OTM later went so far as to have VoIP equipment removed from the list of approved technologies on the state telecom equipment bid list.

This was no accident. These unnecessarily exorbitant telecom bills that continue to burden the state are the deliberate result of a state bureaucracy that placed its own interests — and those of its corporate patrons — ahead of the best interests of the state and state taxpayers.

A few years ago, back in the early days of Mike Foster's second term, the office of state Chief Information Officer (CIO) was created. A good man, Jim DuBos, was named to the post but decided he was financially secure enough that he did not have to put up with the smear campaigns that sometimes pass for legislative inquiries in our beloved state. So, he quit. The position, along with the Office of Information Technology, was created but it went unfilled for several critical months.

During that time, the office was transformed from that of being a "change agent" — as originally envisioned — to that of being a captive of the very bureaucracy it was designed to change. Opportunity squandered.

The office was ineffectually run during the remainder of Foster's second term and has remained vacant for most of this first year of the first term of Governor Blanco.

The problem is that with this matter now garnering some interest, there is no one within state government who can articulate the right questions that need to be asked by the Governor and by legislators interested in tapping the potential of these network assets (currently owned and others within easy reach).

And, if you can't ask the right questions, it is highly unlikely that you'll get good answers.

Three years ago, I was contracted by the Division of Administration to conduct a review of the state's fiber assets and outline the potential of those assets to state government. In the process of performing that work, I interviewed people at OTM about their operations and about the potential of the same state fiber assets that have now drawn the attention of the state's leaders.

I was told point blank by a network manager at OTM that he doubted that the fiber had any value to the state; that he could get bandwidth pretty cheaply from BellSouth through trunk lines.

This is precisely the thinking behind the decisions to kill the VoIP project at McNeese. This is the kind of thinking behind the removal of VoIP equipment from the state bid list. And it is precisely the thinking that insists on putting the interests of incumbent phone and cable companies ahead of the interests of the communities of this state.

The right questions to ask are: How can this technology infrastructure transform state government? How can this technology infrastructure transform the businesses and institutions in communities across the state? How can this infrastructure be used to bring new community and economic development opportunities to all areas of our state, particularly rural areas?

Those are the right questions to ask. If there is a role for private sector telecom companies to play, then let's give them the opportunity to identify that role and, if it is consistent with the answer to those first questions, let's let them play. But, putting their interests first requires putting the interests of the state and our communities further down the line — and that's exactly how we earned our reputation as an inefficient, technological backwater that we have lately been working so hard to shed!

Monday, November 29, 2004

Louisiana Broadband: Renewed Interest in State Fiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2004

New Orleans: "Officials clash over fiber-optic network plans"

In fiber optic news from the big city across the basin we learn that New Orleans city politics and arcane system of interlocking boards of governance have disrupted a plan to run a municipal fiber ring in the business district as part of a federally mandated sewer upgrade. (A federally mandated sewer upgrade? Don't ask me, I haven't a clue.)

In New Orleans the Picayune's story, Officials clash over fiber-optic network plans, has to focus on local politics but the throw-away line on municipal provision of telecom stories is worth repeating:
"Despite the political stalemate, industry analysts agree that the idea of taxpayers footing the bill for high-tech infrastructure is not only prudent, but forward-thinking -- if the project is managed correctly."
I don't pretend to understand the unspoken intricacies of personal and institutional relationships that the long story focuses on—though my Louisiana sense of politics as a spectator sport is awakened by a story that involves sewers, high tech, and detailed reporting on the former associations of principals involved, the associated minority-owned company, and all of these folk's contributions to political activities favored by Mayor Nagin. (Which seem rather minor, considering the nature of New Orlean's machine politics.)

However, if you want to skip over the arcana, which I suspect is chiefly interesting to New Orleanian political junkies, and get to the meat of the matter go directly to the final segment of the story where we finally find that BellSouth is the apparently exclusive provider of fiber-based communications services in New Orlean's business district. 18 companies have jumped on the mere possibility of evading BellSouth's monopoly control in the business district and have signed agreements with the city to pull fiber in the new conduits should the test program ever get underway.

I know that examining the mayor's ties to any infrastructure contract is de rigueur given New Orelan's history but I recommend a similar sweep through the databases for links between BellSouth and those members of the City Council that have raised objections that have slowed down the project and, with federal deadlines looming, have resulted in a new version of the plan that sharply reduces the functionality of project. Wouldn't it be entertaining to find that little Billy Tauzin, BellSouth lobbyist, current candidate for Congress, and son of current congressman Tauzin senior was somehow involved?

Louisiana, you gotta love her.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

A Retrospective Sense of Deja Vu

In one of those deja vu moments I was cleaning up my virtual desktop and ran across a fragmant of text I had pulled off the internet and never done anything with. Googling back to the original source I found that it came from a post called Provo Moves Ahead with iProvo Project of the blog "Utah Politics."

The entry, except for the fact that the author (Phil Windley) was talking about Provo, Utah sounded very familiar to someone who had attended the vote here.

Some points of similarity: the post explains that bonding will cheaper, much cheaper because it is "backdropped" by the monies from the electrical utility and not solely guaranteed by revenue, it notes that most people attending were in favor of the proposal (and the incumbents were not), the Cedar Falls/Waterloo, Iowa contrast was used to illustrate that cities with a fiber network do better than those without, that there would be later votes on issuing bonds, and the final vote took place at almost 11:00 and there was but one dissenting vote. Oh yeah, and Mayor Billings gave an impassioned speech in favor of the proposal. —That happened here too.

The original part of the post that attracted my attention is worth reproducing in full. History has a way of repeating itself:
"Jane Carlyle, a former member of the Provo City Council and a current member of the Energy Board spoke about the parallels between the formation of a municipal power utility in Provo and the iProvo project. She said that the municipal power utility was formed in 1936 and cited the following parallels:

* The City Council set up independent committee
* The study took 3.5 years to get from first idea to vote
* Polls showed 70% of citizens would support a public utility
* An ad campaign ran against the program by powerful outside interests
* Many people thought there'd be tax increases and there was not
* Outside interests used delay tactics after the vote

Jane called the municipal power project a study of great achievement in the face of uncertain risk and great odds. She concluded that moving forward with iProvo was 'not a weighty decision.' The hallmark of public power is that it is locally owned and locally controlled. Public broadband would share this legacy. 'Remember that the main concern is Main Street not Wall Street.'

