Sunday, July 31, 2005

On Understanding the Referendum--or Not

It's hard not to get weary...at two weeks out from a referendum that opens a new door to building modern network infrastructure; a referendum that very few outside of (and not a few inside) Lafayette thought could never be won by the city the banner headline at the top of the Sunday newspaper is: "Vote: 12 of 85 precincts shun fiber." Not "Enormous win for city and LUS" Not, "Every council district votes, decisively, for fiber initiative" nor "Lafayette puts itself at the head of the class" not even the unsexy but more informative: "Most unifying election in a decade" but instead a headline that trumpets the closest thing to a negative outcome that, after extensive rooting about, one could come up with.

Get real.

The strongest story that could be told about this election is almost the polar opposite of the one: that this was the least divisive election in a long time. That Lafayette, for all the attempts to divide us, did come together. Ideology, income, cultural allegiance, geography, race, and petty politics all played a smaller role (not no role, a smaller role) than we have grown used to. One irony is that this story is almost entirely written out of the data and analysis of Lafayette Coming Together (LCT) principal Don Bertrand and is drawn off his site at Fibre 911. The Advertiser, by and large, only adds interviews. The analysis is a retrospective that the pro-fiber campaign workers from LCT are putting together to try and understand where the least strong areas of support in the population are in order to further build up support in those areas. And the least strong aspect has to be clearly understood--this is an analysis that focuses on council districts (not precincts) it has to be noted that NO council district came in under 8 points profiber. And 8 points in American politics is an overwhelming win. To repeat: every council district voted overwhelmingly for fiber. Don's analytical framework is not new, though his application of it to this situation is insightful: tepid support by African-American councilmen and too many community leaders depressed turnout and low turnout in that area followed the pattern anticipated for low turn out areas for all of the city: it led to a magnification of the "No" vote. There is a core of naysayers on any vote that involves change or (can be represented as being about) taxes. The trick is to make sure as many of the voters representing the overall sentiment of the city turn out as is possible. This focus on turnout as the crucial factor is hardly a secret as LCT, LCG, and LUS all made repeated statements about the importance of turnout and spent most of their efforts in the final weeks to ensuring participation. (The LCT run phone banking effort was aimed at this as was the final LCT flyer and the preponderance of LCTs final week's radio campaign. The public statements of both Durel and Huval during this period also emphasized that turnout was the single most significant factor.)

First, a little perspective: the number of precincts voting "NO" is a small number--12 of 86 boxes, about 14% of the total. But that sounds like there are are at least some smallish chunks of the city that voted no. But even that is misleading. Of those that voted only about 7% voted in precincts that voted no. The boxes that voted no were either partial boxes (only a few voters eligible to vote in city elections-much of the precinct actually being outside the city) or had small turnout, or both. That's actually pretty near universal support or as nearly so as our system ever produces. I challenge folks to find a less geographically segmented vote in our city's recent history. Or where there is less spread between the results of the strongest pro and and strongest anti boxes.There was far, far less evidence of the real divisions in this community than in any other vote I could name. Reflect briefly on recent presidential and mayor-president elections. This was a unifying election by almost any standard. And its disappointing to see it portrayed otherwise in the daily. This is another case when a little historical perspective is in order.

Let's look at the fuller, district-level analysis of which the precinct figures quoted in the Advertiser are a part. Here's the analysis in a nutshell: low turnout is bad for the pro-fiber vote, so raising turnout is a key issue.

For all districts the belief was that a low turnout would tend to lower profiber vote; as already mentioned that was a widely shared assumption based on the history of past elections. This is particularly true in elections where there is financial issues or a significant element of fear-based campaigning. The default vote is for "no change." So the question was the "No" vote attributable to low turnout.

One possible way of thinking about how to push up turnout, as well as win votes is to go to the district and neighborhood leadership and organizations. Certianly that was done all over the city and quite effectively by the administration. But the question of the utility of council members in the two predominately black districts of town played out differently from those representing the white districts. It is worth noting that NO councilman played a very visible role. Some did not even attend the town hall meeting in their districts. For some there was consistent but quiet support, from others essentially silence. My guess is that this was deliberate and tactical. The chief emotional opposition to LUS was the idea it was "government." And, for those who found that argument salient, the council--especially in light of recent shenanigans--represented everything that was distasteful. LUS, as a solid, apolitical utility company did not benefit from association with the council.

Overall that was a tactic that seemed to have worked. The LUS proposal was mostly free of entanglement in council politics. But it failed in the black community. While the African-American community distrusts the council no less, and perhaps more, than the other segments it also relies on its elected leadership to interpret the opaque workings of city hall. They expect good advice; that's part of the leader's job. And the same silence that probably helped elsewhere was taken as ambivalence in the black community. As nearly as I can tell that ambivalence on the part of Benjamen and Williams was real. The realized the benefit but wanted more explicit commitments. It showed in their support and the ambivalence led to a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the plan in the community that will probably benefit most. That lack of enthusiasm let to low turnout. And that low turnout emphasized the residual "anti" vote.

It's not at all clear that low turnout/low "yes" areas have a different proportion of hopeful and fearful citizens than any other part of town. What is clear is that they are less excited by and less engaged by the possibility either way and that the proportions of no votes actually cast was higher at least in part for that reason. Most of the No vote boxes fall into this pattern.

The lesson? Leadership counts in the black community. And the lack of enthusiasm among the elected leadership depressed the vote in those areas. And low turnout skewed the vote toward the negative range.


Just for the record, there is a separate situation that probably reinforces the results of council-based "least strong" areas outlined above. An entirely different set of factors depressed turnout and percentages in the last 48-72 hours from that which the campaign was anticipating based on initial phone data. We currently attribute that drop, estimated at about 10 points, to the last minute disinformation campaign, especially the 2 pieces of direct mail, black radio appearances, and negative automated dialing. That story is, almost surely, more newsworthy. It's implications have a national reach, it was murkily financed, and it's got the high drama of attempting to evoke a sudden change with a last minute, below the radar, punch. Yet nothing of this last minute campaign has been mentioned in the local media. (An Advocate retrospective did mention direct mail) What is surely the most exciting (and arguably the most important) story of the referendum election has gone unreported. And instead of that or any real retrospective that would try to explain the campaign's surprising outcome we get this: "12 out of 85 precincts shun fiber." I'll be very glad when, tomorrow, we get some real editorial guidance for the local daily newspaper.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Economist Gets It--RBOCs going down

The venerable magazine The Economist has an article in the current issue worth reading if you want to understand some crucial background to Lafayette's recent fiber fight. The article outlines the "challenges" that the phone companies face and their meager resources for answering that challenge. Much of BellSouth's recent questionable behavior in Lafayette is most charitably understood as desperation and this article lets you know why that desperation is appropriate.

If you've read this blog for awhile you've likely come away with the (accurate) impression that we think the Regional Bell Operating Systems (RBOCs), the offspring of the breakup of the Bell Telephone system, are in real trouble. They are, and the tools that BellSouth Louisiana was forced to use over the last year's fiber fight is evidence of their desperation—if you've got anything else, you don't use fear, uncertainty and doubt. You field a real argument and make it openly. Further evidence, if such is needed, of BellSouth's desperation as is the fact that even after it became clear that referendum would pass and that further opposition would serve mainly to damage an already weakened competitive stance among Lafayette voters they could not follow Cox's lead and back off completely. The difference? Cox, as little as they may like the idea, can mount a serious competitive response to LUS if necessary. BellSouth simply cannot. They may reasonably feel cornered and a cornered animal will take any shot they can get.

Here's the nice, succinct way that The Economist describes the problem in the context of the necessity for the Regional Bell Operating Systems (RBOCs) to offer Internet Protoc0l TeleVision:
IPTV forms part of a larger, and quite desperate, defensive strategy now being adopted by telecoms firms against fierce attacks on multiple fronts. On one front are cable giants, such as America's Comcast, which are luring customers with an enticing “triple-play bundle” of TV, broadband and telephony services. On a second front are mobile-phone operators, which young customers in particular are increasingly using to “cut the cord” from their fixed-line company.

But arguably most dangerous of all is the third front, where traditional telecoms firms are under attack from voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) providers, which use the internet to carry conversations that would previously have taken place via a conventional phone.

