Wednesday, August 31, 2005

PSC Ruling....(delayed)

While Katrina and our refugee neighbors rightly is the focus of everyone's concerns this week, other issues still remain. One of those is the PSC ruling due out today on the accounting and regulatory rules that will shape LUS fiber to the home project. The Indpenedent does a yoeman's job of outlining the role of the PSC and highlighting the processes and individuals who will be crucial to developing Lafayette's fiber-optic based communications utility.

However, Jim Baller's email newsletter says the meeting has been delayed; undoubtably on account of Katrina. I would imagine Baller, LUS's main legal eagle would know.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Lafayette & Hurricane Katrina

If our logs and emails are any indication Lafayette Pro Fiber has a significant minority of its readers from outside our area who've become interested in and supportive of Lafayette. I've had some inquiries from friends who are watching national TV and are understandably concerned about those in Louisiana for whom they've developed some sympathy. This post is a rarity among posts at this site: it is directed at our friends beyond the our region. (The original draft of the following post was in response to one of those queries.)

Hi all,

Thanks for your thoughts. Lafayette was very, very lucky. We caught only the western edge of the hurricane. High wind and some rain. But we were far enough away from the eye--and shielded by much of the state--that our highest winds didn't get much above 60 mph. By our standards that's not bad. (Hurricanes circulate counter clockwise, so winds had rotated over half the state before the circulation brought the weather down to us--our winds came from the north.) Hurricane Lily two years ago was much worse in our locale.

We do have a lot of refugees, Lafayette makes a good stop at the intersection of two interstates and we had people sleeping in parking lots and churches all over town. Hopefully we can help out. The refugee problem is going to be much greater than any in our country in our lifetime.

The levee break in New Orleans is the realization of a nightmare. New Orleans almost squeaked by again but then in the early morning a levee at an industrial canal gave way flooding much of the protected and lowest parts of the city. I am not sure that the national reporters really understand the magnitude of the problem when they compare it to losing the first several hundred yards of Biloxi's casinos. The area flooded comprises much of the core of one of America's major cities and much of its blue-collar and poorer residential neighborhoods. Getting the breach sealed is what should be the biggest task and the most reported right now. Something dramatic needs to be done desperately. You'll see people hacking their way out of attics in which there were trapped on CNN but that is merely the most dramatic visuals. Gas leaks and oil leaks, a tanker aground, salt water sitting on the old wood-frame homes and undermining the foundations. More accidents are inevitable; they are not now reporting a death count but I am very fearful that it will be substantial... (Some geology: The city of New Orleans sits on a drained swamp and most of the city is beneath sea level. It is kept dry only by dint of continual pumping. One of the signature scenes of the city is huge a pumping station with numerous 4-6 foot in diameter pipes rising out of the ground and going into a large, squat brick building. This is seldom on tourist checklists. :-) But they are impossible to miss. The pumps were recently hardened and updated and their capacity was increased.)

New Orleans is the place to which to direct your care and sympathy. It is very bad and still getting worse. I am not sure that the city, much less its people, has the capacity to recover from this magnitude of infrastructure damage.

Gratefully and sorrowfully, John

Monday, August 29, 2005

Dr. Who on a Mobile Phone Near You?

Dr. Who on a Mobile Phone Near You? Not unless you live in Britian.

But the BBC which has been consisitently ahead of the curve in adapting to the realities of the new net-based media has just announced that it plans to launch "
MyBBCPlayer" (a name that sounds all too American) next year. MyBBCPlayer would allow for simulcasts of the BBC content (watch it on your computer instead of TV) and here's the nifty part: 7 days of past content. My....

This will be available only in Britian as far as I can tell. But what it demonstrates is that the technology, at least on the backside, is there. The problem in Britian, as in the US, will be getting enough bandwidth at a reasonable enough price to make the service really useful. Even Dr. Who might get a little boring on the small mobile phone screen--and almost as trying on those 2 inch by 2 inch sceens most net video is limited to currently.

Friday, August 26, 2005

"LUS chief 'elated' at PSC rules"

The Advocate reported this morning that Terry Huval was "elated" at the new proposed rules the Public Service Commission staff has issued. These replace the previous set of suggested rule which were issued at the the height of the referendum battle and created considerable consternation with provisions that not only seemed to contradict the carefully brokered compromise achieved last summer but which were also internally contradictory.

The new rules are, as I read the report, far from everything LUS might want or, (in my opinion) deserve if they purpose of the "Fair Competition" was to actually level the playing field. But if the LUS director is willing to be elated I am pleased to be happy for us all.

The bottom line:
"We will be able to show up (to the PSC meeting) and say we have no objections to the rules at all," Huval said.

Huval said Commissioner Jimmy Field did a "tremendous job" brokering changes among LUS, PSC staff and LUS' competitors BellSouth and Cox Communications.
There were two more interesting pieces for me in the article--it says the PSC will vote on this first draft today. I'm puzzled--I thought it would be up for a vote the first time on September 1st...I guess this will be clarified tomorrow. There is a bit more that would have been cut off
Should the bond ordinance pass the council, it would then be advertised in the local newspaper. State law would prohibit any lawsuit contesting the validity of the bond ordinance after 30 days have passed after that advertisement -- sometime in mid-October.

Barring any other delays with the PSC, LUS would have the "green light" to proceed in mid-October, Huval said.
Getting the bond issue locked in will be a major milestone. An early Halloween present for us all.

Fiber Optic Competition Working in UTOPIA

The aptly named UTOPIA project has started driving price down even before services are offered at any city served by the Utah consortium of cities. Fiber is currently being laid in Murray and Midvale and representatives of Utopia have been going door to door in the two towns explaining the services to be offered and offering to sign up residents. The incumbents have responded by dramatically cutting their prices, offering a savings of $350 dollars a year by taking advantage of the new contracts:
Comcast's high-speed Internet service maxes out at 4 Mbps download and 384 Kbps upload and is shared with other users over a cable network. The standard price in Utah for Comcast's internet service is $45.95 a month. Remarkably, the price for this same service in Midvale and Murray has been dropped to $29.95 with a one-year contract, saving Comcast customers who choose to re-up $16 a month, or nearly $200 a year. Meanwhile, their friends in non-UTOPIA cities don't have that choice. That is the power of competition, directly attributable to the advent of UTOPIA.

A similar offer for cable TV is also being introduced to residents in Midvale and Murray. Comcast has dropped the price of its basic digital package from $48.55 to $34.95 a month on a one-year contract, a difference of over $13 per month or about $160 a year. As a direct result of the competition provided by the UTOPIA Community Metronet, Comcast customers in Midvale and Murray can cut their annual cable and Internet bills some $350 below their neighbors in Sandy, Draper, or Salt Lake City.
The prices in Sandy, Draper, and Salt Lake City. Unchanged. Apparently the service reps take your zip code and unless you are in one of the two communities being built out by UTOPIA you're not eligiable for the offer.

This is not an isolated, special instance. Wherever fiber-opitc based competition arrrives prices drop dramatically:
As confirmed by the GAO study, competition leads to better prices, better service, and more choices. The GAO looked at rates in six cities where broadband service providers had entered to compete with incumbent cable and phone companies, and compared them with cities lacking such competition. Cable TV rates ranged from 31% cheaper to 15% cheaper in five of the six cities.
Providers over the Utopia system will apparently be competitive:
The offerings being rolled out by MStar, AT&T, Xmission, and Veracity over the UTOPIA Community MetroNet will challenge the marketing prowess of the Qwest and Comcast. For example, MStar's Internet service clocks in at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and upload for as little as $39.95. This is more than double Comcast's maximum download speed, and 25 times faster for upload. The price comes to about $4 per Mb while the national average is $35 per Mb
The kicker for all this is the wealth that stays in the community and is available locally to generate more local spending and jobs. (I've touched on this before in relation to ILOT.) $360 per household that stays with the incumbents is a huge win by itself. Utahans who go with inexpensive true broadband also pump a larger portion of the money they pay for theirs services back into the local community, paying for the infrastructure build itself and creating yet more opportunity for locals to develop and make productive use of leading edge services. The local community wins and wins...this sort of structural change, changing the balance of money flowing into and out of communities is something that is almost impossible to change for the better--the national economy tends to erode the economic base of small towns. Building their own networks is one of the very few things a small town can do to offset that erosion. It's a good thing. Lafayette, as a growing medium size city, may not be quite in that category. But the dynamic is the same, only here you add it on to an expanding economy instead of applying it to offset loses. Looked at from that angle if its good for Murray, Utah, it's great for Lafayette.

