Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Vidalia can learn [Fiber-Optic] lessons from Lafayette"

Vidalia, according to the Natchez Democrat, is considering building a fiber optic network similar to Lafayette's and is hoping to learn from Lafayette's experience. The recent story, and an earlier one, outline the basic suggestion. Vidalia, across the Mississippi from Natchez, is considering a suggestion put before its council by what is apparently a Natchez firm.

Vidalia, at 4,543 souls in the 2000 census, is a lot smaller than Lafayette. But by the same token it may be in line for support from federal and state programs designed to help small and rural communities bring their telecommunications networks into the 21st century and enhance the areas' hopes for modern development. Also in Vidalia's favor is the fact that they own their own electrical utility company--and, in fact share membership with Lafayette in the public Louisiana Energy and Power Authority, headquartered in Lafayette. Not owning their own poles and having their own line maintenance and technical crews already available would have likely put the project out of reach. The economics of smaller size pushes developers to offer as many services as they can over the same pipe, in order to realize the greatest revenue from the expensive investment. Lafayette's model of developing the full array of services might well prove attractive.

The downside of offering the full smorgasbord of cable, internet, phone and perhaps wireless on top of a fiber network is the "central office" costs. Each of those services requires a substantial investment and a fair amount of uncommon expertise. That might be one place where LUS could help. Conceivably at least the "headend" equipment could be located in Lafayette--commercial enterprises often centralize such equipment far from some of their eventual customers and serve services out over fiber, the phone companies have always done this, cable companies do their own version, and Verizon has been following suit with its "super headends." In the past there have been hints that LUS might do some of this for New Orleans. by partnering up with LUS towns like Vidalia (and, for that matter cities like Alexandria) could minimize the expense of acquiring and maintaining expensive central office equipment and technical staff. LUS as the backhaul hub of a Louisiana public network could be a huge accelerator for regional growth and could be a key factor in making next generation technologies available to smaller towns in economically underdeveloped regions like Concordia parish where Vidalia is a major hub.

Louisiana in fact has a "Louisiana Broadband Advisory Council" that Governor Blanco promoted for the express purpose of encouraging rural broadband development. Vidalia's Senator, Noble Ellington, has a seat on that council. So the Vidalia project would seem like an obvious candidate for their support. Trouble is that to make that happen Ellington will have to decide between his loyalty to his constituents and his solidly documented loyalty to BellSouth (the latest)--and the Council would have to decide that promoting rural broadband is what it wants to do. Mike has commented on the dubious composition of this body that makes it unlikely to take much action that would disturb the incumbent providers.

In fact there's substantial irony in this whole situation. Noble Ellington was the author of the Senate bill that was to have created the Council. Unfortunately, the bill never became law. (A bill started in the house eventually completed the task.) The reason? Ellington decided to hollow out the bill to make room for a BellSouth bill whose intent was to shut down Lafayette's fiber to the home (FTTH) project before it ever got started.

LUS and the city government had waited until after the last date to file new bills in legislature before they announced their intent to research the possibility of FTTH in Lafayette. They feared that BellSouth and Cox would immediately run to the legislature to get the state to block Lafayette from even thinking about so scandalous an idea. They were right. Running to the legislature was the first thing the incumbents did.

What Lafayette didn't anticipate was that someone (Ellington) would be willing to yank a pro-broadband bill and hand over the docket number in the appropriate committee to BellSouth to fill with a bill of their own devising. Yet that is exactly what happened. After much wrangling the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act was passed that made municipal utilities difficult to start and unnecessarily expensive to run. But it did not make it completely impossible to go forward. Lafayette persisted and eventually voted 62 to 38 percent to authorize the construction of such a system. Several BellSouth lawsuits that have delayed the construction of the system are based in this law. It's the same law that limits New Orleans municipal WiFi system that BellSouth so strenuously opposed to public use only in emergency situations. Ellngton's "Local Government Fair Competition Act" has turned out to be lousy law; and now a town Ellington's own rural district will have to look at his law with an eye toward how it will block possibilities for their community.

So Representative Ellington is on the horns of dilemma. BellSouth or Vidalia? Is there any possibility that Ellington will join his co-sponsor (Michot) on the original legislation and endorse repeal? I wish I thought this a real possibility. Having the author and the co-sponsor of the original bill sign onto repeal would send a powerful message to their colleagues in the legislature.

You could ask him, I guess.

Ellington is term-limited and and his membership on the broadband council argues that he cares about getting advanced communications networks to rural areas. It's hard to see what is stopping him from doing the right thing. If you know anyone up Vidalia way in Ellington's district you might ask them to drop him a line as well.

No comments: