Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Hold the phone" in New Orleans

I've been thinking about New Orleans and technology lately; the issue of New Orleans' metro wifi plan has brought that to the fore. A story in New Orleans' City Business highlights another way in which Lafayette and New Orleans are running in parallel tracks. It's a story which contrasts BellSouth and Cox's recent behavior. In New Orleans this is all about the recovery effort after Katrina. It seems New Orleans feels Cox is doing a better job than BellSouth:
Frustration with damaged phone lines is off the hook among BellSouth customers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina...

"I hate BellSouth. I've had the worst experience with that company. The only two things at BellSouth that work are billing and marketing. I feel like they don't care about the individual customer," Loehfelm said.

BellSouth has restored service to 50 percent of Orleans Parish, Villar said. He would not disclose how many customers BellSouth has...

Part of the issue seems to be lack of communication more than anything else. Cox set clear deadlines in different parts of the city for turning on service--and met them. BellSouth has not set such public goals and apparently has disappointed people who were led to believe they'd have service back more quickly than has proven the case when they contacted the company individually.

The idea that Cox is capable of understanding at least the demands of public relations if not good citizenship is hard for me to grasp. It's hard to forget the first months of the fiber fight when Cox representatives were by far the more obnoxious and BellSouth folks at least seemed dignified. I guess its time to get over that.

More on New Orleans' WiFi

Today we see a bit more information emerging on New Orleans surprise WiFi network. Both the Advertiser and the Advocate carry the same AP story by Sayre, a regional business writer. Not much new emerges in that story but the city's motivation, and the likelihood of opposition from Cox and BellSouth is clear:

Greg Meffert, the city's technology director, conceded that private providers might have problems with the system.

"In the end, my job is to work for the city and what the city needs," he said. "I'll stand behind that."

For those among us who crave a bit more detail I've been able to find a couple of articles with a little more than was in the original Washington Post. One is from CNet a techy forum, and the other is from NOLA.COM, the online face of the Times-Picayune. First, they are a lot clearer than earlier stories about what New Orleans will be first in: the first large city to offer city-wide, free wifi. It's clear as well that the network is actually being opened up rather than built from scratch. A Tropos-based network that provided police surveillance and was used for city functions has been repaired and it is this network that provides the infrastructure for the service launched Tuesday. From NOLA:
The city service is running on the back of a fiber optic-based communications system that was created before the storm to operate city security video cameras on the tops of streetlights.
You'll note, I hope, that even for this limited functionality (the system is severely throttled, be closed down to a small fraction of potential bandwidth) a fiber-optic backbone is considered essential. Funding the bandwidth for even them most sparse large-scale mesh network is inevitably bandwidth intensive.

If you're in New Orleans hears how you'll log on:

Network users must use computers that are equipped to receive WiFi signals. The network appears on the computer under the name CityofNewOrleans.

First-time users must register with the city and select a user name and password through a Web site that appears when a network connection is made.

With bandwidth throttled to 512 megs my guess is that the system will be most comfortably used for email. To get web access that doesn't drive you crazy you'll probably still need to drive around to find good signal. My guess is that New Orleanians will learn to recognize the boxes and that people will learn to park under those streetlights. (Warning: those are the same poles that are most likely to have surveillance cameras, so you probably shouldn't do anything your momma would disapprove of while sitting there.)

Every story, and I do mean every one, notes the likely opposition from the incumbent providers. NOLA reports that:
Managers from both companies learned about the WiFi network only in recent days from media reports preceding Nagin's press conference, spokesmen for the companies said.
The few comments the press has been able to pry out of Cox have been ambiguous at best and BellSouth has refused to comment in any way.

What is clear is that New Orleans is chaffing under the load of pricy wireless carriage from the incumbents and resentful of state roadblocks to serving the public with publicly-owned networks.

"We haven't made a decision on whether we would bring someone else to run the network after it's built," said Chris Drake, project manager in the mayor's office of technology. "We have to operate half the network anyway, so we will have to see how it goes and assess the cost and effort that goes into it."

While I had hoped that New Orleans would be freed to install municipal utilities as a consequence of the storm it was only a hope. It's great to see it happening. It'd be even better, at least in my opinion if they'd firmly adopt the Lafayette model of a publicly-owned municipality that returns value to the city instead of draining it to Atlanta. With Nagin the former head of Cox New Orleans I thought that unlikely. Now its just a small step away from reality.

CNet says:
The city is already planning to challenge the new law, Drake [project manager] said.
That's what needs to happen. Not only for New Orleans and Lafayette. But for Lake Charles, Alexandria....and all of Louisiana's hard-pressed municipalities. Louisiana will be struggling to make ends meet for years. What we can do for ourselves we should do. And politicians at the state (and federal for that matter) should leave us alone and let us do so.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Third Lawsuit Goes Down

Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate covers the (tentative) resolution of a third lawsuit against LUS. This lawsuit was actually brought first, by the same people who filed the lawsuit dismissed last week:
Lafayette Utilities System won another victory in court Monday when a judge dismissed a suit brought earlier this year alleging the municipal utility has been overcharging customers for years.
This attempt at a class action lawsuit was actually filed during the election fight earlier this year and had the likely purpose then of giving BellSouth an opportunity to try and blacken LUS' reputation with charges of overbilling the public. Like a lot of the more obvious ploys tried by BellSouth this one didn't get much traction but it still hung around in the legal system. The grounds for its dismissal yesterday is revealing of the insincere nature of these lawsuits:
Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque agreed Monday with LUS' attorneys arguments that it wasn't proper to file suit against LUS without first going to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority.
Oh. Well, uh, sure...maybe you should have actually tried to use the actual, legitimate method for dealing with such issues before you run off and file a class action lawsuit. Of course if winning for your clients wasn't really the point of the lawsuit maybe following the legal procedures weren't considered important. I suppose its a good thing these lawyers don't practice in Lafayette. Such obvious "mistakes" might effect their reputation...someone might get the idea that they weren't really acting in the best interests of their clients of record but had something else in mind--like benefiting BellSouth.

Probably the best thing about the dismissal of this lawsuit is that it undercuts claims made by the same group of lawyers in the case dissmissed last week (I know this is confusing, stay with me here). In that case the Plaquimines lawyers claimed standing based partially on the lawsuit dismissed yesterday. They said that the "overcharges" they claimed to want returned to customers shouldn't be available to LUS to pay off the bonds. With the first, "overcharges" lawsuit dismissed the part of their second lawsuit that differed most from BellSouth's almost identical lawsuit no longer has any basis.

With each of these losses it becomes more apparent that BellSouth doesn't really have a valid basis for legal action; they are merely trying to delay, and are hoping that the bond market will rise (as it has--each day of delay does make the project more expensive).

Enough is enough. BellSouth needs to compete and stop this obstructionism.

KLFY: "Durel Fiber Letter" with Saloom

Here's a KLFY story that I almost missed. It lays out the story behind the letter published in the Advertiser Sunday. Even better it links to a video that features Kal Saloom talking sense.
Saloom tells Eyewitness News what he hoped letters and e-mail would achieve. He says he wants BellSouth to hear from its customers. He says he wants BellSouth to understand that delaying the fiber project is hurting the community.
Worth the click.

"New Orleans's New Connection"

The Washington Post gets a jump on the news by posting a story datelined Tuesday Monday night. And it's good news. New Orleans has deployed its own municipal internet utility and is switching it on tomorrow.

From the article:
Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans will deploy the nation's first municipally owned wireless Internet system that will be free for all users, part of an effort to jump-start recovery by making living and doing business in the city as attractive as possible.
Well, it's not really true that New Orleans will be the first city to do this...maybe the first really enormous city but there are ton's of other projects out there in towns and small cities.

It should be a real boost for the city. Of course, if Lafayette's experience is any guide they'll have to look out for BellSouth. BellSouth is bound to object; their one bit of bragging rights in what has generally been an uninspiring and uninspired rebuilding effort has been to provide New Orleans with a rudimentary WiFi setup. You have to know that this news is causing Bill Oliver, who is headquartered in New Orleans as the president of BellSouth Louisiana, considerable heartburn. Between Lafayette and New Orleans it can't have been a good week for Oliver.

I wonder if BellSouth will really have the nerve to object to New Orleans showing a little spunk and self-reliance. In point of fact, New Orleans' deployment is illegal. But excused under emergency rules:
Louisiana is one of those states, prohibiting any locality from offering Internet connection speeds of more than 144 kilobits per second, about twice the speed of dial-up but one-tenth to one-twentieth of what is typically provided via digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable-modem services.