Bring it on.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Benjamin "On Ethics"

"On Ethics" That's the title of Benjamin's commentary this week.

Really.

In it he tries to paint himself as a reluctant warrior in service of the free press and the public's right to know. And as the last bulwark against an encroaching tide of fascism foreshadowed by....ridicule.

Really.

What he doesn't do that he must do is address the real issues both ethical and factual he's raised: Did he break the law when he made the first visible, public statement about an ethics complaint. Was Benjamin reporting or making news? If making news was he held to the higher factual standards that adhere to breaking, rather than merely reporting news? Does he have a reputable source the paper's editor (were one visible) would stand behind? How reputable could a source be who is breaking the law in talking to him? Did Benjamin encourage Neal to break the law? The factual lapses in Benjamin's story were glaring and the much of the story was refuted in the press--a very unusual occurrence. And one that argues that the professional press didn't think the general manager did a very good job of playing reporter.

Benjamin addresses none of those issues in this piece and has addressed none of it adequately anywhere. It beggars the imagination that this self-serving justification was allowed to be published when the real ethical and factual charges have yet to be addressed. Where is editorial in this? Who exercises editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?

We now have three stories by local journalists that implicate Eric Benjamin in unprofessional behavior. One in the Indpendent and two the Advocate. The central charge in the Independent was that Eric allowed a partisan to co-write his editorials and that, incredibly, the justification for this was that he felt that the partisan, Tim Supple, has supplied the "facts" that Benjamin did not feel he had to hand himself. The implication of the first Advocate article was that Benjamin did not do obvious fact checking about ethical charges, instead he simply relied on the "facts" contained in a complaint of a second fiber 411 partisan, Neal Breakfield. A little quick fact-checking would have supplied some much-needed professionalism to the story. The second Advocate story patiently works through the legal niceties--no not niceties--uglinessess of the case and makes clear that the source of the story broke the law. A little fact-checking would have revealed that too. Now I'll be the first to say that sometimes publishing illegally received information is justifiable. But as I understand the ethics involved the writer is obliged to tell the reader of this fact and allow the reader to decide whether the writer and his or her paper were justified in publishing the information. Neither Eric Benjamin nor anyone in the chain of command at the Gannett papers he works for has revealed anything about the legal issues involved. Further, the use of such potentially tainted material is supposed to have been explored thoroughly explored and approved by the editorial staff. No one has given us any reason to believe that Benjamin explored the ethical and legal issues with his editorial superiors, whoever they may be. Those sorts of explorations and explanations have been left to other papers and bloggers.

This is not a healthy situation from the point of view of journalism's ethical standards.

Now on to the essay itself. The first several paragraphs are spent in establishing, as near as I can tell, the idea that ethics is a complex business, that journalists and Saudi women have ethical dilemmas, and that the right path is not always clear. Ok, I'll concede all that.

What's difficult to concede are the myriad odd implications of the following assertions:
In journalism an ethical position sometimes requires sacrificing your own point of view to report objectively, and sometimes it requires telling a story that is not already in the public domain with which you may not agree.
That this is obviously true is hardly the point..a reasonable reader unfamiliar with Benjamin's history, would suppose that Benjamin was saying that he sacrificed his "own point of view to report objectively" and that he was required in this instance to tell "a story not already in the public domain" with which he did not agree. The evidence says otherwise. Loudly

Evidence says that Benjamin was only playing at reporting in his personal column. By the count of another of his staff Benjamin wrote 13 times in the pages of the Times in opposition to the LUS proposal, some of those being satirical retellings of LUS' reasoning that cast LUS as an oily salesman. Benjamin allowed one of the three members of Fiber 411 to co-author one of his diatribes. Benjamin, in the very instance for which he is trying to claim objectivity didn't bother to check the readily available public record on the attacks he reprinted. Objectivity is simply not something Benjamin can claim. Pretending to this transparently untrue claim of objectively demeans real reporters who rely on the presumption that they do attempt to report objectively by putting their work in the same category as Benjamin's. (In making news Benjamin should surely be held to the same standard to which real reporters are held. That he is not is not a problem that can be solved by his asserting that the standard applies. His superiors must exercise editorial oversight to ensure that he adheres to rules that he is manifestly incapable of applying to himself.)

If you read carefully you will notice that Benjamin is not really committing to the position that he was acting against his own inclinations in this ethics debacle. He just wants to lead you to make the little logical mistake that follows from thinking this might true. Don't do it. Just because it is sometimes true that some reporters find themselves in the position of feeling ethically obligated to objectively cover stories not in the public domain that they do not like it does not follow that Benjamin covered this story for anything like those same reasons. He needs to directly claim that he didn't treat the story with unfettered glee-that he acted objectively and reluctantly. And if he does he'd have to defend himself against the evidence that he is the most partisan writer on this topic in the media. There is, in fact, every evidence that he was not burdened by any considerations of objectivity and that he has been happy to continue to pursue his attack on the profiber position by whatever means lay to hand.

Benjamin goes on to make this claim:
A report that a bona fide complaint has been filed with a government agency is news.
The problem here is manifold. Benjamin doesn't even mention the question these particular revelations were illegal and unethical by law and definition and his own ethical obligations to consider whether that tainted the story. Nor, as a consequence of the first omission, does he mention that he didn't reveal his rationale for using the material to the public with the story.

He calls it a bona fide complaint. That lends it a legitimacy for which only he (hopefully)
can vouch. Since it appears that Durel has not received notice of a complaint that would mean that Neal did not file a "sworn complaint"--it was not sworn to before a notary--since the accused is notified in that case. So it could have been not sworn. Or, considering the quality of the reporting so far, it might just as easily simply be untrue. It's pretty clear that Benjamin has no way of knowing if that complaint actually went in. Neal's no longer talking. So there's no way of independently verifying that anything happened that might constitute "news."

Benjamin continues:
Whether that complaint eventually becomes charges is a matter to be decided within the system, not in the media.
Eric is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of "trial by media." Let me inform him: it's what he is doing. Leveling charges that can't be legally answered has got to add insult to the injury. He goes on to say:
Simply reporting the existence of it [a complaint] is not to be construed as necessarily advocating a partisan position.
Give me a break. This is more of that attempt to take on the mantle of working reporting that he's not earned. If a real reporter were reporting a publicly announced "complaint" none of us would be free to assume anything about the reporter's own partisan position. But that is NOT what we are dealing with. We are dealing with the personal column of Eric Benjamin who has consistently ridiculed the profiber position, the same personal column one of which was used on the last day of the campaign as a full page BellSouth ad for goodness sake. All Benjamin has done is advocate a hard anti-partisan position in his space. When we see a post-election attack on Joey Durel which is full of easily checkable misstatements we are prone to wonder. When we see a "report" whose most basic substance can be confirmed by no other reporter and contains illegally proffered information it raises flags. And when that report includes charges that the person attacked has not seen and about which the law forbids him to speak what are we supposed to think? That Benjamin is giving these accusations media time because he's non-partisan? Give me a break.

This goes on...and on...allow me to be a little telegraphic:

B complains that articles "sought to refute certain aspects" of his story. That ought to read "did refute much of the factual basis of my story" or at least deal with his credulity in repeating the substance of unsubstantiated charges.

B complains that the "complaint is only dismissible when it has been ruled on by the appropriate government agencies" and that the media cannot dismiss it. That's a classic straw man. Nobody has said or implied anything different. He's acting as if the attacks on his story's failings is an attack on Neal's accusations. Nah. It's an attack on a shoddy story.

B whines that "Some believe that ridicule and name calling are not the right way to refute a story." My reply: Lester U Smiley. Not once but over several of his commentaries. Honestly, what more need you say?

B pontificates: "One should draw a very dubious eye toward those who would advance their own partisan agenda while seeking to eradicate or ridicule others, for in that rhetoric truly lives the seeds of fascism." B needs to do a little reading of history. Ridicule is every totalitarian system's worst enemy. Fascism was not seeded by ridicule; if anything it was the lack of ridicule of a ridiculous fat Italian man in a gaudy outfit and mad German one with a silly mustache that seeded the rise of fascism.

