Monday, October 31, 2005

"Louisiana [not dead] last in Internet use"

I've got a small pile of worthwhile items that readers have sent over the last couple of weeks but haven't gotten worked into the blog. (I've been catching up on work deferred from the summer.) The latest link (thanks Stephen!) points out Louisiana's abysmal ranking in the uptake of advanced technologies.

According to data gathered by the census bureau Louisiana is 3rd from the bottom in both computer ownership and in subscriptions to broadband. In both cases only Mississippi and Arkansas have lower rates of usage.

Taint good. Not for our state, not for economic development, and not for people's quality of life.

The explanatory correlations are with both poverty and rural life. Both are correlated with low uptake and both are areas in which Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas vie for "top" ranking.

Normally this would just be a "feel-bad" story. But here in Lafayette we have started changing at least part of the story by creating a local utility. Part of the reason that rural areas have low uptake is that decent broadband is plain not available. LUS will make sure that in the city of Lafayette at least everyone will be able to hook up to the most advanced services available to anyone in the country. But the more intractable issue is poverty...something of which the three states named have far more than their fair share. There are two ways of dealing with that: raise incomes and lower prices. It's damned hard to do the former. But we've taken the right steps to insure lower prices. LUS will drive prices down 20% once they are up and running and the private corporations will have to follow suit. (Competition's grand.) According to the census bureau's numbers nearly a quarter of those who don't now have broadband don't because they can't afford it.


A BBC News story on the issue might flesh this out for some readers.

The census bureau has two main avenues into the data: a page listing tables of the analyses and a pretty pdf summary. Your choice.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

LUS filing exposes BellSouth's real agenda

LUS has responded to the BellSouth lawsuit according to reports in both the Advocate and the Advertiser. That suit aims to cripple LUS' ability to do business by making LUS appear to the bond market as an independent start-up with no resources. If successful, it would raise the costs of bond-based borrowing and increase the cost to LUS customers.

And that’s the whole point of the lawsuits: to raise the cost to LUS’ customers.

This has been a consistent goal of the incumbents; the in lieu of tax “controversy,” for instance, had little to do with taxes (since none were to be collected) and everything to do with increasing the bill presented to customers by the amount that LUS would have to have increased it if it were collecting for those taxes. That’s in a clause BellSouth and allies got included in the (un)Fair Competition Act passed by our legislature.

The incumbents ought to try competing in the classic, classy way. That will involve lowering their prices instead of engaging in legislative and judicial tricks trying to raise the costs to the competition. But the only company involved that has promised to pursue actual price competition is, shock and surprise!, the pubicly-owned local utility. Those who persist in seeing this battle through rosy ideological lenses that paint all private corporations as good guys really ought to rethink. Our situation wherein a local, publicly-owned utility is squared off against monopoly monoliths with a proven record of monopoly practices should really be a learning experience for us all.

As usual, Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate has the more complete version of the story and walks the reader through the conceptually tough bits. The (un)Fair Competition law in question provides for pledging resources for the explicit purpose of getting the best rates. That’s pretty clear; you get to pledge your assets in the way that will result in the lowest cost to the citizens of Lafayette. Easy. But not so easy for BellSouth apparently.

From the Advocate account:
"This language is seemingly clear and explicit to anyone, except BellSouth. The City is entitled to use the 'resources' of its other utilities," the LUS response says.

"It is self-evident that the bond market requires maximum security," to secure bonds, LUS wrote.

State law also calls for governments to "not be precluded from" common practices of private companies, LUS wrote in its response.

"Surely, even BellSouth will not contend that it is not 'legally permitted to engage in' the pledging and payment of its corporate debt by its corporate parent," LUS responded, quoting a portion of state law.
The point that LUS should be permitted to engage in any practice its private competition regularly resorts to is a good one. The legal standard, established in the law, by which “fair competition” should be judged is defined to mean that LUS should be allowed to do anything that its private competition is allowed to do. Leveling the playing field is the ostensible purpose of the law. BellSouth’s actions make it clear that fair competition is the furthest thing from their minds as they pursue a strategy of raising the costs to their competition’s consumer so that they don’t have to lower their own to compete.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

"Banner of Hypocrisy:" Whose Subsidy?

A letter of support for Lafayette's telecom utility from the northwestern tip of Washington state is to be found in the current Independent. It good to know that folks across the country are following our travails.

The author makes a good point about "subsidization." BellSouth gets lots of subsidizes--from the federal, state, and in Lafayette even from the local government. (Remember the Cingular deal?) My guess is that LUS gets no such subsidizes. In fact LUS, in a perverse turn of fate, is providing subsidized electricity to Cingular, BellSouth's wireless subsidy.

Hypocrisy, thy name is BellSouth. And even folks on the other side of the continent can see that easily.

Snake Oil on Bill Decker

Wicked, Funny, True.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Fiber 411's Ethics Filing Inadequate (With Lagniappe)

Talking to a local lawyer last night I was told that an ethics complaint has been filed against Fiber 411. I certainly hope that is true though, as was the case when ethics-challenged Eric Benjamin "revealed" that an ethics violation had been placed against Joey Durel, it is impossible to confirm that such has occurred without courting an ethics violation yourself or encouraging another to do so.

An ethics challenge would be appropriate because the final ethics filing of Fiber 411 was wholly inadequate. The purpose of such filings is make visible who supported and who has benefited from campaign monies. Fiber 411's filing serves to hide this rather than reveal it.

As treasurer for Lafayette Coming Together's PAC I can attest to the fact that the filing rules are arcane and burdensome, you are supposed to file a lot of detail and file it in a timely manner. It isn't easy. (We missed a deadline for instance.) But the basic purpose and what you are supposed to file is clear.

