Monday, March 13, 2006

Fiber to the Camp In Cameron; Localism in Action

Fiber to the Home? Hell, in Louisiana you can get Fiber to the Camp in rural Cameron parish. (Press Release) And in a small town like Kaplan, and in Ascension parish. You can get fiber where local business owners make rational decisions about the future of their small telecommunications companies--companies whose future growth is intimately tied to the health of local communities.

You hear, if you follow telecommunications and technology buzz (or the last year's conversation in Lafayette), that FTTH is the hottest thing going. You'll know that acquiring it is the ultimate goal of any advanced network. Fiber is all but infinitely expandable and arguably "future proof." It's the backbone on which all other hot technologies are based. All that's true.

But certain corporations pretend fiber to the home is some sort of difficult and exotic thing suitable for delivery only by unimaginably huge corporations who possess legions of white-smocked technicians. We hear that the horrific cost of fiber means that only the densest and wealthiest populations can be served economically and that the rest of the country will just have to wait.

Tiny Cameron Communications in storm-ravaged Cameron parish must not have gotten the memo from the big guys.

In Cameron Parish you can get fiber to the camp. Local technicians install and maintain it. They have since rollout began in 2004. Cameron parish is not wealthy. It is not densely settled--the whole very large parish didn't quite make 10,000 people in the last census. Cameron parish is mostly salt marsh. Cameron Parish has no incorporated towns, period. The biggest landowner is the federal wildlife preserve. Big places are Hackberry and Cameron, the county seat. Grand Lake, where the fiber is being laid, is pretty much a a fishing camp where folks who work for a living can afford to have a little cabin near the water. A couple of new two-story houses on the other side of the marina is the area's big "development."

The business about expense and population density and technical difficulty is nonsense and has always been nonsense. Laying down fiber is exacting...but only exacting. The technologies are well-understood. It calls for engineers and well-trained technicians, not magicians. And contrary to all the deceptive hoo-rah we hear bandied about it's not noticeably more expensive to deploy these days than a brand new copper plant. It is now well accepted that fiber is both cheaper to maintain and and lays down a much less expensive path to almost unlimited bandwidth upgrades without rebuilding the whole plant.

All that Kaplan Telephone, EATel (East Ascension Telephone) and Cameron Communications are doing is making rational business decisions. So are giant corporations like ATT and BellSouth. The difference between the decisions made made locally and those made nationally lies solely in the values of the companies. Little local telcoms are in it for the long haul; they intend to remain right where they are and serve their local communities. The only possibility for expansion is to serve that community better by offering more services. They buy into fiber whenever they can see clearly that the capacity will be needed and when they believe they can pay off the cost of provisioning with increased revenues from new services.

By contrast, the big corporations are not "limited" by any intent to stay in the same business or serve the same customers. Their universe is bounded only by profit maximization and stock price maximization. If they see a different business to get into that they think will be more profitable than serving their old phone customers they will spend their money there. Take cellular phones. At one time we thought that cellular phones would compete with the Bell companies. That was the plan. But, instead, the Bells were allowed to purchase their putative competition after independents proved the market. The cost was huge. And broken promises to build advanced fiber networks in exchange for deregulation were one of the costs the public paid for this consolidation. Similarly, rather than compete with each other, as was anticipated by the breakup and deregulation of Ma Bell the baby Bells simply bought each other out. Again, at great cost, and again planned fiber builds were what was often cut in order to fund the cost.

Fiber to the home makes good economic sense even in rural communities with shrinking economies. The investment cost can be made to pay back handsomely; but just not in the time frame that the Bells need to make the financials look good.

It's not difficult technology. It's not too expensive to build or maintain. All that is lacking for all Americans to have Fiber To The Home with all the attendant benefits is a local company that really cares about their customers and the community they serve.

It really is that simple.

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