Sunday, April 30, 2006

"A Broadband Utopia"

Now surely most Lafayette folks will be going down to festival this afternoon, leaving little time for reflection. But the IEEE Spectrum has a very interesting story on the UTOPIA project in Utah that will repay a little quiet time--the Utopia project presents interesting similarities and contrasts to Lafayette's fiber-optic plans.

The IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) is a the premier organization of engineering and computer specialists. The IEEE is best known to the public for its standards-settings functions; WiFi is defined, for instance, more formally as IEEE standards 802.11x. So the regional fiber-optic broadband network in Utah is naturally of interest to its membership. Additionally, as we've reported, the IEEE has endorsed really big broadband made available to all and recognizes the it's unlikely that the incumbents will provide what's neaded. The whitepaper endorses public and particularly municipal alternatives. They do so with an engineer's notably no-nonsense matter-of-factness that is particuarly refreshing.

So it's no surprise that this body would be interested in the Utopia porject. The tale is longish but richly enough told that readers with different interests can find parts that are particularly useful. I, for instance, was impressed by the story of how the intial dissatifaction in Provo helped touch off a large-scale regional coalition and the technical details of the network's design.

But there's something for everyone: legislative and regional politics, a vision of what big broadband apps might look like, incumbent perfidy, economic models, and the potential for the regional network to expand outside the state. In particular, there's a contrast with Verizon's Fios and the Utopia network which details the practical outcomes of building different kinds of fiber-optic networks. (Surprised to hear that not all fiber-optic networks are created equal? Read this story.)

Worth looking at; a smart story that covers the bases.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Wireless in Lafayette

Don't miss the Advocate article on wireless technologies that keyed off TechSouth events. The upfront part of the story reviews the positions of major players Earthlink and Tropos and their positions are predictable from their positions in the market--but interesting nonetheless.

However the bits of most interest to locals isn't to be found unless you persist beyond the opening paragraphs. Toward the end of the story the issue of Lafayette's wireless network appears:

Durel has said before that the LUS project — while bringing high-speed connections to homes and business over fiber-optic cable — could also include a widespread wireless component.

While no decision has been made, especially given the hurdles of lawsuits LUS has faced in the last year, wireless remains an option, Durel said.

Lafayette officials have spoken with vendors who deal in wireless technology, but are still looking at all possibilities — whether it’s all provided by the public, all private or a partnership, Durel said.

Wireless is great for enabling mobility and convenience, Durel said.

LUS’ fiber-network would also allow for future developments of applications in phone, cable and high-speed Internet that need a great deal of bandwidth, Durel said.

Lafayette officials are in lock-down mode on the wireless issue and have been long before the recent deals were cut with BellSouth and Cox. They understandably don't want to seem to court more trouble wih the incumbents until any issues with the bonds for the current project are settled. But, frankly, the incumbents already understand Lafayette's ambitions and staying mum about the more exciting possibilities in public won't lessen their anxieties. It does, however, dull public support--and for my money we should be talking about the exciting possibilities that come from the intersection of big broadband, wireless, and local control. A lot of supporters think that there's nothing much new on the horizon and that its all a matter of waiting for the fiber to come and getting over or around roadblocks. But there's a lot more to talk about and plan for than that.

Some lagniappe: Vonage Offers VoIP Mobile-Phone Calls in the UK and Voice over Wi-Fi: cheap, reliable calling uloved by mobile operators

Friday, April 28, 2006

They Get It In Tennessee

Congratulations to people and legislature of Tennessee. The Chattanoogan reports an outbreak of rational behavior in a state legislature.
The Tennessee General Assembly has approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Dickson) that will expand access to broadband internet service...

SB 3427 will allow municipal utilities to provide cable and other related services. The effect of the bill is that access to broadband will be expanded as municipal utilities offer additional services to their communities, it was stated.
Some folks do see through the BS. What's wrong with the Louisiana Legislature?

Festival International de Louisiane.

The site logs tell me we get a fair number of visitors from around the country and even across the water. Those folks put up with the decidedly local flavor, jokes, and occasional sardonic and obscure-to-outsider references because, I suspect, they feel some affinity for the struggle here.

So welcome friends from beyond our borders. You've shared the less-than-fun stuff and hard times. Interesting, maybe; and exciting at times, but it seems only fair to share the good stuff that makes the fight worthwhile. Festival International is one of those things.

I've described Festival before on these pages and the description remains apt:
The festival is the United States' premiere francophone festival. [History] Music from all over the world with an emphasis on French-speaking lands; a big juried craft fair, un place des infants, mixed drinks, great food stands (really), and dancing..lots of dancing...almost anywhere.

It's a wonderful experience spread out over downtown's three stages with activity also running along the turn of the century main downtown drag, Jefferson Street. The festival stages are new, with a clean design, spacious enough for a real crowd but not so large that anyone ends up out of sight or out of earshot. This is what they were designed for and the spaces work. The artwork and the crafts look out from your usual American fare and toward the Caribbean and Africa. There's an energy and...well..joie de vivre. If you ever get the chance you should come. Folks get happily addicted.
It's impossible to capture the full flavor of Festival, but here's a for-instance: I went down to the Fais Do Do Stage on Jefferson with Layne opening night and heard Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band. Great music. The audience filled up the space in front of the stage and spilled out into the street. We watched from a strategic place in the street that was within striking distance of the mixed drinks booth and the Joe's Dreyfus Store Restaurant booth. (Recommended: Festival Punch and the deep fried roast beef po-boys (really--some tasty!)) We watched sweet old couples dancing slow and young man who we recognized as one of the (in)famous dancing waiters at Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridge pulling women from the crowd for some Zydeco dancing. Friends drifted by and we talked about business and the latest in the fiber fight between high energy songs. Tobey, who came down for the referendum, was in town for TechSouth and we got to watch a northeasterner trying to take in the multi-racial, multicultural, laughing, dancing melange and high-voltage rubboard and accordion music. He seemed a bit dazed. But maybe that was Festival Punch. As the evening wore on the family group right behind us started dancing among themselves and one guy started dancing with everyone nearby...In my family Layne, Robin, and Erin all got a turn. His regular dancing partner took pity and showed us some steps--and the women how to properly use their hips. Everyone took pictures but me. I always forget my camera.

If you'd like to participate from a distance, thanks to the wonders of the modern internet you can. Take a listen at KRVS's live stream. When the music's on KRVS's stream will be there. Saturday is the big day. Kick back and participate vicariously. But there is nothing like coming to visit. If you're not local make a plan to come on down. (Someday we'll have streaming video out of AOC for you but even then it'll only be a taste.)

Thanks all...

100 megs

I went by the LUS booth at TechSouth yesterday and had my attention gently directed to a video display that showed LUS fiber providing 100 megs of service in contrast the speeds of various competing technologies. That brought a real smile to my face.

It was also fun to look at the new map of all the fiber buildouts that go beyond the initial wholesale ring. Little black legs reaching into all areas of the city. Lots of the newer legs are for the local school system. I'm told that LUS is gearing up to start stringing fiber for the parish schools now. Apparently Entergy is being difficult about pole attachments but that seems to be being worked out. Slemco is aboard (It's probably no surprise: a locally-owned coop is being cooperative.)