Now the Fiber 411 crew of Tim Supple, Bill Leblanc, and Neal Breakfield spent a lot of energy trying to avoid being held responsible for a public accounting at all claiming that, for reasons that were always murky, that they shouldn't have to register as a PAC in order to receive money and spend it to influence the election. They were wrong and and under pressure eventually formed a PAC. There are more than a few things that are fishy about the whole setup.
  • First, they organized the PAC after they had solicited, gathered money and presumably spent some of it. It should go without saying that this is not the right or legal order.
  • Tim Supple who, oddly, is the only officer and is written in as both chair and treasurer in the organizational filing. As I understand and it the regulations require a chair and a treasurer at minimum and the legal responsibilities of the two differ. (Published claims by the trio have all three of them agreeing to actions taken by the PAC.)
  • During the heat of the campaign and shortly after finally conceding that they had to have a PAC Fiber 411 told reporters that it had filed the interim report required by law. The trio's "report on their report" to the media, coupled with filings actually appearing on the ethics commission website from properly registered pro-fiber PACs made interesting reading at the time. But the stories made it sound as if the 411 guys were doing the right thing. Unfortunately the report they said they filed then never appeared on the ethics website at all. What happened? Was it not filed? Was it not filed correctly? Why wasn't a correct, if late, filing made? (One was required at that point in the campaign.)
  • The final Fiber 411 report claims 22,000 dollars in "in kind" contributions by Bill LeBlanc for "yard signs." That's way too much money for yard signs; Bill LeBlanc is too good a businessman allow himself to be overcharged that badly.
  • A Times of Acadiana article includes the last minute (and very dishonestly negative) direct mail pieces that Fiber 411 claimed credit for were part of that $22,000 that Bill LeBlanc claimed to have would pretty much have to be to have run up that sort of bill. Why wasn't that reported? It needs to be reported somewhere.
  • The most glaring problem with the final report though is the lack of any detail on the $22,000 in-kind contribution attributed to Bill Leblanc. That's a lot of money coming from a single individual. (To give you an idea of just how disproportionate: the rest of the opponents in Lafayette was apparently concerned to the tune of only $185.) It is hard not to wonder if that that disproportionate an investment might not conceal donations that Bill passed on. But, source aside, what this "in kind" ploy surely conceals is who was paid and how much. Again, I worked with the "in kind" requirements while wearing the treasurer's hat for Lafayette Coming Together. The in kind requirement is intended to keep people from contributing resources anonymously. So if someone helped us design a mail piece but donated the service we had to report that as an "in kind" contribution to the cause. The point is that the in kind requirement works to force the PAC to list all those who contributed to the campaign in any way. It is most definitely not intended as a device to "sublet" the campaign so that one person contracts out and pays for all the work that is done and hides all the pay-outs under their name. We deserve to know where the money came from and who it was spent on--and on the profiber side that information is readily available. The in kind contributions reveal information for both Lafayette Yes! and Lafayette Coming Together. The in kind contribution on Fiber 411's listing conceals information. To distill the applicable law: Expenditures made by an agent on behalf of a political action committee must be specifically reported.
I'm sure any competent lawyer could find more to question.

For lagniappe, one could file a separate complaint against Neal Breakfield and Eric Benjamin for revealing an ethics complaint illegally.

Or, for that matter, another enjoyable endeavor might be trying to track down where the $51,000 of BellSouth money that was apparently paid Calzone and Associates actually went. Might that have something to do with who designed the mysterious last minute direct mail pieces? I've worked around print design much of my life and am confident they were professionally--and very cleverly--designed. Someone designed it and someone printed it. Who is a question that is supposed to be answered in an ethics commission report. Saying that a person or a PR firm paid for the work isn't good enough. Any money paid by a public relations firm or agent is supposed to be itemized by the candidate. The law is clear on this:
Expenditures made by a public relations firm, an advertising agency, or agent for a candidate, political committee, or other person required to file reports under this Chapter shall be considered expenditures of the candidate, political committee, or such other person, and must be specifically reported as required by this Chapter.
It's not enough to say you paid a company to do it. You have to say who they paid.

But WAIT. There's MORE!

Apparently BellSouth is taking "credit" for the last minute automated phone banking that went on in opposition to Lafayette's' plan. Who paid for that had been a mystery. Ourso Beychock Johnson, a Baton Rouge political firm, was paid by BellSouth to do the deed according to the election day report.

A curious payment of $750 dollars for election day work was made to Dustin Ryan Cravins, Don Cravin's youngest son, according to BellSouth's report. Dustin is a registered lobbyist. He registered Calzone and Associates as clients in a supplemental filing 5 days before the election but failed to fill out the part of the documentation where he is supposed to state whether Calzone and Associates paid him leaving us to speculate as to who his paymaster actually was. Cravins' office was the locus of considerable hullabaloo during the election when a Cravins aide was caught "running" picketing outside and questions during town hall meetings. His actions were disavowed by Cravins. We were told that Brooks, the aide, was free-lancing. The timely Dustin Cravins connection to Julie Calzone's firm reawakens those questions. We'll have to wait to find out what he did with that money till February 15th when lobbyists have to fill expenditure reports for the second half of the year. It will be entertaining. It should be fun get some clarity on who paid him and what he did with the money.

EATEL, the FCC, and You

The Baton Rouge business Report treats us to one of those true rarities: an unflinching, inside assessment of a competitive field. In "EATEL's wild ride" neither the author nor the company's president he interviews bothers to evade the difficulties EATEL faces or the ultimate source of those difficulties. Soft-pedaling such issues is what makes too much business writing into a form of puffery. Steve Clark is to be congratulated for avoiding those pitfalls.

The bottom line is that EATEL has lost more than half its customers by losing Baton Rouge and has laid off more than 20% of its workforce. This is a direct result of an FCC ruling that removes regulatory controls originally intended to introduce some competition into the monopoly wireline telephone market. EATEL was an aggressive competitor, undercutting BellSouth by as much as 20% and snatching many BellSouth customers. But EATEL is fighting back. From the story:
The silver lining is that EATEL ... is deploying a $30 million fiber optics network for television and high-speed Internet access that EATEL believes will prove is a potent weapon against newcomer Cox on EATEL's home turf in Ascension and Livingston...

Meanwhile, some experts say last year's FCC ruling--making it impossible for small telecomm companies like EATEL to have a chance against giant phone companies like BellSouth--is, in general, a step backwards for facilitating competition in the nationwide telecommunications sector.
The kicker is that this wasn't necessary. It was due to a decision by the Bush administration:
A series of FCC rulings upholding the Bell companies' obligation to lease lines to competitors at cost was reversed by a pair of decisions from a Washington D.C. circuit court. The Bush administration elected not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, a move regional Bell companies such as BellSouth applauded.

"Had they appealed it, I think most everyone expects the district court decision would have been reversed, and the FCC's pro-competitive policies would have been permitted to continue," Gillan says. "Instead, by basically stopping the judicial review process at a point where the [Bells] had a win, they locked in this bad court decision."