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

"Lobbyists try to kill Philly wireless plan"

Folks might remember that I've got a soft spot for Philly and considerable sympathy for the city attempting to provide its residents with cheaper wireless broadband (and in some neighborhoods just any access at all).
But Philly, according to an AP story, now has to contend with a new Verizon-sponsored piece of legislation with a familial resemblance to the one BellSouth introduced here as is noted in the text:
"In the past year, companies including Qwest Communications International Inc., Sprint Corp., BellSouth Corp., and Verizon Communications Inc. have pressed for legislation in Pennsylvania, Florida, Utah, and Louisiana that would extract concessions from public-sector telecommunications ventures."
Eliminating your competition by legislation is turning into a regular practice of these big networking monopolies. It isn't just the teleco's; recall Cox's fascinating little attempt to raise taxes on satellite providers in Arizona because (so unfairly!) they didn't have to pay for rights-of-way that they, being satellite providers, don't need. —Put's a new perspective on "fair competition" acts that involve municipalities to know that it doesn't matter who provides the competition, now doesn't it?

Here's to hoping that former Philly mayor Rendell has half the heart that our Governor Blanco showed during Lafayette's fight and vetoes the bill.

Cowboys and Indians

Kevin Blanchard has a fun opinion piece in today's Advocate called "Fiber-optics plan might not be safe from attack" which leans suggestively on the metaphor of a night time sneak attack by the (Incumbent) Indians on a band of (LUS) cowboys.

Given the history of the Battle of Lafayette to date it might be more appropriate to turn that metaphor around. If any group was caught off-guard by a well-planned move executed under the cover of darkness it was the incumbents, not LUS.

Be that as it may, the article reviews the road ahead for LUS' new telecom utility and identifies places where the Indians might ambush the cattle drive. Most fun to be worried about is the possibility that the incumbents might yet decide to launch a petition drive to force a referendum. I've got a small (10¢) side bet going that won't happen. I don't think it even close to likely. This is one place where corporate mentality is likely to serve us. No executive will want to be the go-to guy on a venture all but sure to fail publicly, expensively, embarrassingly, and potentially dangerously.

Consider: The rules under which a petition drive would take place are daunting. Fifteen percent of the registered voters of Lafayette would have to sign a petition asking for a vote to discourage the city from providing them with a 20% break off their outrageous cable and phone bills. (Rest assured that this would be the interpretation LUS would trumpet.) The six month deadline would force them invest real money in a paid, door-to-door campaign to sign up voters—it's not the sort of thing that you could hope to succeed at by setting up a table at the mall. Such a campaign would be an expensive undertaking as it would require large numbers of canvassers and a considerable overcount to survive the inevitable challenges to signatures. Shooting for at least 20% and more likely 25% of voting population would be a likely necessity. The media campaign that would have to be waged to give the referendum a hope of succeeding would have to be along the same lines as the one that has already failed in Lafayette and exposed a large amount of anti-incumbent sentiment.

Finally, I for one would be hesitant to stir up too much LUS anger. Those emerging alternative technologies that the incumbents have talked about incessantly in an attempt to introduce doubt about LUS' plan really do not come close to threatening a plan built on fiber optic technologies. But the incumbents are familiar with the threat they do pose—to their own, considerably less capable, technologies. WiMax may not threaten fiber but it does compete rather easily with the more limited capacities of DSL. As I understand it a sheath of dark fiber runs down the railroad track beside the Evangeline Thruway on its way to New Orleans. On the way there it runs to within about three blocks of Broussard's city hall. Toss up a couple of WiMax towers along Main street and Lafayette could help Mayor Langlinais cut internet costs for his constituents in half. A little Voice Over Internet Protocol Phone system wouldn't be hard either. Several years of good revenue flow from that might make a little fiber build in Broussard quite attractive for a re-elected Mayor, don't you think? Getting that sort of thing started as model for servicing the outlying municipalities might be bad for the cowboy's business in career-destroying ways.

Don't mess with the Indians. Remember Custer? All it took for him to march singing into Little Big Horn was a little arrogance and a plan that dismissed the real strengths of his opponents. I doubt the incumbents, having lost their initial skirmishes with our local Indians will make the same mistake. But it might be entertaining if they do.

"Competition ups expenses for LUS fiber optics plan"

The Advertiser also covers LUS' expenses to date. (see Mike's post below for the Advocate's version). The lead-in paragraph makes for a clear summary:
"The LUS fiber-to-the-home project approved last week has already cost more than $451,000, three times what it would have cost without interference from private telecommunications companies, Director Terry Huval said Tuesday."
Claire Taylor's story has informative breakouts of the costs for additional public relations and legal costs as well a more detailed item by item list of costs. The biggest single cost is legal, and as Mike remarks, that cost is likely to rise as the process is extended by incumbent obstructionism. To Mike's list of battles at the Public Service Commission you might want to add future expenses at bond hearings in Baton Rouge and negotiating with the state auditor's office regarding the recently created regulatory powers that new law initially developed by BellSouth creates.

As the project advances a major, and not necessarily very visible cost may well be any successful delay managed by BellSouth and Cox. Even if there is actually little hope of successfully challenging LUS on specific points the incumbents realize that every day of delay raises the costs of the project in terms of interest paid and income delayed. This sort of simple obstructionism turned into an uncomfortable bump in the road for Bristol, Virginia's project and we might well expect the same sort of thing here.

The Obstructionists channel Karen Carpenter

The Advocate has a story on Terry Huval's claim that the obstructionist tactics of BellSouth and Cox have already added costs to the LUS fiber to the home project.

While it is true (and regrettable), get ready for this to turn into a long-running performance.

Hell, this struggle has barely darkened the doorway of the Louisiana Public Service Commission. There will undoubtedly be lawsuits, too.

Having clearly lost the fight in the court of public opinion in Lafayette, BellSouth and Cox are preparing for protracted regulatory and legal fights.

Think Bill Oliver and Garry Cassard snarling a speed metal version of "We've Only Just Begun" through clenched teeth. That's about where we are.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Sins of the Father: The Heartland Institute

The Sins of the Father: The Heartland Institute's Heartless Ways

I've previously documented the ownership of "Expert Editorial, Inc."—an experts-for-hire company servicing mostly the telecom industry—by the author of a recent "editorial" published in the November 23 edition of the Lafayette Advertiser. But that unacknowledged affiliation is only part of the question the author's memberships raise. The one he acknowledges also leads to serious questions. (The editorial, unfortunately, does not appear on the Advertiser website. You can, instead, get it here.)

If openly soliciting the business of editorials for hire is not quite enough to raise questions about Titch and his essay, then his affiliation with the Heartland Institute should do the trick. The Institute is part of a the same interlocked band of far right-wing think tanks that include the Freedom and Progress Foundation that figured in our own "Academic Broadband Forum." Not merely conservative, these organizations go considerably beyond what is considered mainstream even for conservative organizations today. For instance they document disagreements with very conservative Republicans over an issue that received a lot of play in Louisiana: Drug reimportation from Canada. Even Vitter, our recently elected senator whose hard right candidacy discomfited much of the "reform" branch of the state Republican party, made sure to be video taped in Canada looking for cheap drugs for Louisiana seniors. Increasing competition and allowing individuals to make their own choices is not a hard position for conservatives to make. But it is for the Heartless Institute who apparently believe that buying cheaper drugs abroad would infringe upon the rights of the sorts of large corporations that fund them to demand that sick Americans to pay more their medicines than do Canadians.