The Economist's author, true to the discipline of economics, does not try to pretend that cell phone "modal" competition is direct competition for landline telephony. Such "competition" only incidentally erodes the old market while building a new one. Rather than directly competing with traditional telephony it has little effect on the price of traditional telephone service except, ironically, to force system costs on fewer users producing a long-term pressure to raise prices. Such "competition" is not good for those who remain on landlines. Would that the FCC understood the basic situation as well as The Economist. [If this seems strange reasoning to you, as it does to the FCC, please consider the case of the Railroad industry in the US. The car and the Interstate system didn't compete with railroads; it displaced and destroyed the old railroad market--and with it an entire economic infrastructure. Railroads could not afford to lower prices and chose, wisely for their investors, to exploit their remaining niches ruthlessly.--In fact, LUS has had previous dealings with declining monopolies trying to protect their remainder niche businesses at the cost of LUS customers.]

The author correctly focuses on VOIP (Voice Over Interenet Protocol) which can directly compete for landline users offering the same quality of services in what appears to be an identical package--for less. That's much closer to real competition and threatens to force price competition on the Bells wherever a competing network exists to carry VOIP. The problem, of course, is that the Bells need to milk their declining landline business for all that it is worth--doing so is how they financed a move into the new business of cell phone provision which is their current best hope of survival. A nifty graphic from The Economist more dramatically reveals their plight than any words of mine could do:

That's a forecast of 30% revenue loss over 7 years. 25% if they can effectively answer the VOIP challenge. Either way the loss is devastating. They can't hope, by competing with VOIP, to do anything more than slow the decline of their core market. And the attempt will make those last customers less profitable. They had surely intended to milk their installed base to, finally, rebuild the network that paid for their successful venture into wireless. But in the new situation that intention looks ever less likely than ever to be realizable. The cable companies spent their ample profits bulking up their systems, not to fully modern standards but to something that has a distinct competitive advantage over the RBOCs.

But if the RBOCs have missed the historic moment when they could have rebuilt their network with the profits from a healthy monopoly (and instead bought themselves into a cell phone future) they can still hope to recover by rebuilding part of their network--the most lucrative part. And that is why the RBOCs love Senator Ensign's new bill recently put before Congress and why BellSouth was the first out of the gate with praise for the bill: it relieves them of their duty to serve the whole of the communities they are in. Local franchise agreements have forced this on the Cablecos, by and large, so being able to build only to the most highly profitable customers would give them at least some advantage vis-a-vis the cable companies. Probably not enough, frankly. But something. And as already been remarked, the desperate will grasp at any straw.

The death throes of large corporations are often downright dangerous for those still in its sphere of influence. And even a partially rebuilt RBOC network would, as is probably now clear, be in desperate straights. The Enconomist has one last warning for us all about a temptation that would be next to impossible to resist for a company that believes it has a natural right to the best telephone system:

Having literally sunk their billion-dollar investments in the ground, the telecoms firms will need to get a decent return on them. But in their nightmare scenario, customers may simply sign up to their huge bandwidth and then use it not to buy the services touted by the telecoms firms but instead to obtain independent or web-based services, such as Skype for making calls or (when the service is launched) Netflix for downloading movies. Can the telecoms firms do anything to stop that?

Stoyan Kenderov, an IPTV expert at Amdocs, a firm that makes back-office software for telecoms companies, says that the telecoms firms are building into their residential gateways new technology that will inspect the packets of zeros and ones passing through. This will let them identify traffic from third-party rivals, which might then end up at the back of the queue and thus be slow and patchy. The only hint that users might have of that going on, says Mr Kenderov, would be some very fine print on their bills explaining, in turgid legalese, that the provider guarantees the quality of its own services only.

The telecoms firms counter such suggestions with well-rehearsed indignation. In a hearing before the judiciary committee of America's Senate in March, Edward Whitacre, SBC's chairman, said in emphatic Texan that “SBC would not block any Vonage traffic or anybody else's and has never done that, would not do that. That's not the way we do business, and it's just not going to happen.”

But we here in Lafayette know better. That is just the way they do business...

There's rough waters ahead folks. And not just for Lafayette's project.

Friday, July 29, 2005

"LUS system now allows online bill payments"

The promise of competition is that we'll all see better prices and better service. We've already been seeing better prices from Cox--they've not visited us with the price hike they've imposed on Baton Rouge, for instance. Now we're seeing better service from LUS in the form of online bill payments. Though it faded, there was a moment during the referendum campaign when the opponents of fiber tweaked LUS about not being tech savvy enough to even have online bill payments. I've never quite seen the point, since we much prefer to pay our bills through our online banking site; it keeps everything nice and neat. The real issue for most folks about paying their bills is how much you have left in your checking account--it's much easier to track everything if you pay all your bills at the bank's site. Still, a lot of folks apparently don't mind traipsing all across the web to pay their bills, the Advocate story notes that about 1000 folks have already signed on before any real publicity that the service was available appeared.

Senator Landrieu Wanders into Telecom Thicket

Politicians wandering into issues that they know little about, armed only with information provided them by 'think tanks' that get funding from parties with a stake in the issue, is rarely a recipe for enlightened public policy.

Thus, the unease when I saw a blurb and link to this story in today's edition of Benton Foundation "Communications Related Headlines" service.

Seems like Senator Mary Landrieu is attempting to triangulate her way to a position on reform of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

As the National Journal story indicates, Senator Landrieu is relying on advice from the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Council — or, as I like to refer to it, the 'Stand for Nothing, Fall for Anything' wing of theDemocraticc Party.

The story notes that PPI gets money from BellSouth and other RBOCs.

Just a coincidence, too, that BellSouth's top lobbyist in Washington is the former head of BellSouth Louisiana — Herschel Abbott — right?

Just another coincidence that BellSouth and their various friends have been big time contributors to Senator Landrieu's campaigns, too, I guess?

It will be very interesting to see where Senator Landrieu comes down on telecom reform, particularly in the area of the rights of municipalities to pursue their own broadband solutions.

The fact that PPI has endorsed (PDF file) the concept of eliminating local franchise fees for cable and video services, as well as gutting the concept of Universal Service (oh, they're for it, they just want to people who benefit from it to pay for it!), does not provide a great level of confidence as to where the senior Senator from Louisiana might drift on this issue.

Sue 'em into submission.

If you can't win at the polls you can always sue 'em.

Now I admit that sounds a tad unfair--and in this instance it may turn out to be--but bear with me: suing your competition into submission is one of the favorite tools of corporations like BellSouth and Cox. They tried it in Bristol, Virginia; they are trying it in Utah, and they surely will be trying it here.

The immediate "cause of action," according to the Advertiser, is a line damaged a year ago:
BellSouth attorney Gary Russo filed the lawsuit shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday in 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette. The lawsuit claims LUS was negligent July 28, 2004, when workers damaged buried BellSouth telephone and telecommunications lines near 310 E. Foch St., interrupting services.

Lawsuits for damages must be filed within a year of the incident. Thursday was the deadline for BellSouth to file the lawsuit.
My (perhaps ungenerous) assumption is that following the election loss the good losers over at BellSouth immediately went about looking for ways to harass the winners and sicced the corporate lawyers on the problem. The lawyers built up a laundry list of things they could throw at LUS on the grand old legal principle that if you throw a lot of mud some of it is bound to stick to the wall.

When this old incident appeared on the list some legal eagle no doubt noted that the expiration date was about turn up and rushed down to the courthouse to make sure they didn't lose that bit ammo.

I assume, based on the way these things have worked elsewhere, that the laundry list of unrelated complaints is still being prepared. This is what has happened in Utah where a regional network was hit with an omnibus lawsuit that included line cuts, complaints about poles, complaint about taxes, prices that were lower than the incumbents liked, zoning ordinances that even the incumbents benefited from, and on.. Oh yeah these guys are even suing for attorney's fees for the expense of filing this mishmash of complaints. (article, Utopia's response) (You gotta give credit for moxie with that last one. They must be being paid separately for each complaint they can cram in the lawsuit.)

So I'm looking for a nice fat lawsuit to come lumbering down the road any day now.

The overall strategy is delay, delay, and more delay. The LUS train has picked up a lot of speed. Once it makes it past the Public Service Commission there won't be much stopping it and trying to slow it down will offer the best chance of finding some way, any way, to make sure that Lafayette does not succeed. We can only take cold comfort in BellSouth's demonstrated competence so far.

(One final thought. Cox, with admittedly a much poorer public reputation to start with and so less public relations capital to begin with, is playing it much smarter than BellSouth. They are projecting the image of a company willing to compete. At this stage that's good marketing. BellSouth is playing the bully and spending an advantage over Cox it should be conserving. I'm wondering if this has all gotten personal with Bill Oliver. If so, it's doing the company no good.)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

BellSouth has Bigger Worries than LUS Fiber

Network World columnist Johna Till Johnson used her July 25 column to look at BellSouth. The company has some choices to make and some challenges ahead. Surprise! Lafayette's LUS fiber vote was not mentioned as one of those challenges.