The DC circuit is the nation's most pro-corporate bench. The failure to defend the executive branch's own regulatory decisions cost EATEL much of its customer base--and cost you a lot of money.

But, as EATEL clearly understands, the solution is to own your own advanced, fiber-based infrastructure. That, and that alone, can secure your competitive future. That makes two places in Louisiana that get it: Lafayette and Gonzales.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Fed-Up Cities Seek to Provide Net Access"

"Of all the monopolies, oligopolies and other arrangements that subvert progress merely to benefit the few, perhaps the most pernicious is the conspiracy by telephone and cable companies to exercise control over high-speed Internet access."
Now that's strong stuff even by my standards. It's from a business column in the Los Angeles Times. (free registration required)

It goes on:
DSL and cable modem connections provided by these companies account for roughly 98% of all high-speed, or broadband, service in the country. But their success at discouraging competition has left them gorging on a pitifully small pie: In recent years, the U.S. has fallen from third place to 16th globally in the penetration rate of broadband service. (Chauvinists can take pride that we're still ahead of Portugal.)

It's unsurprising, therefore, that many local communities have taken matters into their own hands by building or contracting for their own municipal Internet systems.
You see more of this sentitment all around the net. Most of it is oriented toward the currently "hot" wireless alternative (in response to call for proposals in San Francisco and Philadelphia) but the logic applies equally to more capable systems like the one planned for Lafayette.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Ethics-Challenged Benjamin is at it Again

Ethics-challenged Eric Benjamin is back at his off-kilter crusade to say snide things about Lafayette's telecom utility using strained metaphors drawn from popular culture.* He remains unconstrained by any real editor and hence his stylistic meanderings and factual mistakes go uncorrected.

The latest in this string of attacks is found in this week's "Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson" attempt at an editorial which tries to use the film "The Graduate" to set up a parallel between the protagonist of that film and Joey Durel.

The stylistic problem is that for such cute tactics to work you have to have something that is parallel. This involves 1) that the pop culture tale you analogize to should have some resemblance to the real world you are satirizing and 2) that the satirical claims you make have some relationship to the pop culture tale you are using.

Benjamin doesn't bother with either. And in the process of ignoring the basic principles of the genre he manages to turn the recent Katrina/Rita tragedies into a silliness more toxic than any ever found in New Orleans flood waters:
You can imamgine (sic) the graduate telling the crowd, "When BellSouth and Cox brought Hurricane Katrina in to stop the advance of fiber-laying activities, we thought that was impressive. When they followed it with Hurricane Rita, we realized we were dealing with some formidable powers. We've managed to pull off a bit of sleight of hand of our own, you might note, as there are now more than 40,000 new consumers in the Lafayette area, all new fodder for our cable, Internet and telephone services, all of them with no allegiance to either of our competitors and fresh prospects for us."
Now that's typical of Benjamin: put every distasteful thing you can think of into the mouths of people who actually did something to help folks in order to feed your inexplicable animus. It doesn't have to have anything to do with "joke" he is pretending to and it doesn't even have to be internally consistent. Editors worry about such things, General Managers apparently don't.

Ok, so he's stylistically challenged and intellectually ineffectual. And factual accuracy isn't his longsuit.** We knew that. But I have to say that I'm equally offended by Benjamin's apparent inability to think clearly about basic issues. For instance, in a sidebar he endorses the astonishing claim by BellSouth and Cox that the extremely limited merely potential "cross-subsidization" of LUS' telecom division by other services as provided for in state law and regulation is unfair to the Corporations because they, poor, pitiful megacorps that they are "have no such additional revenue stream to tap."

Aw cher, can't you make better sense than that? How 'bout Cingular? No "cross-subsidy" revenue from that? How 'bout BellSouth's Latin American wireless divisions? How 'bout the cross-subsidization of BellSouth and Cox's battle with the tiny local, public utility by every customer in states across the Southeast? NO law even tries to limit them from turning their huge, protected, monopoly profits in other places and other businesses against LUS. Fairness to the corporations?!! Get Real. The cross-subsidization issue is a fake legalism introduced by BellSouth and Cox to try and prevent the creation of a utility that is the express will of the people of Lafayette. The PSC voted to sustain LUS' position because it was in the law. That law the PSC upheld is a law that BellSouth and Cox imposed on LUS and BellSouth and Cox agreed to the final compromise. Benjamin knows all this. He just doesn't choose to share it with his reading public.

One would think, and frankly hope, that the man whose job it is to run the business side of things (most business managers don't write columns) would have a better handle on what constitutes a relative business advantage.

I have to think Benjamin does understand that BellSouth and Cox's "cross-subsidization" advantage is hugely greater than any that any local firm, public, private, or purple could ever manage. But he doesn't feel obligated to speak fairly from his position of priviledge. And that, finally, is what is most offensive to journalistic ethics.

Now, as before,*** one has to ask: Who exercises editorial oversight of Benjamin?

Mr. Powers? Your name appears above his on the masthead.

* Remember Lester U. Smiley?
** Facts, well, the Advocate had them anyway.
*** See the post: The real issue is...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

PSC decision goes, again, for LUS and the people

The Public Service Commission (PSC) has confirmed its earlier regulations governing the Lafayette Utility System's provision of telecommunications services. Stories in the Advocate and the Advertiser do a good job of reporting the story and the Advocate even does a nice job of educating the public briefly about the issues involved. It's comforting to know that some people can stay the course even in the face of corporate pressure.

In that vein it will not surprise you to hear that the Joey Durel of old is back. After listening to the mealy-mouthed gumming of too many of our public officials in the wake of Katrina and Rita it is refreshing to hear a public servant speak plainly. Quoted in the Advertiser:
City-Parish President Joey Durel on Wednesday asked BellSouth to drop the lawsuit and not file another.

"It's shameful at a time in Louisiana history where we're going to have to rebuild 75 percent of the economy of the state, there are out-of-state companies with their greedy interests who would even consider filing a lawsuit," he said.
And from the Advocate:
"Give the people of Lafayette an opportunity to pull ourselves up by our boot straps," Durel said.
Nice, and it shows a clear awareness of the game that is being played out here: only part of the ongoing battle is waged on the regulatory and legal fronts. In those arenas the cost to the incumbents of ugly intrangisence is small and they have little incentive to play fair. But the larger game includes public relations and the political consequences of losing that battle are large. (Recall that losing the public relations war during the Fiber-Optic Referendum cost the incumbents the ability to even effectively resist during the election. The PR war matters.)