On the other hand where taking a libertarian position would favor large corporations they are all for it. Even when it involves a little junk science. Check out their strange and tortured logic in the "Smoker's Lounge." There we (try to) follow a logic that attempts to convince us that the chances of a smoker dying from smoking related causes is not really 1 in 3, as the surgeon general following the consensus view of scientists working in the field holds, but is instead only 1 in 12. Leaving aside the strange idea that the Heartless institute actually finds this reassuring, the method applied misuses in a serious way the way the statistical underpinnings of such medical research. You can get a reasonable critique of the research's mistakes from a review at the American Council on Science and Health. A philosophical defense of allowing people to commit suicide in their own way I can understand—if not fully sympathize with. But minimizing the risk involved by citing junk science betrays a foundational dishonesty.

Occasionally the extremism of the underlying ideology peeks out as when the Institute confidently states that "Government schools are islands of socialism." They mean the public schools of our country which are run by directly elected school boards and paid for out of taxes voted for that purpose by the people who are most intimately familiar with the needs of the community in which they live. Socialism? Hardly. But the idea that schools, and consequently spending money on schools, are evil permeates the selection of the so-called research found on this site. One glaring example, and an issue that is under discussion here in Lafayette, is the way they discuss class size. As a former professor of education I assure you that the research on benefits of class size is rock-solid. The lengths to which the commentary here goes to throw doubt on this simple, well researched, and indeed obvious conclusion is amazing. Minimizing what is simply true in order to discourage communities from spending money on public schools in ways that would benefit kids is beyond the pale. Real children will suffer if these distortions are taken seriously. It is heartless. Again, having an ideological objection to public schooling is a possible—if well outside the American tradition. (Or the tradition of any modern society, be it left, right, or center.) But willfully misusing the research strips your intellectual position of any credibility.

No, Titch does himself no favor by attempting to wrap himself in the credibility of the Heartland Institute. It has none.

Note to Readers: Sins Series Launches

Hah! Bet that title drew some attention. ;-)

Seriously though: I'm trying something a little different in the blog based on last Sunday's Advertorial in the Advertiser. I've long had it in mind to do a full-fledged "Fact Check" or "Disinformation" piece for the website on disinformation and how it works in particular instances but time, life, and the blog have tended to keep my attention focused elsewhere. The "editorial" published by the Advertiser so nicely lays out a wide range of disinformation tactics that it reminded me of that project. Taking it apart in detail will just about amount to a case study on the topic. If I had the time. So what I'm planning to do is let the blog work for getting the larger piece done instead of against it. I'll post a shorter series of blog entries on the topic of the "sins" the article committs. (Sins of the fathers, of commission, of ommission) I'll then take those pieces and rework them into the larger, better integrated piece with a more stable presence on the website.

As an added bit of laigniappe, this "draft" style will allow folks to correct me or let me know of ways to extend my points.

(Before I start I should acknowledge the help of the Collins' who, as vetrans of the Tri-Cities fight mentioned in the advertorial have run into the fellows from the Heartland institute before and have been generous with their link lists.)

Bells' 'War Against Consumers' Tour Rolls into Pennsylvania

Today's iteration of The Washington Post's Filter column on technology contains the latest report from the frontlines of the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) effort to suppress bandwidth access that does not trip a pay meter somewhere in their organization.


This time, the front is in Pennsylvania and the war is against municipalities offering Wi-Fi services. The lead combatant in this effort is Verizon Communications.

Here's the relevant paragraph, which cites a Wall Street Journal article as its source:
The paper reported on recent efforts by Verizon Communications in Pennsylvania to lobby the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which "passed a bill with a deeply buried provision that would make it illegal for any 'political subdivision' to provide to the public 'for any compensation any telecommunications services, including advanced and broadband services within the service territory of a local exchange telecommunications company operating under a network-modernization plan.' Verizon is the local exchange telecommunications company for most of Pennsylvania, and it is planning to modernize the region using high-speed fiber-optic cable. The bill has 10 days for the governor to sign it or veto it. The Pennsylvania bill follows similar legislative efforts earlier this year by telephone companies in Utah, Louisiana and Florida to prevent municipalities from offering telecommunications services, which could include fiber and Wi-Fi."
The Louisiana effort cited was the attempt last spring led by BellSouth to pass legislation which would have banned any municipal efforts to get into the telecommunications infrastructure or services businesses. The measure targeted the Lafayette Utilities System (LUS) fiber to the home plan which was then little more than a concept. Thanks to strong backing from Governor Kathleen Blanco, LUS and its allies were able to modify the bill so that it, in effect, became a road map for municipalities to enter the business from which BellSouth and Cox sought to bar them.

One can only hope that municipal broadband proponents have been in touch with LUS to learn about how this legislative jujitsu was executed.

Yes, Pennsylvania, the RBOCs can be beaten. If you want to learn how, come to Louisiana!

UPDATE:
Free Press has a story from MediaChannel.org on the Pennsylvania fight, noting that cable giant Comcast (the largest cable provider in these United States) is also supporting the municipal broadband ban.

Advertiser Endorses Broadband

For rural areas.

Council challenged to develop plan to wire all rural areas

Without further comment...feel free to add your own.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Verizon Joins LUS in its Belief in "Future Proof" Fiber

Hoover's Online reviews the baby Bell's embrace of broadband-based video in the context of their deadly competition with the cablecos. Worth reading for the overview, the story contains a strikingly forthright quote:
"'Everybody in the industry knows and believes that fiber is the overall answer, long-term,' said Mark Marchand, a Verizon spokesman. 'The real question becomes, do you do it now or later? We want to do it once. We think this future-proofs our network.'"
Indeed, everyone does. Including those local and regional executives who have wanted us to believe otherwise and their bought "experts" who continue try and deceive us about the ultimate value of fiber to the home.

Lafayette takes first step into the great fiber optic unknown

Meandering style aside one has to regard Bill Decker's latest foray into commentary on Lafayette's fiber optic venture as yet another sign of just how thoroughly LUS has carried the day on this issue.

Close watchers of the local newspaper will have followed Decker's slow evolution to this almost-endorsement from his first less than thoughtful (and less than useful) immoderate attack on LUS, from which I quote: “What’s next? A five-year plan? A hall of socialist labor heroes?” We are no longer comparing LUS to Communists, no Stalinists—and that's real progress.

So I report the flaws in this latest missive with a great sense of appreciation for what it is not. Still, there's still some distance to go if we are to get to truly informed and informative commentary. Decker spends the first three paragraphs telling us what isn't accomplished by last Tuesday's vote before getting to half of the story about what it did accomplish: "the vote did express broad council support for the LUS proposal." It, of course, misses the primary purpose of the vote: to comply with the state law requiring public hearings to explore and a vote to approve the plan. The vote was the test set up by law to approve the idea....that has been the central and most important question all along; one that is now settled. All the rest is mere implementation.