"Lafayette deal leaves others on their own"

Kevin Blanchard in one of his too-rare analysis pieces discusses the deal-making between Lafayette and the telecommunications incumbents Cox and BellSouth.

As regular readers will recall, I typically think Blanchard's work accurate and incisive. I think so today as well--and not only because he draws from this blog to make a number of points.

Few people have the luxury of being, not only able, but required to keep up with the arcane goings-on around them that might not mean a lot now but have large implications for the future. Reporters are one of group that is required to watch closely but they are faced with what must be the frustrating constraint of only reporting the immediate "event" that seems newsworthy. What too-often falls between the cracks in reporting is the background understanding that reporters and editors have that helps them determine what makes an event (out of all the things happening that day) worthy of being "news." The public sees a disconnected series of stories that in themselves contain only a small fraction of what the reporters understand about what makes each story significant. If you read closely, talk to folks, and follow themes over time you can often figure out much of what makes the daily story significant. What's nice about analysis pieces like the one published in the Advocate today is that it lets you in on the bigger meaning that ties together all the smaller stories with a whole lot less work.

Travel on over to the story. The writer does a great job of laying out the bigger story that connects a series of his articles.

A little commentary on the commentary:

I'm quoted as thinking the deal a bad one. And I do, but actually think the issue pretty complex and the officials' decisions pretty defensible from the standpoint of Lafayette. It's a very understandable even "smart" decision for the place that Lafayette finds herself in. Lafayette is is in a tight spot and needs, for several good reasons, to get down to building the network. The entire legislative strategy had been designed to put BellSouth and Cox in a tight enough spot of their own to make them back off and failing that to set things up so as to bloody them enough to perhaps actually get repeal. With it understood that playing the game out to a draw was the looked-for solution and this particular "cease fire,"-- while getting Lafayette less than they hoped for (a lawsuit still threatens the bond issue) -- does get BellSouth and Cox off their legal backs.

My basic quarrel has been with the strategy of angling for compromise. For my money a better approach is always to go for what you actually need. And what Lafayette and there rest of the state actually needs is repeal. Compromise can come if it is necessary. One day that fight will still have to be fought. Now that we understand that the incumbents intend to twist a badly written the law to their advantage it's all too apparent that a law which serves only the corporations and leaves endless room for their mischief has to go if not this year, sometime soon. This year, with a massive merger that could be opposed, the corporate desire for hurricane relief, BellSouth's PR disasters in opposing New Orelean's WiFi, loosing the referendum in Lafayette, and ugly delaying lawsuits there were a unique set of tools with which to attack. Cox weighed in with a franchise bill, that though under-reported is thoroughly repugnant to local governments, and could have been made a potent issue. Fought hard from the beginning support could have been built on the basis that post-hurricane local governments ought not to have to contend with the state stepping in to protect bad-actor corporations. This was a particularly good year to establish that picture in legislators minds, win or lose. I'm sorry we missed the opportunity.

But, in all honesty, the real problem is a lot bigger than one of strategies and not something that Lafayette can fix on its own. Blanchard hints at the bigger problem when he says:
Of course two years ago, when the state law at issue was first proposed — while the Louisiana Municipal Association backed Lafayette’s efforts — it was individual legislators from the New Orleans area who took the lead in carrying water for private providers’ interests, saying they wanted to make sure New Orleans never tried to dabble in its own communications system.
He's absolutely right. I sat in that hearing and was appalled. What is really needed is a willingness of local governments to hang together an defend the interests of local communities. New Orleans' WiFi dilemma is partly of their own making. If communities, rural and urban, had backed Lafayette the original demonstrably lousy bill need never have passed. And if Lafayette's project were in place now and the bill there would be very substantial benefits that an LUS system could lend other communities. Lafayette deciding it needs to pursue its own interests now is just one piece of this larger picture. What's really wanted is a firm coalition among local communities to support each other's best interests. We clearly don't have such now and the citizens of Lafayette and New Orleans are merely the ones that are suffering for it at the moment.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

MSN Money - 5 lousy CEOs include AT&T and BS

So maybe I'm feeling grumpy but...for all those who believe that telecom is one of those areas in which "free enterprise" makes for effective, efficient corporations with enterprising leadership MSN Money notes that AT&T and BellSouth are two of the five worst CEOs with the best pay packages. The gory details:
As chairman and chief executive of AT&T and of SBC Communications before it merged with AT&T, Edward Whitacre earned $85 million during the past five years, or about $17 million a year on average. [list of perks and golden parachute items elided]...Shareholders have a five-year loss of 40% to show for Whitacre's efforts, as the stock has fallen to $23.50 from $39.30.

Rich pay packages for poor performance seem common in the telecom sector. BellSouth chairman and chief executive F. Duane Ackerman, for example, made about $46 million in the past five years. That works out to over $9 million a year. But shareholders lost 23% as stock fell to $27.40 from $35.60
I guess that you could say that these leaders are "enterprising," but not in the sense we usually mean the term.

The market's loss of confidence in BellSouth and Cox is in no small part due to its judgment that their fiber to the node/curb XDSL plan to enter the triple play market simply won't give them the tools they need to compete against the cable companies.

There's no reason to believe that merging these two bloated, misguided corporations will make the resulting behemoth any closer to competent.

Lafayette will be a lot better off with LUS giving these guys some competition.

WBS: Lafayette Sued, Again

Whats Being Said Dept.

Broadband Reports includes a short piece on BellSouth and Cox's latest lawsuit. As always what's really interesting about BBR is the comments.

If you want to know what tech types in other parts of the country think about this make the jump. Some teasers:
Why can't the government just wack everyone of Bell South's lawyers?

They're getting awfully annoying.
How does this happen....

...when a single corporation, driven by green, can sue a town, of voters/elected members who democratically VOTED on a plan to improve their city.

If corporations can successfully squash government/citizen voted actions out in the open through the court systems, we are in trouble.

Clearly the town wants next gen. type fibre, BellSouth should get on the wagon and offer up some type of agreement to help or anything, instead of doing nothing but trying to suck the town dry. God forbid they have significant competition.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

TechSouth Opens Today!

A quick reminder: TechSouth opens today at the Cajundome. If you are technically oriented you'll want to attend.

Like the festival that it overlaps we tend to take it for granted. It's a first-class event that makes available speakers and information usually available only at conferences held in much larger cities. Wireless, virtualization, big broadband, hurrican recovery, 3-d visualization, supercomputers, and business opportunities--its all there.

And its Free! Make use of the opportunity. And then hop over to Festival International de Louisiane.

Today's Advertiser story.

The Website.

Lafayette Cuts a Deal

Lafayette, BellSouth/ATT, and Cox have cut a deal to avert a bloody battle in the legislature and the courts. The surprise agreement includes Lafayette's promise to withdraw its bills to repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act which has been the basis for multiple lawsuits delaying the construction of the fiber optic based telecommunications utility voted in last summer. For its part, BellSouth and Cox (dba LCTA) agrees to withdraw the latest of those lawsuits. This ceasefire does not clear the way for the bond sales as a class action lawsuit filed by a Plaquimine firm, whose previous filing had been tied to the incumbents, has not withdrawn its lawsuit. That suit, like the ones withdrawn, seeks again to block the bond sales.