Making it clear, as these stories do, that attempting to run roughshod over votes of the council and the people at a time of great hardship for the people of Louisiana is not going to be as cheap politically as BellSouth and Cox were hoping, is a very good thing. The people of Louisiana and even some of their representatives are feeling pretty put upon by big, faceless, out of state bureaucracies that seem more interested in self-promotion than doing their job. It'd not be hard to put our incumbents in that box...their inability to back off and just compete regardless of rebuffs in Louisiana ranging from a vote of the people to statewide regulatory commissions stands as evidence that they are uninterested in being "good local citizens."

Were I LUS and the the city I'd ride this hard and I'd ride it to the legislature. If BellSouth intends to use a very bad law to engage in endless attempts to override the will of the people then it seems like a good idea to go in and ask for the law or for the most irritating portions of it to be repealed. To my way of thinking the only fault in the current strategy of our local leaders has been to be too willing to ONLY compromise when pushed to shorten the period of delay. Granted, delay cannot be tolerated. But the incumbents compromise when they have to--as they did to get the current bad (un)fair competition act passed--and then pursue an aggressive path of altering the deal after the fact. Not the way the game ought to be played. But it is the way the opposition is playing it. We should be willing to play too. Introduce a bill that returns "local control to local people." Model it after the law governing electrical utilities. Fight for a "state hands off local decision making" principle. Get the PSC and, for goodness sake, the state legislative auditor, out of it.

The people of Lafayette don't want, or need, state "protection" from our own decisions. And we certainly don't need the state stepping in on the side of the out of state bureaucracies.

"Consumers group" funded by the phone company --Surprise, Surprise

So the Consumers for Cable Choice, a group which advocates the Phone Companies' positions on local cable franchises has acknowledged that its startup money was supplied by Verizon (East Coast Teleco) and that it expects SBC (Texas to Chicago's Teleco) to kick in as well. Can BellSouth be far behind?

This sort of group is known as "astro turf" — a fake grass roots organization. This is part of modern corporate tactics and part of the more general strategy of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) that you've heard about on these pages. The idea is to confuse the issue by making it seem like there is a real group of "consumers" (that are not paid off by corporate masters) that want to take away their local government's rights to ask for something in return for letting companies like BellSouth and Cox use our locally-owned rights of way. In the normal course of events there'd not be any such group of local citizens.

Don't believe 'em and don't let politicians use such organizations as cover for bowing to special interests.

What really irritates me, however, is the brazenness of some of these "organizations." This one is willing to get righteous about the cable companies' monopolies in order to advance the interests of the phone monopolies. Do they think we're all asleep? And they are willing to say that they think people ought to think them "independent" because they'll take money from anyone. You'd think there'd be some standard: even in ethics-challenged Louisiana we know that an honest politician is one that stays bought.

These guys aren't even that honest. A pox on them, their phone company masters, and their cable opponents alike.

EATEL Leaving Lafayette

Not news dept.

It may not be news, not really, but EATel is officially out of Lafayette. So says a brief on the KLFY newsite. It's a sad thing. East Ascension Telephone was a great, small, local competitor as long as the Feds were trying to encourage phone competition. In recent months the FCC has restored to BellSouth and the other regional phone companies the "right" to charge pretty much whatever they want to use the phone company network. The old rules were written at a time when the Feds 1) thought competition a good thing, 2) recognized the historical fact that BellSouth's landline telephone service was built on governmentally guaranteed profits, 3) understood that such services remain an effective monopoly throughout almost all of BellSouth's footprint, and 4) actually considered itself a group with responsibilites to the consuming public.

All that has changed.

And one consequence is that an entire category of price competition has been eliminated. If you don't think losing competition will have the effect freeing BellSouth to raise residential and especially small business rates (where EATel was especially effective) you're either excessively partisan or just not thinking.

LUS cannot get here too soon.

EATEL Leaving Lafayette

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

PSC denies BellSouth, Cox requests to reconsider rules on LUS fiber

The Advertiser carries a short (very short) breaking news bit on the PSC's denying BellSouth and Cox's request for a reconsideration of rules that apply to LUS today.

It was pretty clear in the last round that the PSC thought it had achieved as workable a compromise as was possible given the limits of its authority. (Two old posts are available if you want to review. 1) My first person account, and 2) an overview of the print media stories.) So the question a reasonable person would ask is why BellSouth and Cox would go back and court the ire of a body that has clearly made its decision and which BellSouth at least has every reason not to irritate.

LUS' Terry Huval, as usual is on top of it:
The request for a rehearing was a necessary step for the companies to file lawsuits over the PSC rules, said LUS Director Terry Huval.
As has been remarked before:
If you can't win at the polls you can always sue 'em...These guys don't have an ounce of pride.

WiFi Hotspots in Lafayette

The Daily Advertiser has a relatively new, online-only feature called "Acadiana Future" that focuses on local implications of new technology. The idea, according to the introductory piece, is to prepare us all for change:
Suppose that Lafayette is about to undergo a change. Suppose the change will be bigger than the arrival of the oil and gas industry in the 1950s. Bigger than the completion of Interstate 10 in the 1970s. Bigger than the oil crunch in the 1980s, the 16 percent population growth of the 1990s or the $260 million home construction boom in 2003-2004. Bigger even than the influx of Katrina evacuees.

...the last time technology made so much information available to so many people, the result was the Renaissance. A few million books, printed on clumsy presses and distributed via pack animals and sailing ships, changed a world in which literacy had been a novelty.

Imagine the power that access to a few trillion Web pages, on demand, will give the man in a South Lafayette office. Or the woman who works at a North Lafayette industrial park. Or the kid with a laptop on his kitchen table in Azalea Park.