The New Orleans system will feature 512-kilobit-per-second speed, which city officials said is the most the network can handle efficiently at first. Because the city is under a state of emergency, it can skirt existing law.

City officials said they will battle to overturn the 144-kilobit speed limitation that will take effect when the state of emergency is over.
Hey! Lafayette should join that battle. Nagin and Durel might make quite a potent team at the legislature and quite a photogenic pair for the national press. Nagin can brag about the self-reliance and willingness to try creative new things in the face of adversity that his system will demonstrate. Durel could step up and make a parallel speech. They could both complain about this state law that keeps them from promoting the interests of their people. They could happily demand "deregulation" and note that removing restrictions on who can enter the market could only help the long-suffering Louisiana consumer.

If you were a Louisiana legislator, desperate to find some way to help your hurricaned-ravaged constituents, smarting from the state's image as a dependent step child and deeply resentful of the out of state corporations that are dominating reconstruction what would you do?

If we play our cards right this might turn out to be almost as good for Lafayette as for New Orleans.

Monday, November 28, 2005

KLFY "Durel Fiber Letter UPDATE"

Now it's on the TV news. KLFY covers the Lafayette counterattack:
Huval says he'd like to challenge BellSouth's lawyers to look at the constitutionality of a corporate entity in Atlanta, Georgia saying 'no' to the will of the people of Lafayette. He says there's got to be something wrong with this. He says what BellSouth is trying to do is drag this out, cost LUS more money, and make it more difficult to go forward with this project. Huval says in the meantime, the will of the people is being ignored.
BellSouth is hunkered down and just isn't talking. I think they are used to a lot more subservience in public officials in towns where they dominate the voice market. Good for Joey.

"Fiber war of words heats up'

Monday's headline story in The Advertiser is "Fiber War of Words Heats Up." We've got action again in the fight for fiber. The Advertiser followed up Sunday's full page ad from Lafayette YES! with a call to Bill Oliver, Louisiana president of BellSouth and notoriously the prime mover behind BellSouth's intransigent refusal to simply let Lafayette do as she chooses.

Oliver's response was pretty tepid and, as usual, misleading:
Bill Oliver, president of BellSouth Louisiana, said Sunday he had 'really no reaction' to the letter.

'From day one ... we have continually stated that we are in opposition with a municipality competing with a private enterprise,' Oliver said.

When asked, Oliver would not say whether the letter would change the company's tactics; he instead reiterated that BellSouth has not changed its position on the issue.

'We have not changed one inch since day one,' Oliver said."
That's another bit of misdirection from BellSouth. The issue laid on the table is not their consistency. It is their behavior--something the Advertiser reporter alludes to when she tries to get the conversation back on track by asking about changing tactics. By two-stepping, fluttering their hands in the air and claiming to be acting on consistent principle, Oliver hopes to direct the public's attention away from his anti-democratic unwillingness to let Lafayette do as it has chosen to do in an open election . . . an election that BellSouth demanded.

The trouble with the claim that BellSouth has not changed "one inch since day one" is that it is a lie.

At least it is a lie if you ever took their constantly shifting rationales seriously (I have to admit I didn't). Actually, on "day one" they claimed to be piously acting in our community's best interest. They said they just wanted to "inform" us of how municipal broadband had never worked anywhere and how competition with municipal broadband had never lowered prices. Both lies. Silly ones. But they brought in some kept academic types and thought we were rubes enough to buy it. Then they tried to take up the banner of calling for a vote, saying they just wanted the people to decide. You know how that worked out. We've not heard much from that rationale lately, have we? Then they went on a tare about how they were worried about our taxes. That was hard to take seriously but they did try it, you'll recall. Actually none of the "We're so concerned about you, you poor ignorant little people" arguments worked very well but it is what they led with--not some story about free enterprise ethics.

But the "it's for your own good" series of attempts to hoodwink us is merely the most embarrassing attempt to foist off a misleading explanation for BellSouth's behavior. Equally deceptive, on the evidence, is their claim to be some sort of noble fighter for the ideals of free enterprise and competition. The embarrassingly obvious fact is that this whole battle has been to prevent the entry of competition from the Lafayette Utilty System. (Oddly, you've seen no full page ads welcoming the new competitor and extolling the way competition will improve things for all Lafayette and all competitors--which is what you would expect if they believed, rather than merely wanted you to believe all their loose talk about competition.) Even leaving that aside, on some specious idea the idea that tiny, local LUS has some mysterious competitive advantage on one of the world's largest and politically most powerful telecom monopolies, the "free enterprise" argument doesn't work. It isn't just LUS that BellSouth wants to exclude. They want to exclude all competition and if that doesn't work they go straight to the national government and demand a competitive advantage.

If we look at their actions rather than listen to their rhetoric, we'll find that BellSouth national spent the entire period of time Oliver was focused on excluding LUS in Lafayette focused on excluding as many other competitors at the federal level as it could. After a long lobbying effort at the national regulatory agency, the FCC, BellSouth and its fellow Baby Bells succeeded in effectively eliminating all competition from an entire class of companies known as CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carriers). If the reasoning was weak, the effect was not: remember when everyone from AT&T to local EATEL was trying to sell you cheaper phone service? You'll see no such ads this Christmas. EATEL finally pulled out recently as a direct consequence of the FCC's rulings. And your last chance for cheaper phone bill went with them.

BellSouth and the other Bell's current project is a giant "taking" of the property rights of municipalities. They are pushing for a nationalized "franchise" agreement that would take control of rights of ways from local governments, reduce their income, and --most crucially for BellSouth and its allies--put the cable companies at a competitive disadvantage by freeing the Bells from any responsibility to serve the whole community, rich or poor, black or white, profitable or not. The cable companies, as a consequence of having to deal with real, local, communities have contractual responsibilities to pay back to the community for property it uses and to serve the whole community. BellSouth would rather not bother with all those silly little locals. BellSouth would rather not compete on an equal basis. And they seem to be getting their way. We'll all suffer if they do.

Unless of course we here in Lafayette get LUS in to compete; LUS who will offer all of usservice and do it more cheaply if they are allowed to...I'm hoping you are beginning to see how BellSouth's national policy and Bill Oliver's local policy are actually the same, anti-competitive position. Greed, as Mayor Durel has correctly remarked, is what the evidence shows motivates BellSouth. Both nationally and in the person of Bill Oliver. That is what has been their position from "day one." All that other stuff is an arrogant attempt to confuse the public. We are not so easily deceived--as the referendum should have demonstrated.

The Advertiser's willingness to banner this story should serve as an index to the community's frustration. A few words with Oliver on the phone blowing smoke wouldn't normally be top of the paper, headline news. What makes it newsworthy is that the Advertiser is as aware as any other local agency of how much resentful attention people are giving the lawsuits. They want people to mention the Advertiser when they talk about the topic that they'll be talking about anyway. And they want the people of Lafayette to feel like the Advertiser is on their side.

Would that BellSouth felt the same way.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Enough is Enough Ad

Got a copy of the pdf file of the full page anti-BellSouth ad for you folks that might have missed it in Sunday's paper:

(I posted on the event at "Lafayette Yes! takes on BellSouth's Obstructionism.")

(Clicking on the image at left brings up a large jpg file. A lighter, and more readable pdf is also available and is preferable if your browser is set up to handle it.)

Lafayette Yes! takes on BellSouth's Obstructionism

If you don't get the Advertiser, or simply do most of your reading online (guilty as charged) you will have found it easy to miss the full page ad on page A4 of the Sunday edition blasting BellSouth.

The headline:

says what a lot of folks have been saying recently...from big boys Durel, Huval, and Ottinger to the Daily Advertiser in last Sunday's lead editorial, to bloggers Doug and yours truly, to folks muttering about picketing in digital divide meetings, to just plain folks grumping about it in CC's--the tone is turning ugly for BellSouth.

The bulk of the ad is an open letter from Joey Durel to Duane Ackerman, BellSouth's CEO in Atlanta. It accuses BellSouth of working to block the will of the people Lafayette, and notes BellSouth's losses at the polls and in the courts. The letter suggests that in the wake of Katrina and Rita BellSouth invest in rebuilding Louisiana and not spend their energy standing in the way of Lafayette investing in itself.

The final paragraph:
In Lafayette it is time for you to acknowledge and allow new competition in the marketplace for telecommunications services. It is time to understand that your customers, the people of Lafayette, resent your interference and with a majority voice want you to know--ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
I think that Durel has it right. The fact that Cox has apparently decided it would rather compete than litigate makes for a contrast that exposes BellSouth's positions as a choice they are making. --It's clear that they could make other choices if Cox can.