Nope. The company faces some fundamental decisions that can't be put off much longer. For instance, will BellSouth remain an independent company? Well, Ms. Johnson thinks there is reason to believe that it will not.

She admits that BellSouth could choose an alternate path, but that would require an affinity for risk and adventure which the company has not here-to-fore exhibited.

WBS: In Hawaii

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

If you are as bored of the hooraw over the council members visit to Hawaii as I am you might have neglected to read down to the tidbit about fiber in yesterday's article. (What? You say you don't read the paper only for fiber news? I'm shocked.)

Anyway here is the short:
Lafayette became the talk of the NACo conference, Stevenson said, when voters in the city on July 16 gave Lafayette Utilities System permission to launch a controversial fiber-to-the-home project at a cost of up to $125 million.

'They were pretty amazed by the outcome of the election because it didn't pass anywhere before,' he said. 'Anyplace that had put it to a vote of the people, it always lost.'

The conference attendees discussed two pending competing bills in Congress dealing with municipal fiber projects. One bill would allow municipalities like Lafayette to offer telecommunications services. The other would prohibit the practice.

The prohibitive legislation's passage would be bad for the rest of the nation but could be good for Lafayette if LUS' project is grandfathered in. That would make Lafayette the largest municipality to offer low-cost fiber and telecommunications services and restrict other municipalities from following suit.
All easy jokes aside, I am sure that Lafayette's victory was the talk of the conference. Telecom issues are a surprisingly important local issue and with the Feds trying to outlaw local franchises (and along with it franchise fees, local access channels, and universal service) public official across the country must wish they could get free of their dependency on the telecom corporations.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

"Digital Media Initiatives"

The Independent notices a meeting I attended recently to help strategize ways to bring video game production to Lafayette and Louisiana. Video gaming production is already a large industry which promises to only grow—and to provide good-paying jobs. According to an article in Biz New Orleans:
Video games and simulations typically take one to two years to produce and can cost up to $50 million. The majority of the production budget is spent on computer programmers, graphic artists and technicians, according to Greater New Orleans Inc.

The average starting salary in this field is $54,300 with average regular salaries of $75,000.
It's not just about video games, as attractive as that business might be; games also tend to push the envelope on technologies that later get pulled into more conventional applications.
Firefly Digital owner Mike Spears helped pull together the first strategy session. "We want to position Lafayette in the state landscape,"he says. "This isn't just about entertainment. There are educational and business applications that can be developed in a video game environment." He is also meeting this week with representatives of the tech communities from Baton Rouge and New Orleans: "We hope to develop a state strategy so we don't duplicate efforts."
The immediate issue is "workforce development" --building the educational pipeline and cultural surround that produces people the industry wants to hire. In that regard Lafayette is well positioned with at least the start of a pretty comprehensive framework ranging from Ninjaneering's "Game Camp" to a tech high school to specialized game programs at UL.

This all comes up as a consequence of a new law, the Louisiana Digital Media Act, which gives tax credits to video game production similar to the successful law which does the same for movies--a law which has been imitated by a number of other states.

Lots coming together here...pervasive bandwidth, education, tax credits, and a vigorous tech community willing to aggressively pursue Lafayette's interests.

"July 16 vote: ‘yes’ for Lafayette fiber optics"

The vermilion weighs in with a story on the fiber optic vote. This story is the only one to take on the issue of whether or not the election was an unmitigated good. Terry Huval and Joey Durel point out that, whatever else it was, it was an expensive one year delay that confirmed the original vote of the council. In the long run would I rather have the vote or the year? The unshakeable legitimacy of the vote, I think. Representative democracy and a vote of our elected council should have been enough. My hesitation revolves around the demonstrated willingness of the opposition to tear down legitimate procedures and valuable practices simply because they want to force their extreme ideological positions on this city. They will find it hardest to try and tear down to distort an overwhelming vote of the people.

(Time out for a straightforward complaint:

Because the opposition largely avoided admitting their self-interest or their ideological passions--motivations they knew the people of Lafayette would have little sympathy with-- they often raised issues that made little sense if looked at even briefly. For instance: ILOT is a straightforward way to level the playing field in the competition between public and private entities, a great way to drive down taxes, has a long and perfectly legitimate history locally, and has been widely used nationally. It is a perfectly normal and unremarkable tool of good government. To try to raise resentment over it was irresponsible demagoguery. Similarly for the racial divisiveness of the repeated charges that the north side would never get fiber -- a clear political impossibility that was also disproved by the whole history of LUS's universal service in every other service category. But the charge built on and sustained racial resentments in order to advance the opposition's almost purely ideological ends. And on and on for many "issues" raised irresponsibly by the opposition.

Close timeout)

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:

While the story raises valuable issues, the reader should be a little careful in their reading. There are some real inaccuracies, to wit: it isn't true that it will take 50% penetration to pay off the interest. It will not. In fact, if they get 50% that can pay off the full bill in as little as 11 years. Somewhere between 21% and 30% is the breakeven point for the whole project over 25 years.

Quotable Quotes:

According to Durel, the project does not measure success by profit; as long as Lafayette residents receive better service at reduced rates, he said, the time and money will have been well spent. The election itself, however, was not the biggest challenge, he said.

"The election was definitely the biggest roadblock we faced," said Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel, "but that was the easy part; now what we've got to do is make it work."

"We want Lafayette to be the most wired community in the country," said Huval, "or even the world."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"Lafayette Bucks National Trend On Successful Fiber Vote"

The Lafayette Chamber of Commerce posted its own news story about the referendum it endorsed:
The Chamber-backed Lafayette Utilities System proposal to provide fiber connectivity to the premise passed handsomely last weekend by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. Passage of the proposed project has gained national attention since other such propositions have failed due to intense opposition by large, private competitors.
The Chamber's unanimous support was crucial in establishing the credibility of the project with the business community, as I noted at the time.

Monday, July 25, 2005

WBS: "BellSouth, Cox Lose Battle Of The Bayous"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

Except for a little bit of overreaching that trades in the mighty Vermillion River and our midsized city for bayous and small town status (they've been reading USAToday) this story is a pretty fun read. The blooper:
The small town in the bayous has been garnering national attention because of the battle, in which the incumbents attempted to convince residents that they would be better off waiting until the year – some unspecified time in the future – when BellSouth and/or Cox might be willing to put in their own FTTx installations. Lafayette – which had faced the same situation 109 years ago with electricity and, as a result, wound up building its own utility system – wasn’t willing to wait.

TelecomWeb news break tracked down an ebullient Lafayette City Parish President (the local equivalent of mayor) Joey Durel in Washington, D.C., where he was on unrelated municipal business. Durel notes that both the vote (12,481 “yes” votes vs. 7,621 “no” votes) and the turnout of 27 percent of the voters showed massive public support for the city to float the $125 million in bonds it will take to fiber the town. Original estimates had been that only about 15 percent of Lafayette voters would go to the polls, a typical turnout for a one-issue referendum with no political offices on the ballot.

“The message that (the vote results) sends to the incumbents should be pretty strong,” Durel told us.
They're also promising an "in depth" report in their subscription online magazine. They'll let you sample it for free though. Scroll down....

WBS: "Victory in Lafayette! Victory for Consumer Choice!"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

Sasha Meinrath runs an influential blog and muni mesh wireless project back in my old stomping grounds of Champaign-Urbana. He sends congratulations to Lafayette and does a short analysis. A teaser:
More importantly, grassroots organizing seems to have innoculated the local community against the worst of the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt that BellSouth and Cox were engaging in. Overall, and even with massive amounts of money being poured into FUD, the citizens of Lafayette voted pro-muni is substantial numbers.
Go by and visit; there's lots of interesting stuff there.

Municipal Campaign Strategy; Learning from Lafayette

So what did we all learn from the battle of Lafayette? I've been asked recently and have been thinking about it some...What follows is a first draft which focuses pretty much on the active strategies of the two sides as I see it. —It's about what they tried to accomplish and where they wanted the conversation to go. This ignores some interesting larger factors (like trust in the mayor, or the relaxed southern Lousiana attitude toward government, or Lafayette's peculiar ways of organizing influence, for instance) that could be considered important but background factors. It also mostly ignores the tactical questions--how the strategies were enacted--that are some of the more interesting things to come out of this fight. Instead this is a more birds-eye view of what, it seems to me, both sides might have learned from Lafayette's fight for fiber.