B accuses: "
most Lafayette media failed to perform the basic mission of analysis and reporting on this story" And he contributed exactly what to that mission of responsible analysis and reporting? The Ethics Debacle? A Hunter Thompson parody? --You know, the Consumers Union, Intel, and the IEEE all looked into the issue and have come out for municipal broadband; maybe it's not a problem of inadequate analysis on the part of the proponents of fiber. Maybe the Chamber of Commerce, many civic organizations, the Advocate, the Independent and two thirds of voters on July 16th had done their homework. And maybe they agreed because that was what was right for Lafayette rather than that they were too lazy to get Benjamin's "real" story. That is at least as credible a thesis as that Benjamin, BellSouth, and 3 guys with a penchant for press conferences didn't get a fair shake from the media.

B huffs of the election: "
Therefore, if it is not legally invalid, it at least would be ethically invalid." and a bit later: "Questions surrounding whether the city stole the election are still before the State Ethics Board and may lead to further investigation." There is no contrition in this guy. The contempt for the rubes among whom his is forced to labor is immense. If the people overwhelmingly reject his position it must be because the mayor was too overt in support of his own program. Or that city buses did it (well, maybe not). Or that a billboard lacked its owner's signature. Or something, anything, but that the city of Lafayette found his and his allies arguments lacking.

PSC issues revised regulations.

Dueling accounts in this morning's issues of the papers leave the reader with very different impressions of the revisions of the PSC rules that were apparently posted yesterday. Your intrepid blogger can't get into the PSC website as a consequence of what looks like a DNS error but will report further when more info is available.

For the moment, what that concerned readers probably want to do is go read the Advocate's version "PSC staff drops ban on LUS plan." And then, against that background, look at the Advertiser's story "Final PSC recommendations on fiber released," which is much less complete.

The key area of disagreement between the two stories is on the question of whether the new rules say that LUS can or cannot repay bonds, in the worst case, by using the full income of the company (something private companies do without a thought, incidentally).

Claire Taylor of the Advertiser presents this tentative view:
...the PSC staff made a change in its original recommendations. In its final recommendations released Wednesday, PSC staff repeated a statement that the bonds issued to build the fiber project "shall be secured and paid solely from the revenues generated by the separate division..."

The staff eliminated a line that previously read, "A creditor, in the event of default upon the bonds, may not have recourse to the assets of the municipality's regulated divisions."

The meaning of the staff recommendations was unclear Wednesday evening.

Kevin Blanchard of the Advocate present this more complete version:
"Now, the rules say communications bonds 'shall be secured and paid solely' from communications revenues, but continues by saying LUS could 'pledge' overall utilities revenues to obtain the best interest rates -- language that mirrors state law."
Letting the reader know the new language that was substituted for the old is crucial and accounts for the substantial difference in tone between the two stories.

So the outright contradiction between the law and the proposed regulations has been eliminated while the law's ambiguity remains. That's not what regulations are about--regulations are supposed to resolve, not sustain, legal ambiguity. That's the point of rule-writing. My guess is that by simply repeating, rather than clarifying, the staff is signaling the commission members that it's passing the buck on this one on to them. The new language is a shift in the right direction and declares staff neutrality. In the end, even if some ambiguity remains, after bonds are sold based on language that assumes that pledge means pledge, a meaning favorable to LUS will be fixed. But part of this ploy will succeed if any doubt attaches to the bond issue that causes investors to raise their rates. The PSC should be strongly encouraged to write its rules resolving the ambiguity in favor of LUS; making the best rates available to the city was the clear intent of this portion of the brokered, compromise legislation. To allow BellSouth to achieve at the Public Service Commission what it could not achieve at the legislature is unconscionable and should be made clearly politically dangerous.

The Advocate's article goes on to cover several more issues that LUS had called important:
The new set of proposed rules also removes a previously proposed requirement that would require LUS to pay so-called in lieu of tax payments to the city government -- even in the event the new communications business was not profitable.
To my mind that is most crucial win of this stage of the process. Making bonding expensive is unfair, but the this part of the previous rules proposal was intended to impose, continuing, impossible to sustain financial burdens on LUS that did not vaguely resemble those placed on its corporate competition. The staff has wisely backed off.

And

The new draft retains a previously proposed rule that requires LUS to share its billing system with competitors such as BellSouth and Cox Communications -- should the new communications division share the existing utilities' billing system.

Again that's simply unfair and we should object. Will anyone suggest that BellSouth allow LUS to advertise directly to its customer base in its bills? Would they object to BellSouth putting advertising for Cingular in those same bill and complain that such "cross-subsidization" is an unfair use of rate-payer monies. No. Of course not. And they'd be right...just as LUS would be right if it did the same.

Both articles note that LUS' bond proposal has the direct approval of the people. One would think that would have some bearing on the issue. The commissioners have yet to be heard from, and they are the elected arm of this institution.

The PSC should hear from the people, and from the local businesses it was elected to represent and protect. Too much of this process has made it seem that the PSC sees its role as protecting corporate rather than citizen and community interests.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"Leaks violate law; test case not expected"

Kevin Blanchard this morning had an analysis piece on the Benjamin debacle that is well worth visiting. In it he establishes that the law was certainly broken and that almost as certainly no one will ever try and enforce it.
Somebody leaked a complaint filed with the state Board of Ethics to a Times of Acadiana columnist earlier this month -- a leak that would seem to violate state ethics law.
The complaint, you will recall was poorly specified, and rapidly discredited, but Benjamin managed to squeeze the evil-sounding word "malfeasence" into the article a couple of times.
The complaint, according to the Times of Acadiana, was filed by an opponent to LUS' plan -- though the columnist, Times General Manager Eric Benjamin, who did not disclose in his article who provided him with the complaint.

State law prohibits anyone from giving out information about an ethics complaint and investigation.

Now this is all very interesting...no one seriously doubts where this article came from. It came from Neil Breakfield. Go back and read the article and see if you can honestly (not legalistically, honestly) come to any other conclusion. It is certainly the interpretation the article encourages. So are we going to get into a situation where they haul Eric Benjamin out of the office in handcuffs for refusing to name his source? Shades of the Plame Affair. That's unlikely according to Blanchard:

But if history is any guide, no action is likely to be taken against the "leaker."

Blanchard goes on to cite multiples cases where now federal Senator Vitter apparently made a practice of breaking this law while in the state legislature. (And seems not to have taken advantage of the obvious opportunity he had to rewrite that law as a legislator). Vitter was never charged. Apparently enforcing the law is not particularly being contemplated in this case either.

This does not change the raw fact that a law was broken. Here is the way the law is described:
State Revised Statute 42:1141 prohibits the board or "any other person" from making any "public statement" or acting to "give out any information" concerning an ethics investigation.
Now as far as I or anyone else in Lafayette knows, the place where that "public statement" was made was Eric Benjamin's Times of Acadiana column. He did not "report" it being said in some public venue. That would be a fair characterization if Breakfield's accusations were leveled publicly at a press conference as Vitter apparently was wont to do and Benjamin was there to take notes. But there was no public press conference. Instead, Benjamin said it. Now it can be argued that making a public statement includes whispering it in Benjamin's ear in a darkened bar. Maybe that point could be made legally. Maybe. But certainly this sort of story which involves a "reporter/commentator/manager" skirting the edges of both journalistic and legal ethics ought to be at least discussed with an editor. I know for a fact that this happened with other reporters covering the ethics issue. But it is unclear just who might supervise Benjamin in these matters. Who is responsible for editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?

Of course what is really offensive about this state of affairs is that anyone who is scrupulously honest and follows the letter of the law is at a distinct disadvantage. And what we know for sure so far about the ethics of this ethics case is that Breakfield and Benjamin are skirting a seldom-enforced law and that the accused, Joey Durel, is not.

The consequence is that Benjamin gets to write scurrilous "commentaries" with abandon and Breakfield gets to lurk in the background proclaiming "no comment" to inquiries by actual reporters while Durel is forced by his own ethics and respect for the law to stand mute. That has to be hard. (Anyone who thinks Durel finds standing by quietly easy really wasn't paying much attention during the fiber fight.)

I'm not sure that Durel should remain quiet, even if I do understand the special obligation of public officials to comply especially with laws they may feel unjust. But I am sure who among these three has acted most ethically in the conflict over ethics.

Fiber Bond Ordinance Introduced

The Advocate in "Council begins bond process" and the Advertiser in "Council takes steps to issue fiber bonds" covered last night's uneventful introduction of the the bond ordinance that will come up for a vote on September 6th. The council, eager to watch the Lafayette's Little League World Series Game, moved it own with not discussion and got out in an hour...this achievement rivals that of the Lafayette baseball team as all who have set through seemingly endless council meetings will attest.