You can get the story from either the Advocate or the Advertiser. Both are pretty good stories though you'll find more crucial detail in the Advocate who was first out with the story.

For what it's worth (damned little) this deal seems like a lousy one for the people of Lafayette and Louisiana. What's most amazing is that we've apparently decided to trust the deal-making honesty of BellSouth and Cox Communications. By all accounts "understandings" cut at the negotiating table between Lafayette and the incumbents as the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act was being hammered out were never honored--in fact the bonding/cross subsidization issue was supposed to have been at the heart of that understanding. Similar games were played throughout the referendum campaign to the point where the city-parish swore not to trust anything they couldn't get in writing.

This retreat will leave the citizens of the state outside Lafayette to contend with a law designed to make municipal broadband of any stripe--wired or wireless--very difficult to start and regulated by the state to force the prices up and make running it unnecessarilty difficult. The law distorts technological choices that localities make to accomodate the profits of monopoly providers of telecom services. In many cases it will leave small, resource-poor communities to languish. The corporations will refuse to serve them and they will be forbidden to take care of their own by the state. Lafayette will have a moral obligation to pursue this issue once its own system is secured.

The current deal would be easier to see as a strategic retreat if Lafayette actually had cleared the way to sell its bonds. But it hasn't. The class action lawsuit by a firm associated with and aided in the past by the incumbents still stands.

At the end of the day Lafayette is still being sued to block its bonds and has given away its attempts to repeal the law that might have actually solved that problem for itself and the state in return for BellSouth and Cox not also suing. All in all its hard to see this as a good deal.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

AT&T-BellSouth Plans Too Slow

If you were hoping that the silver lining in the AT&T buy out of BellSouth was that it's enormous resources would be used to boost the deployment of faster broadband, think again.

Analysts have recently been dissing AT&T's plan to roll out a triple play product (video, phone, and internet) over its "Fiber to the Node" plan. The gist of the complaints are that it simply won't work and that the bandwidth the technology they have adopted is not up to the task, especially with HDTV catching hold. The latest are remarks by Wahlman, an analyst with ThinkEquity Partners, who remarks:
Wahlman added that while AT&T will launch IPTV service in a handful of cities, it will only pass “perhaps one-half as many homes as originally planned...”

“AT&T may blame this on any number of reasons, including slow upgrade cycle to VDSL2, Microsoft [Corp.'s] unstable software, lack of working HDTV and probably the pending BellSouth [Corp.] merger,” Wahlman wrote. “Either way, we believe the fundamental reason is that AT&T is likely realizing that 25 megabits isn't going to do the trick, but rather that it needs to plan for 100 megabits or more to the home today, with a path to Gigabit Ethernet to every home in the next five to 10 years at the most.”
Hey, we've been saying the same for years. Don't go looking for AT&T to bring you up to speed. (And apparently, given the latest lawsuit, don't believe that they won't try and keep you from doing it yourself.)

Big Bucks for Lafayette Tech Business

The Advertiser this morning carries the first of what should be a long series of good news stories spawned by Lafayette's tech cluster.
The National Science Foundation has put $600,000 behind diversifying the state's economy by helping companies utilize new technologies.

The University of Louisiana's Center for Business Information Technologies received the grant to create Louisiana Technology Incubator for Entrepreneurial Success to link businesses to Lafayette's emerging technological resources...

Interested businesses are encouraged to contact the center, because a limited number of in-house slots will be available. Clients will receive fee-based office space and in-house technical, research and administrative support.
Anybody local that's got an idea that would benefit from a lot of computing power, a lot of bandwidth and access to some of the most advanced visualization toys in world ought to start talking to Ramesh Kolluru at ULL.

BellSouth and Cox Sue Again

The Advocate reports that BellSouth and Cox have joined in a suit--and a law firm out of Houma has also filed its class action suit-- to stop Lafayette from issuing its fiber to the home bonds. Kevin Blanchard does his usual excellent job of breathing history and clear explanation into a murky and important moment. I recommend traveling to the Advocate and reading his article carefully...this is going to be important enough to take a few extra moments out of your morning to fully absorb.

There are two things to notice and reflect upon. First Cox has joined this suit. Don't be deceived by the LCTA moniker; the "association" would do nothing that Cox doesn't desire. This is a reformation of the united front between the incumbents. Also take a minute to reflect on the obvious purpose of what the incumbents are insisting on when you get down to the description of the lawsuit. They want to make it impossible to ever lose a penny during the course of LUS doing business. They want that to trigger a bankruptcy. This is what they want to say the law says. I don't think it does--and this is the point over which there was supposed to have been a gentleman's agreement as to what the law meant. BellSouth and Cox have repeatedly betrayed that agreement and much of the anger on the Lafayette side is due to that. Lafayette would never have agreed to a bill that made such an absurd requirement if that was really what they thought law would be interpreted to mean.

Go on, take a look the Advocate's story and come back and think about it with me. Go on. It's worth the read.

The lesson of this story and the history of the conflict should be clear: you cannot trust the incumbents. You can't "deal" with folks who don't deal honestly. We all know what to do with bullies. What you do is take away the tools they are using to hurt you and try to make it so painful to abuse you that they go away and leave you alone. Lafayette, and potential allies like New Orleans and the Louisiana Municipal Association have plenty of ways to at least attempt that. Repeal the tool that the incumbents have used to frustrate the voters of Lafayette and eliminate municipal competition everywhere in the state: the Local Government Fair Competition Act. Oppose Hurricane relief for BellSouth and Cox. BellSouth already has its hand out for rate relief. Oppose the merger of BellSouth and AT&T at the PSC. Back plans to protect New Orleans' wireless system from BellSouth's strong arm tactics. Insist that emergency telecommunications projects are not crippled by clauses that are only meant to protect the profits of incumbents who failed their communities after the storms. (Half of New Orleans is still without phone service.) Local governments should be allowed to defray the costs of their emergency systems in any way that they can. Including sharing them with the citizens that paid for them. Raise a vigorous hue and cry in opposition to truly scary state-wide franchise bills that BellSouth/AT&T are trying to sneak through the legislature. The Louisiana Municipal Association should be up on the barricades about a law that will constitute a huge expropriation of local property by the state, cut local communities out of control of franchise fees they rely on, place all those monies in the control of a appointed board of three at the state level who will dole what is now "state money" out to local communities. That same law will forbid local governments from requiring that AT&T serve all the people of a community in return for the use of community-owned rights of way. Rally those in the development community that believe that the only way to remain competitive in a big broadband, high tech world is to do for ourselves what the incumbents refuse to do for us.

In a word: Fight!

If there was ever a moment in Louisiana history that we could inflict a little pain on the bully that the giant phone company is, now is that moment. Big bullies can be forced to back off by a little guy who fights back hard--that's what happened during the fiber referendum in Lafayette. But if you back away they just find new ways to take advantage of you. Anyone who has survived in a middle-school schoolyard knows that. You really have no choice, in the end, but to fight. And in Louisiana now is the moment when that is most likely to be successful.

That's what ought to happen. We'll see....