With Kal Saloom joining the chorus of those expressing frustration with a splash you can bet that this sentiment is being heard in the boardrooms of Acadiana as well. The Lafayette YES! PAC he heads represented the business community's contribution to the referendum fight and this ad serves notice that that portion of the community has not forgotten that the fight is still ongoing. The list of endorsers of the Fiber To The Home project makes that clear.

The ad suggest that people contact BellSouth's Board of directors. I heartily agree. You can join the effort by writing:
Office of the Corporate Secretary
Board of Directors
BellSouth Corporation
1155 Peachtree St., NE
Suite 19A01
Atlanta, GA 30309-3610
Enough IS Enough.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Doug's Peeved too

Doug over at LUSFTTH blog is als0 peeved about BellSouth's obnoxious attempts to get around Lafayette's vote. Doug doesn't post often these days, but they are usually sweet. Here's the memorable lead-in:

The word "Jack-a$$e$" comes to mind...
Nicely said. Go take a gander.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanks Readers!

I grateful in this season of thanksgiving for our readership... surprised but very grateful.

I took a look through our server stats this morning and was surprised -- and pleased -- to find that regular readership has fallen off amazingly little since the referendum campaign. By my estimates we've only lost about 17% of "daily checkers" since our previous "normal" readership high a couple of weeks before the election. (We had a big spike around the election itself, but I don't consider that regular readership.) Readership continues to build, albeit slowly. 220-230 different people visit each day (if you visit more than once this stat doesn't count repeat visits in the daily count). Regular readership, counting folks who don't visit every day but do check in regularly every few of days is probably 2 to 3 times that number.

That's surprising since that's a large number (IMHO) for what is pretty much a one town/one issue blog--and a pretty damn technical issue at that. I've always been a bit perplexed about the level of interest, gratified and thrilled, but confused. And I'd have thought that interest would have fallen off sharply after the electorials success. A sort of "OK, now that's done" effect. I no longer post daily with any consistency and my posts are 'too long' both factors which usually reduce readership. So...

That readership remains strong is worth speculating about. I've looked over the posts and come to two conclusions: 1) People don't think this fight is over and remain interested in the status of the ongoing fight. and 2) People are particularly interested in posts that look forward and try and figure out what possibilities the future brings.

About the first rationale, the fight not being over, the best response is probably to continue doing what we've been doing in the blog--fight. About the second, that folks appear to be most interested in possibilites I think we can do much more dreaming than we have. After all its worthwhile to try and understand what we would be fighting for. Look for more posts in that vein and maybe even some white-paperish things back in the long-neglected more permanent side of the blog.

Thanks, readers.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A "Happy Holidays" from BellSouth and its Agents

In this season of Thanksgiving in Lafayette--acutely conscious of having been largely spared by two storms that devastated it neighbors--does not need to feel any gratitude in relation to its phone provider.

An Advocate story this morning confirms that which was reported here yesterday: BellSouth and its allies have filed appeals to the state 3rd Circuit seeking to further delay LUS' publicly approved fiber-optic project. It will be decided soon according to the story filed in the Advocate:
Because of the specific deadlines set out in state law, the appeals should be heard by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, at the latest, by Christmas Day -- and decided by New Year's Day.
And the next..and final..level will be an appeal to the State Supreme Court, according to the article:
An appeal of the 3rd Circuit's decision would be heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court following the same deadlines.
That would put the end of this piece of the delaying strategy somewhere about the middle of January.

Hmmn. There is discussion of a second hurricane-related special session in January; let's keep a sharp eye out for BellSouth's lobbyists when that special session is defined. We don't want to see any special pleading that would allow the state to "help out" poor, pitiful, storm-ravaged BellSouth (cough) by damaging Lafayette. Lafayette and Acadiana representatives should oppose leaving open any door to "help" BellSouth in the special session. They have proven that they can't be trusted to stick to deals they make in the legislature. (Remember their reneging on the "compromises" contained in the (un)fair competition act from the summer before last? Lots of us do.)

Of course, opposing any definition of the special session that would allow BellSouth to bring up its own relief is only an issue only if they appeal again. If they don't LUS will have sold their bonds and room for BellSouth to do damage to the project will be significantly reduced. And, of course, if they don't appeal it will be the first concrete sign that they plan to let the people's decision stand.

The continuing strategy of BellSouth since it lost the referendum on July 16th has been to abuse the regulatory and legal systems of our state in hopes of delaying the onset of local competition and driving up the cost to the consumer when that competition from LUS finally appears. Standing down on these lawsuits would allow LUS and Acadiana representatives to avoid the temptation to see BellSouth as a declared and bitter enemy in all things. To date BellSouth has set itself up to frustrate Lafayette at every turn. We should return the favor. Until they back off we should encourage our representatives to form an implacable voting block that is dedicated to frustrating BellSouth's every desire. The Louisiana Police Jury and both organizations of mayors in Louisiana endorsed Lafayette's position in the last battle; maybe they'd join us again. If BellSouth thinks it would be hard to whip up resentment against the phone company they really are living in a different state.

The corporation makes it easy. Consider a little quote from BellSouth's local face John Williams found in the Advertiser after BellSouth's PSC loss:
The extensive devastation to government infrastructure by Hurricane Katrina should make residents reconsider whether they want to entrust government with their telecommunications services, he said."In light of all the recovery efforts local government must undertake, how high of a priority would telecommunications be?" Williams wrote.
Come on! This sort of stuff just proves that Williams and BellSouth don't have a grain of sensitivity about how Lafayette will regard their trying to turn every damned thing to their greedy, self-centered advantage--even the biggest set of tragedies to hit our state in living memory. We knew what we wanted before BellSouth tried to tell us otherwise and we know it even better after the election. A local telecom utility will provide us with competition, better services, and lower prices. These things are even more valuable now than before the tragedies of Katrina and Rita. And the people this program will most help now include in their number evacuees from those two storms. People with any sense of decency wouldn't go there. But BellSouth and John Williams will.

I honestly think that Lafayette is reaching a level of resentment that is unrivaled even during the referendum campaign. During the campaign some opposition was expected and some citizens, thinking that after all this is Louisiana politics, were willing to put up with shenanigans that wouldn't be considered honest in other contexts. But now that the people have spoken its hard to avoid the bitter taste of spoiled milk when we consider BellSouth's attempts to overturn Lafayette's recent vote. Part of Louisiana's and especially south Louisiana's willingness to tolerate stuff that other places don't is the joie de vivre culture--you are not supposed to be tolerant and not hang onto resentments. People from elsewhere don't understand that this isn't blanket license; its part of the socially accepted rules of the local game. You violate that social understanding if you continue to act as if the contest is still on after the game is over. People who continue to act self-indulgently after the big party is over and to treat tolerance during the party as license to continue to act like jerks after it are not forgiven. They are quietly excluded from the group. Once you get on the wrong side of that it is very hard to get back in. BellSouth should be warned...our famous tolerance only goes so far and is only extended to those that play the game fairly and recognize when the game is over.

BellSouth is already over the line. When the people recognize just how far it won't go well for BellSouth. If you'd like a little evidence I can only say that the tone of people I talk to regularly has shifted. Now I grant that I mostly talk to supporters of LUS (after all that's most of the population), but the recent Sunday Advertiser editorial should give BellSouth pause. Anyone who watched the campaign knows that the Advertiser was never an opinion leader on the telecom issue. They were always behind the movement of opinion and followed what they were hearing on the streets and in the boardrooms. Sunday's editorial was not a pro-local, pro-LUS editorial of the sort we used to see. It was a weary, "enough is enough" essay. It was an anti-BellSouth essay.

The tide has moved in an ugly direction and BellSouth doesn't have forever to halt the growing sense that they are simply the enemy. And should be treated as such.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Enough is Enough

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: enough is enough.

I'm told the city got formal notification late last week of BellSouth's filing an appeal of the recent lawsuit they lost. I, and a lot of others, have lost patience with this sort of thing.

BellSouth, Cox, and few scattered allies have tried to stand in the way of Lafayette for more than a year now. It needs to stop.