There is a bit more obscurity about the competition increasing services, LUS' bonding status, a twitch about the design of the rollout—none of which mature to a firm conclusion about what the commentator believes is actually supposed to be happening.

But in the end there is a cheering bit of approval for Lafayette doing what the author sees as is its "best shot at guiding the region’s development in a positive way" by embracing "the cyber-future — hyperfast data services available to industry, business and consumer alike, everywhere in town, for whatever you want to learn, invent, make or sell."

Decker closes with:

"Nothing says Lafayette is ready for that future as clearly as the City-Parish Council’s vote."

We've come a long way, baby.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Sins of the Father: Why voters are (not) rejecting municipal broadband

The Sunday Advertiser has an obnoxious "guest editorial" from a man named Titch who represents himself as an expert from the Heartland Institute. While that is one of his affiliations (and more on that later) the affiliation that is most likely in play here is his business: Expert Editorial Inc. a self-admittedly research-for-hire organization.

Here is all you should need to know from that organization's front page:
Expert Editorial adds a critical “third-party” viewpoint for media and customer marketing campaigns. We can provide your target audience with the context, background and significance of your technology from an analytical perspective that supports, yet remains detached from your own marketing and sales personnel.
Want a little translation from a recovering academic? Here you go: Hey corporations, look over here! We are willing to pretend to be a disinterested third party "research" provider who can say anything you want us to say without involving the good name of your company. And especially without involving your own marketing and sales people in an effort that might well be discredited. And all you have to do is pay us. Deal?

That's what is being said. My question is, and yours, (and the Advertiser's for that matter) is who is doing the paying this time?

I've got family obligations right now, but more later, I promise. This far too rich to let go of so easily. You'll also want to know what else the Heartland Institute supports, for instance. Nothing with much heart, I assure you.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Durel, Fiber, & the Sewers of New Orleans

Today's Advertiser has a story, "Durel pushes fiber optic plan" It covers Durel's appearance last night at the Fontana Center last night and serves to underline Durel's support for the fiber initiative. Here's a nice pull quote on the risk of the venture:
We would do a section at a time, and if not enough people buy in, we would stop, he said. So, within about $5 million (investment), we would probably know if well be successful. I consider this an extremely low-risk venture.
Fiber was not the only on topic on the agenda. An interesting little bit of news is probably not really connected to our fiber dreams but you never know...
He said he is holding bi-monthly meetings with other elected officials throughout Acadiana and hoped that both Lafayette and New Orleans would benefit from recent meetings he had with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
The mayor of Broussard has made it clear that he would like intercity cooperation to extend beyond the water supply issues that animated his honor earlier in the year. He'd like a slice of the telecom pie as well. As for Nagin...that continuing relationship has just got me curious. I can't help but think about that "fiber optics in the sewers" project down there. It'd be great if Louisiana could go the way of Utah and now Iowa—with Lafayette rather than Baton Rouge or New Orleans at the center of the web.





Dreaming

It's time and past time for Lafayette Pro Fiber to get out of its "defense of fiber" crouch and get on to the more serious business of dreaming, fantasizing and looking forward to what we might do to together here in Lafayette. We announce our intention to do that here.

Don't expect the acid-tongued persona to vanish. It's imminently justified. But look for an increase in the work of trying to make sense of background issues and to work out the implications of choices made for our community's future.

The real work is ahead for us all. Tuesday was a success, and that success is not fully secured. But now is the time to begin the hard work of dreaming. And we will be doing that here.

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Note: This post has been sitting in "draft" status for more than a month awaiting this Tuesday's vote. Hey it's Friday...time to get back to work

Digital Divide Issues Come to the Fore

The Advocate runs a story at the top of the Acadidana section today that tracks a major shift in the public focus of the fiber to the home story here in Lafayette. The story, LUS to override digital divide, is given banner headline status on that page and is even graced with a subhead: Plan to connect lower-income areas.

The prominenant placement is appropriate—this will be the most important part of the story now that the bare fact of the system being built is largely settled.

For my money the ideas floated in public aren't yet ambitious enough—but more on that later. For now get yourself up to speed on the story; this is an aspect well worth following.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

LUS prepares for next move on fiber-to-home front

The Advertiser does its follow-up story, assessing or rather not assessing the significance of yesterday's vote and the likely path ahead purely in terms of it stodgy "he said, she said" style.

It's not that the story is bad, not really. It's that it isn't good. This method of writing is always mediocre and prone to systematic distortions.

An example of distortion: Early in the story the paper sites Councilman Broussard's bald assertion that they city wasn't really building fiber until it voted money. He tried to get Huval to agree with this assessment. Huval, perfectly aware that this is untrue, that Tuesday's vote was pivotal and decisive politically, declined to agree. He also declined to openly disagree with one of his bosses. A "Good Move," most would agree. But the underlying meaning was also crystal clear to anyone paying attention; including, I strongly suspect, Mr. Broussard. A mediocre story reports only what is clearly said and passes on. A better story would have noted that really, "according to those familiar with the politics of the matter" this vote was decisive and satisfying digital divide critics was probably the most significant barrier in a fight that now appears to be all downhill for the city. The opposition is in disarray and there is no significant group that distrusts LUS or believes the plan unworkable. A wrap-up story that doesn't get to these hard facts but relies only on what people are comfortable saying before cameras not only misses what is really important but actively distorts the meanings of events.

Lafayette deserves better.

The Advocate Weighs In

The Advocate, having missed reporting the vote yesterday because its publication deadline was before the vote was taken runs its overview story today. Aside from the overview it has some meaty qoutes from the councilmen on why they voted as they did. Read with yesterday's Advertiser story you can get a good sense of the flavor of the meeting at which Lafayette took an historic step.

Bond, The Digital Divide, and Trust

The most contentious issue of Tuesday's historic council meeting was the digital divide—the cluster of concerns about the way in which modern communications technologies have served to increase the gap between those that have in our society and those that do not. Dealing with that, or rather not dealing with it, has been the dark underside of glowing promise of our new, high-tech information society. Both two weeks ago and again last Tuesday Huval gave personal assurances that a plan that would satisfy those concerns would be developed in the next six months. The Advocate story had one bit of information that may prove politically crucial:

By January, LUS will likely ask the council for permission to ask the State Bond Commission for authority to issue the $111 million in bonds, LUS Director Terry Huval said.

This means that the vote on issuing bonds will take place before the date for the submission of a full plan for dealing with the digital divide issues. Agreement that those issues would be dealt with were crucial to the plan moving forward with near unanimity. Both the council and the public commenters showed strong support.