The Phone Company Supports Muni Broadband...

...provided it gets the contract.

Apparently AT&T (who is in the midst of buying out our very own BellSouth) is ok with 'tax-supported" muni broadband as long as it is the cable company has to contend with "unfair competition."

TechDirt has the story of the phone company standing tall for its principles when offered a little green by the Chicago suburb of Bedford Park to provide free muni broadband to its residents.

Just in case anyone really thought that phone company was concerned about principle when they wax histrionic about the inherent unfairness of tax-supported broadband and the inherent value of free enterprise competition...that was when they weren't able to make money off the concept.

Remind you of another company's little bit of "free enterprise" hypocrisy? Me too.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Local Media: AOC Show on Net Neutrality

Update 6/5/06: The AOC segment discussed in this post is available for download. You can also paste this URL into your standalone video player.

Happily coinciding with the national launch of the Save The Internet Coalition I'll appear tonight at 9:00 on the AOC show "Meet the Democrats."

The topic for the day is "Net Neutrality" and in the second part of the show host Stephen Handwerk and I discuss legislation that threatens to turn the current open internet into a system in which those who pay special, new fees to companies like AT&T/BellSouth will be allowed to cut to the front of the line whenever there is network congestion. --That's the crux of the suggested system. Those who pay a fee cut to the front of the line. The rest of us will wait until they clear out of the way. (You can bet that if network congestion is allowed to become a profit center for the phone companies there will be of it. Lots more. Users are not going to like the new regime.)

If you'd like to do something about it or would welcome hearing more I suggest you watch the show. The discussion itself is interesting ands there are good references given. Getting in touch with your congress critters is a good idea...the corporations count on the public not being on top of give-aways like this one. Congress responds to real voter interest. But only you can make sure that they know this is one of the ones that counts.

Incidentally, this is NOT a partisan issue. (Mike and I made a well-received presentation on related state-level topics at the last Lafayette Republican Party Executive Committee meeting and that organization was a banner supporter of Lafayette during the fiber referendum...abuse by the incumbents is thoroughly bi-partisan issue.) Most of this legislation is now in the process of emerging from the House Commerce committee where Louisiana in not represented. Now is the moment to contact your federal representatives. Senator Vitter sits on the crucial Senate Commerce Committee and his vote on this issue appears up for grabs. Call or write Vitter to encourage him to support the open internet.

Lawsuit? On Today's Deadline UPDATE

UPDATE: 1:20 I've just received an email that says that the class action lawsuit that had died but was recently revived was filed this last Friday. (Thanks, Reader!) That's BellSouth working its game behind the scene. This lawsuit goes away and reappears on a schedule that suits BellSouth and only BellSouth and even though its name is not at the top of the page everyone understands that this has to be attributed to the phone company. My guess is that this means that artillery that has been wheeled into place will be used. The battle is about to be joined.

Supporters of Lafayette and big broadband in Louisiana should ready their mailing lists, sharpen their pencils and prepare to make the trek to Baton Rouge.

--------Original post--------

Today's the day...if AT&T/BellSouth or Cox is going to sue the Lafayette again over the latest bond ordinance today is the day it will have to happen.

The bond ordinance which enables the city-parish to sell bonds supporting the Fiber To The Home project has a 30 day challenge period beginning on the date the ordinance was passed and notice published in the paper. That period ends today. If the incumbents or their agents do not sue by close of day the bonds may be issued and sold on terms described in the ordinance. It's not just that we could finally begin--the day may be even more important than that: Bond holders are extravagantly protected by Louisiana law and the constitution. Once they become stakeholders involved a successful challenge to the bonding process or to anything which is the basis for repaying their money becomes much more difficult. This is a large part of why BellSouth/AT&T has been so eager stop the process before bonds can be sold.

In the past BellSouth has sometimes waited until the very last minute to file. So we're not out of the woods on this one until we check tomorrow morning and see what came in on the fax machine. But in any case today will be a red-letter day. It will mark either the day that the incumbents sued Lafayette yet again or the day the bonding ability for the project was secured.

The silence on promised lawsuits and on any of the major telecommunications bills languishing in the legislature has been deafening. BellSouth has not sued as it all but promised to do after the ordinance passed. The on-again-off-again class action lawsuit that "third parties" had promised was on-again but has apparently vanished again. Bills to repeal all or part of the Local Government Fair Competition Act sit quietly. Bills to legalize New Orleans' WiFi network languish. Emergency communications bills have not made it into committee hearings. Bills whose only purpose is to be there if BellSouth or Cox should need to mess with municipalities bonding authority or amend the (un)Fair act sit without further comment. There is big artillery arrayed on the battlefield but not a shot has been fired... I think, and have thought for awhile that this silence is all linked to Lafayette's bond issue. Horse trades are being made.

All we have to do in order to figure out what is going on is to wait. A lawsuit will trigger one avalanche; it will enrage Lafayette yet again and the push for repeal will be on. The abscense of a lawsuit means to me that BellSouth and Cox have cut a deal. Which bills advance in the legislature and which die will tell the story as to what those deals were.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday: The Dark Side of Democratic Media

Bruce Sterling, best known as brilliant science fiction writer, is also concerned student of modern media. I've mentioned the democratic potential of the intersection of cheap digital media (cell phones, movie quality consumer video cams), sophisticated editing on commoditized computers (page design, web design, iMovie...) and of big, cheap broadband media distribution to let much, much larger numbers of people tell their stories. That's still a good thing, or so I think--one of the most potent political events of the fiber referendum last year was the taping and subsequent digitization and wide dispersal of the push poll via email blasts and internet stories.

But Sterling points to a dark side he illustrates by examining a series of technology-enabled scandals in India:
Viewed in this light, India's woes are just the colorful Bollywood version of a global story. In a world where cheap distributed media is cached on the Net, there are no truly local problems.

Ready access to the means of digital communication is a force for democracy. It gives voice to ordinary citizens and disseminates vital information that those who command power and status would rather bury. More power to the heroic, censor-busting bloggers in China and Iran! But the ability to capture private images and conversations and deliver them worldwide also empowers dark cabals of wiretappers and blackmailers. These people are no friends of liberty and free expression: They aim to destroy public figures while remaining safely hidden in obscurity.
It's worth thinking about. Things that used to be easily hidden from public view are going to be made public. The only real solution is to become more tolerant of people's foibles. We've got a tradition of that down here. Both Long and Edwards' famed personal lives received a pass. Nobody down here thinks public figures are perfect. But in a lot of places this is going to be a bit of a shock. It'll be a little stomach-turning to watch it mature.

Seeing Sterling's name reminded me of a book he wrote back in 1999 that was partly set in Louisiana in the 2040s: Distraction. It's a sort of hallucinatory bio-cyberpunk piece and a really great example of the book and the man's work. (A longish review) But the Louisiana part is a lot of includes a Huey Long style character and some fairly realistic Cajun's ... for 2040s and is set in world where global warming is putting the Netherlands under water. It's an entirely different read in 2006 than it was in 2000....

