Friday, June 10, 2005

"Digital Divide proposals are off target"

There is a letter to the editor in the Advertiser from Lawrence Uter using the mere existence of a "Digital Divide" committee as a reason to vote against LUS' fiber to the home plan. This letter reminds me that I'll have to get back to an abandoned post on the digital divide issue but what really struck me is that, as nearly as I can see, it isn't the actual proposals that offend the writer but what he thinks will "likely" happen in the future—bad things that "can't be far behind."

It's pretty typical of the opposition to the plan that it all comes down to fear and uncertainty about what the future might hold and doubt about our elected government. The continuing contrast is striking. Those for the plan tend to be positive about our future and confident that, especially on the local level, they can help shape the future. If local government does something they don't care for, they plan to work to change it and their involvement in this fight is an example of how they hope to do so. Enduring alliances are being built during the current fight that will be useful in other matters. People from every corner of the city, from every race and income level, from every political persuasion, are involved. They seem motivated by civic pride and the idea that they can make life better for everyone.

People who are against this project seem, to a man, fearful about the future, distrustful of even the level of government that is closest to the people, and doubtful—or even disdainful—of the idea that people can be motivated by anything other than fear and selfishness.

The contrast is so stark that it almost seems unfair to talk about it. But letters like this one, which don't have much left if you take out the fear of the future, make it hard to avoid at least thinking about it.

On one level it often seems that it's all about ideology...and, in fact, the opponents tend to try to make it so, calling their positions ones of conservative principle. The fact, pretty obviously, is that that can't be a very good explanation. Many of the most conservative people in town are fighting for the plan. The Republican Executive Committee has endorsed it. The Chamber of Commerce has endorsed it. Even the very conservative Homebuilders have endorsed it. These people are not, as opponents want to claim, abandoning their principles. But these people do have a positive view of the world and their capacity to change it. It is not, or is not simply, a matter of ideology.

The pattern I am beginning to see is more a matter of personality. Some people seem to come to us with an in-built fear of the future, a conviction that they cannot change that future, and a distrust of those around them. Some kinds of conservative ideologies, but not all, fit this way of seeing the world pretty well and fearful folks tend to trumpet those talking points. But it isn't, I suspect, really about that. It's about being fearful of a future that appears out of control.

And I'm not sure that any amount of good reasons or good reasoning can change that.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

John: I spoke to Philidephia, they are doing wireless at a cost of $15,000,000 for the whole city. The digital divide is what promoted the whole thing. I spoke to one of the companies doing it for them and they said they looked a Lafayette and said they could do it for $11,000,000 for city, $15,000,000 +/- for whole parish. One really good reason Phildephia gave is low cost or free to the poor. Might want to bring it up to your committee.

Anonymous said...

John: forgot to leave my name
Tim Supple

John said...

Hi Tim,

We did talk about wireless--though that, of course, was not the direct charge for our committee. In the blog at one time I had suggested that it could be done for about 5% of the total cost so the amount you quote actually sounds a little high to me. But the raw fact of the matter is that LUS would be able to do it much cheaper because a big chunk of the build cost is 1st and 2nd mile backhaul so maybe your private provider's figures are not too high. (The ongoing cost of provisioning that portion of the backhaul will also be significant—and raise the price at which it could be offered—if a provider other than LUS is eventually found.)

All the digital divide muniwireless people I've chatted with are wildly envious of the possibilities here. For a fair percentage wireless is a way-station on the path to the dream of a full municipal system--a proof of concept that they hope will build a constituency to do what Lafayette is already on the path to doing. Virtually all are painfully aware of the limitations of wireless systems-after all they work with it in the field. They know that you get what you pay for and that wireless solutions run up against problems with inside/outside, weather, trees, topography, and (most seriously) radically limited bandwidth. Literally everyone is aware that the per megabyte price of providing bandwidth via fiber is a fraction of any other method, including wireless.

The bandwidth problem of wireless is very real. Most people focus, unwisely, on the throughput of the base station. So if a base station is said to be capable of 11 mps, or 54 mps or some other number they think that is what you get "in the wild." That is almost never the case for at least 3 reasons. First it is almost impossible to provision the base station with as much bandwidth as it is rated for in any real situation. (My first generation WiFi (an old apple airport) rated at 11 mps has never, ever been used to capacity. For the simple reason that I've never had more than 5 mps of connection to the house available either here or in Delaware.) Second, in any realistic situation you will have multiple users. In any realistic muniwireless you would have a lot of users per base station. So if my connection is rated at 5mps and both my wife and I are downloading neither of us will have more than 2.5 mps available. Just imagine a real municipal situation. But wait, it gets worse: the third issue is that the crucial part of bringing the price down is to have each base station share a paid connection to the internet with multiple other base stations. This is the fundamental idea behind what is called "mesh networks." Its a way to get by on the cheap. One base station is connected to the net and relays its info to others. Let's say in our "economical" mesh network we have 5 base stations sharing a fancy 24 mps ADSL connection. (Most real muniwireless setups can't possibly afford that much bandwidth.) The let's say each of those 5 nodes has only 10 concurrent users. That's 50 users sharing 24 mps. Then you have a nice hefty chunk taken of the top for negotiation between the base stations so that the 24 mps is just never available practically speaking. Being generous you might have 20mps to share. (And all these numbers are generous to this idea.) You are down to less than 1/2 a mps that you might hope for on a good day. Good for email, and marginal for internet surfing. IF you are standing next to the base station. Wander off a bit and dropped packets and renogotiation drives your effective bandwidth much lower.

If you had started with 6 mps --a much more realistic number that is still on the generous side--You would be down to .125 mps next to the base station--not broadband even by the most generous definition. Muniwireless of this sort is not a good experience. Builders are quietly hoping that usage will be light enough to make it tolerable (which is really perverse.) But it is better than nothing and, like I said, many folks who are building them are explicit about hoping that they will inspire people to support a more adequate infrastructure.

The real wireless dream is what we have a shot at here. Fiber-based bandwidth so huge that you can actually fund the full capacity of each base station. NO on-the-cheap-mesh networking overhead since the fiber net is dense enough to support each node independently. NO additional cost for first and second mile backhaul since LUS owns that capacity. Real, cheap, high speed, reliable wireless. Real mobility without compromise.

A world-class wireless network that offers inexpensive bandwidth to all is ONLY available if built on the back of a real world-class fiber network capable of fully funding its bandwidth needs inexpensively. Those who tell you otherwise are exchanging fantasies built in the lab for any possible real-world scenario.

Spending 15 million on a system that is crippled by its underlying support from day one is not the smart way to spend our money. Build the base first. Make sure it is done right and adding wireless mobility can be done for half the price for many multiples of the capacity and a fraction of the running cost. And that is what I think is best for all of Lafayette. Poor and wealthy alike.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. It will take me a few days to digest all of it. THe contact I made with the wireless company said LUS has sufficent fiber now for a wireless Lafayette. I'll try to question them further on what you have explained.

By the way, do you agree that LUS should commit all of the bonds to FIBER and directing all revenues from Communications Division to pay off the bonds, rather than transfer in lieu tax to LCG.
TIM