Sunday, January 23, 2005

Week(s) in Review

Regular readers of Lafayette Pro Fiber:

What follows is a summary of the last two weeks of the fiber debate in Lafayette. It is something I do occasionally (meaning less often than I should) on Timshel. For those of you who may not know Timshel it's the Acadiana region's premeire politcal blog and a great read. (If you can endure the pro Saints, anti Tiger proclivities Ricky shows. I try never to criticize a man's religion, but...)

Ricky gave me my start in blogging when he asked if I'd do some guest posts on fiber following convoluted remarks I had made in the comments. Consequently the folks over there have some background in the fiber issue and I still try and go over and catch them up even while I attend to LPF.

This post was a little different, it's less news and more interpretation. So I thought folks here might be interested even though you've already seen all the bits. Let me know if this sort of thing is interesting..... (This one covers two weeks. It appeared first on Timshel Saturday.)

It's been an eventful couple of weeks since I've last checked in with a summary post; apologies for the absence. Lafayette's fight to be allowed to invest in itself with a state of the art phone/data/cable utility has been beset by what has mostly turned out to be confusion.

Here's the executive overview: The tide is rising. I sense one of those tipping points coming where suddenly all those folks who have been guarded about the project and a shockingly high percentage of those who'd been clearly dismissive of the possibility discover that they've been ardent supporters all along.

That's a good thing and is both natural and necessary. But it's hard for those weary pro-fiber partisan smiles not to be a little wry.

Here's a little tale that illustrates how the last two weeks have gone:

When last we visited on these pages BellSouth's Williams had issued each truck in his service fleet a copy of the anti-fiber petition to tote around town with them while they service the public. (Apparently the workers didn't necessarily greet that with enthusiasm.) What was most noticeable about William's support was that nothing visible came of it. No announcements about numbers of signatures gathered by blue and white trucks and no further supportive comments from BellSouth headquarters. Word then leaks out that Williams has talked to his employees again, and that the memo's instructions this time is that they are not to circulate the petition on company time. Finally we are treated to the spectacle of BellSouth's William's disingenuously declaring that he has always been for bringing "Lafayette forward in the world of technology" in the midst of "overtures" by both incumbents.

So what happened to produce that strange little trajectory?

That's the right question. And the short answer is that by the end of the recent two week period the balance between profit and loss had shifted, the cost of support had risen and the likelihood of eventual success had fallen. Cold calculation...and perhaps that the word has come down from corporate central that bad national publicity at this moment is too costly.

[open timeout for background]
Monopolist generally are amazingly immune to public opinion except when a regulatory commission is meeting. And right now BellSouth has some things before the Federal Communications Commission that are critical in the Baby Bell's real and inevitable battle with cable. A battle which realistically rates much higher in BellSouth's priority than publicly resisting our city's right of self-determination. With the resignation of remarkably pro-corporate Chairman Powell from the FCC imminent, it is in BellSouth's interest to get while the getting is still good. BellSouth and the other Baby Bells would dearly love to be exempted from what is required of their opponents, the cablecos; that they reach a franchise agreement with local communities like Lafayette before they are allowed to run cable TV. The FCC apparently believes they could step in and define cable TV offered by the telecos into a category they control. This would do considerably more than "save" the teleco's the annoyance of having to deal with all those little guys and pay some local folks for the use of their poles and rights of way. Much more crucial, it would exempt them from the standard clause in such contracts that they offer service to all citizens equally. Universal Service. They'd much rather cherry pick just the rich districts, keep their capital cost down, and drive the cablecos out of the most profitable parts of each local market. That is where the long term advantage lies.

And having a lot of publicity in the national press about how you are keeping a little municipality in colorful Cajun country down hands their opponents on the FCC valuable ammunition which is targeted right at the heart of the issue of local control. BellSouth can't want that.
[close timeout for background]

The events: National: Negativity

The biggest single event was a national blockbuster: USAToday endorsed Lafayette's plan in an editorial that followed up an analytical piece that indicted the baby bells for pursuing a plan to regain monopoly status. In the story and the editorial Lafayette's role was symbolic. We played the part (quite well, thank you) of the small town determined to control its own destiny lead by a fiery and idealistic mayor. BellSouth plays the symbolic role for the Telcos: the grey behemoth the whose monopoly ambitions are expressed in its attempt to keep even such wholesome competition as Lafayette's at bay. I don't mean to demean the battle here by saying that USAToday made it symbolic. Quite the contrary. Symbolism is most powerful when it is the simple truth. And the mythic story taking shape here, regardless of the details, is fundamentally true.