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Save the Open Internet--Act Nationally, Act Locally

LafayetteProFiber is by design oriented toward local issues. The name is a good indication. But here's a national issue that pro-fiber partisans in Lafayette and broadband advocates everywhere can get behind: Saving the open internet. That cause has acquired the bland name "network neutrality" but the issue is real and is coming to a head in Congress. A new coalition is launching Monday called Save The Internet and it is bringing together a raft of supporters from the American Library Association to the Consumers Union to the Gun Owners of America to pretty impressive array from every corner of the map.

The immediate worry which prompted the coalition to form is a bill, acronymed "COPE", which is coming up for a vote in the US House Commerce Committee. A internet storm has been building since AT&T CEO Whitacre said that AT&T planned to begin surcharging content providers for premium, higher-speed internet services. Other phone company executives jumped in in support. This would require changing the day-to-day working of the internet works in a pretty radical way...a way that goes well beyond imposing a few new fees on Google.

The Global Issue: The Open Internet vs. Cutting in Line

The open internet is the internet we've all grown used to. You can go anywhere and do pretty much anything. Everyone has the same privileges...once you get on the big network. If I send someone an email it lines up with the email, search requests, uploaded research papers, and commercially purchased video downloads. Like the line at the grocery store, it doesn't matter who you are or what is in your wait your turn at the routers with everyone else.

The big telephone companies want to change that and they are having pretty good success with some of our Federal legislators. The corporations want to change the old model where everyone-waits-their-turn to allow networkers owners to move some users to the head of the line--if you pay them. If they have their way it will matter who you are and what's in your basket. If you are a corporation, like Google, or iTunes, or any other bandwidth-hungry business you can pay the phone companies and your business will move to the head of the line. The rest of the world waits. If you are a 'mere' user movies from a paying provider like iTunes might come down in a flash but those from non-paying NetFlix are slow and jerky. It will suddenly matter a lot who you are and whose product is in your basket.

The corporations say that this plan will speed up the network and allow its expansion as more bandwidth-hungry applications come on line. But that isn't the full story. Exerting the sort of control they imagine means looking into the packet stream, determining what the packets contain, who ''owns" it, and then whether or not to move it to the head of the line. Aside from privacy issues this uses resources and slows down the line. The process of "monetizing" the line-breaking privilege costs bandwidth. The same equipment could move more bits in the same amount of time without the process that speeds up the few.

There is an alternative: build a bigger, faster pipe. Build more capacity. This is the grocery store solution to the sort of congestion that results when the lines get too long: open new checkout stands until the wait is tolerable. That's been the solution solution to date. And that solution will also work for bigger, faster networks.

The idea of paid line breaking as the new model of network function is frustrating enough...but the dynamics of this new plan are even more worrisome. Right now internet providers compete on speed and price on the internet side of their networks. (Most also sell phone or cable.) The problem for them is to figure out the balance of speed and price that yields them the most return for what they have to invest. The only way to make more money off the internet is to sell more bandwidth to more people. And the only practical way to do that is to sell it more cheaply in order to entice new customers. Generally this is a good dynamic for the customer. (If we had some real, robust, competition the dynamic would be even better.) This results in increasing amounts of a product that gets ever cheaper. The process is called "commodification" -- and the network owners don't particularly like it--especially not when they see websites like iTunes or ebay using "their" bandwidth to make lots of money.

But the new plan to allow folks to 'cut in line' for a fee changes the dynamics that produce cheap, fast bandwidth. Suddenly the network owners have a financial interest in seeing some folks go slower...the folks they'd like to convert to using their "premium" line-cutting services. Now they need to decide what balance between fast and slow internet users yields them the best return on investment. The decision about when to upgrade service and build faster, cheaper, bigger, pipes is shifted away from the solution always being one where "more and faster" yields the biggest income to one where sometimes deciding NOT to upgrade a network leads to higher incomes by pushing bandwidth purchasers to join the more expensive 'cut to the head of the line' services. Consumers see higher prices and less available bandwidth than they would without such a plan that has these dynamics.

There are a big batch of other issues involved from the fact that we and companies like Google already pay for our bandwidth and the really bad effects that this will have on innovation and international competitiveness but those are mostly side-effects of the dynamics I describe above.

The Local Issue: What It Means Locally

So net neutrality is a real issue with effects that matter to people where they live even though only the Feds can really do anything about it one way or the other. Joining with others to oppose these changes on the national level is a very good idea and it's a good thing that someone is taking up the job of coalition-building on this issue. They deserve our support.

But there is another very local point to make. The only reason that AT&T-BellSouth, Verizon and the others can contemplate such a move is that they have so little competition in the last mile. Everyone's local last mile. Only a little less than 60% of the country has even two broadband providers. All that really has to happen for their 'new' internet to emerge is for the cable companies to agree to do the same and nobody will have a real choice on this issue. Frankly, the cable companies are already doing the same--they are currently pushing their VOIP ("internet telephone") offerings to the head of the line. Cable companies aren't yet charging outside corporations for it but the technical ability is clearly already in place. Competing VOIP services and their regular internet customers are already having to take what is left over. No, the cable companies are going to sit back and not utter a word during this cat fight--unless the real net neutrality rules appear to be about to go in. Then you can expect to see a sudden eruption of support from the cable companies.

Theres an old economic and political term for this kind of behavior; it's called collusion. Monopolist in different regions and duopolists in the same area collude to maximize their individual profit. It makes good economic sense but allowing it is terrible public policy. But the phone and cable companies are not invulnerable to competition. They are not monopolists in the backbone portions of the network--there is considerably more competition there. Their real power to force the "new internet queuing system" on customers and providers comes from their owing the line into your home. Only a few Americans have more than two competitors from which to choose. That's a real problem. Economists you need at least three competitors to begin to escape monopoly pricing. That's the magic number both former Chairmen Powell and Hunt both mentioned during their presentations at the Freedom To Connect conference recently. Lafayette will hopefully soon be one of the few places to have three real broadband alternatives: Cox, BellSouth, and LUS. What's even more unique is that the third alternative, LUS, will have bandwidth to burn with its fiber to the home network. It can solve the waiting-in-line problem simply by having so much capacity that even the hungriest applications don't slow down its network and cause people to wait in line.

The bottom line is fairly simple: The problem of net neutrality only arises because the interests of network owners and network customers are naturally opposed. Owners want to maximize profit. Customers want to minimize cost. Where competition exists these two can be reconciled. Where effective competition does not exist it must be created. No one knows yet whether fiber optic networks will turn out to be natural monopolies. If they are then the only way to insure that networks are run in the interests of customers is for the customers become the owners in the last mile through cooperative or municipal efforts. If enough places do so private providers will decide it is in their best interests to leave the internet alone. For this stategy to work municipal providers will have to be a credible threat and that means clearing the way for municipal competition.

The federal COPE bill in its present form does include a clause forbidding states to simply outlaw municipal networks. But it would not protect local bodies from laws like Louisiana's which does not directly outlaw municipal networks but do make them forbiddingly difficult to get into and unnecessarily expensive to run. Such laws must be outlawed at the federal level or repealed by the states. A stable solution to the net neutrality problem will have to be primised on significant penetration of big broadband--that is, Fiber To The Home.

Act Nationally, Act Locally

We should all work to defeat the national-level attempt to reorganize the network. The Save the Internet coalition's action page is a good place to start.