First off, it's pretty apparent that the incumbents don't have much new up their sleeves. The campaign they waged here mirrored campaigns they've waged in the past. We didn't see the as dramatic a finish as we saw in the Tri-Cities but that may well have been because the battle was already lost for BellSouth and Cox before the end arrived. But that doesn't mean that their basic idea about what makes for an effective campaign has changed: the basic strategy of sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt seems pretty constant. The tactics here seemed to involve a lot of replays as well...Push polls were used here, albeit pretty counter effectively. We got two last minute overexcited direct mail focusing on false claims about taxes, the repeatedly disproven idea that all municipal broadband (or even most) is failing, and silliness about the debt families are supposedly taking on. Too, as in the Tri-Cities, an editorial writer who played a prominent role in the opposition was taken to task for unseemly involvement with the incumbents or their allies. The tactics were mostly retreads; what was different was that the predictable campaign was not fronted entirely by the incumbents themselves but, especially in the last days by their allies at Fiber 411.

One of the things the incumbents learned here was that long campaigns are bad for them. Given time, and an aggressive willingness to fight back, lies can be disproved, push polls turned to outrage, and promoting fear and insulting the intelligence of the locals begins to sour any possible relationship with the community. In Lafayette the fight went on for too long. The incumbents had to trot out their best weapons too early and pro-fiber partisans were able to correctly label them as FUD and drive home the message that the incumbents were not being truthful—a message that inoculated the public against further last minute lies.

Unfortunately, I think the incumbents also learned that, saved to the last minute, and promoted through a local proxy, their FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) approach can still be effective. I agree with Don's analysis that the last minute mailers, the full page ads that simply reprinted a (non)local editorialist's massively inaccurate take and automated phone calling about a new fantasy "debt" issue were effective. They were simply not effective enough. The local pro-fiber groups kept up a dogged insistence, even during the incumbents' quietest moments, that the incumbents and their allies were not truthful. Radio time remained filled with a recut version of the push poll and Lafayette Coming Together (LCT) was relentless in pushing the issue. LCG and LUS, while toning down this message near the end and moving it away from the Terry and Joey, never fully abandoned it.

What the pro-municipal fiber forces learned was probably more valuable: that they can win. The overwhelming economic power of the incumbents can be blunted. Their willingness to leave accuracy and truthfulness aside in the pursuit of their own interests can be turned against them. What it takes is something that most municipal officials will not have the stomach for: a full throated attack on some of the most powerful corporations in their city. Telephone corporations have a long history of being the most "generous" investors in state election campaigns and the most powerful lobbying force in state legislatures. Cable companies control what politicians understand to be the most powerful media in town. Lafayette was willing to fight with a strong local and populist message that clearly labeled its opposition as "greedy" "out-of-state" "monopolies." The spectacle of our Mayor and the head of the utility system "standing up" for Lafayette in a press conference after every bit of misinformation spread by the incumbents and being uncompromising in calling them on each and every false claims was crucial to the campaign. Driving home the message that the incumbents self-interest and greed was driving this process was invaluable in resisting the final onslaught.

There is little doubt that Lafayette had advantages that might not be available in all locales. The bravery of the leadership and its willingness to call a monopoly, a monopoly and greed, greed has already been noted and was tremendously important. There was also a determined, deliberately broad-based coalition of citizens that made it hard to paint the project as one fostered by wealthy technocrats. The coalition group, Lafayette Coming Together, was also quite sophisticated about the use of both old and new media. But the greatest advantage was a pride of place born out of a realistic belief that the region, and Lafayette as the heart of that region, is unique and not subject to rules imposed on us by outsiders. It mixture of cultures, its cultural identities, and the ways the people have found to sustain their cultures make it very difficult for outsiders to successfully come in and infer that the locals are incompetent or successfully introduce effective divisive tactics. (One of the more despicable strategies, used all the way through and culminating in simple lies on Black radio near the end, was to try and split the Creole and black communities away from the rest of the community by using historical resentments which had nothing to do with the issue at hand. Without the aid of some community leaders this attempt might have taken firm hold. But the attempt is destined to be one of the longest remembered stains on the campaign of the incumbents and their allies.) Most communities have never had to develop that sort of resilience in the face of outside disapproval but the communities of Acadiana are very good at dismissing outsiders.

Other considerations that helped support a victory in Lafayette appear to be a result of market and national policy worries of the incumbents. Fights like the one in the Tri-Cities can be considered Pyrrych victories—the cost was high, not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of their reputation both locally and nationally. The cable and telephone companies simply are regional monopolies in their core business and maintaining a favorable regulatory relations at the state level and franchise agreements at the local level depend upon their being perceived as good, or at least benign, local citizens. It will surely take a decade or more to regain that status in the Tri-Cities; even voters who succumbed to the arguments of the incumbents could not help but notice the fear-based tactics that were used to bring them along. There was no large federal issue ongoing at the time of the fight in Illinois. But major initiatives of both the Cable and the Phone companies are before statehouses and more importantly, the Congress. The centrally important 1996 telecom act is up for revision this legislative season, in but one example. An ugly, high-profile attack on Lafayette when the defenders were willing to fight back by identifying the incumbent corporations as "greedy monopolists" may well have been too much to stomach for those at corporate central who felt they had bigger fish to fry and to much to lose to risk that sort of battle in a single small city.

Finally there is the basic market motivation: too much bad behavior damages the bottom line--if you lose. Surely BellSouth and Cox had done their own polling and could read the writing on the wall as well as anyone. The referendum was going to succeed and polling no doubt showed that the first reaction of the population to a new round of misinformation would turn more people against them than it gained. If there was any doubt about that the swift and overwhelmingly hostile reaction to the second push poll this summer proved the point that the usual incumbent tactics had become counter-productive. The hard truth was that BellSouth and Cox still had to compete in Lafayette and a loss in a full scale assault would have immediately pushed the likely "take rate" among voters past 50% percent if corporate behavior turned a "Yes" vote into a vote against Cox and BellSouth. Working through proxies and saving the mail pieces and scare phoning until the end when they could not be answered might well have been all that can be done without damaging their market position by turning the referendum into a marketing tool for LUS.

Lafayette's battle deserves, I believe, to be seen as one model for regaining local control of crucial monopoly infrastructure. The underlying populist message of local self-determination and legitimate anger toward regional monopolies like BellSouth and Cox was what drove the winning argument in Lafayette. People saw nothing wrong with building for themselves a network that the incumbents refused to build for them. Similarly, people do understand that these companies are monopolies whose bottom line has nothing to do with what is best for the communities across the country in which they reside. That is the core upon which electoral success was built. Lafayettes' leadership, her aware citizens' group, a committed 'old Lafayette' leadership, and the way her cultural distinctiveness played out made the message relatively easy to develop and denied the opposition virtually all local assets. Other communities might not share those particular advantages but the anti-incumbent message that can win has now been established and future communities can sharpen the message and develop their own resources.

Lafayette can be proud to have developed a winning model and strategy—not without help of course, but with plenty of verve. It will be up to our successors to sharpen the tool and make it more generally useful.

Reviewing the Recap

Kevin Blanchard had an analysis piece on the fiber-optic referendum that's worth noting if you missed it. It loosely recaps the campaign, focusing on the last months and on incomplete filings from the state ethics commission and reports from the groups involved.

Though the full story of the last days has yet to be told, the misinformation campaign at the end was very real and the direct mail pieces--something I covered in an earlier post during the heat of the campaign was profoundly and intentionally misleading. The mention of them here, in a retrospective analysis piece is the first time, to my knowledge that they have been mentioned in the press. Blanchard notes that the full force of the disinformation campaign that was seen in the Tri-Cities, for instance, did not fall on Lafayette:
While LUS officials expressed fear early in the campaign that their future competitors, BellSouth and Cox Communications, would bombard the electorate with negative advertising -- something that's happened when other communities have held similar votes -- that never happened in Lafayette
While there is truth in this broad claim it tends to focus solely on quantity and to pass on the meaning—and the actual effectiveness of what did happen. It isn't that the disinformation campaign didn't happen; it did. It isn't that the campaign waged didn't fit the pattern of the campaign in other places—because it did. It differed only in the overall size and intensity, how early it started, and—most visibly—the mixed sponsorship. Just how closely the disinformation campaign followed the pattern laid out in other places is well worth noticing. In the Tri-cities, for instance, almost cartoonish mass mailer pieces that made unsubstantiated (because untrue) claims about taxes, debt, and inevitable failure. In Lafayette last minute over-excited mailers made unsubstantiated (because untrue) claims about taxes, debt, and inevitable failure. In the Tri-Cities push polling was a feature of the campaign. You will recall the same about Lafayette. Similarly, the condemnation of a columnist in one of the local newspapers received prominent advertising play, especially when the columnist appeared to have ties to the opposition that weren't publicly acknowledged. In the Tri-Cities the columnist picked up contract work. In Lafayette he wrote for the Heartland Institute and allowed the opposition he endorsed to help author his work. In Lafayette his final editorial was transmuted into a full page ad for the opposition.