The immediate impetus for the series is the fiber-optic communications utility the community voted in on July 16th. But the stories, frankly, so far have seemed more like rehashes of wire stories (like the ones about online romance or file sharing) than explorations about what will be different about Lafayette. —And, make no mistake, Lafayette's implementation of big broadband will give us so much more capacity than most places the wire services write for that stories written with "little" broadband in mind will be only a relatively small part of the story. I'd love to see stories about big broadband, downloadable video, "long tail" sports downloads, big simulations, cheap online "web apps," business opportunities for video phone providers, residential network installers and the like. There are some really interesting things coming that could involve every department of the newspaper and I hope that someday this series will mature into an exploration of Lafayette's new possibilities—and get into the "real" paper as well. (What's that about?)

But the immediate reason to write about the series is the most recent story, "Wi-Fi pops up in the darnedest places," which sketches out the odd and not so odd locations at which you can jump onto a WiFi connection. Most folks who have WiFi available know about CCs and Mello Joy. (And if you don't you should cruise down to Mello Joy, have a piece of Lea's pie, and sample surfing the internet from one of the tables on the street.) But there were plenty of places in the story that had open nodes that I didn't know about and I consider myself knowledgeable (or did). So ride over to Krystal to read email. Or go to Guamas at lunch and keep tab on Hurricane Wilma or the latest commentary on the Saints. The Green Willow Cafe has WiFi too. Now the story did miss some places that I've used or know about: the Sonics on Pinhook and Willow have WiFi, as does the airport, for instance. And there's no mention of the places you can find with a little bit of "wardriving"--there are lots of open business and residential nodes if you poke around a bit.

It's a fun piece, and potentially valuable too. Have a look.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Cox asks PSC to reconsider fiber rules

In further attempts to avoid head to head comptetition Cox has decided to try and get a "playover" from the PSC as a short story that ran Sunday in the Advertiser makes clear...the issue comes before the PSC tomorrow. From the story:

The Public Service Commission on Wednesday will reconsider rules and cost allocation guidelines approved in September that will determine to some extent the rates Lafayette Utilities System will charge its customers for Internet, cable TV and telephone services it will provide via fiber optics.

In a motion for reconsideration filed Thursday, Cox Communications asked the commission to reconsider two issues decided Sept. 14. The first involves rules governing the pledge of resources from other LUS divisions to repay bonds for the telecommunications division. The second involves in lieu of tax payments.

Just for the record:

I confess a continuing irritation that stories about the current incumbent delaying tactics is the continuing implication that the first BellSouth/Cox lawsuit lead directly to the July fiber referendum. That's simply not the case in any simple way and smoothing over the reality with easy-to-write sentences to that effect misleads the public about the real history. The city chose to go to referendum precisely to avoid playing into the delaying tactics that the incumbents continue to use. The city did not follow the path laid out by the suit and used a different method to call a vote than the one that would have been followed had the court ruling been challenged and upheld. The city's position has always been that they went to referendum not because they had been found against in court but because appeal would have added months and possibly years of delay to the process. Their claim was that the delay was the primary purpose of the incumbent's legal tactics; a point which seem to be confirmed by each succeeding legal and regulatory challenge. There's gotta be a way to write these stories that doesn't write the incumbents self-serving definition of the sequence into each recounting of the tale.

Monday, October 17, 2005

ThornyRose Stands up for Fiber

Here's a blast from the past that I missed passing on right after the election. Every so often I tinker around with the search engines seeing what unusual things I can pull up about Lafayette and fiber optics. This time I came across a vibrant post in Broadband Reports in response to the Lafayette's victory in the fiber optic referendum. It's fun enough to be worth sharing even at this distance in time.

My husband, who is one of the 1,300 employees with the Cingular Call Center in question, came home with so much propagandized mess spewing from his mouth last Thursday that I, quite unabashedly, giggled in his face and asked him how brainwashing felt...

FTTH has passed, and I've never been more jubilant. LUS has done a fantastic job with electricity and water, and I really can't wait to be first in line for fiber. I just can't contain my glee in telling BellSouth and Cox to shove it where the sun doesn't shine in two years...

As for my husband losing his job...There are other jobs out there. And personally, if his job hinges on the whims of a crackpot like Oliver and his henchmen, then I'm glad my hubby will be somewhere else...

But I will say this...Last week, Cox raised rates in every city in Louisiana EXCEPT Lafayette. Coincidence? I think not. But it will be interesting to see if Cox and BellSouth will settle for a smaller piece of the pie, or if they cut their own throats and settle for NO pie...

Viva le Lafayette et Joey Durel!
Now doesn't that just sound like your favorite aunt? The one that your really admired? It's folks with that sort of attitude that make places into real communities.

Friday, October 14, 2005

"Time for a real Internet highway"

The metaphor of the internet as the Interstate of our day, and as a utility as necessary as any other is making headway. In tech-savvy locations like CNet you are beginning to see knowledgeable reporters give up the conventions of "he said, she said" reporting and begin simply speaking in sensible terms about what the nation's real choices are. It's damn gratifying and long overdue--the central function of media is not sell ads and avoid offending potential advertisers; it's central purpose is to inform the public.

And, for a change, you see the intelligence of reporters showing through in pieces like: Time for a real Internet highway
"The Internet is a utility, without which our daily lives cannot be productive or interesting. Governments, companies and institutions now need it to function. So do you and I.

Once upon a time in America, toll roads through the forests and canals were dug using private money. Both were owned by private companies. That didn't work. Public highways did. "
That's pretty much it in a nutshell; there really are areas of endeavor where private investment doesn't work...I'd only fault this article for not making explicit what underlies that inability: that roads, canals, the water system and the electical utilities are natural monopolies with all the disadvantages in terms of exploitive pricing and wretched service that attend to any monopoly. Turning those areas of the economy over to highly regulated private enterprise was a compromise born in days when the public sector simply couldn't afford to do the job. Those days are over. All that is missing to correct the situation now is the political will to offend coroporate campaign contributers.

What's particularly gratifying about the CNet discussion for this social studies person is the clear understanding of history and economics:

A similar process put electricity into the less populated and poorer areas of America. Where I grew up, in the Missouri Ozarks, our electricity came from a federally supported co-op. No private company could turn a profit stringing copper wire up and down those thinly populated hills.

We already have our highway system and our electricity. Time has come for our broadband. It's a utility. We now need broadband to live, work, recreate and even make a profit. Whether in Palo Alto, Calif., or Cavalier, N.D., we need our broadband. Many local areas of America are attacking the need for broadband ubiquity, but perhaps it's time for a national program.

