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.

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