Blanchard notices this ad in a pointed way, saying:
BellSouth ran only one ad, reprinting a column written by Times of Acadiana Business Manager Eric Benjamin that warned voters about the dangers of LUS' plan. The column was published on the Wednesday before the election. The full-page ad appeared Friday.
The point, as I take it, is that the ad space was bought before the editorial appeared. BellSouth knew that a fresh, relatively unscathed editorial repeating its position would be available to insert into the traditional media silence before an election. (The previous Benjamin editorial which might have been more reasonably timed for inclusion had been the subject of brutal critique by the Independent on the grounds that an anti-fiber editorial co-authored by the anti-fiber opposition was, well, a wee bit improper. This later tidbit brings up new ethical questions about collusion.) It's hard to avoid the conclusion that BellSouth knew the editorial was coming and knew that it was something to which they could happily devote a full page of advertising. Twice, on both Friday and Saturday.

That traditional media pre-election silence, which both papers observed, meant that no questions were raised about the placement of this ad and, much more seriously, that the two last minute misinformation flyers and the automated phone calling went completely unreported. The tradition exists, no doubt, to prevent unfair last minute accusations from being repeated by the media. But it serves equally to shield last minute deceptions and distortion from any examination. It is clear that development of targeted direct mail and market segmented automated calling regimes into powerful tools that can put different messages into specific populations in a way that is invisible to the rest of voters changes the equasion. The policy of discreet silence may now serve more to deny the public crucial information about how the campaign is being run in the crucial last 48 hours than it does to shield them from unscrupulous accusations being repeated by the media. An article like this one, one that emphasizes the incumbents' quietness without dealing with cacophony of its allies exacerbates the problem. Someone reading our local print media would have to come away with the impression that nothing much, and certainly nothing unprincipled happened in those hours.

But that impression would be wrong.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

"It's not business friendly enough"

I was in New Orleans this weekend and ran across a cartoon in Gambit (a local alternative weekly newspaper), "Suspect Devices," whose acid commentary I thought might interest people in Lafayette. The third panel puts BellSouth's poor-mouthing in context. Just click on the image to get a large, readable version of the 'toon.

Greg Peters is more familiar to us here in Lafayette through his popular political cartoon in the Independent, Snake Oil, but his other series is in the same vein and equally interesting. As a bit of lagniappe, I offer up a link to another thought-provoking bit of commentary on the gret state's political shenanigans: Had enough yet? They've given up all pretense to being on your side.

BayouBuzz Interview: The Entertainment Industry

BayouBuzz interviews Mark Smith, the Enterntainment Industry Director for the state. He seems well aware of Lafayette's potential. From the first half of the interview:
Another important incentive that was passed was the digital media incentive. And, obviously, it's more than just what is an incentive about video games, but I�m just gonna, at least focus on the video game aspect of it because it really interrelates very well with our film incentive and it's a great potential for Louisiana. We have curriculums that have been developed in our Universities and in specifically, UL in Lafayette, and it's an opportunity for Louisiana to keep it's brain trust and it's creative class here, in the state and create some new jobs and some new companies, i.e., a cottage industry that is so important if we're going to really compete in the 21st century.
From the second half:
The other thing regarding digital media and specifically video games, well, obviously that´s gonna require more advanced skills and knowledge, and obviously, we have Universities that are really spear heading that, but specifically one that really is really putting a lot of emphasis and really going after it with their curriculum is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. So, that's another area you want to take a look at to see if that's something you want to do. But, again, please visit our website to learn more about the starting point. But, again, the opportunity is here, but you have to have the patience and the wherewithal to really invest in it, because, again, you are investing in your future.
It's good to know that someone in Baton Rouge notices.

WBS: EuroTelcoblog-"Moral fiber"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

EuroTelcobog, located out of London, notices folks noticing our fight in Amsterdam.

They've found us amusing before in the post: "More hackle-raising muni-network stuff." It's gotta be that English taste for long, overly elaborate jokes. We are honored.

WBS: "Lafayette zegt ja!"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

Folks in Amsterdam have show an interest in Lafayette's travails. Partly out of an innate Dutch sympathy and partly because they have similar issues with their incumbent Telephone and Cable providers. (I received a very nice letter of thanks for the FUD article a few months back, saying that a group in Holland was using the argument to good effect.)

In an article titled: "Lafayette zegt ja!" they celebrate our victory.

The Bablefish author's translation:
Lafayette votes yes!
Yesterday the referendum concerning glass fibre took place in Lafayette (Lousiana), where we wrote earlier already concerning. Because this was the only subject that it was presented to the citizens, one thought in advance that no longer than 15 up to 20 per cent of the votes cast would reach. It became a rise of 30 per cent, of which in spite of hard anti-campagne of the local telecom - and cable companies 62 per cent yes said. Lafayette get glass fibre, now we still!

"Lafayette says yes!

Yesterday, the referendum on fiber, we wrote about earlier, took place in Lafayette (Louisiana). Since it was the only subject that was being presented to the people, a turnout of no more than 15 to 20 percent was anticipated. The actual turnout was 30 percent, of which 62 percent said yes, in spite of the forceful anti-campaign by the local telecom and cable companies. Lafayette will get it's fiber, now it is our turn!"
(I'm pretty sure they're happy for us. But I would be happy to post a more adequate translation.) Miss G, the author of the original posting so mangled by Bable fish has provided the much clarified translation you see above in the comments. Thank YOU!

Another, earlier post, "Ondertussen, in Lafayette...," from the same site gives some background on their interest. Again, the Bablefish translation: (My picking apart indicates that KPN is their Cox; UPC is their BellSouth; and GEB is their LUS. You're own your own for the rest of it. )
In the meantime, in Lafayette...

We are not only and also not unique, now appears: -) In Lafayette (Louisiana USAS, Paris) they do not want also already glass fibre (fiber) and are them also (already some time ago) started a site. The local KPN and UPC refuse, thus it itself does the municipality by means of their GEB. Large debate, to in the national media. On 16 July will them in Lafayette in a referendum (that to know we) vote or it continues. Crazy enough its republicans and democrats it a time once: everyone wants fiber! Everyone? No, the cable society of course not. And still a number of people which sees their money disappearing. Verify here it unwieldly (that surprisingly charges slowly) of the antagonists, who are paid by the local UPC.
"In the meantime, in Lafayette...

We are not alone and not unique, as we just discovered ;-) In Lafayette (Louisiana USA, not Paris) they want fiber as well and they launched a site about it quite some time ago. The local KPN (the Dutch telecom company) and UPC (local cable company) refuse, so the community will do it themselves, in cooperation with their GEB (our local power company). There is quite a debate going on, with attention in national media as well.

On Juli 16 a referendum will be held in Lafayette (and don't we know all about referenda*) about the future of the project. It's quite remarkable that for once republicans and democrats agree: they all want fiber!

All of them? No, as can be expected the cable company is against it. As well as a couple of other people who see their money disapear. Check the extremely slow loading blog by the opponents, who are supported by the local UPC."

* Recently a national referendum was held here on the newly proposed European constitution. As most past referenda in Amsterdam, this one was rejected by the people as well. Most people who were in favour, blamed the lousy campaign by the Dutch governement.
They, apparently, are not too happy with their incumbents either.

Update: 9:20; Translations by the author. Thank you Miss G.!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

WBS: "Lafayette Louisiana City Vote Could Reshape Telecom, Media and Internet Business"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

This early reaction BayouBuzz piece is worth a gander in the "What's being said department" if you've not seen it already.

Sabludowsky gets it right:
Lafayette, Louisiana--In one of the most critical votes by a city against the traditional way for its citizens to obtain telecom services and media services that could have ripple effects throughout the U.S., City of Lafayette, Lafayette Louisiana voters gave the Lafayette project thumbs up to a proposal that will allow the municipality of compete with traditional telecommunications and media conduits.

Lafayette Utilities Director Terry Huval echoed the mayor but focused upon opponents to the project. "Today, we did what our predecessors did 109 years ago -- we took our future into our own hands, said Huval. “Also BellSouth and Cox wanted the people of Lafayette to speak, and now the people of Lafayette have spoken loud and clear. Now it´s time for BellSouth and Cox to accept what the people have said and stop throwing hurdles in our way."

