Thursday, May 26, 2005

"Tri-Cities Trials"

The Independent has published a piece we should all go out and look at entitled "Tri-Cities Trials." You'll probably recall the Tri-Cities battle for fiber, it's been discussed pretty extensively on these pages and LUS and the administration have treated the ugly fight there as a preview of the battle plan they expect Cox and BellSout to roll out here. In the Tri-Cities the the warning shot was a push poll. We've seen that here. But the deluge that followed was truly amazing and we await the flood.

What we, as citizens of Lafayette will be most interested in is the picture of what might be coming and a hint from those who've experienced the onslaught as to what it will feel like and how to best understand what is happening when the whirlwind descends. The Ind doesn't offer up that story directly. What it does is hand you a loosely linked series of three personal vignettes drawn from major players on the the profiber side. The faces are chosen to represent a mayor, a city Information Technology (IT) guy, and an ardently profiber housewife. They are pretty much allowed to tell their own story.

And what you can learn if you listen carefully amounts to a mosaic image of what the experience was like. The mayor, Kevin Burns, feels abused. Emblematic of his outrage is push poll call that his father received. It isn't hard to imagine how the Mayor felt when his father got a call floating some bit of nastiness about his son that the phone company wanted to spread around the city in hopes of tarnishing his son's reputation—as a way of eroding support for a potentially competitive system that threatened their profits. The father's response was a shocked: "My Kevin?" My guess is that his son the mayor's response wasn't nearly as printable. Mine would certainly wouldn't have been. We do know that if he wanted to complain it wasn't easy:
Burns was equally incensed by the lack of accessibility he had to the people pulling the strings at Comcast and SBC. “Even in war there are rules of engagement,” he says. “We had a hell of a time trying to find the decision makers. I kept asking, ‘Who do I call?’”
All, in all, you get the picture of a public officials, who thought that they were doing a good think for their people getting run down by a team for whom fair-play wasn't a part of the rule-book. It feels, from reading the article, that that is what still stings.

The IT guy is insulted. The idea that the local crew couldn't do a perfectly good job of managing a system was bizarre. "It's not rocket science" he says metaphorically--meaning that its been a long time since running a decent FTTH system was a mysterious venture involving not readily accessible talents. You want an good network engineer, you hire one. It's implementation not science or new product development. He's also irked, in the manner of engineers everywhere, that anyone would oppose doing a project that they themselves won't try. If your thing is crafting good products and (pretty much obsessively) making sure they run right—and this is the framework through which engineers view the world—then you are going to be really insulted by the type of people who tell you first that they won't do it and then that they won't let you do it. It doesn't seem right or sensible.

The "offer" from the incumbents to build a local system when asked was viewed as particuarly insulting:
"Geneva was interested in getting AT&T Broadband to build a high-speed fiber optic network. To start, the city wanted to link its public schools and government buildings with fiber. In June 2000, AT&T Broadband said it would build Geneva’s fiber network for $4.8 million, leased out to the city over 10 years. The city would be limited to speeds of 100 megabits per second, and after the 10-year lease was paid, AT&T would still own the network."
That, of course, was seen as insulting. Both technologically and from a business point of view to accept it would be irresponsible. To offer it was insulting. Pete Collins sounds plenty insulted.

Annie Collins is angry. She's the mother with three kids who's active in the Rotary and wants to help revitalize downtown. She got pulled into this fiber thing, got angry, and is not the sort to let it go. The anger is easy to hear:
“It’s not too hard to understand that your communities need new businesses to survive,” she says. “It’s not too hard to understand that you don’t need big corporations in your community controlling how much you’re paying for these services, when you can have your own hometown utilities creating jobs. It’s not too hard to understand that competition is good. That’s all you need to understand. Do you get your bill from Comcast and not get it? I mean, what don’t you get? Why is that so hard?..
Her advice to Lafayette rings true:
“Be suspicious of corporations that are lying to you,” she says. “They are only concerned with their profits. I don’t think your local cable and phone company really care about any economic development for your community..."
All in all the takeaway lesson for Lafayette is to prepare to be abused, insulted, and angry. I'm not sure it's news or something we want to look forward to. But by all accounts it's what's coming.

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