We should, as well, work to repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act in Louisiana. The availability of Lafayette's solution, FTTH, is the surest bulwark against monopoly or duopoly abuse not only in pricing but also in assuring the existence of an open network into the future.

If COPE or something very link its present form does goes through it will be all the more important for local places like Lafayette to be allowed to build high speed networks. They may well be the last places where the spirit of the original internet survives.

The day may come when folks visit Acadiana for the experience of a little French, some good music, hot food, and a taste of the unfettered network their grandparents go on about......

Friday, April 21, 2006

It's Working In Utopia; Unbundling in Utah

Competition is working in Utah where a regional consortium of cities calling itself "Utopia" is building out a Fiber To The Home infrastructure in member cities. (Services are provided by third-party participants.)

Comcast, the regional cable provider, has lowered its prices to area communities that have, or will soon acquire, the service according to a piece on DSL reports. Other cities in Utah are not being offered the deal.

The triple play is available for pennies under 90 dollars. That's a big savings for residents that want that level of service.

But the exciting news is that competition has killed the triple play bundle. Comcast is offering the services unbundled for 29.95 apiece--there's no discount for buying the bundle. That's the bigger marketing news. The whole point of bundling has been to capture the lucrative big-ticket buyer and lock them in. So "deals" were only offered to that class of customer. It appears that Comcast has been forced to start fighting for the customer who's not quite so profitable. And that is the really, really good news for the average joe in the Utopia cities.

Related stories out of Utah in the recent past have focused on deals similar to the recent Cox announcements in Lafayette and Baton Rouge which offered a good deal for a longish contract-based triple play in cities where Utopia's services were not yet actually being offered. Comcast's (and Cox's) hope was to lock customers up before the choice went live.

This breakthrough indicates that those customers that took Comcast up on their sweet deals might have been wise to wait a can now get a better deal without the contract and for only the parts of the triple play that the customers actually desire.

I certainly hope it works out that way here as well.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 Technology | The corporate toll on the Internet

Boing Boing provides a link to an excellent story, "The corporate toll on the Internet" which details the business plan that the Bell companies hope to impose on the internet. Our own "not so local" boys AT&T /BellSouth are leading proponents of the plan.

Boing Boing, with uncharacteristic bitterness says in its response to the article:
Maybe the answer is just more ISPs. More long-haul pipe (either physical or wireless), more rights-of-way cleared in cities, more of everything -- especially information about what a bunch of carrion-feeding, lying jackals AT&T are, and who else you can give your business to.
The article itself is easy to read; disturbingly so...that it clarifies matters so nicely may be part of what upset Cory Doctrow of Boing Boing. For instance, rather than simply repeating the lame claims of the incumbents that they would never do anything to upset their customers because the competition is so fierce, the author does what a normal person might do--look around and ask "What competition?" The answer, of course, is "Damned little."

But if you don't like your Internet provider, would you really be able to go elsewhere? Cerf, who is now Google's chief Internet "evangelist," pointed out in the Senate hearing that only 53 percent of Americans now have a choice between cable modem and DSL high-speed Internet service at home. According to the FCC, 28 percent of Americans have only one of these options for broadband Internet access, and 19 percent have no option at all.

And even for that 53 percent who are lucky enough to have two choices that duopoly is not all that much of an improvement:

He adds that "every economic theory we know suggests that when there's a duopoly" -- in this case between cable broadband and phone broadband -- "there will be tacit collusion in the market."

That's true, and few reporters have the depth of understanding to recognize it.

The author goes through the technical bits with the same clarifying verve.

If you'd like to understand this noise about network neutrality this article is an excellent primer.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Cox Returns to Peddling Disinformation

Sharon Kleinpeter (based in Baton Rouge, not Lafayette--a claim Cox employees should learn not to make.) has a letter in this morning's Advertiser. In it she returns to Cox's failed strategy of trying to scare Lafayette into submission with what can, sadly, only be called lies. The real question is what exactly is it that so scares Cox Communications that it will risk returning to methods that have backfired on it so badly in the past. Could it be real competition unfettered by the state restrictions and regulations imposed on LUS but not on Cox?

It really is pretty astonishing the lengths to which Ms Klienpeter will go. Let us start with the most dramatic falsehoods and advance to the minor bits of misdirection.
In Bristol, Va., where a fiber network was recently constructed, residents experienced rate increases of 40 percent in electric, 22.4 percent in water and 4 percent in sewer. Without cross-subsidization protections, Lafayette could see similar increases.
That's just dishonest and, frankly with the reams of material that have been published on this question, I have to believe Ms Kleinpeter knows that its not true--or she should start doing a little fact-checking of her own before signing her name. Virginia, like Louisiana, has a law which prohibits public telecommunications utilities (but not private ones) from using income derived from one branch of the business to "cross-subsidize" its telecom business. That's not the end of the similarity: the local phone incumbent in Virginia, Sprint, sued alleging cross-subsidization when Bristol Utilities undercut their phone prices. The ensuing, costly battle resulted in Bristol being cleared of the charges more than a year ago. This is a matter of easily accessible public record and Ms Kleinpeter does her reputation (and credibility with those of us across the basin) no good in repeating a disproven charge in a transparent attempt to make us distrust our local utility.

The specific numbers she site, 40%, 22.4% and 4% sound solidly factual but are similarly deceptive and are just as easily shown to be unrelated to Bristol's fiber project. For instance, the dramatic 40% jump in electricity prices was a cause for concern locally, as you might imagine. But the Bristol paper reports a story that has no fiber involvement:

Bristol Virginia Utilities' 38 percent power rate increase may be a significant spike for its customers, but the new charges will be more in line with those of other electric systems.

BVU's seven-year contract with Cinergy ends Dec. 31, and the utility has entered into a three-year wholesale supply agreement with American Electric Power, effective Jan. 1. The switch is costing BVU 81.81 percent more, half of which it's absorbing and the other half it is passing on to customers.

So the truth is that the local utility, which had negotiated an unusually favorable rate for its customers couldn't get as good a rate when it had to look for a new supplier. It absorbed half the cost of the increase with the net result that its customers, who had enjoyed years of unusually low rates, now paid something much closer to, though apparently still a little lower than, the going regional rate. Relationship of this issue to the utility offering competitive, inexpensive, phone, cable, and internet over fiber to its citizens? None at all.

So Bristol has not been cross-subsidizing its telecommunications division and local increases in utility costs have nothing to do with the cheaper services the telecommunications division is offering the community. Regardless of what the competition would have you believe is true.

Now on to mere misdirection:

First, It's LUS, a local public utility, not "the local government" that will be competing with Cox and offering lower cable prices to Lafayette citizens; something Kleinpeter well knows. She just doesn't think it would get her company as much sympathy to try and stir up resentment against a local utility if she used the more accurate terms.

Second, I don't think that Mr. Huval has ever said that "government" (or even LUS) needs cross-subsidization. After all, though admittedly under duress, LUS agreed to the law that includes that clause. I do think that Huval and LUS have asked for the same rules applied to LUS by the "Fair" Competition Act apply to private providers. That's what one of the bills Ms. Kleinpeter lumps together and dismisses would do. Cox is opposed. Why? Is it because the Cox conglomerate would like to retain its freedom to be able to cross-subsidize its business in Lafayette on the backs of millions of rate-payers across the US and to use the proceeds of any of its other newspaper and media business to fund its (un)Fair Competition in Lafayette?