Cities, municipalities, telecom companies and even media companies have been waiting for this vote since the outcome could significantly change the balance of power in those areas and the business models in this 21st century.
YES. We can show the way... if others have the sense to follow.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Federal: BellSouth's 80% and Federal Law

Here's a little present that the feds are considering giving the Baby Bells like BellSouth: the right to compete only in the most lucrative parts of town. While the National Journal's story mentions only Verizon and SBC as telephone corporations planning to offer video services, BellSouth is often noted as the third Bell whose public plans include the capacity to offer such services.

Local governments traditionally have required, through their franchise agreements with cable companies, "universal service"--the idea that cable would be available to all the citizens of the city or town granting the franchise. This was a local imitation of the federal rule that phone service had to be "universal." It's an idea that began at the federal level and one that has been a huge benefit to poor communities and rural ones. If the new suggestions are made law, the idea will also end as a consequence of federal action. The feds call the part of proposed new law that sets ground rues for who is to be served (and other things as well) "build-out rules," and here is how the NR discusses it:
Build-out requirements generally involve a mandate that service be available to all residents in a given service area. Both SBC Communications and Verizon Communications -- which are deploying subscription television services that will compete with cable -- argue that build-out restrictions would be unfair, on the grounds that their efforts will foster competition and therefore benefit consumers.
This is a truly twisted idea of what "fairness" is. In other areas, like, for instance, Lafayette's municipal broadband plans, the telephone companies (claim to) believe that fairness has to do with a level playing field where all are treated alike. Here they think that they should be treated differently -- that it would be "fair" to treat them differently than cable companies are treated. Convenient. And hypocritical. What they are actually saying is that they want both the economic advantage AND the right to claim some sort of moral high ground. Really, the truth is that what they want is advantage, and the basis for claiming the moral high ground can be whatever sounds good and allows them to claim that advantage.

The advantage, the real advantage sought here, is in the competition with the cable companies. The cable companies with plants already built out according to the old universal rules serve both the most profitable and the least profitable parts of town. The spiffy new phone company tech would compete only in the most lucrative parts of town, taking customers there and only there. It would have the effect of driving the cable companies out of the wealthy areas and leaving them with the least profitable parts of the area. Multiply that by every town in BellSouth's footprint and imagine the huge amounts of competitive advantage BellSouth gets over its cable competition in the video arena. This, and this almost exclusively, is what is in this proposal for the telephone companies. Advantage over its competitors who have committed to universal service.

In our town not only Cox, but soon LUS also, will be committed to universal provision of services.

All this relates directly to the "offer" BellSouth made to the Lafayette Consolidated Government that revealed their intent to offer "advanced services" to only 80% of Lafayette. (If BellSouth was to serve more, "almost all," they would ask Lafayette to pony up tax-derived cash or some sort of equivalent pay off.) The speed numbers that that BellSouth mentioned are the speeds at which a minimal form of video services could be offered. If BellSouth wanted to just suggest it would bring in its new cable service it would surely be asked to meet the universal service requirements that Cox has met. But a deal with BellSouth based on that letter to Joey Durel would have been a back-door way to get the city to pay for what the current franchise agreement with Cox effectively mandates in the city: universal service. Sneaky, eh? But the city didn't bite. Good for them.

Should this idea be approved at the federal level, BellSouth would not have to serve the parts of the city it considered less profitable. And in that situation LCG would have to buy them off if it wanted all its citizens to have access to the same services. Or it could just build its own network, serve all its citizens, and let those guys go their own way.

Thank goodness for LUS.

On the "upside:"
...Boucher has been floating the idea of coupling nationwide franchises for video providers with authority for states and/or local governments to offer low-cost, high-speed Internet services. That puts Boucher at odds with SBC, which has opposed government-sponsored broadband in several states. Verizon has expressed opposition in some areas.
But, as we can plainly see, local utilities will be faced with the same competitive disadvantage if these suggestions go forward as the cable companies. You'll also notice that Boucher is talking about allowing cities to provide is "internet" services, NOT cable services. And cable service is what will pay for any new build out--the profits to be had there are why the telephone companies are so desperate to get into a lucrative cable market as they struggle to build modern systems. The Bells, under a Boucher regime, will be licensed to poach the most lucrative customers selectively. Preserving municipal rights to serve its citizens as it sees fit should not be bought at the price of universal service or sacrificed to the profit motive of the Telephone Companies.

A Thanks to Our Readers

Thanks readers for your patience. During the run up to the last days of the campaign our work here was spotty at best. But even on days when we posted very little or very late you stayed with us. During the last 2 weeks our "uniques" -- the number of different visitors -- nearly doubled to just short of 500 a day. That loyalty is appreciated. Thanks, as well, for helping spread the message. Almost daily we get feedback that demonstrates that the readership here has had a critical effect on how the debate shaped up. Without that informed and active body of advocates continually seeding the larger community with solid information and an appropriate wariness of the self-interested claims of the incumbents, the battle Lafayette just won would have been very different.

This site will continue to be around, of course--the story is hardly done and we'll be eager to watch the project grow and try to bring us all into the conversation about what's next. The hard work of protecting the gains made here from federal or state intervention needs to be done. And making sure that the implementation of the network keeps the promises we all made to the community during the fight is necessary work as well.

We're going to put together a "misinformation project" for the more stable, long neglected purely informational side of the site. During the campaign the need for fast reaction led to an emphasis on the blog. We hope to get back to longer-lasting work that has been neglected.

We are also considering a "vignettes project" consisting of photos or very short vignette-like stories (at most a few paragraphs) of events during the campaign. The idea is to put together a mosaic of bits that, taken as a whole, would allow a reader to gain some sense of what it meant to engage in the fight here in Lafayette. If you like the idea let us know... it would only work if a lot of folks decided to contribute.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Editorials - The Lafayette Daily Advertiser

The Advertiser weighs in on the election in an editorial:
The approval last Saturday of the proposal allowing LUS to sell $125 million in bonds to finance the fiber-to-the-home project was gratifying. It laid the groundwork for Lafayette to move forward with giant steps toward accelerated economic growth and technological leadership. We applaud the decision of the electorate.
The editorial goes on to state that the supporters still need to work to make the project a success.

You ever been in a situation where you agree with the sentitment but just can't buy the partictular argument that gets your friend there? That's the way I'm feeling now. It's all true: this decision of the electorate is worth applauding, and those of us who supported the measure can't slack off now. But the thrust of the argument seems to be that we should worry about a high turnout election and a landslide victory and hurry out to do marketing for LUS--because the turnout wasn't higher and victory wasn't bigger. There's gotta be a little suspicion that this was substantially written before the turnout turned out to be almost twice what the registrar predicted.


"Pro-fiber groups spent $300,000 to get out vote"

The Advertiser today posts a story on the cost of the fiber battle. This is one of those stories that seems pretty clear the first time you look at it but which, on further examination, gets pretty murky. Some of it is real murk, due to confusion, and some of it is simple incompleteness. The incompleteness clouds the issue, and frankly, makes the story a touch misleading. Fiber 411, which has not filed the legally required PAC paperwork, put into the mail two very expensive, deceptive fliers [Link] which, while they have oddly not been reported on in the media, were the talk of the town in the last days of the campaign. Fiber 411 spent a lot more money with a lot more uncertain sources than has been reported to date. This report should really have noted that.

The gist of the story:

Pro-fiber forces spent more than $300,000 on television advertisements, yard signs and flyers promoting passage of the Lafayette Utilities System fiber-to-the-home project. That includes $200,000 spent by LUS, a municipal utility system owned by its customers, the citizens of Lafayette.

"I think it's very reasonable when you consider the cost of political campaigns nowadays and the necessity of the media," said City-Parish President Joey Durel. "My concern was the cost to this community of losing the election. That would be a cost that would be immeasurable

The first thing a mathematically inclined reader is likely to notice is that the cost numbers in the headline ($300,000) and the numbers in the sidebar (which add up to $369,849, about $370,000) don't match. The likely explanation is that the cost of the election ($65,000), which really should not be assigned to LUS, appears as its cost in the sidebar. A reasonable person might assign those costs to Cox, BellSouth, and Fiber 411. This is the second vote on this project; the first, by the council, was also an overwhelming approval and this additional vote was a creature of those folks' obstructionism.

The first thing a politcally astute reader is likely to notice is that this is by no means a final accounting. It should be pretty accurate for LUS, but for the PACs a final accounting has yet to be done and much of the money is always saved for planned buys in the final days. I'd expect the totals to be higher and for most of the money to have been spent.