Fiber, cable or wireless--many areas of America are not going to run a profit for any broadband service provider. It's time for the National System of Interstate and Homeland Defense Broadband. Private companies will make billions building the system, as with the interstate highways. Once it's done, we'll all profit.

A breath of fresh air.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Seeing the Future in the present...

Andrew Cohill, (LPF interview) currently of Design Nine and famed for his role in the Blacksburg Electronic Village experiment, has a comment worth sharing on seeing the future of television in Apple's latest offerings...and fiber. He's right, of course, broadband will kill TV, at least insofar as we mean being able to watch our shows only in regularly in half-hour slots, only in increments of a half hour and sliced up by advertising that determines the rythmn of the story. Downloadable Video (DV) will surely replace Television (TV). And it is much more likely that the video device of the future will more nearly resemble today's networked computer than today's cable TV.

This piece is from an email listserv, I don't usually reprint "articles" in full; but this is the only way to share this particular publication.

But if you're impatient here's the "yeah, you right" punchline:
What's missing? No cable TV or satellite TV connection is required.

What's needed? A good broadband connection.
What's needed when everyone watches TV this way? Fiber to the home, because current DSL and cable systems can't handle the load.
Cohill's full post:
Another nail was hammered in the coffin of analog TV yesterday with Apple's one-two hammer slam. The company rolled out a new version of the full size iPod that stores and plays video. They also rolled out a new version of iTunes (works on Windows and Macs) that allows you to store video on your Mac just the way you store music.

The online iTunes music store also has video for sale, and the selection includes music videos (predictable) and full length television shows. A deal with ABC Studios has several selections, including the hugely popular Lost. You will be able to download and watch these ABC shows the day after they air on broadcast TV.

But wait! There's more!

Apple also rolled out a new version of the popular all in one iMac computer. Sleeker and thinner than the old model, the new version has a video camera built into the case (for videoconferencing), and a remote control so that you can sit on the other side of the room and control your TV--oops, I mean iTunes--which will play video full screen on the iMac.

So we now know who won the "Is the TV a computer or is the computer a TV?" war. It was the computer. Apple has offered a seamless, end to end video experience--one click downloads of your favorite TV show while you sit on the couch, and one more click to play them full screen on your computer.

What's missing? No cable TV or satellite TV connection is required.

What's needed? A good broadband connection.

What's needed when everyone watches TV this way? Fiber to the home, because current DSL and cable systems can't handle the load.

Communities that don't have a technology master plan to get a fiber roadway installed that is free and open to all content providers will be left behind. Are you trying to attract entrepreneurs and high tech companies to your community? Do think they want to live in a town where they can't watch TV via broadband?

The short answer is, "No, no, and double no."

There is an interesting postscript to this "TV or the computer" issue. Microsoft bet a billion or more dollars that the TV would win this battle. It was a lot of money to find out no one wanted to surf the Web on a television. Their WebTV product is long forgotten.
Insightful stuff. Especially interesting for those priviledged few who will have fiber to the home. Like Lafayette.

Background: An AP story that covers the product announcement that inspired Cohill.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cajunbot's weblog reports their big success

The big success? The food naturally. Etouffee.

Oh yeah, and Team Cajunbot did ok in the race too. Or so it says in their blog. (Dont' you love living in a place where even gearheads and geeks have their priorities in order?) They didn't get close to winning the 2 million grand prize but did get further than any team got last year.

Last year no team got further than about 7 miles into the "race" which pits autonomous, unguided robot-vehicles against a tortuous Mojave desert course. The contest is meant to push real-world application of cutting edge research--acting in the real world has turned out to be a pretty difficult problem. Computers don't deal well with surprises and the real world if full of them. (Winning the race isn't the point, in my judgment.) But this year a number of teams finished, mostly, it appears, by a combination of general hardware improvement, better software, and most notably the winners took their machines out into the Mojave desert for testing before the race. Experience, even if it is the experience of the programmers and engineers rather than the machines themselves, is important. Most interesting to me was that one of the top machines, from Standford, incorporated a learning algorithmn--the machine, theoretically anyway, was learning for itself. That is worth really watching. Learning, machine or human, is the really hard problem of both Artificial Intelligence and Human is to prod real-world applications of such outre understandings that the Grand Challange exists.

Anyway, just getting to the starting gate was a huge feather in UL's cap. Bringing a rigged out swamp buggy to the Mojave takes a lot of nerve. Good for Team Cajunbot.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Whining, Snivelng Losers Redux: Lawsuits

We're now solidly into whining hypocrisy with our local phone monopoly.

Stories in both the Advertiser and the Advocate report on two clearly linked lawsuits whose purpose is to first delay and if possible make more expensive LUS's fiber optic utility operation. Both suits aim to delay the sale of bonds and to impose new conditions on that sale that would make them more expensive.

Let's be very clear about this: BellSouth's purpose is to defeat the express will of the people of Lafayette or at least make it much more expensive by making the bonds that fund it much more expensive. The two very similar lawsuits center on BellSouth's peculiar belief that public entities shouldn't have the same rights to support new ventures that private entities have.

BellSouth has decided that, having lost in public opinion, lost at the polls, and lost at the PSC on the regulatory meaning of state law that what it ought to do is not settle down and compete but sue the city over its bond ordinance.

This is obscene. What makes it obscene rather than simply self-serving is the gut-wrenching hypocrisy involved with BellSouth, inheritor of a long line of "subsidies" from the public trough--not the least of which was an elaborate set of tax givebacks on and an electrical power subsidy from LUS (both of which YOU pay for every year) for our local Cingular call center--is now whining that LUS using its own money to "subsidize" the operations of the telecom utility.

A very limited "cross-subsidization" is provided for by the enabling legislation and acknowledged by new state regulation. The law allows LUS to "pledge" its resources. You and I think that sounds pretty clear. That limited ability doesn't hold a candle to the "cross subsidization" that occurred and continues to occur when BellSouth uses its state-guaranteed profits on your phone line, not to lower your rates or to upgrade your line, but to buy itself into Cingular wireless and to buy out companies that compete with Cingular. This is but one way that the so-called "fair competition" law passed two summers ago is really about "unfair" competition that punishes public entities for representing its local customer/citizens instead of private, distant, shareholders.