A review:

They first went to the state legislature and tried to take away our freedom to do for ourselves what we thought best for the community. They then attempted to convince us, through foolishness ranging faux "academic conferences" to push polls that we really didn't want what we wanted. They chickened out of the chamber forum when they couldn't get the format changed at the last minute to suit them. They tried to decieve us that an anti-LUS blog was written by a Lafayette resident and not a corporate official out of Tyler, Texas. They tried to browbeat the city-parish council and the people with vague threats about the Cingular call center. They failed to convince our neighbors to fear us. They stood against us during a bitter referendum fight which, in the end, served to unify the community against them and to overwhelmingly validate Lafayette's support for a locally-owned telecom utility. They tried through back-door lobbying to get the Public Service Commission to interpret legislation they had agreed to in ways that were clearly contrary to the words in law. Failing in the first try at the PSC they took another bite of the apple and failed again. They sued the city. They lost. Their allies sued the city. It was dismissed. You'd think by now they'd get the message: Leave us alone. Compete or get out. {Did I forgot your favorite sickening deception, petty behavior, or egregious lie? Let me know and I'll update this.}

So, where are we now?

They promise to sue the PSC in state courts. No doubt their class-action lawsuit buddies will do the same.

And now we hear that they've filed an appeal in the case that bears BellSouth's name.

Without any doubt they are trying delay and delay the bond sale the voters authorized on July 16th. Why? They want to frustrate the will of the people so that BellSouth can squeeze a little more out of the people of Lafayette. It is to their advantage to drive up the cost to Lafayette consumers, to allow themselves some more time to get their creaky technology cleaned up enough to use, and to keep our bonds from being sold until the legislature can come back into session and the state's largest phalanx of lobbyists can try again to cripple Lafayette in the legislature.

It's disgusting. It's greedy. It cannot be justified.

Cox has apparently decided that working the quiet influence/local PR game and (gasp!) actual competition might be a more honorable route--and one that doesn't make them outright enemies of the community. BellSouth would be well-served to do the same. It'd be great to see actual competition instead of bureaucratic maneuvering. That's what would be valuable for the people of Lafayette.

Remember these guy's previous slogan: "Let the People Vote"? Well, the people have decided.

Enough is enough.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Standing Up--The Advertiser

The Sunday Editorial in the Advertiser this week is titled: "Court challenges to LUS fiber plan should end now." Amen.

The title says it all. The essay does lay the bones of a logic that should be convincing to all. To wit: LUS has met every challenge put before it and with the indisputable moral authority of an overwhelming vote of the people behind it the community should not have to tolerate further delay. I'd want to put a little meat on those bones, go a small step further and note that LUS has again and again made good-faith comprises to move the project forward without undue delay. BellSouth, Cox, and their allies have at every turn tried to abuse those compromises to further strengthen the advantages they have and to turn them into further opportunities for delay. Today's lawsuits are based on yesterday's attempt to give BellSouth what it said would satisfy it in state law. Instead of actually settling for the compromise they use it today to try and squeeze a bit more out of the situation for the themselves. And failing that to frustrate the very reason that LUS agreed to the compromise in the first place: to eliminate the delay that would have been caused by fighting for what would have been most to their advantage. BellSouth and Cox understood what the deal was; they have simply not been honorable or honest. (And this, incidentally, is what explains the growing animus felt for the corporations by local officials, and increasingly by the public. You can't trust or work with folks who've proved untrustworthy.)

Here's how the Advertiser puts it:
The next battle in this war should be fought in the competitive business arena. We've already been through the state regulators, the district courts and the Legislature. We'd hate to think that two major corporate citizens such as BellSouth and Cox Communications would stoop to delaying tactics and then, as similar companies have done elsewhere, slip a few dollars to a think tank that will come up with a study that proves -ah-ha! - municipal broadband loses money.

There's another way, a fair way, to settle the dispute. Put the products in the marketplace, and let the market decide. If BellSouth and Cox are right, customers will give the thumbs down to LUS and its fiber plan, and the city-parish government will have to live with the political and economic consequences. If LUS is right, Lafayette stands to benefit from less expensive access to broadband technology.

That's important. While two-thirds of the nation's households have dial-up or broadband Internet access, fewer than half of Louisiana's do. Only Arkansas and Mississippi do worse.

Being No. 1 in America wouldn't be a big deal. The United States has fallen to 13th in the percentage of its homes with broadband access.

So bring it on, fight it out and let's see whether the LUS fiber plan can really be the engine that propels Lafayette into a future of high-speed data service."
Again, Amen.

I've heard people say, even those who are wholeheartedly LUS supporters, that this sort of behavior is, if not exactly excusable, understandable and natural. They wryly and indulgently remark that this is just how corporations are. I am hoping that we will think twice about offering that indulgence. We've figured out that what is natural, for say teenagers, is nonetheless not acceptable and demand something more from their behavior than just what they might selfishly want. These corporations are run by grown men and women who can, if they want, act honorably. We could name them. Let's do so: Bill Oliver, John Williams, Gary Cassard
. Other people lend their name and influence such as Karmen Blanco and Sharon Kleinpeter. All of these should be held personally responsible for the acts of the companies they represent or for which they make decisions. People, not corporations, make decisions. People, not corporations, put their reputations on the line in defense of those corporation's actions. They should be held to the same standard anyone else would be expected to adhere to: the same standard we ask of teenagers: to be responsible for their actions and to use their reputations for worthy purposes.

Friday, November 18, 2005

"Cox renews focus in Lafayette"

In January, control over Cox Communications operations in Lafayette will switch from Tyler, Texas, to Baton Rouge
So saith the Advocate this morning. The switch to Baton Rouge was pretty much inevitable following the sale of the rest of Cox's Louisiana properties that were in the "Middle America" division run out of Tyler. Cox is retaining its Baton Rouge, New Orleans properties and adding Lafayette to that division.

Go zip over to the Advocate story; it's a very nice "review and current status " overview of the story. It reminds us of both Cox's earlier strategy and current "quiet;" reviewing, for instance, the infamous push polls and the TJCrawdad debacle. (The TJCrawdad saga was dealt with on these pages, on the pages of LUSFTTH and on in the lost, much-lamented Timshel.) What is not mentioned is that the entire crew that ran the Lafayette operation in the early days, including the infamous TJCrawdad, were replaced mid-stream by Cox. The shakeup left, so far as I know, only the local "PR face" of the old office staff in place. That remnant may be about to go when Karmen Blanco officially takes over the PR reins in Lafayette.

(The distinction between the BR crew and the old Lafayette crew is elliptically alluded to when Baton Rouge representative Sharon Kleinpeter is careful to distance her group from earlier events:
Though Cox officials watched closely the debate in Lafayette, "the entire strategy and situation was really handled through Tyler," Kleinpeter said.)
The new group certainly knows what to say:

"In January (when the switch-over takes place), I don't see anything that we're going to go into court," Kleinpeter said.

Kleinpeter said that Cox still believes that municipally run communications businesses are a bad idea, but "the people have expressed their opinion."

"We need to compete and we need to win in the court of public opinion," Kleinpeter said.

While not backing down on their objections, that certainly is a vast improvement over the old Cox rhetoric and accords at least some respect to the people of Lafayette. We'll be excused if we reserve judgment on whether or not Cox can stick to that resolution--and whether local representatives like Kleinpeter would be in the loop if they were planning anything else. After all the humiliation suffered by BellSouth's Williams when he was depicted as being out of the loop on the push poll demonstrates that the lower levels aren't always in the loop--though, like soldiers anywhere, they take the hit.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Huval on Cox & Lawsuits; Quiet and Not

Kevin Blanchard has an unusual piece in the Advocate today. Most "news," hell almost all news, is event-driven. In order for a story to be a "story" it has to be hung on something happening; usually some dramatic change that occurred pretty suddenly.

Today's article dealing with the players in the fiber-optic telecom utility chess game breaks that mold. It reports on something that isn't an "event" but should be understood by the public. The article notices the different ways that the incumbents are publicly dealing with a dramatic loss at the polls and it hints at the private cross-currents of professional and personal influence among "influentials."

I've long been an advocate of more "educational" news--news which places a premium on understanding rather than simply describing events. (I try to pursue some of that here.) This is a good think; the article deserves more than the quick glance most readers are likely to accord it.

Public Quiet
The headline "Cox 'quiet' since election" keys on remarks made at last night's Lafayette Public Utility Authority meeting (the LPUA is the city subset of the City-Parish Council and generally meets prior to the Council). Cox has been relatively quiet. But it has joined BellSouth in attempting to take advantage of the situation at the Louisiana Public Service Commission so "quiet" doesn't quite get it. But it is true that BellSouth has put itself in the way of most of the bad publicity that is to be had from opposing the will of the people of Lafayette.