The bonds need to be issued as soon as is humanely possible since bond rates are rising. Each day of delay adds to the cost. Interest will be, as it is on any mortgage, by far the largest cost. Each extra increment of interest results in higher minimum prices for services. It is in the interest of all to keep the costs as low as possible and so it is in the interest of all to hope the bonds can be issued as quickly as possible for as little as possible.

Any thorough-going attempt to address digital divide issues will have to take longer than three months. It will, frankly, take longer than six months. Starting the process now is an unfortunate by-product of LUS defensive posture during the fiber fight here in Lafayette. A series of public meetings on fiber, which would have been the ideal way to have developed the project in the absence of unprincipled incumbent opposition would have brought this issue to the fore much earlier. The process of dealing with it now will be a matter of human timing and street level politics; not engineering. It can't be hurried and remain effective; it simply takes time to build the human relationships that are crucial in an endeavor this new and important. Because the issue is barely on the radar of most of the community bringing them up to speed and even getting started bringing people from different communities will take time.

So come January we will be faced with a vote where the strongest advocates of bringing our community together with a digital divide project will have to vote up or down on the whole project with, at best, only the barest outline of a real plan in place and the actual quality of the plan still building. There will likely be a couple of projects written into the budget that goes to the bonding authorities. What won't be in place at that time is the sort of unified, established and ongoing community effort that at least two councilmen pushed for and which was endorsed time and again during the public comments: A fully realized commitment for the community coming together to advance backed by publicly visible leadership and money.

When push comes to shove it will be a moment for trust. I think Mike in his blog entry on the meeting hit the nail on the head: in the end the council vote was, as much as anything, a vote to trust Terry Huval, the crew at LUS, and the history of the utility.

More trust will be what is called in January. Mustering that trust will go along way toward telling us whether fiber has actually begun to serve as a catalyst for community unity and progress that some of us hope it can be.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Forbes.com: DSL Is In Danger Of Losing Out To Cable

A theme hereabouts has been that the unnatural alliance between Cox and BellSouth is a marriage of convenience, and that the short end of the stick is held by BellSouth. (How many metaphors did I just mix?) BellSouth's fiber to the curb strategy is not going to work as advertised as the technical analysts have been saying for some time. The financial analysts are beginning to to take note. (I see as I log in that Mike has pointed to a more extensive analysis at the Wharton School of Buisiness and pointed out the implications for our case. Good Stuff.)

From the guys at Deutsche Bank:
"The undeniable truth is that DSL is in danger of losing the early battle to cable,"

"We continue to believe operators emphasizing FTTP [fiber to the premises] should be better positioned over the long term, with FTTN [fiber to the network (sic: node)] and other solutions second best."
Clever fellows, those Germans.

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One simple comment:
One of the more frustrating elements of the fight for fiber in Lafayette has been the unreflective presumption free enterprise purists that Cox and BellSouth, by the simple fact that they are privately owned, are somehow smarter, more nimble, and just plain better businessmen than the guys at LUS. 'Tain't so. And it was bad logic to ever think so. LUS is right about Fiber To The Home and BellSouth will pay the price throughout its footprint if it persists in believing that some future, as yet unrealized technology will save its Fiber To The Curb strategy from the coming deluge of bits that is HDTV. Praying for salvation is not a business strategy.

It is huge, monolithic institutions, of whatever ownership structure that tend to be blundering, self-assured, hives of incompetence that make business decisions that only make sense in terms of advancing in the bureaucracy. It is small, nimble, businesses that are close to their customers that tend to make smarter long-term business decisions. We are lucky to have one of the these in Lafayette and "free enterprise" purists would do well to think their position through more carefully. They've missed that the essential quality that they admire is found in businesses that are small, sharp, local, and have a rock solid commitments to their customer base. These are the "mammals" of the economic ecosystem. Cox and BellSouth are the dinosaurs.

Truth from Knowledge@Wharton

This is a great article from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business eletter, Knowledge@Wharton.

It looks at the decision by Verizon Communications to invest heavily in fiber to the premises technology — the same technology that the Lafayette Utilities System (LUS) proposes to roll out in Lafayette.

In the process of reviewing this decision, the professors and analysts quoted provide a clear-eyed picture of the challenges facing the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), like BellSouth. The article blows huge holes in the pitch by the BellSouth Louisiana team that somehow they can get their DSL infrastructure to support video deployment in a way anywhere comparable to the kinds of service available over cable systems. The notion that this fiber-to-copper based technology (DSL) is (or could ever become) the near equivalent of fiber is laughable.

Overall, the article is yet another powerful validation of the LUS infrastructure strategy. It also reinforces the point I've been making here: the RBOCs (and BellSouth is ours) face considerable challenges that leave no inexpensive, low-risk way out.

Knowledge@Wharton is a free eletter. You may have to register to access the article, but it's well worth the effort. Besides, by registering, you'll get this always useful eletter sent direct to your own email box every week or so.

History in the Making

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

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

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

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

There were 3.5 opponents to the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Media Reports On Council Vote

Apologies for the late media posting. A late night last night :-) and lots of stuff to catch up on this morning are my only excuses.

The best story today is is in the Advertiser. (Council passes $110.5M fiber plan) Good, clean reporting and they troubled themselves to do some nice sound bites from those speaking in the public comments section of the program. I'd like to have heard some reporting on the explanations each council member gave for their vote since that is what will be truly consequential in long run.

The Advocate went to press with its story (Council debates LUS network) before the vote was taken but there are still worthwhile things to look at, particularly concerning Mayor Billings of Provo and the attendance of State Treasurer John Kennedy who is chairman of the State Bond Commission.

KATC has an online story as well (LUS Fiber Plan Approved) to which they've attached a video. Kinda fun but funky javascript, low res, and a clogged Cox pipe to my home lower the its quality. We know how to fix part of that equasion.

Lafayette Steps Up and Steps Forward

At 11:07 on November the 16th Lafayette entered a new era. The first vote enabling LUS to move forward with a fiber to the home system passed with but one dissenting vote.

Ok, maybe 11:07 wasn't the exact moment when that happened. Maybe there was a long series of obscure votes on various resolutions and ordinances by confusingly constituted bodies that voted twice on all the crucial stuff just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Maybe that is what really happened. But I like the symbolism involved with the 11:07 time. Lucky numbers, you know.

The night stretched on, and on, and on. We saw all the presentations we saw last Tuesday again. Apparently Act 736 requires it. Then we saw some of the same people asking the same (or ones that were indistinguishable from the same) questions we heard last week. And we saw a repetition of opponents getting up and praising LUS and praising fiber but not like the idea of putting the two together. Some things did change a little: last time only one incumbent came; this time no incumbent bothered to register an objection. We got a few opponents saying out loud what I inferred last week: that what they really feared was LUS' success. If LUS was successful they feared that the competition would run Cox and BellSouth out of town; or, unaccountably they feared that such success would just be, somehow, wrong. That the opponents were reduced to praise of LUS and fear of its success is an amazing indication of just how weak the opposition has become. The opposition has ended not with the fireworks I would have once expected but with a whimper.