The first thing a cynical reader is likely to notice is the absence of any cost assigned to the campaigns run by BellSouth and Cox or any realistic questioning of Fiber 411's informal "accounting" to the Advertiser. About BellSouth and Cox--who knows what they will actually report? The laws allow a lot of real costs to be hidden if you own the media. All those good neighbor ads (with faux Cajun and Creole accents cut in) that ran incessantly on Cox are likely to be written off as self-promotional. You know and I know that we never saw such ads before the battle heated up. They were part of the campaign and if you had to buy that time (which Cox, of course, does not) it is expensive. Certainly the Advertiser knows that BellSouth, at least, paid real money for those full page reprints of an editorial from its sister publication, The Times. It would have been nice to have seen some acknowledgement of the incumbents' largely unmeasurable costs in this campaign.

The murk around Fiber 411, though, is really thick. They say they've filed PAC paper work but I can't find it on the ethics board site. The idea that they didn't spend real, reportable money on yard signs and fliers is just not possible--the flyer had a "paid for" line on it. Where did all that money come from and how much was it really? Who did the automated phone calls? The spam emails?

Just because all this went unreported by our media and was ignored in this article, does not mean these things did not happen. We all know they did. It is OUTRAGEOUS that no article about the intense disinformation campaign in the final days has appeared.

For the record, this site will be posting a series on the deceptive campaign waged by the incumbents and their allies – not only so it won't be forgotten but so the rest of the nation and those that come after us in this fight will not be misled as to how this campaign, and especially the last days, were fought and finally won by the people of Lafayette.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

"PSC to take comments on municipal telecom system rules"

I posted briefly last night on the shift to a new date for the PSC rule-making session with the note that there would be more in the morning. There was. The Advertiser published "PSC will hear fiber case on Sept. 1" and the Advocate published "PSC to take comments on municipal telecom system rules."

This is one of those relatively rare cases where the Advertiser story is more informative than the Advocate's. The Advertiser's story has two virtues. First, it more fully reviews the issues at hand--and does the stronger job of trying to give the reader some basis for understanding which of the two contentious sides has the stronger case. Secondly it contains some real news, and reassuring news it is, about commissioner Field's stance.

One issue is whether LUS will be able to issue bonds using the full strength of the utility system; after giving to-the-point history of how the law the law being interpreted came to be we got the usual he said/she said but with the addition of a helpful if careful paragraph that gives the reader some basis to make a judgment between competing claims:

Huval said the PSC staff overstepped the limits of the Fair Competition Act with some of its recommendations, such as restricting LUS from using its electrical division to guarantee the fiber bonds.

BellSouth Louisiana President William Oliver said the law clearly prohibits LUS from cross-subsidizing or using money from its electrical system to cover costs of the fiber system.

The Local Government Fair Competition Act appears to allow the loan guarantee. However, the proposed PSC rules seem to prohibit the practice in one paragraph and allow it in another.

On Fields:
After meeting with LUS officials Monday, Field said he will support the utility before the PSC in fighting four points of contention: The bond pledge, in lieu of taxes, allowing other companies to insert advertising with LUS bills and an accounting issue.

"I said I would talk to the other commissioners about those if staff does not remedy them," Field said. He informed BellSouth of his decision Monday.

This is very good news. Fields is solidly in our corner. Since he represents us you'd think that would be a given...apparently not. And it makes me worry a bit about the mindset of the commisioners that they feel it necessary to immediately notify BellSouth about a position you have taken.

It also sounds as if Fields expects the staff to "remedy" the proposed regulations before resubmitting them to the commissioners. The loyal reader will recall that I suggested in an earlier post on this topic that sending the messy report back to the staff for retooling was exactly what I predicted.
We can anticipate one clear message from the PSC commissioners and I predict it right now: "Take this mess back to your cubicles and come up with something that is at least consistent to show us."
It's nice to occasionally be confirmed by events.

WBS: "LA Referendum Gives Impetus to McCain Broadband Bill"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

It's not only "Silicon Valley" where Lafayette is the talk of the town. The fever has apparently spread to Washington which is said to be a-buzz. Hey, we're bicoastal!

This in from the Benton Foundation's email telecom news digest:
LA REFERENDUM GIVES IMPETUS TO MCCAIN BROADBAND BILL
With Lafayette (LA) voters approving a referendum to let the city authorize up to $125 million in bonds to build a fiber network, Washington was a-buzz over municipal broadband networks and a bill introduced in June that would prevent states from barring public providers from supplying advanced telecom capability or services using it. The McCain-Lautenberg bill is designed to help municipalities achieve their goal of deploying high-speed Internet services to their citizens as quickly as possible. In Lafayette's case, the network represents a service as much as an economic development tool to attract more business development, said Jim Baller, an attorney for municipal interests. While the La. city's effort may be a successful first start, there are 14 states that have passed laws that put restrictions on cities investing in their own advanced communications services -- one reason Sen McCain introduced his bill.
[SOURCE: Communications Daily, AUTHOR: Anne Veigle]
(Not available online)
If our win can be used to demonstrate that it is possible to win against the big Teleco's and so teach our faltering representatives in Washington how to stand up for us all we should be proud. We'll have not only helped advance Lafayete, but our country as a whole.

McCain-Lautenberg's passage would mean a blossoming of home-owned telecom utilities. (And the passage of a bill sponsored by Sessions of Texas would be another step in path to returning unregulated monopoly power to the the regional teleco monopolies.) McCain-Lautenberg blew up during the final weeks of our campaign and didn't get enough attention here. Expect that to change...it's a very good bill.

WBS: Ars Technica discussion

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

The Ars Technica crowd weighs in with a pretty amazing string on Lafayette's victory.

Ars Technica is one of the most brilliant places on the net. As both a community (which works hard not to take itself too seriously) and as a repository of hard to beat technical information it is invaluable. It's the place to go when you want to read a 20 page dissertation on the fine points of the latest Macintosh operating system. Or if you want to understand how (and why you should care whether) multi-threading interacts with mulitple cores...

So its fun to see what this crowd thinks about Lafayette's venture and the idea of municipal broadband in general. This isn't like most online discussions: the ratio of wheat to chaff is high.

I'd recommend reading the thread entire; — it is real a discussion and an education in how good this sort of online forum can be. Here are some appetizers and one piece of steak:

The appetizers:
The People are doin' it for themselves.

The only reason that the standardized Internet does exist is because it was not set up as a business. Had the internet been set up as a business there would have been a plethora of standards with no interoperability until a monopoly was formed to standardize things e.g. AT&T before the break-up.

To hell with this mish-mash of regional monopolies; if the government is willing to step forward and provide a service on which these clowns want to keep dragging their feet, so be it. If that gives the private companies the kick in the ass needed to come in and try to do it better, so much the better.
The meat-actual, intelligent analysis (I wanna meet this guy):
First, let me say that it does the heart good to see your hometown on the Ars front page.

Second let me say that BellSouth and Cox Cable were absolute pigs during this entire affair. The proposal was for our public utility, which is truly public in that it is a unit of the city, to take out bonds to finance this. BS and Cox astroturfed a good part of the opposition, and even went so far as to get a bill introduced in our state legislature to stop this when it became clear that most of the folks rallying to their cause were the usual cranks and folks who believe that only the private sector can do anything.

(We did, in the mean time, see a whole lot of television ads featuring local employees smiling and telling us how much it meant to them to help out the rest of us, their neighbors. Uh huh.)

BS and Cox did, however, manage to cause enough of a ruckus that our mayor, a business-oriented Republican, and the city council decided it was simply the best case to have a special election -- and how I wish, having lost, it was now BS and Cox who had to pay for that election.

I should point out that there are a lot of factors that aren't going to appear in most stories that helped get this FTTP proposal off the ground:

One, the head of our utilities division has a spotless reputation as does the division itself -- their line repair happens faster than ANY private utility I've ever known. (He's also a great musician by the way, a member of the Cajun band Jambalaya.)

Two, the city has enjoyed a remarkable level of urban planning, something especially unusual in the south. And planning that occurred twenty years ago recently has paid off in terms of a revived downtown, which means a lot of folks have seen what having vision can mean.

Lafayette in general does pursue the so-called American median: fiscally conservative and socially liberal. This FTTP plan played to both sides of that spirit.
Hear, Hear, Well Said!

WBS: "Municipal FTTP coming to Lafayette, LA, despite big business"

What's Being Said (WBS) Dept.