The introduction is largely a non-event except for making the final language bond ordinance public. Final, that is, if the PSC acts sensibly when the commission meets considers its rule-making on September 1st. Some language in the ordinance is clearly aimed at clarifying LUS' intentions and codifying some of them as law in anticipation of a favorable PSC ruling, as is made clear in the following passage from the Advocate's story:

The PSC is also considering a proposal that would prohibit LUS from using the resources of its other, existing utilities to repay the new communications bonds.

LUS believes state law allows for such an arrangement. LUS' future competitors, BellSouth and Cox Communications, said they believe such an arrangement is counter to state law. The initial draft of the PSC rules sided with the private companies.

The bond ordinance lays out a procedure LUS intends on using in the event its annual communications revenue can't meet the entire debt service on the communications bonds.

In that event, LUS plans on using "residual" revenue from the overall utilities system to meet the payments, according to the bond ordinance.

It's possible that the PSC will approve rules at its Sept. 1 meeting that make such a procedure taboo, but LUS Director Terry Huval said he's "confident" that the PSC will understand that state law allows for that method of repayment.

If not, LUS will have to "huddle up and decide what to do next," before the Sept. 6 bond ordinance meeting, Huval said.
Reportedly, a letter-writing campaign in support of LUS by local businesses has been planned by the Chamber but has yet to get off the ground. A related effort by the local Democrats yielded fruit yesterday when a press conference touting a letter by the executive committee was widely covered in the media, both the above stories tag it onto to the Ordinance story and KATC was in attendance, and KLFY has an online story as well.

Gobb Williams, in the Advertiser's version of the story is quoted with a good question:

Executive committee member Gobb Williams said Lafayette residents were under the assumption the July 16 vote, which BellSouth and Cox sued to force, would settle the issue. Now the companies are fighting the project in the Public Service Commission, he said.

"We strongly feel it's being undermined," Williams said. "Why did we have the election? Why did we vote?"

Gobb is right...we forget too easily, because some of us never really believed them, that BellSouth, Cox, and the Fiber 411 trio famously, and piously, promised to only want a vote--that their motives were pure and that they were worried for and wanted exposed what they considered "risks" for citizens with Lafayette's plan. (They avoided talking about their obvious self-interest claiming to be eager for competition.) Explicitly and implicitly the message was that if the people decided in an election to go with LUS their opposition would go away.

We can now see that their pious protestations were false. We can see that getting their way was what was really at issue. Fiber 411 files a raft of ethics complaints--with Eric Benjamin if not the Ethics Commission--and BellSouth and Cox continue to show every sign that finding a way to prevent any competition is their sole goal. Anyone who believes that any of these people is after fairness or a level playing field needs to reexamine the history of our fight and recognize the gap between what they say and what they do.



Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Lafayette Digital Divide OpenSource project

Announcing an LCT Digital Divide Project:

Lafayette Digital Divide OpenSource project

Bryan Fusilier is organizing an open source community that will help decide upon and put together a free software environment that can be used to support a pervasive, low-cost digital divide effort.

He's put together a blog to report on the effort and is looking for help and support. Visit and participate!

If you'd like to do more to help out drop me an email and I'll put you in touch.

Home Plug AV Emerges

I'd never been very interested in Home Plug technology--the reputedly flaky method for running internet service over home wiring--until LUS announced that it would be using the technology to provide an easy way to wire the home for internet service that avoided pulling new wires.

This new announcement, reported in PC World, claims new speeds and new qualities for the technology:
HomePlug 1.0 moves data at a theoretical maximum of 14 mbps per second, with real world performance roughly equivalent to the 4.5 mbps or so of 802.11b Wi-Fi. HomePlug AV's theoretical maximum throughput is 200 mbps; real-world data rates should run between 70 mbps and 100 mbps, says Andy Melder, senior vice president for strategic business development at Intellon, one of the companies contributing to the spec.

The new spec includes quality-of-service technology to ensure smooth video and audio streaming and 128-bit AES encryption, a more robust security algorithm than the 56-bit DES encryption in HomePlug 1.0, Melder says. In addition, HomePlug AV technology can work over coaxial cable and phone lines as well as over the electrical wiring for which it was designed.
Should this technology test out LUS should try to implement this version. I've had some pretty severe doubts about HomePlug; thinking that bringing people onboard with a low-bandwidth in-home wiring solution (I consider 4 megs low in the upcoming order of things) in order to get customers on might well have the effect of limiting their expansion to higher bandwidth services later on since the wiring they depended on wouldn't handle it. If this works (and HomePlug doesn't have a great history of delivering) it could do a lot toward alleviating that concern.

Lafayette, as a business proposition alone, needs to do everything it can to encourage a unified high bandwidth environment. Big bandwidth is a huge boon to local development. Complicated hardware technology and limited solutions that require a lot of programming are the result of trying to fit new ideas into a constrained amount of bandwidth. It is much, much easier to develop exciting new applications that run over 100 megs than it is over 2 or even 10. Big bandwidth will be available in Lafayette. But available is not the same thing as having the large installed base that provides a large enough body of users to make the development of brilliant new ideas an economic proposition and size is a major issue. Lafayette will need to have as big an installed base of high-bandwidth users as is possible to build up those numbers. In addition, many applications depend for their usefulness on many other people sharing the same capacity. (Think the phone, or video conferencing. If you can't call your sister or business partner you're much less likely to buy the service; its value to all increases with every subscriber.). You need a large number of the base to be capable of talking to each other at high bandwidth to make the business case work.

This line of analysis is one reason that its been seriously suggested that insystem bandwidth be set at a uniformly high level--say one hundred megs. It would, at very little cost to the LUS system, make Lafayette a testbed for developing and marketing the advanced services that will one day be available across the nation. (Outsystem bandwidth--the kind that connects you to people outside Lafayette's network--will have to be paid for. It's a real expense so tiers of pricing and speeds still make sense when locals travel to addresses outside our city.)

HomePlug AV potentially removes one more barrier to having a ubiquitous, high-speed network available to everyone in Lafayette at low cost. We should look into it.

"Political labels have their limits"

There's a good editorial in the Advocate today on Lafayette's conservatism--or lack thereof. It's one of those issues when a good editorial is more informative--in that it teaches more usefully--than "objective" reporting.

The editorial is a considered response to the Bay Area Center for Voting Research releasing a list of the most conservative and liberal cities in the country that listed Lafayette as the ninth most conservative city in the United States. The original point of the Bay Area study seems to have been to demonstrate that San Francisco was one of the most liberal cities in the state and country—Something that needed little research to establish. So, in fact, little research was done. Using info from a Patrick Courreges story (wherein the reporter, gasp, called to fact check* and find out what was the basis of the Bay Area claim) the editorial notes that the rankings were based solely on the '04 presidential election. That's actually pretty embarrassing for the group doing the study—it turns out their "research" consisted solely of lightly manipulating a database of the election numbers.

The editorial goes on to point out that the label defies a lot that we know to be true about Lafayette:

There are several ways in which Lafayette defies the conservative stereotype. For one thing, more voters are registered as Democrats than as Republicans in the area. Democrats make up a little less than 45 percent of the 74,135 total registered voters in Lafayette's city limits, while Republicans make up slightly less than 33 percent. Voters without party affiliations or with other affiliations make up a little under 23 percent, according to the Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Office.

Additionally, Lafayette voters recently approved, by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, a plan to allow the city's public utility system to provide phone, cable and high-speed Internet access using a citywide fiber optic network. Whatever one thinks about the merits of the proposal, approving such broad government involvement in telecommunications isn't an expression of conservative orthodoxy.

Additionally, the most conservative area in the city-- south Lafayette--gave the referendum its largest plurality. And even more disconcerting for an easy analysis the campaign that was waged here made no bones about opposing "greedy monopolists" from out of state with local self-determination in its desire to build a publicly owned utility. That, in both rhetoric and substance, is classic urban populism. Apparently its not all that easy to say what people mean when they say that Lafayette is politically conservative.

The Advocate also raises interesting questions regarding cultural conservatism--the other too easy explanation for Lafayette's conservative reputation:
South Louisiana is a bastion of Catholicism, so in today's culturally tinged political climate, issues such as abortion might be listing the region to the right. But it is also a land of joie-de-vivre, with a live-and-let-live philosophy that includes drive-in daiquiri shops. Those are not exactly what people think of as emblems of a "culturally conservative" community.
It is a puzzlement...I suggest we just go our own way and ignore all that stuff.