The biggest change from last Tuesday was the almost unanimous support from the community: A large crowd waited into the night, five and a half hours, to watch the historic proceedings and a fair number—25 by one count—were there to speak before the council. They were, mostly, impassioned and were, mostly, whole-heartedly for the fiber initiative. The few who spoke in opposition remarked on just how rare they were. At least one came to the podium clearly having intended to blast the project but admitted to having learned things that gave him pause during the hours he waited to speak.

The surprise of the night was the reappearance of Mayor Billings from Provo who flew in this afternoon, came to the council meeting, complimented our food, passionately plead our cause, was called to the podium repeatedly to answer questions from the council members, and sat through the whole thing. He saddles up and flies out again early in the morning. He had to miss that good Louisiana dinner he had more than earned. The man deserves a medal. I hope someone will at least serve him breakfast.

But the council vote made the whole thing worthwhile. Delicious. It really does usher in a new age.

Now we just have to decide what we want that age to be.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Media Roundup/Digital Divide

The Advocate and the Advertiser both run the expected story on tonight's council vote, both outlining the procedures, and pointing to a yes vote. The Advertiser has a bit more, revealing Councilman Williams' threat to vote no unless some sort of explicit provision to provide remedies for the digital divide issues that concern him are included.

I hope that is all grandstanding. I've done some work in this area and LUS is correct when they say that the most intractable part of the digital divide problem is availability and the price of access. What LUS has promised in a rock-solid way to do in terms of universal service (everyone will have access) and price (a substantial cut in prices) will accomplish in one stroke what has led to the failure of many otherwise well-designed projects to narrow the digital divide. Voting against this would mean the councilman would also be voting against cheaper cable access for his folks. It doesn't make sense. I'd have been happier seeing some sort of language in the feasibility study and it not being there was a real political mistake on the part of LUS; it was one of the things I went looking far as well and was disappointed not to find after the early promises. Of course, the shape of our feasibility study was a result of LUS adopting a defensive posture about putting anything substantial that was not required in the feasibility study. That seemed unwise to me at the time, and I said so. This fracas is one result of that decision. Still, it is my sense that LUS can be trusted on this. They have shown initiative about getting outfront with innovative ways to provide price relief for poorer families on the electricity front—a point Huval pointedly made in an exchange with Williams last Tuesday, and which Williams conceded—and it would seem that this would buy LUS some credibility on this issue.

On the other hand, I'd like to see LUS give Williams something to take home since they've promised, and I believe intend, to address this issue. The problem is that it is hard to see just what the mechanism would be—this is supposed to be an up or down vote on accepting a feasibility plan that has already been deposited and this process is fairly tightly regulated by state law.

I just hate to see a game of chicken being played with this issue. It is far too important.

Cox to BellSouth: 'Are you choked up over my new services, or is my foot on your throat hindering your breathing?'

This is the press release Cox Communications issued regarding their announcement on Monday that they are rolling out Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service in Southwest Louisiana.

It's good news for customers because it will lower prices and make innovative services available to them — particularly to businesses.

We'll have entries on local press coverage of the announcement, but this release is of interest (despite the typically self-serving stuff that constitutes state-of-the-art corporate press releases) because of the link to this PDF which provides some of the technical explanations of Cox's VoIP system.

Wanna geek up on VoIP? That PDF is a good place to go.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Uh, Mister Oliver. SBC says Fiber IS The Future

I'm almost to the point of pitying Bill Oliver and the gang at BellSouth Louisiana these days.

Here's a very condensed listing of the problems their erstwhile partner in opposition to the LUS fiber to the premises plan (Cox) is causing them:

For starters, Cox is rolling out new services that, frankly, just run circles around anything BellSouth can offer over its current infrastructure. The new Cox telephone service is targeted for a direct hit on BellSouth's marketshare.

Then, there is the fact that Cox (along with other major cable companies) is also considering a cell phone venture that could give it yet another service to bundle at BellSouth's expense (this, after BellSouth borrowed a couple of billion dollars more to finance its part of the Cingular buyout of AT&T Wireless just before the first public hearing on the LUS plan last week).

The extent to which all of this appears to be rattling BellSouth cages was hinted at during Oliver's speech to the Parish Council in opposition to the LUS plan. His voice dripping with sarcasm and contempt, Oliver said that the BellSouth VP who extolled the virtues of fiber was no longer with the company. Apparently, at BellSouth (as in some certain other venues), you're either with 'em or against 'em. With the VP now consigned to the "ex" file, Oliver indicated the argument in favor of fiber went out the company with him.

Ah, if life was but so simply controlled. Unfortunately for BellSouth and Oliver, there are trends that all the spinning by the company's formidable lobbying machine (which works so magically on Louisiana's Legislature and the Public Service Commission) can't alter.

One of those stubborn facts is the emergence of fiber as the infrastructure of choice for modern telecommunications. Oh, don't take our word for it. Don't take LUS's word for it.

Take the word of BellSouth's senior partner in the Cingular Wireless venture, SBC.

The Houston Business Journal had a story on its website on Monday which dealt with an announcement by SBC regarding its intent to begin offering Internet Protocol-based television services over its new network by the fourth quarter of 2005.

Did I mention that this new network will be all fiber? Here's what the SBC folks had to say:

SBC expects total build-out will be complete in 2007, as previously projected, and the company should be able to market its full-range of Internet protocol-based voice, Internet and high-definition television services to 18 million households by the end of 2007.

The move allows SBC to challenge its cable television competitors, which have been making in-roads in the Bell territories by offering local telephone service and high-speed Internet access.

"Project Lightspeed provides a number of important advantages - including superior speed to market with exciting, market-changing services, and it allows us to leap-frog today's U.S. telephone and cable TV networks," says Lea Ann Champion, senior executive vice president of SBC IP operations and services.

"Over the past several months, SBC teams have put intense study and careful analysis into this project," she adds. "Our deployment schedule is achievable. Our approach is capital-efficient and financially disciplined, capable of delivering positive returns on investment with conservative penetration assumptions. We are very confident in our ability to execute and make solid progress in the months ahead."

SBC will build out this network using two technologies - fiber to the premises (FTTP) and fiber to the node (FTTN).
OK, so the SBC network won't be quite as advanced as the LUS network in all places (like Cox, they'll do fiber to the neighborhood node in existing neighborhoods), but it will be based on fiber — and, in new developments, will actually be about equal to the LUS fiber to the premises project.

The point here is that SBC is validating the LUS approach of fiber-based infrastructure with its own investment of $4 Billion. And, they're in a hurry! They want to roll the whole thing out by the end of 2007.

Despite the fact that BellSouth and Cox lawyers and lobbyists are plotting to delay the LUS plan by whatever means possible in the courts and at the PSC, it's likely that the LUS fiber roll out could actually be well underway by that SBC gets it's infrastructure project rolling.

