Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Misinformation Alert: Williams "informs" the few

Well, the incumbents are back at it. Last night BellSouth's John Williams misinformed the few at the Concerned Citizens for Good Government. Promising the moon, the same Williams who didn't know a thing about a push poll dialing up all his local customers is out telling us that he knows all about the Atlanta office's plans for Acadiana. Really? No. Recent history demonstrates that Williams is told what Atlanta wants him to repeat locally and nothing more.

[timeout for irritation]

We need to begin to ask ourselves why something like John Williams talking to a few people about pie in the sky in the back of Don's is newsworthy. In this town you've got two large out-of-state corporations (which the Consumers Union straightforwardly calls monopolies), one low traffic web site and maybe four Lafayette residents who are willing to use their name in public opposing this measure. On the other side you've got both political parties, the city government, a trusted local utility, the business community in the guise of the chamber, LEDA, and the home builders, various citizen's groups, several active websites, an organized citizen's action group with real membership, a fiber film festival, and lists of people online and in the newspaper who are willing to publicy endorse the project. The contrast is stark, dramatic, and unremarked. Surely this is newsworthy. But running a story that looked at the actual levels of support for the two sides would make it all the more embarassing to continue to pump this story as one with two robust local points of view. The illusion that there are two credible, active points of view serves the mildly sensational reportorial style that pits two matched groups in opposition and lets 'em duke it out on the pages of the newspaper. The actual, rather pitiful contrast doesn't sell papers. At some point a style based on circulation figures has overcome the function of informing the public. That's too bad and doesn't serve the public.

Look for this syndrome to be repeated this afternoon when the press trots over to city hall to hear a couple of guys with no visible support outside an anonymous ugly-talk online chat box announce their "decision" on whether or not to support the fiber plan. Come on, press folks, pleeaaseee don't treat this as if there is any news in it. You know, I know, alla god's children know that the fiber411 boys are against the plan. They've been against it since you anointed them as the local opposition during the first hearings, they were against it during the entire interregnum when they claimed to "only" want a vote. They are going to renew their opposition this afternoon. A little perspective, a little historical awareness (not a lot, only a year's worth) is all I ask......

[/timeout for irritation]

Thank you for your patience. Now back to the misinformation.

First paragraph:
BellSouth can provide fiber optic-run services in some parts of Lafayette and hopes to have fiber down every city street in the future, BellSouth's John Williams told less than a dozen people Monday at a Concerned Citizens for Good Government meeting.
Now we have something which is closer to the truth than we used to get from the BellSouth spokesmen. Used to be that they'd shuck and jive about their company's ultimate and publicly anounced plans to run fiber deep into their territories. Back then they were trying to claim that fiber was unnecessary. They respect us a bit more now. But be not fooled. "In the future" means in the future. Sure they will provide—at their pace; when they decide we are worthy of moving modern infrastructure a bit closer. When it is the most profitable thing they can do with their money. All of this is exactly the same plan as they had before LUS announced its study. NOTHING real has changed. All that has shifted is they way they talk.

A little further on:
In an October 2004 decision, the Federal Communications Commission declared that fiber-to-the-curb and fiber-to-the-home "are functionally equivalent," Williams said. Both use fiber to transport data. Both provide video, high-speed data and telephone service, but with fiber to the home, data is switched to copper at the home, while with fiber to the curb, copper starts at the curb, he said.
This is profoundly misleading. And it's been floated before as a talking point..by Bill Oliver, BellSouth's Louisiana president. They know it's misleading. That is why they say it. The real issue is less "what" than "how much." And LUS will be able to provide enormous amounts more--enough more that new services like video telephony will be cheaply and easily available to folks with a modest (by LUS standards) connection. Every "innovation:" every "ADSL," "VDSL." and "bonded pair," is a way of squeezing a little more bandwidth out of aging infrastructure. It's patching and repatching a old jalopy in hopes of staying in the race. It will never equal the speed and handling of a new system handbuilt for the purpose.

Sometimes a little satire is more effective than any long-winded explanation. Happily we have some of that. Take a look at "Slick Sam Slade" at the Lafayette Coming Together's Fiber Film Festival website.

About the FCC's supposed endorsement of Fiber to the Curb: In fact, the FCC does NOT say anything about functional equivalence in the document to which Oliver and now Williams so confidently refers. I refer you to the FCC order degregulating FTTC that was adopted October 14th, 2004.

BellSouth
argued there that FTTC and FTTH were "indistinguishable" in their ability to deliver services, along with several other reasons in a petition to the FCC to allow them to shut the competition out of any FTTC loops they might build in the same way that FTTH loops were already excepted. The FCC, while allowing BellSouth to lock out competition as they requested, noticeably did NOT list "indistingusihability" as a reason for allowing BellSouth to close its system to competition. In fact, even the most cursory reader couldn't avoid the conclusion that in both the order and in the commissioners' individual comments, the difference continued to be something the commissioners felt they had to contend with. (They did explicitly accept other parts of BellSouth's argument, such as the contention that locking out competitors would make it more likely that BellSouth and other incumbent phone companies would build FTTC systems.)

The reason that the commissioners didn't fall for that one is that it isn't true. That the marketing (and politically savvy) operatives of BellSouth want us to believe it is so doesn't make it so. Saying it to the FCC doesn't mean they fell for it and saying it to us doesn't mean we should fall for it either.


More misleading stuff:
City and LUS officials have said BellSouth will not provide the city with fiber-to-the-home, so the city utility should provide it for economic development purposes.
That's true, the city and LUS has said so. But reporting it like that ignores the fact that they were qouting BellSouth! It was a major issue at the so-called "Academic Broadband Conference" last year. Doug Menefee asked. And both BellSouth and Cox told us no...not even if we held a vote an voted for it. That's not the way they make decisions. It is only the way that our local utility makes decisions.

Then:
They say fiber to the home offers better quality than fiber to the curb or existing copper cable.
That's true too...and so does every other expert in the country. Including those from BellSouth. They brag about it—in the few wealthy subdivisions where they offer it.

And then, tacked on to the end, is the FUD factor (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

The LUS project poses financial risks for existing LUS customers, Williams said. If the fiber project fails, electric customers' rates could increase, he said.

This guy is shameless. Sure there is some risk. And the city has been over and over it. The incumbents don't bother to ever engage the facts and figures that demonstrate how small the risk is and how unlikely that the full amount will ever be at risk. They don't engage in that because it doesn't suit their purpose. Which is to make the public fearful. Pure. Simple. What's irritating to me is that nobody, nobody thinks it appropriate to ask BellSouth whether its enormous failed speculation in wireless systems in Latin and South America cost its core customers money. (Of course it did—and will for decades as they pay off the debt incurred.)

A final tidbit of Uncertainty:

In addition, the $125 million bond issue would allow LUS "to make improvements to the utility system," Williams said. "They can make any improvements to the utility system they feel are important."

LUS can spend the money not just on fiber, but to improve the water and electric systems, he said.

"I hear some people refer to that as a blank check," Williams said.

Somehow the idea that LUS follows absolutely standard procedures in putting together its bond issue in order to ensure that it isn't left paying interest on money it can't use is something to be "doubtful" about. The constraints on the money mean they have to use it for infrastructure maintenance or upgrades. This is a good idea and is standard smart management. Private companies like BellSouth do exactly the same thing when they take out loans. For the life of me I can't figure out what Williams is afraid of...other than that LUS will win this referendum and his career might not be as smooth as he and his father once anticipated as a consequence.

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