*Yes, that's intended to be a reference to the Benjamin debacle. This is a nice example of how editorials are supposed to be done. You take facts, established by real reporting, and dig into the implications and meaning of those facts. The contrast between the Gannett method and the Advocate method should be instructive to those that exercise editorial control at the Times and the Advertiser.

Monday, August 22, 2005

News from the Iowa Front

"Opportunity Iowa" has been engaging in an effort to tie together its towns and cities in a regional alliance that would, together, give them the economic basis for developing a fiber-optic network. They are inspired, at least in part, by the example of Cedar Falls, a city which built its municipally-owned network years ago and offered advanced services over its then state of the art hybrid fiber-coax network long before the local cable company got around to it. If this sounds vaguely familiar that may be because Cedar Fall's experience was the subject of a keynote address at Lafayette Coming Together's breakfast event during the referendum campaign.

Iowa recently turned back an attempt to outlaw municipal systems but a bitter political battle rages on, a report from the Chicago Tribute claims. The most interesting parts to the author were the reports on the success of muni broadband networks to grow, attract, and enable the startup of new businesses.

Bits from the story:

"Municipalities from Lafayette, La., to Philadelphia are moving to provide residents with broadband connections, while in others, such as Geneva, Batavia and St. Charles, voters rejected the idea. The initiatives, which proponents say boost local economic development opportunities, are spurring intense battles across the nation with cable and phone companies, which believe the competition is unfair.

Municipalities like Cedar Falls jumped into action a decade ago, when community leaders perceived that information infrastructure would be vital to economic success in the new century. They decided that if left to market forces, small hamlets would be among the last to get connected to the information superhighway.

...the Mudd Group, makes TV commercials, video e-mails and Web site content that it ships to TV stations and customers around the country over communications connections as fast as anything available in Chicago or Los Angeles.

"Many TV commercials once made in California now come from Canada because it's cheap," Mudd said. "In Iowa, we can make them even cheaper."

The Mudd Group uses high-speed optical fiber lines supplied by the Cedar Falls Utility, a municipal operation that offered affordable high-speed data connections years before the local cable TV operator or phone company made such services available.

And that's only one inspiring example from the story. Give it a look; its worth the the free registration.

"Federal telecommunication legislation could slash cable access TV funding"

Here's a story from our friends in the Tri-Cities. It examines the local effects of the proposed federal-level "Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act of 2005." The proposed law, of course, has little to do with the laudable title. The Act, sponsored by Nevada Republican John Ensign, is actually about ending local franchises and any state or local control based on the ownership of the local ownership of rights of ways that telecom operators use. The story clearly identifies the centralizing* thrust of the legislation:
At its core, the legislation, would eliminate all local and state control...
The focus of the article is on monies paid to municipalities and especially to local access channels like our own AOC and looking at the issue, as this article does, from the point of view of how the federal law would effect local issues is something I am happy to see and makes for thought-provoking reading on how this would effect our own locality. Consider these remarks:

Through the franchise agreement between the city and Comcast, for instance, Batavia received about $229,200 in 2004, $137,500 of which went toward Batavia Access Television. And the larger the town, the more the charge. The city of Aurora received more than $1.1 million in 2004.

"Not only would it kill BATV but (it) would leave a big hole in our general fund budget," said Alderman Jim Volk, who was the city's representative on the BATV board for the past nine years.


Meredith Mercier/Daily Herald
Jenny Glick, operations manager of Batavia Access Television, tapes Monday evening's Batavia City Council meeting at the government center.
The Batavia City Council went on record recently in opposition to the Consumer Choice Act, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, on July 27...

"There is no question that it would mean drastically less money for cities," she [
Cheryl Leanza, principal legislative council for the National Leauge of Cities] said.

Leanza said she knows of no city that supports the legislation.

Stuart Chapman, a Hoffman Estates telecommunications consultant for cities and counties, agreed those fees would be cut quite a bit.

But in pursuing a very useful focus on costs the story does miss what I believe is the central issue in all legislation of this stripe, be it federal or state: the end of the universal service requirement. Upgrades to the current phone and cable networks would not have to include all the citizens of a community if they wanted to serve cable TV as these franchise agreements almost universally require. It's no secret who the private corporations would leave out: any neighborhood that isn't profitable as quickly as another gets built last. Any neighborhood that isn't as profitable as any competing use for the company's money (say buying other cable companies or buy wireless carriers) never gets service at all.

The loss of universal service is by far the biggest potential competitive advantage that the Baby Bells will garner by killing local franchises and it is worth noticing that they are willing to at least talk about continuing to pay fees to local governments but are not willing to brook discussion of universal service. That, my friends, is the point. In relatively homogenous communities as I understand the Tri-Cities to be that may not be a large practical issue. But in cities like our own with large historically and politically significant difference between neighborhoods it will be a huge step backward.

If the Batavia City council can vote to support the municipal franchise I don't know why Lafayette's city council can't make itself heard as well--a resolution condemning the Ensign bill and urging that our representatives in Congress protect municipal property rights and self-determination could prove very useful.


*(It is an index of the poverty of what passes for conservatism these days that there is no echo of the outrage over the recent eminent domain issue--which really only acted conservatively in refusing to insist on a federal power to overturn local decision-making--when it comes to a massive federal taking of property rights from municipalities--the branch of government most responsive to local concerns. It's not about individual rights and freedoms anymore, if ever it was; its about corporate interests being served.)

Saturday, August 20, 2005

"BR needs broadband in every home"

Aside from Baton Rouge's unaccountable Austin envie Charles Hall's letter in todays Advocate is a model of clear thinking about broadband and community issues. My honest recommendation is to go read it and only bother with my commentary if you've got a little extra time on your hands this Saturday morning. Hall says it all very well.

He points out several really salient points, not all of which are obvious to all: Hall realizes that broadband is a modern necessity for development, that most of that development should be expected to be in small businesses, and that attracting large business has mostly failed (not saying that it has proven an unproductive race to the bottom with local and state giveaways diluting its positive impact). He's smart about pricing, noting that with computer cost dipping below 300 dollars the real barrier to wider adoption of new technologies is in monthly broadband costs, (something we get here in Lafayette) and that locales like Austing broadband is significantly cheaper broadband that helps fuel new economy growth.

Hall mentions Lafayatte's path as one solution but lists others, including EATEL's example, oft praised here like our own local Kaplan Telephone, and WiFi/WiMax --a last mile solution which depends on a second mile backhaul solution that Baton Rouge also lacks. Lafayette's advantage, as always, is LUS and its infrastructure.

Go give it a read. Good stuff.

Friday, August 19, 2005

"Muni nets step forward in Louisiana, step back in Congress"

An article from Telephony Online highlights the contrast between Lafayette's success and the federal threats to local self-determination in the telecommunications sphere.

From the story:
In Lafayette, La., earlier this summer, municipal network advocates won a major victory at the polls, but those fortunes were seemingly reversed recently when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) introduced the first major telecom reform legislation, with provisions that would severely restrict the ability of local governments to build their own broadband networks.
And the author pointedly notes:
There is little doubt that the issue of publicly owned broadband networks will only get more controversial, now that both cable companies — and within the next year, telephone companies — can choose not to sell access to their broadband networks.
Go there and read on...the story is meaty and mentions continued opposition by the incumbents even after the impressive referendum win and competeing bills that favor or oppose municipal telecom builds of the sort Lafayette is engaged in. It's a good national overview.

"Vitter visits chamber, vows to work to protect fiber plan from challenges"

In a welcome reaffirmation reported by the Advocate US Senator Vitter yesterday made it clear that he continues to support LUS' fiber-optic initiative and will work from his seat on the commerce committee to make sure that federal legislation doesn't damage Lafayette's interests. Vitter was an early supporter--the only Federal level candidate that endorsed the plan during the last election (to my knowledge)--and has continued to evidence quiet support for the plan.

From the Courreges story:
Vitter was in town to talk to the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce about past and future congressional actions affecting the state and the Lafayette area.

He said that Congress will be working on a broadband telecommunications act in the next year or two, and his seat on the Senate Commerce Committee means he'll be dealing with that legislation directly.

Vitter said he's aware of the voter-approved plan to allow LUS to provide broadband internet, telephone and cable TV through fiber-optic lines to every home and business in the city of Lafayette.

The plan, fought in court, the Legislature and before the state Public Service Commission by telecommunications giants BellSouth and Cox Communications, had the backing of the Lafayette chamber, parish Republicans and Democrats and several other groups.