At the end of the day, if the Consolidated Government Council gives its approval to the LUS plan, the municipally-owned utility will deliver fiber to every home and business in Lafayette. At that time it would be interesting to know just how much money BellSouth and Cox will have wasted in their efforts to stop this project and how that money might have been put to better use — perhaps by upgrading their infrastructure and services? — instead of paying lawyers.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

LUS fiber plan faces crucial vote Tuesday

The Sunday Advertiser runs "LUS fiber plan faces crucial vote Tuesday" as its Sunday headline. All in all it is pretty thin gruel. The story reviews the history, summarizes the plan, and covers the arguments of the boosters and opponents is the "he said; she said" fashion that has come to pass for objective journalism.

Though it may not matter much to the reading public, the decision to run a local story as the "Sunday Headline" is a significant one for those who work at a daily newspaper. The decision to present the fiber optic story as the story of the week makes sense. On a local level it is arguably the story of the year in its potential to shape the future. It is hard not to wish for a more muscular, in-depth piece that opens the issue up for examination by the public in addition to simply reporting the latest back and forth. If the story is worth the Sunday Head it is worth a little more work effort at this time to fill out the story and help readers understand what has and has not been credible in what has been said by both sides over the course of the story.

Still, taking this for what it is rather than what it could be, it isn't a bad little summary and is worth the read as long as you are careful not to take the he said, she said portions too seriously.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Council: Taking the Vote

The Advocate covers the technicals of how Tuesday's vote will be run in "LUS hearing curfew rules face council on Tuesday" to satisfy legal requirements of actual governance (LPUA) controls and bonding (the City-Parish is responsible). I could rephrase but Blanchard does a better job:

The LPUA, the governing authority for LUS, is made up of the five councilmen whose districts are comprised of at least 60 percent city residents.

The two bodies will officially hold a second public hearing on LUS' Fiber for the Future initiative -- the first was held Tuesday.

After the hearing, LPUA will vote on the proposal. After that vote, the council as a whole will vote on the measure. A majority of the membership of both bodies have made public comments seeming to indicate support for LUS' plan.


Friday, November 12, 2004

Iowa's State-wide Fiber (And We Don't Mean Hay)

It's beginning to look like a movement, cher!

A major fiber initiative has been launched in Iowa. Backed by a list of some of the biggest names in Iowa--a telecom millionaire, former governors, university presidents and other notables-Opportunityiowa.org has launched an aggressive campaign to run fiber to 25% of the households in that very rural state.

Not only is the idea of such a large rollout aggressive, the attack launched on the incumbents is likely to give the idea of a preemptive attack a good name: check out their video promoting municipal utilities. It lays out a rock solid case for public ownership that is not compromised by any mealy-mouthed concern for the feelings of monopolists. The tag line: "A fiber line to your home and business can only be built by the community." The video's uncompromising position is that such essential infrastructure should be owned by the community.

This campaign bears the clear signs of being modeled on a similar state-wide network being built in Utah. Like Utah's, Iowa's network will conn
ect local municipal utilities that build the fiber network in their town. The basic concept, again echoing Utah's, is for the fiber to form an "open" network which any provider could use to provide services. Individual towns, however, may choose to provide their own services.

The essential issue in Iowa, as it is in Lafayette, is local control of natural monopoly infrastructure. Just a few months ago this was an unusual position to take; today it seems that it is emerging as common sense.

Both USAToday and TelephonyOnline have good stories on this event if you want to dig a little deeper.

Something-to-Consider: Within a single week Lafayette will have won its battle for fiber and Iowa will have launched a no-holds barred initiative that aims straight at the heart of monopoly power and advocates local control of essential telecom services. Look for this virus to become epidemic once local and state governments recognize that Utah, Iowa, and places like (gasp!) Lafayette, Louisiana are both winning against monopoly power, and gaining a huge competitive advantage over other locales in the race for information age jobs.

Post Script:
Can suggestions to use Lafayette's muscular fiber build as the heart of a Louisiana fiber network similar to Iowa's and Utah's be far behind? I have had a continuing fantasy about that and even posted a brief reflection on that idea in an old blog entry saying:
"I've always wondered what BellSouth and Cox were afraid of that warrants the thermonuclear level of response we've seen. A regional Louisiana fiber network linking cities a la Utah's Utopia project might be part of it."

I still think it is a good idea. If our state's leaders can gather up the courage that Iowa's show Louisiana could make itself over into the tech mecca of South.

LUS tabloid touts fiber-optic initiative

If you've not got your glossy, tabloid-format "Fiber for the Future" informational mailer this week and are a customer of LUS you can expect to get it soon. It started hitting mailboxes in Lafayette the day before yesterday.

Big, beautiful, and professionally produced, the mailer was, we understand, originally intended to be an informationally accurate counter to an anticipated advertising campaign disinformation campaign by incumbents in the final month or two before the council vote. That campaign simply never materialized.

It now serves the equally useful, and certainly happier, purpose of informing the community about the potentials of a project that now seems all but inevitable.

Lafayette city residents can take a look at their own copy but for those of our readers who lie outside that ambit the Advocate story has an overview:
The front cover features Jim Prince, of Stone Energy Corp., and Bill Fenstermaker, of C.H. Fenstermaker and Associates -- two proponents of the Fiber for the Future project -- and a story about the impact the project could have on the educational system.

Other articles focus on impacts on health care, economic development and the oil and gas industry.
Or you can go to the newly revamped, equally glossy, Fiber for the Future website. From the homepage you can link to the pdf formatted newsletter (Volume 1, Number 1). I look forward to seeing a Volume 1, Number 2.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Independent's Endorsement

The Independent, in a calm and well-reasoned review of the risks and benefits of the LUS proposal, reiterates its support of the Lafayette's fiber optic initiative. The Independent web site hasn't been carrying its weekly articles so I will break with my usual practice of linking to websites in lieu of extensive quotation in order to give you a fuller taste of the piece. Still, it is worth going to one of the Independent locations to get a copy of your own.
Already, just the talk of LUS' project has incumbent providers offering better technology and lower costs, and promising even more down the road—though neither Cox Communications nor BellSouth will commit to any long-term plans to bring fiber into households. And their copper alternatives will always have severe limitations in a world of infinite possibilities for the transmission of data streams.

...If this heavy dose of fiber comes close to meeting its goals, the system's long-term benefits to our education, health care, and business systems could be huge.

...LUS has a long track record of success—and this project's phased-in rollout allows it to pull the plug midway if numbers don't add up. The worst-case scenarios that the project comes to fruition and latter fails. Considering that LUS has 55,000 electric customers the utility claims that it would only take each of us a dollar or so more on our monthly utility bill to pay off the $2 million annual debt.

It appears to be a risk that Lafayette is willing to take.
Amen to that.