Why? My suspicion is that Cox thinks it can compete and BellSouth is pretty sure that it cannot. Hence BellSouth is more desperate to prevent municipal competition than its erstwhile ally. Cox has made the decision to keep Lafayette when it shed most of the division that Lafayette was in. Cox, as we've remarked repeatedly on these pages, is well positioned to eat BellSouth's lunch in the coming broadband battle. BellSouth may be well aware that in a full-scale battle for triple or quadruple play customers in Lafayette it will be third ran... At the moment BellSouth's DSL product competes directly with Cox's broadband. But it (lists) a slower connection speed and has a smaller customer base. So it competes, against all its monopoly instincts, on price; it is cheaper to buy DSL. But with two broadband alternatives both faster and with LUS committed to driving down the price 20% on its first day of business BellSouth will be both slower and will be deprived of the cheaper price that currently allows it to compete.

BellSouth needs to find a way out. Any way out. For BellSouth, if not for Cox, competition is not a viable alternative. What is true of Lafayette is true, if less urgent, throughout BellSouth's footprint: it does not want and cannot afford a third, faster, cheaper municipal alternative that reveals it as the last place finisher rather than the cheaper alternative to cable in the expanding broadband market.

That, for my money, is at the basis of Cox's quiet and BellSouth's belligerence.

Private Influence
But the public arena is not the only place where cats can be skinned. And the Advocate article gives a small peek into that universe. The article notes the hiring of Karmen Blanco by Cox (a story I posted on earlier) and also highlights the role of Lafayette law firm Perret Doise in BellSouth's litigation. Perret, it notes, managed Durel's transition team and Karmen is Kathleen Blanco's daughter. I have no doubt that both do and will do honorable jobs for their employers. I similarly do not doubt that their ties in the community have something to do with their hire. There are, as sociology texts and traditional wisdom teach us, intricate ties of influence that are professional, personal, and indirect. For instance Perret is also on the board of Our Lady of Fatima elementary school, Karmen's previous employer. Beyond this story hiring the local public relations firm, Calzone and Associates, and that firm hiring the son of Senator Cravins is not likely to be a simple coincidence.

Public, professional ties bring private influence into the picture; to say that doesn't happen is foolish; to say it isn't intended by the corporations is naive.

It's all worth watching if you care about the interests of the community as a whole.

There's quiet and then there is quiet. The fuller story here may be that Cox is learning how to be publicly quiet and privately effective.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"Second lawsuit on LUS tossed"

This morning's paper delivery brings us articles from both the Advocate and the Advertiser on yesterday's dismissal of the class action suit against LUS. Judge Ware dismissed on the grounds that the courts had already heard this argument and that Louisiana law didn't allow this form of double jeopardy. The Plaquemine lawyers in the class action suit had already "intervened" in Conque's court (the site of last weeks LUS-City victory) to argue in support of BellSouth and were at that time warned that they'd not get "another bite of the apple." The lawyers, being lawyerly, argued that their argument was unique because they wanted to stop LUS in order to use LUS' "residual" money to pay off their earlier lawsuit should they win. The problem is that having a different reason to want to stop LUS does not constitute a different argument—something they judge felt they weren't bothering to make.

Nonetheless, we'll likely see yet another appeal. It's getting so you can't keep track without a scorecard. Probable/promised appeals: of the PSC' ruling, Judge Conque's ruling, and now Judge Ware's dismissal. At least it looks like bond law requires a strict, and quick timeline for filing and making appeals. In all honesty the problem of endless legal delay is not constrained by BellSouth or its allies running out of legal reasons to sue; the truth is that while the evidence is that they've already run out of good reasons to sue (since they've consistently lost) that will not keep them from gumming up the works with lawsuits based on bad reasons. Bad reasons are infinite--as anyone who has raised children can attest. And the solution for manipulative children's endless demands masquerading as (bad) reasons is the parent losing patience and refusing to hear them any more. The solution for bad, manipulative legal reasons is the same: the courts will have to decide that they've lost patience with misusing the system. With Judge Ware's ruling we might have the beginning of that trend. He was unwilling to let BellSouth game the system by letting others play proxy for arguments that had already been found invalid by the courts.

From the Advertiser:

"If the playbook that's been described to us holds true, the decision will be appealed to drag it out," Huval said. "One needs to wonder if these suits are just frivolous attempts to ignore the will of the people."

The courts just might beginning to see the pattern as well. And that is not a perception that BellSouth and Cox should want the courts to have--too much other business depends upon being seen as credible. Getting the courts in the habit of suspecting that you are taking up the court's time just to be running out the clock is something an overburdened judiciary will react to with resentment..and something reasonable folks avoid.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Judge Ware Dismisses 2nd Lawsuit against LUS

BellSouth, Cox, and allies have suffered another defeat in their attempt to prevent the formation of a competing telecommunications utility by LUS. Judge Ware dismissed the lawsuit saying, essentially, that Conque had already ruled on it. Note that Ware does not "buy" the idea that this lawsuit is independent of the one that BellSouth filed in its own name. Stories on the two lawsuits have repeatedly noted the similarity between the legal rationale behind the two lawsuits, though this second one was cast as a class action suit in the name of the two local residents
Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Bradford Ware today dismissed a lawsuit by Elizabeth Naquin and others that, in part, challenged the Lafayette Utilities System fiber optics bond ordinance.

“This is another ruling in favor of the citizens of Lafayette,” said LUS Director Terry Huval.

In dismissing the lawsuit, Ware said state law provides that legal objections to bond ordinances can be heard only once.

Arguments about the LUS bond ordinance were heard by 15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque on Nov. 3 in a lawsuit filed by BellSouth and joined by Elizabeth Naquin and others.

Conque ruled in favor of LUS, which wants to extend fiber optics lines throughout the city and offer Internet, TV and telephone service in competition with companies including BellSouth.
Let's see how many timest these guys have been turned back in their attempts to block municipal competition: 1) Attempt to outlaw at the state legislature, 2) "for" vote of the city council, 3) for vote OF THE PEOPLE, 4) lost at the Public Service Commission, 5) lost again at the PSC, 6) failed in lawsuit, 7) failed at second lawsuit.

What's likely next? Appeals: legal appeal of PSC rulings and appeals of these latest two lawsuits. Trouble with appeals is that you've already demonstrated that your case is weak. Else you wouldn't need an appeal. Most appeals fail.

Maybe it's time for the corporations to fight fair and simply try to compete. All they are accomplishing now is to continue to harden public opinion against them--and while being thought a good citizen and a good loser may not motivate them at least they ought to worry about keeping the anti-incumbent feeling fresh. If people are still actively angry at them and convinced that they don't play fair that will translate pretty directly into lost buisiness when LUS offers services. They have a chance to let the people of Lafayette forget how they act--but not as long as they are still acting that way.

All they'd really have to do to compete is lower their prices. (Trouble is, that might give other towns the idea that they need a little competition too. ...And they do.)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cough, Cough...Karmen Blanco hired by Cox Lafayette

Sunday's political shorts in the Advocate carried an interesting short story: "Governor's daughter gets OK for Cox job." The short story:
One of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's daughters has gotten approval from state ethics officials to go to work for Cox Communications.

Cox wants to hire Karmen Blanco to 'assist in its Lafayette community outreach efforts,' the company's governmental affairs executive told ethics officials.

The company asked about the propriety of the move since Cox bids for state work.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics said last week that Cox can hire Karmen Blanco because her job won't include business dealings with the state. The board said Blanco's daughter must disclose her income because she benefits financially from a company that does business with the state government run by her mother.
Karmen has spent her career to date as a development director for Our Lady of Fatima elementary school here in Lafayette. As I understand it such jobs center around promotion and fundraising. The Cox job appears to be a PR job with a focus on promoting Cox in Lafayette. (Where God knows they need some real, local help.) I hope I'll be excused if I wonder whether experience promoting an elementary school was what Cox found most interesting about Karmen Blanco's background. Karmen's day to day job will soon be to put the best face on Cox's relationship with Lafayette. That will inevitably include putting the best face on its coming competition with Lafayette; If Karmen is like the rest of us it will be hard not to believe what you spend your days earnestly promoting; If Kathleen is like the rest of us it will be hard for a parent not to know what a daughter believes and is saying. Not all potential conflicts involve to state contracts...

Kathleen Blanco has been a real friend of Lafayette in its conflicts with Cox. I trust that won't change.