Ars Technica, like Slashdot, is one of the geekier places on the net. (And I mean that in the nicest way.) So to get attention from both is one sign that Joey Durel's tech strategy is working. Though in ways he might not fully anticipate. While the symbolism of going after the CEOs of Silicon Valley and saying that you are the "talk" there is understandable--these guys have real power--what needs to be understood is that "silicon valley," is not really a real place. It's not about what is being said at the coffee houses and wine bars in a hot, dry place in California. It's the chatter on places like ars technica that makes Austin hot and Toledo not.

Go take a look at the story. Unlike even national reporters this guy bothers to look back into the archives...or he's been following the story mighty closely. It refreshingly intelligent...here' a taste:

The vote passed much to the chagrin of BellSouth and Cox Communications, who would rather handle FTTP themselves, but on their own schedule. Both companies had sued in court to stop plans, but their efforts so far only forced the issue to a vote, and the voters clearly chose sides.

"This opens the door for every municipality in the nation to look at how they can do what we did," said Don Bertrand of Fibre911. "We deserve connectivity and as we did in 1896 with the electricity, if you won't bring it to us, we'll do it ourselves."

The plan is to start serving customers within two years. Nothing in the plan prevents BellSouth and Cox from competing in the rollout, although everyone has agreed that the success of LUS depends on a large customer uptake.

"Let them have broadband" USAToday weighs in

Lafayette rates a mention in an article focusing on rural communities; the implication is a little off target about Lafayette's size but the tidbit they share is interesting:
The telecommunications companies say they have little incentive to deliver costly broadband connections to sparsely populated areas, and from a business perspective, they're right. What's less understandable is why those companies fight to prevent people in rural areas from wiring themselves.

In Lafayette, La., Atlanta-based BellSouth has fought the city's plan to sell bonds to finance its own broadband system. The legal battle has cost the city $500,000. On Saturday the voters spoke, approving the bond sale 62%-38%.
BellSouth and Cox have used some pretty transparent excuses to prevent Lafayette from doing what she clearly wanted to do. Don't forget: this is the second vote: our council did what we elected them do months ago. The incumbents want to teach us Civics lessons and their version of Economics lessons. We don't need such lessons from companies whose actual interests in the matter are plain: keeping home-grown competition out of their backyard.

Especially when the lesson is so expensive.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Flash: LUS won't Go Before the PSC Until September.

According to my secret sources LUS won't go before the PSC until September 1st. (Ok, not so secret, but it might as well be--it was on the the final, unannounced AOC show today. I bet I'm the only one who saw it.) The incumbents asked for a chance to quarrel with LUS' submission--and LUS will have the same right. Huval says that this won't slow down the progress of the project.

We'll no doubt see more in the morning

Flash: The Advertiser gets an Editor

An update posted to the online version of the Advertiser noted that Denise Richter has been named to the post of executive editor effective August 1. Denise fills the post vacated when Juli Metzger left.

This is a very good thing—a paper without a real editor is pretty rudderless. Part of what is going on at the Times is that it has been without an editor for far too long.

Flash: Lafayette Coming Together Gets Quoted!

Today's Advertiser fiber story (which I blogged earlier) has an almost unique event: two members of far and away the largest citizen's grassroots organization (I am a member) are quoted and their affiliation acknowledged.
LUS will be the largest city in the nation with this type of system and it will be successful, said Mike Stagg of Lafayette Coming Together.

Saturday was an historic moment in the city, a moment when residents said they are ready for a change, said Layne St. Julien of Lafayette Coming Together.

"Lafayette is ready to see itself in a new light," she said. "We all want the same thing, a good place for ourselves and our children."
Good stuff right? Pretty presentable?

I find it astonishing that this is exactly the third time this organizaton has been mentioned in the local daily.--According to a search of the Advertiser's archive.

This is the same organization that was responsible for most of the visible campaign outside of press conferences up until the last few days. It is truly a grassroots organization. Begun as a group dedicated to the most basic people to people campaigning it took over more and more fuctions as the campaign matured and its ability to get the job done—cheaply and quickly—became apparent. Every yard sign, billboard, flyer, all the radio spots save one and even one of the TV spots were products of this group. People donated their time, energy and talent to the cause. Every penny raised was spent on materials or media. Not one dime went to design or managment—those talents were donated. In the end what they did was little short of amazing: No doubt thousands of hours of time went into regular meetings, subcommittee meetings, project managment, website design, video work, ad design, viral email, logo design, audio work, leafleting, phone banking, a film festival, yard sign delivery, an endorsement project, campaign strategy, database managment, a newsletter and more. And it was all done locally by local folks for concerned for our community. With nearly 500 names in the actives database and supporters far beyond that number LCT's For Fiber campaign was easily the most visible and influential citizen's group in the campaign.

Everywhere except in the media.

In stark contrast was Fiber 411 whose only visible membership was 3 guys and whose activites, aside from press conferences, consisted of a trash-talking chat room, two last minute disinformation mailers with their name on it, and a lot of still-visible yellow signs planted in the right of way. Oh, and maybe some automated phone calling.

If you search for Fiber 411 on the Advertiser site you'll find 49 hits. Versus 2 for the other (actual?) grassroots orgainization.

The disparity is supposed to be due to fairness issues. Balance. I don't see the balance in this. I doubt if many can.

Sure, I'm biased. As a member of LCT I know the folks I worked with got a real full-blown campaign before the the public. I think it would be appropriate if their voice was recognized occasionally--as Mike's and Layne's was today. Heck, I think, all things considered, that 49 times would have been balanced.

Ok, got that off my chest. Thanks.

Supporters ask BellSouth, Cox to accept voters' choice

The subhead of this story is "Supporters ask BellSouth, Cox to accept voters' choice." That is putting it weakly. We demand it. Cox and BellSouth's trash talking obstructionism needs to stop now. Terry is right when he calls it obstructionism. Anyone who still believes that BellSouth is doing any of this because of a pious interest in textbook civics or a desire to educate Acadiana about his version of economics has missed what has been going on here. Not only in the last year but in the last week.

A number of people make the point:
Lafayette Utilities System should be able to connect its first fiber-to-the-home customers in about two years and could be serving everyone in the city in three to four years, unless it faces further hurdles from opponents, Director Terry Huval said Sunday.
Of course what he is talking about is obstructionism at the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the obvious threat of endless lawsuits about nonsense. Even more explicitly:
"Now, we get to start working on the project," City-Parish President Joey Durel said Sunday. "Instead of spending so much time selling the concept, we can now really do the work. The election, to me, was just a delay tactic. Hopefully, there won't be any more."
Terry can hope it; but no one believes it. If BellSouth and Cox decide it is to their financial advantage to delay a project the overwhelming majority of the people want they simply will.
"We would ask our corporate citizens, BellSouth and Cox, to realize the people of Lafayette have spoken and it's time to get out of the way," Huval said Saturday night.
We've gotten a lot of self-pitying "we've been good corporate citizens" talk; talk is cheap, let's see if they can walk the walk. Let's demand that they corporations let the compromise legislation they demanded and which will already cost our citizens money stand as it is. Let's demand that they not attempt to get PSC rules put in place that change the dictionary definition of "resources" in relation the bond issue so that the people of Lafayette cannot get a decent interest rate on a system they have voted overwhelmingly to fund.

What's Being said: "Voters approve citywide fiber project"

From the CNET story:
Voters in Lafayette, La., on Saturday approved a bond offering to fund a citywide fiber-optic project, an issue that was the source of considerable friction during the past year.

Voters approved the measure 12,290 to 7,507, or 62 percent to 38 percent, according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

The city of 116,000 residents known for its vibrant Cajun culture has been planning to build its own fiber-optic network for more than a year. But local phone company BellSouth and cable operator Cox Communications challenged the city-owned utility, which plans to build and operate the network.
This story closes with an emphasis on how this vote was part of the larger debate at the Federal level where bills to both band and guarantee the ability of local municipalities to develop telecom utilities. That part, and the links in those paragraphs are well worth a look-see by those of us interested in preserving and extending Lafayette's victory.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

'38% is the Functional Equivalent of 62%'

According to press reports, the Sock Puppets have come up with yet another functional equivalent argument.

Here's the relevant quote from The Daily Advertiser:
Fiber 411, the citizens group that opposed the LUS plan, took the loss as a victory.

"I think we won," said Tim Supple of Fiber 411. "We started off wanting to get people the right to vote. We accomplished that. We tried to get people to understand the issue. We accomplished that, I hope. We won."
The reality of the situation is this: Voting in support of the LUS fiber project: 12,290; voting against, 7,507.

Fiber to the curb is NOT the same as fiber to the home. Winning is NOT the same as losing. Denial is NOT a river in Africa.