LUS service fate in council's hands

Kevin Blanchard at the Advocate follows up on yesterday's article about the city-parish council meeting with an article that focuses on the ground-level politics.

It covers city/rural politics, new estimates of the risks and benefits of the plan, changing technologies, and digital divide issues.

A good overview. Get it at the Advocate Online: LUS service fate in council's hands


NOTE:
The section on city/rural politics includes a fairly serious typo; the story is missing a crucial "not." It should (in my judgment) read, with missing not inserted:

Consultant Doug Dawson, who LUS hired to conduct a feasibility study on the project -- and who has done several similar projects around the country -- said that similar areas have [NOT] seen the "rate retaliation" that Badeaux described.

The "political pressure" against the companies would be too intense, Dawson said.
Dawson was clear on this; additionally it just isn't the way that these corporations operate. They set rates for an entire region. The Public Service Commission would simply not allow BellSouth to mess with their rates this way. Cox would have to specifically single out communities near Lafayette to punish for Lafayette's "bad behavior." In addition to being clearly unfair (it isn't their fault Lafayette is building fiber) it would be disastrous politics. Since they will not be able to raise, and will more likely lower rates in Lafayette, punishing the innocent will be painfully obvious. In response the smaller cities have plenty of great ways to "punish" franchisees who abuse their monopoly over landlines in this way. Of course, that assumes that they had any business left when the franchise was renewed--if Cox did something this in a region where I lived I'd cheerfully lead a movement to "patriotically" move to any satellite provider that promised to keep their rates the same as they were charging in Lafayette. Add to that the raw fact that, as Huval and Dawson noted, it would be an open invitation for LUS to move in and would prompt local municipalities to grant very favorable terms, allowing LUS to replace Cox. No. "Rate retaliation" has never happened and will never happen for good, solid reality-based reasons. No matter how badly Cox would like to scare particular councilmen about it.

Update 2:50 11/11/04:
Just got an email to the effect that Kevin Blanchard will be correcting the online version of the story. —So don't be too surprised if you visit and find that all is well online.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Showdown of the Giants

The Wall Street Journal (free this week) confirms local suspicions that BellSouth's threatening stance regarding offering a triple play (and more) in Lafayette is more hype than substance. In a story assessing how likely the Bells are to answer the cable companies' move to offer phone services by providing video services says this about BellSouth:

...not every Bell is convinced that video is worth the multibillion-dollar investment. BellSouth Corp. has still not officially decided whether it will make a push into delivering its own video service and is concerned about the high cost.

"While there is a lot of excitement and buzz around video, we're a long way away from making a decision on whether we'll go ahead with it," says BellSouth Chief Financial Officer Ron Dykes. He adds that the Atlanta-based company, which already has extensive fiber in the ground, will run trials this year and next.

Oliver's anger over using quotes from retired employees to bolster LUS points was plain Tuesday night. But Dykes is not retired at all. I have to wonder what Mr. Oliver would say about this.

It's hard to remain calm when the head office keeps on undercutting your position.

Opponents and Incumbents Change Their Tune

One interesting tidbit that I haven't seen mentioned here or elsewhere is that Dawson, LUS' consultant, had new numbers for the lowest take rates that would prevent the system from losing money that were down to 21%. In fact, a lot of the presentation was devoted to impressing upon the council just how small the actual risk of the venture is. That didn't make for dramatic TV or interesting reading and so goes underreported but keeping in mind that the actual purpose of the meeting is useful: the idea, mandated by recent law, was to publicly assess the feasibility plan and decide whether or not to proceed on the basis of the business plan it describes. Financial tidbits like the break-even take rate are centrally important to making a judgment about the business plan.

If we focus on the financial risks and benefits the heart of the event lay in convincing the council and the public that the risk of failure is low and the chance of success high. From that point of view the event was a smashing success. The presentation was actually quite convincing that the upsides financially were great and the downside pretty minimal. But it is less the quality of the LUS presentation, effective though it was, than the response of the opponents that leads me say that LUS has won the battle of convincing the public that its plan can succeed.

An important thing that has gone unremarked is that last night, aside from BellSouth's Oliver's angry tirade, a new way of thinking about the issue emerged among opponents. Those who have been following the story will recall that the opponents have taken the condescending position that because LUS is a governmental agency it cannot, for that "reason" alone, hope to succeed against real "free enterprise" companies like Cox and BellSouth. This is faith-based, ideological reasoning and, as has been argued repeatedly on this site, runs head on into the reality of the market and LUS' history as an technically sophisticated, efficient, and popular public utility. Regardless, the opponents have consistently argued that they are generously saving the city from itself; they are simply trying to keep the city from engaging in the losing enterprise of competition.

That idea had vanished last night. The new ideologically-based line is that it would be awful if LUS succeeded. The ideologues no longer want to save us from ourselves. They want to save us from LUS' success. The worries focused on LUS' successful competition (that it might eliminate Cox and BellSouth!), on its reluctance to allow competition over its own lines for the successful services it intends to offer, and on the concern that somehow LUS' success would be unamerican. That's a huge change—and weak stuff. It's going to be hard to convince the public that they ought to fear LUS' success.

In its own way Oliver's tirade is another sort of confirmation that the ground has shifted to LUS. Oliver no longer is "reasonably" trying to save us from our own folly. He is now in full blown, burn the bridges, attack mode. He is claiming new weapons will emerge in the war to come and that BellSouth will compete aggressively, throwing everything they have into the fight. You can doubt, as we do here, that BellSouth will actually carry through with a fight that costs them more than words. But the reality of their difficult situation is not the subject of this post—the news is that rhetorically they have dropped most of their condescension and are treating LUS like the aggressive competitor it will be. BellSouth is treating LUS as someone you try and bluster and threaten into submission. And that, in its own way, is evidence that LUS has succeeded in convincing us all—pro or con on the construction of a municipal fiber optic network—that its feasibility study describes a business plan that can succeed.

In its own way Cox's absence is part of that same shift. It is famously hard to interpret absence but the most straightforward interpretation of Cox's no-show last night is that they felt they had nothing to gain by arguing with the feasibility study's methods or conclusions. My guess is that they judge this battle already lost and their contempt for the community runs so deep that they are no longer bothering to even address their objections to the people. I have no doubt, no one who has followed this could have any doubt, that Cox will continue to fight. But it is significant that they do not choose to even argue with the feasibility study.

The take-away message is this: Everyone agrees that LUS' fiber optic project is doable. That is no longer at issue. All that is left to decide is whether or not your interests are best served by allowing LUS to succeed.

The incumbents clearly have taken a position against allowing that success to mature. And ideologues agree, for their own reasons, that LUS success would be a bad thing for the ideas the hold.

But the real question is whether the council and the people think LUS should be allowed to succeed. In reality, I think that question has been answered as well.

I sure hope I am in one of the areas that gets fiber early. Where do I sign up?