Friday, November 11, 2005

BellSouth Lawsuit in the News

The Advertiser and the Advocate both carry stories this morning on yesterday's ruling against BellSouth. As I noted in a post last night, the judge found BellSouth's strained understanding of the word "pledge" and its insistence that LUS' enterprise had to go into default in order to meet its pledge incorrect. He noted that the (un)Fair Competition Act puts no limit on the ways a debtor can contract with a creditor to pay off their debt--and that the bond ordinance is essentially such a contract.

With that Conque points directly at the heart of the matter that so worries BellSouth: The contract under which the bonds to support LUS will be issued. State law and the state constitution priviledge contracts with bondholders to such a degree that it will be impossible to attack the business practices that are codified in the bond ordinance after the bonds are sold. A lot of doors close for BellSouth in terms of damaging LUS after that occurs. On a number of topics this is their last chance to gain an unfair advantage. Chief among those advantages are that BellSouth and allies want to drive up the costs of this project in direct defiance of the law (un)Fair Competition Law BellSouth originally authored. That law authorizes LUS to "pledge" its assets with the express purpose of lowering the interests costs charged by investors buying the bonds. That is the whole purpose, as declared by the legislature, of that clause. As we all know the largest expense of a project like this will be, not fiber or even the installation costs, but interest paid by LUS and eventually by the people of Lafayette. BellSouth's challenges are transparently designed to drive up the interest prices paid by Lafayette and that is exactly what the legislature was trying to avoid in the clause that BellSouth transparently misinterpreted.

(I hope it is clear to all that the specious rationales offered by BellSouth during the election that they welcomed competition and were only concerned to "inform" voters about the "risks" of LUS' plan was dishonest. If there remained any doubt in the public mind the continued attempts to manipulate the situation at Public Service Commission and in multiple lawsuits should make it clear to any citizen that the corporations are merely trying to thwart the emergence of effective competition.)

Legal points aside what was most fun in the Advocate article were the quotes from Lafayette officials. —Strangely the local Advertiser doesn't bother with talking to local officials; it's odd to have to go to the Baton Rouge paper for a Lafayette response to the good news.

From the city attorney:

City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger, who argued the case for Lafayette earlier this month, said Thursday that Lafayette officials are "delighted" with the decision.

"The judge's written opinion supports our contention that further legal action from BellSouth is unwarranted," Ottinger said in a statement. "These endless tactics of legal filings, court hearings and appeals are designed only to delay and run up unnecessary costs to the taxpayers."

From the LUS director:

LUS' communications project has been approved by the voters, the City-Parish Council, the Legislature, state Public Service Commission, the state Public Service Commission and "now a court of law," LUS Director Terry Huval said in a statement.

"The citizens of Lafayette are fed up and frustrated with the roadblocks being erected by BellSouth. It is time for BellSouth to end their tactics of delay that have already created needless costs for the taxpayers of our community," Huval said.

I think Huval is correct on this...I was at a digital divide meeting last night where I had to push to get the agenda back on track after a conversation in which people were advocating picketing BellSouth. It'd be a lot easier to move on to more useful things if BellSouth and its allies would quit trying to frustrate the desires of their customers.

But BellSouth, as the articles make clear, has promised more lawsuits. I'll be surprised if they don't appeal yesterday's spanking and BellSouth has said that they intend to appeal the PSC ruling against them. It's all pretty ugly. And pretty small. Enough is enough.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

BellSouth Lawsuit "without merit"

In a written opinion, Judge Conque has found that BellSouth's most recent lawsuit is "without merit." BellSouth had asked the court to invalidate the bond ordinance passed by the city-parish council that would govern the issuance of bonds and the conditions under which the bonds would be repaid. This ruling affirms the legality of the ordinance and the methods the city-parish and LUS intend to use to repay those bonds.

The ordinance to which BellSouth is objecting, incidentally, is the same "proposition" that Lafayette voters approved by 24 percentage points. It's not just the judgment of the council that BellSouth is questioning it is the judgment of the people of Lafayette.

The ruling, forwarded by a happy reader, makes clear that Judge Conque found BellSouth's arguments were, as we outside the lawyer's guild might say, "a real stretch." BellSouth wanted to proceed with an interpretation of "pledge" that would result in LUS meeting its pledge only by going into full "default" first. But, the judge pointed out, that's not the way the underlying Louisiana law works--there's nothing that prevents anyone from making a contractual agreement to pay off a debtor using revenues without throwing the whole enterprise into default. (What the judge judiciously refrains from pointed out is that such an assertion is absurd and would make hash of the idea of a loan (which is all a bond is) secured by assets.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Tide Turns; Congratulations Iowa! (and US)

Kudos and Congratulations to the people of Iowa!

And, frankly, to the people of the United States. In what is being billed by local press as a split decision, the people of Iowa pretty firmly rejected an expensive media misinformation campaign financed by Iowa's out of state incumbent telecom companies. A majority of the 32 municipalities with a telecom utility on the ballot passed the measure. Further, the majority of those municipalities that voted it down (according to the Register article cited above) had as their phone company a local business with a clear history of aggressive roll-outs of new services in rural areas. The firm, Iowa Telecom, that seems to be an Iowa version of our own EATEL who is current providing fiber connective in Ascension Parish. In the vast majority of places where the choice was not complicated by a worthy local firm the incumbents were defeated and the concept of a local-owned utility won. From the story:
Residents of 32 Iowa communities delivered a split verdict Tuesday on whether their cities should seek a role offering cable television, Internet and other telecommunications services.
Totals showed 17 communities passed the measures to form communications utilities and 15 defeated them. In the Des Moines metro area, proposals failed in Altoona, Carlisle, Norwalk and Windsor Heights.

Elsewhere, cities including Dubuque and Mason City passed the proposals easily.

The proposal was defeated in Nevada and six other communities served by telephone company Iowa Telecom.
Go Iowa. I hearby signup as an honorary cornhusker...even if I have always thought that the country's oddest mascot. Iowans are not bound by this vote to build telecom utilities, but they are freed to do so if further study demonstrates to local people's satisfaction that they should.

The Money Angle:
Lafayette proved that municipalities could win and could even back down an aggressive incumbent misinformation campaign if they ran a similarly aggressive campaign that focused on monopoly power and local control. The people of Iowa have demonstrated that a campaign based on local services and local self-determination can win even if the incumbents contest the referenda vigorously and toss the entire weight of their money and media control against the local initiatives. From a Sioux City Journal article on the day before the election:
More than $1.4 million has been spent on an advertising campaign designed to defeat city-owned telecommunications issues on the ballots in about 30 cities on Tuesday.

Most of the money, donated to the nonprofit Project Taxpayer Protection Campaign, has come from New York-based cable television company Mediacom Communications Corp., according to documents filed with the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board.

In addition to contributing $805,000 in cash to the campaign, Mediacom donated 16,366 commercials on 25 cable television networks. The 30-second spots were valued at $409,150, the documents said. The campaign documents were released by the board on Monday.

Separate filings indicate that Denver-based telephone company Qwest Communications Inc. has spent $94,494 to oppose the city-owned telecommunications systems.
Be aware that the cable company's "in kind" donation probably cost them next to nothing in real money; it is quite possible that they gave up no paying customers to blitz the people of Iowa with ads. It likely came out of the house ad and Public Service Announcement budgets. Their monopoly position in the cable market gives them astonishingly unfair power in such battles while cities and towns typically fight with one hand tied behind their back by legal restrictions.

The Significance:
I suspect that the Lafayette and Iowa victories herald a turning tide on the issue of local telecommunications utilities in this country. They prove that an adequately determined and funded campaign can, in the best instance, force the incumbents to back off and, in the worst instance, defeat them in a open brawl. Even in the case where the locals cannot nearly match the expenditures of the incumbents--or their penchant for indulging in blatant misinformation--a clear campaign based on local values and local control can win over big bucks and media control. It is a good day for the country.

It's interesting to me that Iowa is another of those places, like Lafayette and Provo, Utah, that have decided to spend real money on real, fiber-based broadband in defiance of incumbent power. All three of these places have a pretty strong history of localism. Iowa's sturdy caucus system wields inordinate power on the national stage. Utah's Mormonism and Lafayette's French and Creole heritages also set them apart. More interesting still is that these communities regard themselves as conservative, albeit a type of conservative that favors community, not, on the basis of the evidence, corporate privilege; a distinction often lost in the national debate. A recent, pretty unreliable, survey had Provo listed as the nation's most conservative city; Lafayette was number nine. You have to wonder if a defiant localism didn't power both the cities' resistance to incumbent power and their "conservative" stance on national politics. It makes a sort of sense if you think that a significant part of the voting population is not so much conservative or liberal in the ideological sense but desirous, mostly, of being left alone by the powers that be.