Third, Cox -- who used to tell us that fiber was like an unnecessary luxury car -- is now playing little games of misdirection in implying that its "state-of-the-art fiber network" is desirable. Of course Cox has the same hybrid fiber-coax system that it had before it started billing itself a fiber network and handing out little flashlights with a bunch of plastic fibers attached to one end at community events. At least Cox understands now that we want fiber--but what we actually want is Fiber To The Home. And that is what we voted for.

Fourth, it is Fiber to the Home (FTTH) that we voted for on July 16th last year. Nobody that voted for the FTTH initiative was voting to support the restrictions that Cox and BellSouth put on our local project with the help of the legislature. They were voting to support the project. It was the people who voted against the project, and lost 62 to 38%, that were worried about such issues. Cox isn't worried about "fair play" or your utility rates. Implying that the peoples' vote somehow supported Cox and BellSouth's position must rank as some sort of new high in the art of corporate misdirection and misinformation.


All in all, this letter does Ms Kleinpeter and Cox no credit. It reawakens the judgment that you can't trust anything the incumbents say. I had thought they had learned from previous mistakes. What Cox is offering here is what Cox offered the community during the initial months of the fiber fight: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. This is not merely a failed political tactic that will lose them points with our community. It is also lousy business practice. People have a hard enough time trusting their Cable company as it is. People don't want half the channels they are forced to buy just to get the few they actually watch. They really don't like that they almost never see the rated cable speed that was advertised for the tier they bought. Giving the public an objectively verifiable reason to believe that Cox will lie to you and that it will mislead you is not just dangerous politically; it is a really bad business practice. It's hard to think of a better way to ensure LUS' success.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Where Two or Three are Gathered; The Threefold Cord

On Sundays I sometimes offer up something for folks to read that's more of a thought piece. This Easter I'd like to share a piece that, in my mind at least, has a lot to do with both the day and with broadband in Louisiana. (Bear with me!)

You'll see the author's not Christian... but does subscribe to the concept that two or three gathered with common faith and purpose can accomplish great things. He cites Ecclesiastes rather than Matthew but the underlying theme is familiar. You'll also see that he's talking most immediately about wireless. For most of our country, without the resources of a strong local public utility, wireless is the last, best hope for communities being able to control their own communications destiny. Lafayette is a little luckier but the hope is similar.

The author, Feld, suggests that we can change the world. And that we should. And that we shouldn't at any point be embarrassed by the belief or the effort. That's worth considering today.

It's not an easy read because in the end the object Feld leads us to examine isn't the usual "look at this thing over here in this way;" instead you end up looking at yourself. Never comfortable; often valuable.

Harold Feld's "My speech from the Community Wireless Conference"

Thursday, April 13, 2006

NPR : "New Orleans May Lose Wireless Network"

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" ran a piece today (realaudio link) on how New Orlean's might be forced to give up its free WiFi system--and on the city's dramatic promise to defy state law if necessary.

The story sets the conflict up pretty simply as a matter of a state law that prevents New Orleans from continuing after the state of emergency ends and talks to Meffert, CIO of New Orleans, and to Sharon Kleinpeter of Cox. (Local color is provided by an interview in a "trendy coffehouse in the French Quarter.")

It is an accurate story and fun to listen to but like so much in the national media about local issues it misses some pretty crucial points.

They miss, for instance, that the law in question was not aimed at New Orleans, but at Lafayette. When Sharon Kleinpeter defends the law as something New Orlean's legislators voted for the interviewer is no doubt unaware that no one ever anticipated that the consequence of trying to reign in Lafayette and to block the future her plan represented would leave New Orleans in the lurch after Katrina. Her representatives certainly never voted for that. Of course the truth is that New Orleans' didn't particularly care to back up the small city across the basin and the compromises that Lafayette felt forced into have rebounded on the city. New Orleans apparently has yet to join Lafayette in asking for repeal--a repeal which would return to them the right to do whatever they want with their own property (without having to defy state law).

More seriously, it misses what's been widely reported and never publicly resolved: that the real target of the city's ire is BellSouth (soon to be AT&T). BellSouth has threatened to take back the donation of a building to the New Orleans' police over this issue and by all accounts is the force blocking the repeal of the wireless portion of the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act in the Louisiana Legislature. Cox is earnestly against its repeal too...but the real story is BellSouth/AT&T vs. New Orleans; not the city vs. the state.

NPR has had folks in the region reporting on Lafayette's referendum, so there should have been a little institutional memory available.

But NPR would have no way to know that Sharon Kleinpeter's snippy remarks that the "everybody agreed two years ago that it was a perfect instrument" and that legislators were now hesitant to change it because everyone agreeed back then that it was a good law is purest balderdash. Legislators are hesitant to challenge the most powerful lobbying force in the state, BellSouth, and they are hesitant to challenge the industry that now controls a majority of the television sets in major markets, the cable guys. What makes Ms Kleinpeter's remarks laughably misleading is that it was Cox, not the municipalities, that came back the very next year with the now infamous Broome Bill that changed the referendum portion of the law and tried to get the state to fine Lafayette 900,000 dollars if its citizens went ahead and voted to provide cable with a little competition. Nobody thinks it a good law, but Cox was the first to demonstrate its disappointment by trying to change a law it had just approved, not New Orleans.

Granted, in the flush of making an agreement that looked livable some florid language was used and people are no doubt now deeply embarassed by remarks that blessed it as "model law." (For the record, LPF stalwarts consistently objected to the compromise and Mike Stagg was the lone voice to object in the hearings.)

But it's hard to complain too loudly about NPR's lack of memory about the issue and it less than full analysis of the question when our own lacks in these departments are so evident. After all NPR's got three minutes and 8 seconds for the story but we have to live with the consequences of our memory lapses. Truth is New Orleans didn't exert itself for Lafayette during the initial legislative battle and Lafayette didn't particularly try to protect other cities when it reached its forced compromise. Lafayette spiked the parts of the Broome amenments that were most damaging to it and let more onerous referendum requirements fall on cities with few resources to fight huge corporations. This time through New Orleans is repeating history by just trying to get its wireless exemption passed. And Lafyette, while showing the good sense to at least offer a full repeal, appears to be ready to settle for much less. Everybody is ignoring the franchise bills that hang out there threatening a huge expropriation of local rights of way to lock local communities out of any control of their own property in order to back an AT&T/BellSouth plan that limits its souped-up DSL plans to no more than half of Lousisiana's people.

No, we've got nothing much to criticize NPR about. Lafayette and New Orleans need to ally on repeal before the post-hurricane opportunity passes. The Louisiana Municipal Association needs to recognize what Michigan's Municipal Leaguee understands: that the ability of towns and small cities to determine their own future is seriously threatened by state and federal franchise laws. It's pretty clear that pursuing every locality's immediate interests has led everyone to a dead end. If Louisiana learned anything in the last two years it is that relying on outside interests like BellSouth is an invitation to betrayal. Nobody alone has the support they need to pass laws that protect the interests of their individual community. We need a firm alliance on all municipal telecom issues. We need to rely on ourselves. Ben Franklin got it right:

We should all hang together, or surely we will all hang seperately.