"I don't want to do anything at the federal level to stop that," Vitter said.

Good News; and important for the future of the venture that Lafayette has undertaken.

Now if only we can get him to co-sponsor Lautenberg-McCain...that bill, widely supported by municipal and, consumer groups as well as Intel would protect municipalities rights to serve their citizens without state or federal interference.

------
In the "I'm not sure what to make of it" department: the Advertiser ran two stories that featured Vitter and reported on his words. (1, 2) The sum total of Advertiser reporting on the topic of this post:

He will be involved in writing a new Telecommunications Act that he hopes will reward innovation and not become outdated as technology changed.

Without the Baton Rouge paper we'd have no sense of the tenor of those comments on the most contentious issue of the season. In fact we'd have no sense that Lafayette's telecommunicaton project and the position of our US Senator even came up. That's not right.

There is something very weird going on over at the Gannett papers. Some sort of byplay resulting from the Benjamin Debacle? A sort of "If you can't get it right don't touch it at all sort of caution?" I hope the new editor straightens it all out.

By the way: Who is responsible for editorial oversight of Benjamin these days? The new editor? Ted Power? Is Benjamin responsible for supervising himself? Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Skirmish Over. War Is On!

The LUS fiber initiative has already succeeded in bringing large segments of Lafayette together in support of a vision of bringing new economic progress to the city via the 21st Century network infrastructure and the services that will flow through it.

For the most part, I think this unity will last. There will, of course, be exceptions.

The first break-up, though, is now official.

That's right! Cox and BellSouth have broken off their strained alliance and the war for digital media dominance across south Louisiana is back on!

There was no official announcement, but (in a world where nothing's considered real unless it's on TV) Cox Business Services has a new ad that purports to show a businessman talking to a phone company rep. The ad opens with the camera on the businessman while he talks to the phone rep. When the camera cuts to the phone rep at the end of the ad, it's a brick wall! The voice over says something to the effect that talking to your phone rep can be like talking to a brick wall.

The ad is not yet on Cox's website, but this one is. Here are more of them.

Judging by what just happened in Texas, look for the next fight in Louisiana to be over relieving phone companies of the local franchise fees for video services.

As you know, cable companies currently pay franchise fees to municipalities in exchange for right of way access which enables them to build their networks to deliver service (now including phone and internet) across the community.

In Texas, SBC and Verizon convinced state government leaders that requiring phone companies to negotiate these local franchise were onerous and delayed their plans to build new networks in those communities. Critics, including the cable companies, say the phone companies bought this legislation. If true, it was a good business deal and a hell of a lot cheaper than paying franchise fees across the state.

If this is, indeed, going to be the next phone v. cable fight in Louisiana, it will require something of a change in mindset in BellSouth's Atlanta headquarters. I still believe that the company's Louisiana leaders have not been able to convince their corporate betters that making new network investments in this state makes business sense. The chief reason for this is Cox's aggressive moves into phone and business services in major markets across south Louisiana.

As we heard ad infinitum during the recent campaign, BellSouth is a business and it makes investment decisions based on its best judgment of where it will get the best return. In Louisiana, BellSouth is in a bind. It is moving from somewhere in the 95 percent market share range to somewhere significantly south of that. Apparently, the powers that be in Atlanta won't invest significantly new dollars here until they have a better idea of just how far south their market share will fall.

Will this paralysis push BellSouth's marketshare beyond a tipping point where it begins to suffer major customer losses? It's possible. I talked with a businessman from Hammond last week who was exasperated by the lack of responsiveness of BellSouth to basic service quality issues. He spontaneously volunteered this information during a conversation about healthcare and connectivity. Sure, not too much should be read into an anecdote, but that kind of customer hostility can't be a good thing.

Fortunately for BellSouth, the State of Louisiana (rumored to be BellSouth's second largest customer in its entire nine-state network) will remain a docile customer. So, there is an anchor for the company there.

Could getting the Louisiana Legislature to eliminate local franchise fees for the phone companies be the kind of incentive that could convince BellSouth Atlanta to make new network investments here? They've got a few months to figure this out. So, too, does the Louisiana Municipal Association, whose members would take a pretty fair financial lick from such a move.

But, keep an eye on bill filings when the 2006 session approaches. If this is the play, BellSouth will look to its stalwarts (1, 2, 3) to carry their water.

Unlike the marketplace (where it has shown itself to be both tin-eared and ham-handed), BellSouth knows how to work state government. This is a win-able fight for them. And they need a win.

Two Stories in One: Fiber May Go Statewide!

The second very interesting story in today's Advocate article "City's business appeal grows" is tucked under the headline story but may be, in the end, as important a revelation (if no more certain) than the one about a new business coming to Lafayette.

That second story sounds as if it is the result of one of the Mayor's famous riffs. Durel apparently went off on a joking tangent about how Louisiana might benefit by other states outlawing municipal broadband which is pretty clearly a major development tool (as evidenced by the headline story). He then, acknowledges that this is a bad state of affairs for the country and slides into a proclamation concerning how good what Lafayette is doing could be for the state. That's where the story takes a pointed and very interesting turn:
He said what Lafayette is trying to do could mean hope for the state in the long run, however.

"Lafayette has the license to provide this to the entire state," Durel said.

He said that fiber-optic-based telecommunications does represent hope for small communities across the state, but he doesn't want to give false hope.

Durel said Lafayette must get its own system up and running before seriously considering allowing LUS to branch out service to other communities.

He said that, while the day is far off, LUS could have the legal and technical ability to provide its telecommunications services to small towns in other areas.

"If the day comes, it may be that we represent their best hope," Durel said.
That's a new level of ambition. I think a lot of us have always assumed, given the early endorsement of other Lafayette parish mayors and the way the debate on the council developed that an extension of services outside LUS' home in the city was contemplated. I've always been aware that legally the parish line wasn't much of a barrier and partnering with other locales, chiefly New Orleans, has occasionally been alluded to in the press. But this is a creative thought indeed...Acadiana, at least, certainly doesn't need a lot of redundant and extremely expensive back-end equipment. And the larger the Lafayette-based system is the stronger it is both financially and, crucially, politically. Offering services like this would be very, very smart not only financially but in building a constituency for local control of telecommunications in all areas of the state. And therefore in the legislature.

But this is good in another way as well. When Durel says: "If the day comes, it may be that we represent their best hope," his words can also be applied to concerns that come down on us from the federal level. Recent Federal Court and FCC decisions have had the consequence of tightening monopoly control of the phone and cable duopoly. That rising monopoly power, coupled with a lack of any regulatory control that would keep the network owners from favoring content they own over content owned by competitors all but assures that we'll see a slow but consistent closing down of the open internet that we've come to assume is just part of the way the internet is... In the future internet access could come to look more like your cable "network" in the future with the network owners dictating what content is available--and owning, as the cable companies do now--much of the content that they make available for their customers to buy.

In concert with losing federal protections new federal legislation threatens to take even the local municipal and county-level influence represented by franchise agreements away by a huge federal "taking" of the cities ability to control the use of their own rights-of-way. Traditionally, cities have used the control of city property to force quality of service and the provision of service to all areas, be they rich or poor. If proposed laws take away that control the result will be that private company will, quite sensibly, choose to serve only the most profitable neighborhoods.

So Joey is not exaggerating when he says that Lafayette, with its legal ability to serve all of the state, may well prove to be a huge benefit to smaller communities. If nothing else Lafayette could provide the threat of real competition, keeping the monopolies from behaving too badly for fear that the local government will partner with LUS. (This is not too far-fetched, when Eatel begin offering video services over its new fiber-optic network the Ascension parish governing body was emboldened to demand that Cox actually meet its contractual obligations...Competition is not only good for prices.)

If things continue to go badly for American citizens on the telecommunications front Lafayette may well be one of the few centers of "free" networks available. And should that happen the nation's unhappy circumstance will be Lafayette's gain.

It's not something to hope for. But it is a reason to vigorously protect what we've gotten started here.

Two Stories in One: Fiber May Attract Business!

Today's Advocate carries two very interesting stories under a single headline, "City's business appeal grows." The headline signals the first—a claim by Mayor Durel that a company is seriously considering Lafayette as a location:
He said he met recently with a site selection group for the company, and from that meeting learned that the potential new company is looking to employ about 1,000 people, with most making $10 to $12 an hour, and that the LUS fiber-optic plan could be a difference-maker.
Apparently the decision has come down to Lafayette and one other locale. It sounds great.