Of course, as is the case in Louisiana, this won't be the end of the matter for Iowa. You can expect, if Lafayette's experience is a guide, that lawsuits designed mostly to impose delay and expense on the small new competitors will be a feature of the next few years. Iowa turned back a state bill designed to outlaw municipal self-determination in this matter recently. Clearly the regional coalition that hopes to put together a strong framework similar to Utah's Utopia in Iowa is clearly worried about another attempt to buy the legislature. From the Register:
OpportunityIowa's Daley said the group has served its purpose of raising awareness of municipal communications and will now disband. But Daley said he hopes the votes are lessons to lawmakers that the issue should be decided by each community. 'Citizens are capable of deciding for themselves what's in their best interest,' Daley said."
You don't suppose Daley would be available to address the Louisiana legislature do you?


You might recall that Lafayette Coming Together sponsored a community breakfast during the campaign that featured a speaker on the benefits of Cedar Rapids' telecom utility that touted the advantages for development by contrasting Cedar Rapids and Waterloo--side by side cities that were evenly matched before Cedar Rapids jumped ahead by installing its own municipal system that attracted new investment and jobs. Part of that presentation included remarks by Waterloo's mayor that Waterloo had missed the boat and needed a fiber optic system to compete.

Apparently the people of Waterloo, Iowa think so too. They voted Yes!: Waterloo votes 'yes" to telecom utility study.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Lucky Us--Iowa Referenda Slammed by Incumbent Spending

Thirty towns in Iowa are voting today to join thirty eight that already have municipal telecom utilities. They are hearing a lot of the same specious arguments there we heard in Lafayette--mostly scare tactics involving fear about risk and dark mutterings about conspiracy, ideology, and sneaky governments. But the similarity ends there. Iowan's are drowning in a sea of telecom money with the most visible of it donated to an astroturf organization that is almost exclusively funded by the big cable company Mediacom.

From the Souix City paper, "Mediacom spends more than $1 million to defeat telecom issue"
More than $1.4 million has been spent on an advertising campaign designed to defeat city-owned telecommunications issues on the ballots in about 30 cities on Tuesday.

Most of the money, donated to the nonprofit Project Taxpayer Protection Campaign, has come from New York-based cable television company Mediacom Communications Corp., according to documents filed with the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board.

In addition to contributing $805,000 in cash to the campaign, Mediacom donated 16,366 commercials on 25 cable television networks. The 30-second spots were valued at $409,150, the documents said.
And the final campaign report is not in, I'm sure. Just wait, that total can only rise.

On the other side?
The campaigns to support the ballot issue has spent considerably less money. The Dubuque campaign raised $31,450 and spent about $21,000 on mailing brochures and advertising on radio and in newspapers.

Some smaller communities raised money locally and received contributions from McLeod's group, but most spent only a few thousand dollars targeting mail campaigns or local media.
It sounds a whole lot more like the Tri-Cities of Illinois than Lafayette, Louisiana.

Lucky us.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"BellSouth should give up fiber optics lawsuit"

In this morning's Advertiser:
Dear BellSouth,

As a citizen of Lafayette, and a customer of BellSouth, I would appreciate it if you would halt your attempts to thwart the fiber-optic plan by suing our city. It's costing me money both ways. The city must spend money defending, and you must spend money attacking. I suggest you give the lawyers a rest, and use the savings to lower your rates. That might do more to preserve your customer base than all this litigation.

Eric Sweet


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Google's Reign of Terror.

If you've bee watching closely you'll see a lot of "odd" and vaugely hostile remarks being made about Google by other businesses. Everybody from WalMart to BellSouth to Microsoft seems to be looking nervously over their shoulder.

WalMart?!! Yes, even WalMart. And the reason is very instructive.

They fear efficient markets. No, more plainly: they fear the free flow of information. What each of these businesses--and many more--have to fear is that Google will "commoditize" information by making it free. Or that's the conclusion I draw when I read "Just Googling It Is Striking Fear Into Companies." Here's the Wal-Mart version of this fear as depicted in the New York Times article:
In Google, Wal-Mart sees both a technology pioneer and the seed of a threat, said Mr. Breyer, ...[a member of the Wal-Mart board.] The worry is that by making information available everywhere, Google might soon be able to tell Wal-Mart shoppers if better bargains are available nearby.
It's making information free and frictionlessly easy to get that is Google's area of specialization. That's what a search engine is all about. And that is at the nub of the fear of Google. Google really believes in all that idealistic stuff about the internet being all about making information free and easy to get. And Google is getting better at it. And most frightening of all: it's working for Google as a business plan. They give a way the information for free and live off a little bit of advertising. And the company is getting hugely, amazingly rich and is gaining the freedom to continue to do just what they think is right.

This article is mostly about Google is assualting the internet's last frontier. And in a neat turn around that frontier is found down at the local neighborhood level. Consider: Decide you want to walk for pizza while messing around at Mello Joy? Google up Lafayette pizza joints. Easy. Fast. Efficient. And frighteningly Free. Cars, real estate, and many other businesses depend critically upon your not knowing where a better deal is. Google threatens that and we are begining to see even organizations like Wal-Mart--whose raison d'ĂȘtre is price efficiency--are getting nervous.

But I suspect that Google is not about to stop there. They've made themselves into players on the wholesale fiber market by devloping or buying their way into an internet backbone. Why? They don't say. But it gives them freedom to walk away from the big networks if the networks decide that they want a cut of Google's pie as it flows over their monopoly last mile lines. (The chair of Bell giant SBC recently named Google as one of those companies that should be paying him to allow them to get to you.) They are also apparently willing to step into the really crucial last mile. (Owning backbone allows you to control costs, owning customers is what the last mile is all about.) Google has set itself up as player in the emerging municipal wifi market by offering to build an advertising-supported wifi net in San Francisco.
In telecommunications, the company has made a number of moves that have grabbed the attention of industry executives. It has been buying fiber-optic cable capacity in the United States and has invested in a company delivering high-speed Internet access over power lines. And it is participating in an experiment to provide free wireless Internet access in San Francisco.

That has led to speculation that the company wants to build a national free GoogleNet, paid for mostly by advertising. And Google executives seem to delight in dropping tantalizing, if vague, hints. "We focus on access to the information as much as the search itself because you need both," Mr. Schmidt said in an analysts' conference call last month.
There are some serious battles brewing and they aren't all between incumbents or between incumbents and municpalities.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Hmmnn...Judge Rules Against BellSouth???

Looks like one reporter had drawn their own conclusions about where the judge was headed in the LUS bond suit before BellSouth demanded that the decision be put in writting. And engaged in a little premature posting on KLFY that had to be pulled.

When I went looking I turned up an interesting search result on KLFY.

The site has this stub of a story that you can pull up as a search item. It doesn't link to anytyhing...anymore.
2. Judge Rules Against BellSouth's Effort to Block Fiber Plan
The Durel administration has cleared another legal hurdle in its efforts to enter the phone, cable and high-speed internet business. State District Judge Durwood Conque ruled against BellSouth Thursday and its efforts to block LUS from moving forward with the fiber-to-home project. Judge Conque...
Last Modified 11/4/2005 2:19:37 AM
Now I wonder, did it make it onto the news?

Friday, November 04, 2005

"Bond ordinance ruling set"

I've never been a fan of the saying "No news is good news." But I'm willing to make a small exception for the meager news coming out this morning about BellSouth's anti-fiber lawsuit. The lawsuit attempts to cripple LUS' ability to secure the bonds the people voted for in the July referendum.

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate stories hint that Judge Conque seemed to be inclined to find for LUS but BellSouth put off the blow by demanding a written explanation of the judge's ruling.

Reading between the lines (a very risky thing to do, I acknowledge) it looks like Conque is saying that BellSouth's position would result in things the state could surely not have intended by the law in question and which would prevent LUS from effectively pursuing the project. Being able to go forward with a good bond sale is clearly the point of this part of the law and BellSouth's interpretation would surely make a good sale impossible. Conque clearly understands that "cross-subsidization" is not absolutely forbidden in the law, and that is the point on which BellSouth's case stands.

From the Advocate:

The legislature "understood" that LUS would need to "pledge" its other revenues and make those payments if necessary -- in effect, cross-subsidization -- in order to get the communication bond money.