BellSouth should be ashamed or, if shame is something it cannot feel, then at least embarrassed. Some people want to pretend that BellSouth is a representative of "private enterprise." It is no such thing. It is the inheritor of monopoly priviledge who uses its entrenched power on both the state and federal levels to block the entry of new competition if possible or to cripple it if it can.

The will of the people has been clearly expressed. BellSouth should compete if it can. Trying to further rig the playing field to its advantage simply reveals that it fears it cannot compete.

Friday, October 07, 2005

"Mr. Google Goes to Washington"

For what it's worth...

All too often on these pages we've had cause to criticize corporate behavior as greedy, shortsighted and arrogantly dismissive of local concerns. That's because in Lafayette recently its all too often been an accurate way to characterize the behavior of our incumbent providers of telecommunications.

But there are some white hat corporations out there and Google appears to be one. A Red Herring article, Mr. Google Goes to Washington, summarizes Google's intention and the causes Google's newly hired lobbyist intends to fight for. A blog entry on google's blog outlines their causes in some pretty refreshing language.
“Our mission in Washington boils down to this: Defend the Internet as a free and open platform for information, communication, and innovation,”
Gee, I could go for that.

The initial battlegrounds? Net Neutrality, Copyrights and fair use, and Intermediary liability. These are all "very good things" and having a lobbyist from a major and well-regarded tech compay fighting for them is great. In a nutshell net neutrality is the principle that the network ought not to favor one use or provider over another. Copy right and fair use, at least as Google appears to understand it means that Google's search engine shouldn't be asked to enforce copyright craziness. Intermediary liability is the principle that holds that if you wanna look for stuff on the web the search engine shouldn't be held liable.

Basic, sensible, principles. Nice to see a global megacorp endorse them. Too bad we can't expect anything similar from BellSouth and Cox.

FTTH: Hurricanes won’t hinder La. muni project

Telephony carries a brief story based on a portion of Durel's speech at the FTTH council that insists that the hurricanes have not delayed Lafayettes Fiber to the Home project. (Though lawsuit still might.) From the story:
The substantial fiber-to-the-premises project proposed in Lafayette, La., will proceed unaffected by the hurricanes that have ravaged the Gulf Coast this summer, Mayor Joey Durel assured attendees at the Fiber-to-the-Home Conference today...

In January, the city will begin attempting to sell a $110.5 million bond to finance the project, with a launch of services perhaps a year later, though Durel anticipates lawsuits from the area’s incumbent phone and cable providers to block the bond issue.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Deadline to challenge PSC fiber-to-home rules Oct. 17

The clock is running again; the official Public Service Commission (PSC) rules governing LUS' telecom utility were signed Tuesday. The Advertiser notes the moment:
Public Service Commission rules governing Lafayette Utilities System's fiber-to-the-home project were signed Tuesday, giving concerned parties 10 business days to file a challenge, said [PSC Executive] Secretary Lawrence "Tubby" St. Blanc.
I had heard that Cox had asked the PSC to reconsider the rules voted on in the last meeting. But this story makes is sound as if they haven't so far done so. But the still have a little time:
The deadline to appeal the rules is 4:30 p.m. Oct. 17.
If an appeal is filed, it would be considered at the commission's Oct. 19 meeting.
And yet another chance to obstruct the official promulgation of the rules:
"After that, if we reconfirm the rules, they can bring it to the 19th Judicial and challenge it," St. Blanc said.
Not that the incumbents wouldn't continue to try to bend the PSC enforcement actions to their will even after a court loss. Influencing enforcement is what BellSouth has, over the years, learned to do in respect to its own business. They will no doubt attempt to dabble in LUS' business as well.

And, of course, we discovered at the last PSC meeting that Lafayette has an enemy in
legislative auditor Steve Theriot. (Theriot wanted to try and force, via tantrum and holding the floor long after it became obvious the commissioners wanted to go ahead and vote him down, the PSC to impose new, unauthorized--indeed unconstitutional-- taxes on LUS. He was enough out of touch to even mutter about it being only fair to remit some of that money to Federals. This was right after Katrina. The man's out of touch with reality.) It remains to be seen how much damage he can do. But Steve Theriot bears watching.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Durel was Keynote Speaker at the FTTH Council Meeting

Ok, I've been behind on FTTH posts-too much of what I've recently heard called "Katrita" work at the computer room down at the dome. An email today reminded me that we'd neglected to acknowledge Mayor Durel's being honored by the FTTH council--he got a president's award and was keynote speaker at the conference today. I'll look forward to seeing a transcript of the speech. Mr. Durel has never been less than forthright in his language and my guess it that the speech will be fun to read and would have been more fun to hear. Lightwave lists the award:
President's Award - Mayor-President, Joey Durel, Lafayette City-Parish, Louisiana

The President's Award is given at the sole discretion of the FTTH Council President and singles out an individual or company that has shown tremendous effort to promote, educate, and accelerate fiber to the home. Mayor Joey Durel was chosen for his unwavering effort to overcome legal issues in the deployment of fiber to his community in Lafayette, Louisiana. Faced with the challenge of battling a national incumbent carrier, Mayor Durel successfully fought major political and financial obstacles with determination and focus. His commitment resulted in a public campaign and subsequent referendum in which the citizens voted in support of the Lafayette Fiber to the Home Project. Mayor Durel is a keynote speaker at the 2005 FTTH Annual Conference & Expo.
You can also take a look a the FTTH Council's press release; it gist is:
Joey Durel, Mayor­President of Lafayette, LA will be a keynote speaker at their annual conference on Wednesday, October 5, 2005 at 9:00am. Lafayette will be the largest single municipality to have battled the challenges of the incumbent telecommunications providers. Mayor Durel will discuss his role in the For Fiber Campaign and how in July 2005 by a 62% to 38% vote, the citizens of Lafayette approved the Laf ayette Fiber to the Home Project.

Mr. Durel will share his eighteen­month experience leading up to the successf ul passage of a public referendum allowing the Lafayette Utilities System to seek $125,000,000 in revenue bonds to fund a community­wide FTTH deployment. Mayor Durel will f irst discuss the history of the Fiber to the Home project and then the three hurdles he personally had to overcome before he could publicly support the project ­ public versus private, f iber optic versus wireless technology and the f inancial risk. He will discuss the real motivation behind his outspoken
support of the initiative and will cover the successful passage of the Louisiana Local Government Fair Competition Act, SB 511, the results of the legislation, and the legal battles and lawsuits that ensued.
Of course, it's not over yet. I'd not be surprised if Durel wasn't chosen to be a speaker next year on his progres in overcoming regulatory madness, legislative sandbagging, frivolous lawsuits, faux academic studies "proving" that LUS will lose money, smearing ethics complaints made by the ethically challenged, and the spare bit of new misinformation.