The information on this possibility is very thin with the Mayor even claiming that he doesn't know the name of the company after meeting with the site committee. I'd at least like to have some idea of what industry the company is in and what use it would have for advanced communications. But, in any case, it's great news for Lafayette. We await with baited breath.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Snake Oil: This Space For Rent

Snake Oil comments today on the ongoing Eric Benjamin story--a story which, if we are unfortunate, will be with us for awhile as successive layers of his claims turn out to be unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable. (click on the image to get a readable picture) Today's Benjamin piece will only add fuel to the fire with his refusal to deal with the now publicly documented problems with his first story and his leveling of new charges attributed to unnamed sources.

Now what can Snake Oil do with the claim that some employer is intimidating its employees? Who was it that issued its employees anti-fiber petitions to carry around in their trucks? (And then quietly backed off when they didn't partictularly like that.) And who was it that threatened the jobs of Cingular employees if Lafayette was to get in the way of maximizing its profit? And which corporation was it that brought the president of the Louisiana company in to talk to small groups of its employees, demand 5 names and the home phone numbers of friends and family who would vote against fiber and pass out fiber 411 propaganda? I know what I could do with that and I don't have half the artistic talent of Snake Oil.

Oh yeah...Snake Oil did do something with at least the Cingular threat, in his "Suspect Device" series once...try panel three. Now imagine that he could devote all four panels to good ole BellSouth's beneficent ways of treating its employees. Or imagine that Benjamin were to add a little context or balance to his storys...No, don't bother--go back to imagining a 4-panel Snake Oil on BellSouth's treatment of it's employees. That's something that is imaginable and would be take some of that sour grapes taste out of your mouth.

(And what's really wierdly ironic: the cartoonist piece would be truthful.)

The Real Issue is Editorial Oversight of Benjamin

I got up this morning and read Eric Benjamin's latest little piece of sour grapes and the question is no longer what he thinks he's doing, nor even how truthful he is....those imponderables will have to wait...but who has editorial responsibility for what the "general manager" of the Times writes.

We have editors for good reasons and first among them is to uphold the standards and reputation of the profession. All other editorial functions serve that single goal. Journalists are supposed to carefully fact check what they write; they are supposed to report fairly and in context; and they are supposed to deal honestly with valid criticism of their work. Editors are there to make sure that they do. Checking grammer is a spare-time sideline.

There is no, and has been no, editor listed at the Times and it shows most clearly in Eric Benjamin's slide from a color commentator who concentrated mainly on stylistic games to a poor reporter who concentrates mostly on bile. The last two "editorials" from Benjamin have been exercises not in commentary and not even in journalism but rather in making the news. What these last two editorials boil down to factually are claims that have only been made to Eric Benjamin and that only he can confirm. As nearly as I can tell we have to take Eric's word on all of it... and his factual failures in the last "editorial" he wrote have been documented both here and in the mainstream media.

In light of those documented failures, a real editor, should such be available, would demand that Eric either demonstrate that his critics are wrong or retract his words. What would not be allowed under the guidance of any real editor is that he be allowed to cavalierly dismiss his critics by claiming that one of their criticisms is true but unimportant (the bus issue) and to misrepresent the meaning of another point while admitting its essential truth (the attorney general had not, in fact, gotten any "letter" from Fiber 411 folks when Eric Benjamin claimed they did -- oh, and the attorney general didn't treat it as worthy of investigation when he did, finally, receive a complaint).

I fully realize that professionals are touchy about being instructed on their professional duty by those outside their profession. What the Gannett papers must realize, and realize quickly, is two things: 1) that criticism from within the profession has already been leveled. The critique of the Times by the Independent is not a comptetitor's attack but a legitimate professional protest; and 2) citizens like myself will complain and complain loudly if they do not perform the professional oversight that tradition, self-interest, and community interest demands. Benjamin's antics and misuse of his column threaten the credibility of a free press and that is something all citizens have a legitimate interest in preventing.

Who exercises editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?

That is the real question. I suggest we all begin to ask it. Repeatedly.

Who exercises editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Working WiFi in a little town in Pennsylvania

I posted on Kutztown earlier in "It's working in a little town in Pennsylvania" touting the ways in which Kutztown utility's fiber-optic competition had driven down the prices private providers charged for broadband access by almost 50%, how its electrical utility had kept property taxes from rising for 70 years, saved the residents of the small town have saved $400,000 dollars in telecom (over) charges over the last 3 years. That's real wealth for a picturesque small town in the Amish region of Pennsylvania.

Well, its still working and Kutztown is again showing the way: it is leveraging its fiber optic network to provide its town with what will be the first, and probably the only publicly-owned Wi-Fi net in Pennsylvania. The local paper tells the story well:
The borough of Kutztown is planning to install a wireless computer network that could be the first and only municipal Wi-Fi system in Pennsylvania.

While Kutztown is announcing its Wi-Fi project much later than Philadelphia and Bethlehem, it will probably complete its system first, and it will be the only system of the three that is completely run by a municipality.
Success breeds success. A successful, ubiquitous fiber-optic network makes the addition of a wireless cloud much, much easier--and cheaper--than it would be without that infrastructure. It also means that the wireless cloud Kutztown builds need not be crippled by sharing cheap, low bandwidth between many users -- a unacknowledged problem for most municipal systems. Kurtztown will be in a position to take full advantage of the rated speeds of WiFi equipment; something you cannot do if each node is supplied with a small fraction of the bandwidth it could carry. (supplying a 54 meg wifi node with 1.5 megs of backhaul connection does not--as some folks seem to assume--transform 1.5 megs into 54.)

Kutztown, like Lafayette has a history of going its own way. I understand the folks over at the Advocate sometimes, affectionately, refer to Lafayette's go its own way tendencies as being another example of "Crazy Lafayette." I imagine that Kutztown's neighbors have a similar description for their tendencies as well.
Kutztown has a history of being at the forefront.

It is the only town in Pennsylvania that is covered in its entirety by a fiber-optic network that provides high-speed Internet access, phone service and television.

The borough of 5,000 residents is also one of a few towns to run its own electrical utility. And Kutztown was one of the first communities in Pennsylvania to install sewers to private homes in 1940.

''They are an amazing little borough, I have learned now that I've worked with them for a couple of years,'' said Dennis Dunn, owner of Sacony Commons, a student apartment building that will be one of Kutztown's first Wi-Fi customers. ''People think it's an old Pennsylvania Dutch town, and it is, but they are also pretty high-tech.''
But Kutztown in über conservative* Amish country is running up against restrictions passed at phone giant Verizion's request: it has to build a system before a deadline which would effectively restrict other municipalities from every following its attractive lead.
Kutztown is eager to get its municipal Wi-Fi system up and running before the end of the year because legislation will impose restrictions on municipal telecommunications systems beginning Jan. 1. Under pressure from telephone and cable providers, Pennsylvania passed a law last year that prohibits municipalities from selling telecommunications services. The law stipulates cities that are setting up networks before the moratorium must have one paying customer before the end of this year.
Kutztown is pretty clear about why they are doing it:
''We want our residents to [be] a notch ahead of everybody,'' Dunn said. ''It is another amenity for our property, and frankly, we think it's the future.''
Doesn't that sound familiar? It is working in a little town in Pennsylvania.


*[On the issue of "conservative" communities being in the forefront of fiber optic builds that defy the telecom giants: notice that Kutztown and Provo are also in areas that are know not so much for their conservatism but for their religiously-based communities. The Amish and the Mormons are used to being different and are used to relying on their communities to get by. They don't like relying on corporations whose motives may differ radically from those of the community. While Lafayette's conservatism appears to be more conventional it is surely true that the creole and cajun communities that comprise the core of Lafayette's identity are similarly used to going their own way and to preferring to provide for themselves rather than rely on outsiders with dubious motives. I wonder if community-based conservativism, rather than the radically individual selfishness touted by much of what passes for conservativism these days isn't actually a pretty fertile ground for community-based self-help.]

Utility News: Lowered Electricity Prices and Wholesale Fiber Profitability

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate carry stories on last night's Lafayette utility system budget meeting. The headline news for both papers were lower cost to the consumer. (Advocate: LUS utility bills to go down; Advertiser: Electricity rates to decrease.)

