Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Repeal!! Limited and Partial

The third bill in Representative Robideaux's trilogy of anti-Local Government Fair Competition Act bills is house bill 257. The short description says: "Provides for exceptions to applicability of the Local Government Fair Competition Act."

That it does. It puts 2, maybe 3 exceptions out there.

It carves out a complete exception for wireless. It carves out a complete exception for Lafayette. And it appears to carve out a complete exception for emergencies and disasters for 5 years after such an event-though the utility of that is murky.

Overall that's a limited and partial repeal.

I know that in most states this bill or at least its practical effects would be considered a huge win. If this is what we end up with in Louisiana the national significance will be considerable--it would overturn a significant portion of an anti-muni bill and would signal that the Bells could be stopped in state legislatures. That would be a nice follow up to Lafayette's referendum win which modeled an effective way to beat the telcos locally.

The Wireless Exemption:
The wireless exemption will be the most ballyhooed portion if this bill becomes law. This law would free all communities to build and use wireless networks any way they want. That's something substantial to cheer about. It's worth remembering, however, that this law will only restore part of the rights every municipality enjoyed before BellSouth had this (un)Fair Competition Act passed in 2004.

That wireless exemption will give New Orleans the right to keep its free muni network going and to expand it with no fear of losing its investment during this extremely tight fiscal era. That is wonderful. The people of the city shouldn't be prevented from using their own infrastructure to help bootstrap the recovery.

The wireless exemption will also return to all Louisiana communities a measure of self-determination. The spectacle of the state restricting communities rights to take care of their own at the "request" of some out of state monopolies was a sobering lesson in modern politics.

The Downside: Exempting only wireless and leaving barriers in place for wireline and fiber distorts the choices communities make. Fiber To The Home is the ultimate networking architecture. If a city can garner the political will to take the plunge beginning with fiber will make building a really capable wireless cloud much cheaper. (The opposite is not true.) I hate to see communities forced to settle for "good enough" while corporations are allowed to make it inordinately difficult for communities to offer real competition in the last mile over the most capable technology. In addition to the advantage of larger capacity, buried fiber is the most disaster-resistant way to build a network.

The Lafayette Exemption:
Lafayette gets grandfathered out of the revised law entirely. One provision of the proposed law exempt cities that had a referendum before August the 15th 2005. The only city that would qualify is Lafayette. This provision amounts to a repeal of the "Municipal Fair Competition Act" for Lafayette only. This would obviously be good for Lafayette which would regain its sovereignty in telecommunications.

The Downside: Only Lafayette is exempted from the onerous provision of the fair competition law. New Ibera, Alexandria, Houma, Lake Charles...every other city will be limited to wireless. That's plain wrong. The citizens of Breaux Bridge are no less deserving of a local alternative to the incumbents than are the citizens of Lafayette.

The Emergency or Disaster Exemption:
Any local government can do anything it wants for five years after an emergency or a disaster. I'm not at all sure what practical consequence this would have. Wireless is already legal and the expenses of a fiber network would be impossible to justify if you could only count on having five years of usable life. Maybe its a fall back to protect New Orleans for a time if the wireless exemption fails or maybe there is some more subtle, uniquely Louisiana shenanigans afoot....I suppose the mayor could just put it on his calendar to declare an emergency every 4 and half years or so.

There's something satisfyingly creative about a legislative strategy based on a trilogy of laws that pack a nice sequential punch. You've got to wonder who came up with a strategy that so nicely combines a little bit of cajun wry canille with a brutal willingness to drive straight to the heart of the matter. Very Louisiana. It's the sort of thing that makes natives laugh and makes others uneasy and confused.

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