Other national events are less momentous. But in their narrow areas, no less important, and no less a danger to the story the private incumbents would like to see told.

A continuing series of negative stories about supine state legislatures giving away the store to the telecom industry emerged following the passage of a law in Pennsylvania intended to outlaw all municipal participation in broadband. Lobbyists in Pennsylvanida made the egregious political mistake of handing local sovereignty over to corporations and that tactic, finally, drew some media attention. (In Pennsylvania these days a community has to ask permission of any corporations that might want to provide telecom services and if they say they do then allow them to try. Sometime. Maybe.)

Intel, a behemoth itself, came out endorsing the idea that there is a legitimate role for municipals in the provision of broadband services. It clearly understands that if broadband is to expand rapidly local governments must not be written out of the competition by state laws.

A string on Lafayette's battle on Slashdot resolved, as much as such things can resolve, into slashing expression of technorati contempt for the incumbent providers of broadband and a defense of municipalities right to break free.

The Consumer's Union, the venerable gray lady of smart consumerism, launched a surprisingly activist website, hearusnow, devoted as much to rallying opposition to the developing monopolist practices of incumbent providers of telecommunications as to smart consumption of their products.

Ministers called SBC's plan, and by association BellSouth's very similar one, to roll out fiber to the (wealthy) curbs redlining. Since that is uncomfortably close to the truth, having it pointed out wasn't all that welcome. Especially while regulations are pending before the FCC which would allow them to do just that.

A meme emerged with some force in the media that incumbent providers in the United States are not doing their job as US rankings in broadband penetration continue in free fall and as those Americans with the limited broadband the incumbents provide discover that faster service is available for less in countries we once disdained as "second" or "third world."

Yes, BellSouth might well have thought that right now wasn't the time to confirm criticism of the ways it handles local broadband competitors by helping fix a local petition drive that appears doomed to failure anyway.

The events: Local: Confusion

The news wasn't good locally either.

The petitioners, by accepting BellSouth's aid, made BellSouth a target and lent credibility to the suspicion that they were doing work that the incumbents desired but had failed to accomplish themselves.

News broke (on LPF) that Cox had made "overtures" to the city. After a week the mainstream media picked it up. Even the hint of a possibility of an alliance between Cox and LUS had to make BellSouth very, very nervous. The current alliance between Cox and BellSouth is both unstable and unequal with BellSouth the weaker network in Lafayette.

Doubt mounted as to the legality of petition as it became more apparent that petitioners were simply looking for the easy rather than the legal path.

Bellsouth found itself allied to a group that couldn't shoot straight. They called press conferences to bemoan the fact that they were going to be prevented (by what would have been their own oversight) from presenting their petition before a deadline. The city-parish had to tell them that they were mistaken and they could present...but that it was the wrong petition, one which didn't apply to the type of bonds issued. So they issued another press release saying the drive was back on in full force. And later they asked for the city to halt progress on LUS' project while they tried to clear up legal questions. The mess did not reflect well on BellSouth.

The petitioners attracted some pretty telling criticisms as the administration used every opportunity to insist that a signature on the petition did signify opposition to the project regardless of what the petitioners said. They hit hard on the idea that it would hand decision-making power over to bureaucrats in Atlanta. And the obvious point was that this was all poor sportsmanship by folks who understood neither the technical nor legal frameworks they were dealing with.

That turned into a lot words, regardless of my attempt to focus the narrative on BellSouth's little turnaround. Still, the point is clear: BellSouth had its reasons for abandoning its open support of the petition. Both locally and nationally the leadership can't be happy with the way the battle has shaped up to date.

But the collapse of open incumbent opposition, even if it proves temporary, is a huge opportunity. Let's hope LUS is in position to take advantage of any fleeting goodwill at the PSC where BellSouth is rumored to be trying build roadblocks into LUS' regulatory regime.

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