According to both papers a typical customer will realize a savings of about 3.1 per cent; about $3.77 a month due to fuel efficiencies at new plants coming online in the parish--apparently a classic case of spending money wisely in order to realize efficiencies that save everyone money in the long run. The Advocate also mentions a new and favorable agreement with the electrical cooperative CLECO that will contribute to the savings. It's probably worth mentioning explicitly that LUS passes on such savings routinely and automatically to its citizen/customers; the fact that LUS is publicly owned means that its owners are its customers, means that it makes sense to keep "profit" margins paper thin and turn the increased efficiencies that a private company would be justified in pulling out in profit back to its customers in the form of reduced rates. That's the way publicly-owned utilities operate. The Advocate documents the result:
With the decrease in bills, LUS customers will pay less per month for water, sewer service and electricity than most people in Louisiana except those in Morgan City, Lake Charles and Carencro.

Customers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and New Iberia pay an average of almost $30 more a month for the same services, Huval said.
That's a lot of money that stays in local folks hands.

There's also, as you might expect, some fiber news.

LUS' wholesale business turned a significant corner according to the Advocate's Blanchard:

The business began making positive net income, which includes depreciation and in lieu of tax payments, early in the 2004-05 fiscal year, Huval said.

That's one year before the four year break-even point projected when LUS began the new business in May 2002, Huval said.

That's good news though how exactly the existing wholesale business will integrate into the new fiber buildout remains murky. (The issue of how well the wholesale business was doing was an issue during the early months of the recent battle before the referendum election. But it the opposition quit bringing it up when it became increasingly apparent that it was in doing fine.)

Both papers note that no money is included in this budget for the fiber to the home project--this had been announced prior to the meeting. The project has not yet been funded --the referendum only approved selling the bonds--and putting it into the budget sensibly awaits having actual money to budget. The community awaits regulations by the PSC which could have a substantial impact on how such a budget is constructed. A bond ordinance will be formally introduced at the August 23rd meeting in anticipation of the PSC's expected ruling on September 1st. It could be finalized after that and a budget amendment offered.

Council helps shape legislation in Georgia (& Louisiana)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with a long history of actually fostering thoughtful journalism, has apparently sent a reporter to Grapevine, Texas to report on a body as obscure, and important, as ALEC (The American Legislative Council). They, as the title "Council helps shape legislation in Georgia" might indicate, are apparently motivated by the increasing influence of the organization in the Georgia legislature; particularly around a growing concern that the organization's signature practice of drawing up prepackaged bills for submission by any member in any state doesn't necessarily make for legislation that is good for Georgia.

The local angle is of course that ALEC is the very same organization that wrote the original "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" that was intended to prevent LUS from ever even thinking about building a municipal telecom utility. No doubt these guys are worth getting to know a little better. I am confident that they and their agents in our legislature will be around with new little bills to restrict local rights come the next legislative session. This article, ironically out of Atlanta, should give us a little insight into how they play the game.

Legislator join ALEC and as members they can get into the secret areas of the site where you can download a bill to call your own. (You and I, unfortunately, can't get it to take a sneak preview of next year's bills.) ALEC legislative members download bills from the ALEC server and then submit them as ones they "author." That these bills uniformly represent corporate interests should come as little surprise:
The organization, with a staff of 30 and a $5.5 million yearly budget, teams lawmakers up with corporate interests to push decidedly pro-business bills through state legislatures...

ALEC, founded in 1973, claims a national membership of more than 2,400 state legislators in both political parties, as well as more than 300 private-sector members including BellSouth, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Motors and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The real work of ALEC takes place in private task force committee meetings, which are co-chaired by a legislator and an industry representative. A Texas state legislator and a Wal-Mart executive, for example, head the ALEC criminal justice task force.

Not everyone thinks that this method of drafting legislation is a good idea:

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said he is troubled when lawmakers introduce "cookie-cutter" bills crafted by outside groups.
"Certainly you want to be open to ideas from wherever they come from, but I'm not one to carry the agenda of an external, non-legislative group," Brown said. "I don't have a problem with the business community advancing their ideas, but I do have a problem with them essentially controlling the agenda."
He's not worried about nothing:

In 2004, Georgia lawmakers introduced 43 ALEC model bills and passed seven. Nationwide, legislators introduced 1,108 ALEC bills and enacted 178, according to the group. Totals for 2005 aren't available yet, but the list includes a law that makes it harder to bring a claim regarding asbestos or silica. Ehrhart said that initiative in Georgia was "purely an ALEC bill — every word."
Louisiana and particularly Lafayette have cause to be worried as well. ALEC in recent years has put forward legislation that favors not so much conservative causes as corporate ones. The overwhelming majority of their money comes from corporate sponship--"dues" of the members of state legislators are nominal and account for less than 1% of the money needed to support their Washington office and staff of law-writers. The rest comes, apparently, from corporate coffers. I say apparently because no one is any longer sure how they are funded. Like the Heartland Institute they no longer release the names of contributors. A wave of criticism in the mid-nineties of the practice of selling membership on the committees that oversee and set policy for the various areas (like Telecommunications, which at the time cost twice what any other policy area cost) lead to their removing their list of contributers from their website. (Both BellSouth and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have a history of giving. Cox is a member...see below.) What is not a secret is that legislation is written by a staff paid with corporate funds and that and policy guidance give by legislators is always balanced by the corporation--a one to one ratio is enforced. BellSouth and the telecommunications industry can simply make sure that nothing that is not in their best interests is ever seriously considered. --ALEC is organized in such a way that it can be nothing but a creature of corportate interests.

What should not surprise us is that ALEC's chair for Louisiana is the same Senator Noble Ellington that gutted out a rural broadband bill he had sponsored to make it possible for the ALEC bill to get into the legislative process after the date for submitting "new" bills had closed. Ellington "wrote" the so-called Local Goverment Fair Competition Act. Of course, he didn't write it, ALEC did, but he submitted it as his own. What I did not realize, until I dug through the website down to ALEC's Louisiana page was that Noble Ellington is the state chair of ALEC's public side. From the site:
ALEC Public Sector State Chair
Sen. Noble Ellington
State Capitol
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
Leg. Ph: (504)342-7259
But further rooting around made for even more interesting reading: the ignoble Ellington is listed on ALEC's telecom policy page as having gone to Seattle, Washington to discuss the ALEC's bill he sponsored to block Lafayette's project on July 30th 2004—with a representative from Cox Communications.
Louisiana Senator Noble Ellington, ALEC State Chair, and John Spalding, Cox Communications discussed Municipal Competition, LA SB 877.
It appears that not only is Ellington willing to front a law for corporate interests against the interests of Louisiana citizens; he is also willing to scurry off to the west coast to present with a represtative of one the corporations that benefited most weeks after the law has become law. Call me unsympathetic, call me naive, but that doesn't seem like the way a legislator who is elected by citizens rather than corporations ought to be behaving.

Ellington bears watching. And it's not only Lafayette's interests that are at risk: Ellington is also the Senate's representative on the Louisiana Broadband Council (as Mike reported in an earlier post) that is supposed to encourage rural broadband access. Will he be just as cozy with the teleco incumbents when his own rural constituents are at risk? It's a question worth asking.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

What Lafayette Understands: Broadband Is Too Important to Be Left to Cable-Phone Duopoly

Washington Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro hits on a realization that 62 percent of voters in Lafayette last month demonstrated that they get, too. That is this: broadband is too important to be left to the cable-phone duopoly.

In his column, Pegoraro does a good job of explaining the history of network sharing — although, I think he overstates the historic willingness of telephone companies to share access to their networks with competitors.

The fact that he lives in Verizon's base of operations may have something to do with it. He notes that, despite the recent FCC ruling which gives phone companies the right (like cable companies) to keep competitors off their networks, Verizon is actively engaged in negotiations with Earthlink and Speakeasy to enable them to access the RBOC's new fiber to the home networks.

Don't expect such largesse from BellSouth. As businesses in Lafayette will tell you, BellSouth (more often than not) could always find some 'technical' excuse for its inability to enable competitive DSL service providers to access the BS network in Lafayette. Based on the performance of BellSouth's operation of its own network since successfully driving competitors off it, it appears quite reasonable to assume that BellSouth's network problems were not the result of a conspiracy to deprive competitors of network access (along with customers and revenue), but a fundamental lack of suitable infrastructure and technical expertise to consistently deliver services.

The thing to remember about the old network sharing rules is that it was the competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) that drove innovation on those networks. The RBOCs have never been innovators. Neither have cable companies. The unintended (?) consequence of the FCC's decisions to kill network sharing will be a decline in network innovation at precisely the time when innovation is most needed.

Like I said, on July 16, Lafayette demonstrated that we get Pegoraro's argument.