...Some things are as predicatable as rain on an August afternoon in South Louisiana.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Dreaming: The Quintuple Play and Lafayette

Dreaming dept.

Back in the day I talked a little about a pie in the sky dream that I called the Quintuple Play (1, 2)--the centerpiece of that idea was to add a local wireless cloud to LUS' fiber optic utility, a move which would allow both wireless data services and, crucially, IP-based voice--WiFi Cell Phones--to the triple play of wired data, cable, and voice services already contemplated by the Lafayette Utility System.

A year ago there were no large, or retail implementations of wireless VOIP (what little wireless VOIP there was was on the campuses of large technophilic corporations) and phones were expensive and essentially unavailable to the average Joe. What a difference twelve months makes. A recent pair of stories leads me to think that dream much more immediately available than I had thought. A story from a VON (Voice Over Network) conference says that a major direct-to-retail municipal implementation (explicitly understanding itself as using the utility model) of VOIP WiFi is about to roll out using the 103 square mile Rio Rancho, New Mexico WiFi cloud. They are ready to step out and add "cellular" voice services to its data offering. A separate story reviews second generation, affordable wifi phones. Taken together, it seems that what was recently a dream has become an immediate reality. And available to any community that wants to reach out and grasp the possibilities. [And yes, by that I mean Lafayette...more at the end of the piece.]

Municipal WiFi cloud adds VOIP; from the Rio Rancho story:
The folks who rolled out the nation’s first metropolitan-wide Wi-Fi network in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, are implementing VoIP over WiFi. They told an audience at the VON Fall 2005 conference in Boston that VoIP over Wi-Fi will be ready for prime time in other municipalities in the coming months...

“We think Wi-Fi Metro can do everything and be like an electricity utility,” said Tyler Van Houwelingen of Azulstar Networks, which is the Wi-Fi provider in Rio Rancho. “We can sell unlimited telephone and broadband service for under $40 and that’s the best in the business.”

Van Houwelingen, who is the founder and CEO of Azulstar, said VoIP functions well in fixed locations and reasonably well in mobile situations in which users are moving about the 103-square-mile Wi-Fi metro area. The Rio Rancho network plan calls for customers being able to use SIP phones when traveling at speeds up to 55 miles an hour...

Van Houwelingen said VoWi-Fi will be an important feature for usage in the eight metro Wi-Fi nets that Azulstar has been rolling out, because the technology will enable the service to compete with entrenched telephone companies.

He noted that the major telephone companies and cable providers are opposed to the widespread rollout of Wi-Fi. {emphases mine}
Mobile VOIP telephony challenges everyone. Phone and Cable wireline products and cellular companies alike will find it hard, very hard, to compete with a wireless IP-based voice solution. Think Lafayette's Referendum fight with Cingular and the other wireless carriers weighing in against LUS in addition to BellSouth and Cox. I hope Azulstar has some deep pocket investors because this is too good an idea to go under because it gets drowned by incumbent regulatory and legal harrassment.

IP on wireless networks; from a Networking Pipeline story:
With VoIP still gathering steam, a new flavor of VoIP may accelerate the move to Internet-based telephone service. VoIP over wireless network, or VoWLAN, could bring more compelling reasons for users to drop their current telephony service and switch to a true roaming VoIP solution. VoWLAN is simply a VoIP phone that can connect to the Internet via a corporate wireless network, a home or small office wireless network, or a public or private wireless hotspot...

Because the market is relatively new, there are limited VoWLAN telephones available. The current crop of VoIP Wi-Fi telephones share very similar feature sets, such as a basic phonebook, echo cancellation, and jitter buffer to ward off call breakup from network traffic.
Wireless IP phones don't need a lot of fancy features...they can, in theory and easily enough in practice, simply be another local wifi-connected network node. You ought to be upload your phonebook from your laptop and access all the network services available to your laptop from your phone. No need to cram 'em on the itty bitty phone if they are available on the network. Cool features aside, the real news is that the story goes on to give a short review of 5 commerically available Wireles IP phones, including 3 that are clearly aimed at residential markets. My guess is that the 103 miles of Rio Ranch's municipal wifi system are destined to become a big market for one of the these phones. Why? because its gonna be dirt cheap and ultra cool. And its not just folks in Lafayette who'd jump at a chance to abandon the incumbent monopolies in favor of an upstart local alternative that offers more for less.

The real upside is in the potential integration of these things and in the provision of the next several generations of services. Examples? Store your movies online and watch on your phone/PDA/laptop/remote thing-a-ma-bob (TAMB) or direct you movies to your friend's nice HDTV set. While sitting at a stoplight use your TAMB to direct your online DVR to record the evening news to see what is said about the accident you witnessed on Kaliste Saloom. Integration of all wireline networks based on IP/internet protocols is already in process. Wireless will be then next to be pulled in.

Having the barriers between networks fall will make great services available to the customers of companies that encourage integration over their networks. To have a direct motive to push integration you have to have two things: 1) a stake in all the services offered so that integration serves to solidify and extend your market reach and penetration and 2) bandwidth to burn; many of the most interesting new services require high bandwidth. A company which needs to ration bandwidth will be afraid to promote new services strongly for fear they will be used. (Think that unlikely? Think again. This is what explains Cox's noticeable lack of a push to sell its VOIP service. The Quality of Service (QoS) issue created by VOIP cause Cox to noticeably cut into the bandwidth available to its established internet customers or risk lousy voice service. It's been an issue in Lafayette already--without a huge promotion.)

Locally only LUS will have a large market share of customers in all the basic services, only LUS will have the bandwidth to fund real wireless capable of high speed video, only LUS will have the in-system bandwidth to support massive online storage and retrieval. (Presuming they make certain as yet unmade decisions in favor of offering such bandwidth.)

The quintuple play and all that would inevitably follow in terms of local opportunity to develop services using the potential for integration is within our reach. Let's think about it publicly.