"Allowing a pledge of revenue is in and of itself a cross-subsidy," Conque said
The only remaining question is how restrictive that pledge must be and Conque is clearly surprised by the idea that going into default and then redeeming the pledge every month--as BellSouth's interpretation would seem to require--is insane.

The real problem here is that the court, and the PSC for that matter, is being asked to enforce a law that makes no sense in that it irrationally injects the state in a local municipality's business. There's no reason (outside re-election monies) for the state to enter this game on the side of a huge corporation in order to frustrate the express desire of the people of Lafayette. The law the courts are trying to find a rational way to enforce, the (un)Fair Competition Act, exists solely to put new state restrictions on what the people and elected officials of local communities can do for their people in one narrow area: Telecommunications. Action that would be legal, for instance in supporting a composting facility, are illegal if it encroaches on BellSouth or Cox. We're damned lucky there isn't any international composting conglomerate with deep pockets. It really ought to be repealed. We don't need the state telling us what to do.

This won't be the end of seemingly endless legal games from the incumbents; from the Advertiser:
[BellSouth attorney] Russo said Thursday in Conque's courtroom that the company will file a lawsuit over the PSC rules.
Those are the rules that the PSC put in place that basically supported LUS position on this issue among others. Honestly, this endless regime of lawsuit, alliance with natural enemies, attempts at legislative murder, and a long, hard campaign of disinformation in this city add up to a firm conviction on the part of BellSouth that LUS can really hurt them. You have to conclude that BellSouth, at least, expects the project to be a raging success which will encourage municipal deployments throughout the nation. Nothing else explains the willingness to court continued humiliation. Well, except greed...that motivation goes pretty much without saying.

Incumbents go at each other

Verizon and Cablevision, the masters of their respective phone and cable universes, are going at each other in New York.

Some of the uproar sounds very familiar: Cable is accused of trying to intimidate local officials by using baseless lawsuits as an avenue to launch a misinformation campaign. The Phone Company is blasted for trying to gain unfair advantage and deny service to poorer residents by demanding special agreements of the municipalities in return for (gasp) competing. Except for the fact that the accusing voices or not the Mayor of the Utilities Director it sounds a lot like Lafayette:

Thomas A. Dunne, a Verizon vice president, said ... that Cablevision last month sued Massapequa Park, a village on Long Island that negotiated a cable franchise agreement with Verizon, and plans to use the lawsuit to "launch a misinformation campaign." He said Cablevision's goal is "bullying other communities" into denying Verizon the right to sell cable services.
The retort:
"The phone company is trying to pressure local officials into granting television franchise agreements that surrender critical local controls and authority," Cablevision said in a written statement. "They are demanding agreements that give them free reign to install massive utility boxes wherever they want and to deny service to thousands of residents they deem economically and demographically undesirable.
It's not only the arguments that sound familiar; it's also the reason, a threatening fiber-optic invasion:
The spat is the latest evidence of how high the stakes are as Verizon seeks to offer cable service over the fiber-optic network it is building.
The day is coming in our own town when the unnatural alliance of BellSouth and Cox will come apart and when it does the arguments are going to sound mighty strange coming out of the mouths of the incumbents. Imagine Cox attacking BellSouth for redlining out some parts of town. Or BellSouth complaining that Cox is engaging in a campaign of misinformation in response.

It will surely be amusing. Especially if the battle gets into a three-way. LUS could agree with Cox on the first and BellSouth on the second. It'd be almost as entertaining as watching the legislature.

Laigniappe: From San Diego. Another Cable company (on the other side of the continent) accuses Cox of the same thing that Cox accuses Verizon of in New York: cherrypicking the most lucrative parts of a municipality in which to compete in defiance of franchise agreements. Ain't irony fine?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Broadband Technologies Overview, Local Implications

CED has a nifty, technologically informed, even-handed overview of a wide array of emerging broadband technologies. (Note that this doesn't cover well-established but still mighty cool technologies like standard wifi or ethernet. Not all of these tech standards will make it commercially.) Part of what is gratifying is that the author includes only those technologies that at least have some hope of wide realization. Even better, he distinguishes between fantasy speeds and actually available speeds (which are still pretty much best-case, real throughput will usually be substantially less) and does an amazingly good job of condensing complex matters understandably.

An added attraction is that this is the only place where I've seen a good review of both technologies intended to be used in a wider, public area and those intended to be used in the home or office. It's a useful distinction that is too often overlooked and Baumgartner appropriately places WiFi--even the nascent newer version he reviews--in the home category.

A sample of a relatively obscure technology with sizable relevance for a large wireless carrier in our region:
The concept: HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) is an advanced cellular technology that enhances GSM UMTS-based networks.
Capabilities: UMTS/HSDPA networks initially will support data speeds of up to 3.6 Mbps, and average between 550 kbps and 1.1 Mbps. Cellular operators will leverage those speeds to provide high-quality video applications, interactive gaming and music services, and enterprise applications.
Status: HSDPA deployments are expected to take place with most GSM UMTS-based cellular operators. Cingular plans to roll it out in 15 to 20 markets by year-end 2005.
Ok, I admit, to read that easily you need to have a little background or be willing to dig around to define terms. The point is you are given the tools you need to inform yourself. A nice balance is struck, I think.

My only quarrel is with treating Fiber To The Premises as a single "technology." The other entries are defined by both media and protocol. FTTP is given some interesting subsets but not the sort of full treatment accorded other technologies. But surely my special interests, not shared by the author, have something to do with my disappointment. :-)

It's worth your review. An unsettled question in the new ecology that will be created by LUS' fiber optic project is just which technology LUS will use and how Lafayette's broadband ecology will differ from the US norm as a result of affordable big broadband. The most obvious issue is that the faster wireline technologies being developed to run over traditional cable and twisted phone wire will meet a competitor in fiber that clearly outclasses it. More subtly, even the possibility that technologies will emerge that begin to offer speeds in the lower range of the current fiber technologies will push LUS to build the most capable and flexible system possible from the first.

Most interesting to me at this moment, however, is the role large amounts of cheap bandwidth supplied to the home will play in encouraging the implementation of faster home/office networking. The dirty little secret of home networking technologies is that you almost never get to use even a fraction of the full capacity of the technology that is scattered around your home. I've got an ancient 10/100 meg ethernet router managing two printers, a desktop, and the wireless connection to two laptops and ethernet drops for both laptops. The wireless connection is a 54 meg Apple Airport. Sounds like a lot of speed? It is. It's great for the once-a-month occasion when Layne or I wants the other to check some large job we've got going. But that once a month is the only time I see my local area network (LAN) capacity utilized. I get, in my very best moments, less than 4 megs from my Cox connection. That's 1/25th of the base speed of my LAN and 1/17th of my wireless capacity. I've never bothered to upgrade to gig ethernet (which both laptops support) or considered a cool new wireless setup. I can't use the capacity in my current, outdated, LAN. And the reason is that almost all my work is done over the net and the real limit on the speed I see is my network connection. If I had real broadband I'd upgrade my LAN in a flash...I'd be downloading video much more than I do now and would beef up my local net to shuttle video around the house. I'd go ahead and get VOIP, maybe play with one of those almost-affordable video phones. Folks with different interests and lives than mine might find it suddenly makes sense to set up fancy video chat arrangements, serve out video and podcasts to friends and family, and set up a security system that allowed them to literally watch their house while traveling.

The lack of real broadband to the home is the bottleneck in current networking systems. Even the cheapest home network is 20 times faster than the lousy bandwith that our current suppliers give us. If that bottleneck is broken we could be motivated to do a lot more in the home or office. These are technologies, like wifi, that spread through experience and word of mouth: they're not too interesting until you see friends and colleagues actually doing it...then you get the point, acquire, and use the technology.

At least one home networking technology will definitely get a boost when LUS lights up. LUS has already made it clear that it intends to offer the ability to use HomePlug technology to infuse the electrical system inside the home with the data stream as part of the customer premise equipment that hangs on the wall of your home. That would relieve you from re-wire you home. A small, inexpensive box that plugs into any wall socket would then transfer the data stream to your computer or wireless node. It's not caught on in most parts of the country but LUS making this an option available to anyone will make Lafayette a major center for this underutilized technology.

My guess, and one I've shared with a number of people curious as to how local small businesses might benefit, is that there will be a real market appearing in Lafayette for upgrading homes and small business networks. This involves both the wired and wireless networks themselves and the cool new peripherals that tie everything together. Lafayette's new capacity will create a market that really won't exist in most places in the country. Competition will be local and the potential to test and perfect a business model which can expand to other parts of the country as they finally get real broadband will be great.