Update 4/14/06: Boing Boing, supposedly the world's most popular blog, links to the NPR story on New Orlean's WiFi. I'm sure it will do traffic at NPR a world of good. It'd be nice if it did New Orleans' some good as well.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Legislative Overview Update

Louisiana Legislation Dept.

There are a couple more bills for those interested in municipal telecommunications to track. One is a new wireless bill newly introduced by LaFonta, one of New Orleans' representatives that would exempt wireless technologies from the provisions of the (un)Fair Competition act and another two by Ellington, Telecommunications Corporation's representative, that just sits out there as blank checks to be used if needed.

In broadest overview: nothing is moving. No repeal Bills are up for a hearing. No noxious franchising bills are scheduled to be heard and no new onerous amendments to the (un)Fair Competition bill are being offered. That's odd. With Lafayette's fiber-optic bond ordinance set to become unchallengeable on April 24th (thirty days after its passage and publication) the window is closing on one important tool that BellSouth/AT&T has used to stop the crucial sale of bonds: suing to prevent the bond sale. There had been every indication that BellSouth would challenge the latest ordinance as well...after all the bond market is still getting more expensive and any delay hurts LUS and the citizens that spurned BellSouth's arguments. Even without a good case everyone expected BellSouth to sue. I hear the gears of the sausage-maker grinding in the background. I wish their song were clearer. (Thoughts?)

LaFonta's wireless New Orleans bill looks like an evolution of the New Orleans' bill last seen during the special session. The thrust of the bill is to exempt wireless from the provisions of the (un)Fair Competition act and to vest control in the elected parish executive. There are some confusing sentences about a minimum speed of one meg and about raising the speed during an emergency. If there is no upper limit then the second sentence is unnecessary. I've got a query in on this point and if I get clarification I'll let you know.

Ellington's two bills seem as senseless as some of his public remarks. For instance, the instrument that modifies the state's regulation of bonding authority for local governments looks like an utterly meaningless bill which proposes only to insert a dash between words so that it would read "revenue-producing" instead of "revenue producing." A waste of time? Only if that change is the actual purpose of introducing the bill. If, instead, your purpose is to make sure that you've got a bill parked in the proper committee that will allow you to later put in any amendments your clients might desire that could restrict local bonding authority it makes pretty good (if despicable) sense. His second bill, the one that amends the (un)Fair Competition law, makes the same sort of twisted sense. You can read and re-read the bill and you can't figure out how the changes make any meaningful difference. That's because it doesn't make any meaningful difference and isn't supposed to...right now. These bills are blank checks made out to the sponsoring corporations who'd like to make sure that they've got a legislative instrument to ride if they need it. (Ellington has written blank checks before. In fact the (un)Fair Competition act was originally a bill to promote rural broadband before Ellington endorsed it over to BellSouth and Cox.)


Here is your updated list of muni-related telecom bills.

Repeal or anti-repeal in various degrees and flavors:
  • HB 244, Robideaux, SB 192--Michot, Poison Pill, Would apply most of the rules that apply to municipal telecom entrants under the Local Government Fair Competition Act to "subsidized" private telecom providers. (Senate Commerce, House Commerce)
  • HB 245--Robideaux, SB 495--Michot, Repeal!!, Would Repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act. (Senate Commerce, House Commerce)
  • HB 257, Robideaux, SB 243--Michot, Exemptions Would exempt Lafayette from the Fair Competition Act and exempt all wireless technologies. (Senate Commerce, House Commerce)
  • HB 537, Robideaux, Exemptions Redux, Would repeal all restrictive clauses of the fair competition act except the feasibility study and referendum provisions. Would exempt all wireless technologies. (House Commerce) [This version of the bill has several Acadiana co-sponsors: Representatives, Robideaux, Pierre, Trahan, and Alexander as well as Senator Michot]
  • New! SB 395, Ellington, Blank Check, A placeholder bill that allows the incumbents to come in after the filing deadline and introduce any amendments to the (un)Fair Competition Act they might desire. (Senate Commerce)
  • New! SB 585, Ellington, Blank Check Too This bill would would allow the incumbents to come back in and, should the (un)Fair Competition Act be substantially repealed, get another bite at the apple by restricting the bonding capacity of municipalities. (Senate Commerce)
Wireless-only Repeal Bills
  • SB 211, Murray, Wireless Exemption, Would exempt all wireless technologies from the Fair Competition Act. (Senate Commerce)
  • New! HB 1174, LaFonta, Wireless Exemption for Parish Executives, Would exempt all wireless technologies from the Fair Competition Act and vest decision-making power in elected parish executives. (No Committee Assignment)
Bills that would move cable franchises from local to state control
  • SB 386--Ellington, HB 699--Montgomery, State Video Franchise-panel, Would eliminate local video franchises and vest control in a panel appointed by the governor. (Senate Commerce, House Commerce) [co-sponsored by in the Senate by Smith]
  • HB 258, Farrar, State Video Franchise-PSC, Would eliminate local video franchises and vest control in the Public Service Commission. (House Commerce)
Emergency Telecommunications bills with implications for municipal broadband
  • HB 540--Burns, Emergency Preparedness, Would mandate the development of a an emergency preparedness system. (House Commerce)
  • HB 619--Burns, Emergency Preparedness-Coastal, Would mandate the development of a an emergency preparedness system in coastal regions. (House Commerce)

Favors for Private Utilities

(This post is a little off the beaten track for this blog; if you're pretty purely telecom or tech focused, you can safely skip it. But if hurricane recovery and local energy costs are of interest, or if you think simple fair play should be a factor in the repeal of the (un)Fair Competition law that hampers Lafayette and New Orleans, read on.)

The Advocate reports on House Bill 887, which is one of those proposed laws that, on the face of it it anyway, can probably be justified in the wake of a disaster. Its purpose is to provide private electrical utilities with the cheapest possible financing for their disaster rebuilding funding. The idea is that such cheap funding will mean cheaper rates for Louisiana customers in the long run.

That's a good goal, if it does in fact result in the energy companies' lowering our rates--which seems a bit mushy. Cheap bonding authority, to the extent that it doesn't harm or obligate the state, seems like a pretty decent way to achieve the goal of lower prices.

But it also seems like what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. Why in the world does our Legislature pass laws that make it cheaper for private utilities to borrow money to run their businesses, but impose special disabilities on public utilities that want to do the same?

Louisiana's Local Government Fair Competition Act includes clauses that are, quite deliberately, designed to make investors anxious about the security of Lafayette's bonds and so to raise the costs to the City-Parish. With the bill currently being considered, we see the Legislature extending special privileges to the private sector--and indeed only to one segment of the private sector--while continuing to impose special disabilities on the bonding authority of local communities that want to offer new public utilities.

I sincerely hope this means that the same legislators who vote for this bill will vote for the bills that would repeal the (un)Fair Competition Act (especially Lafayette Rep. Trahan, who is signed on as a sponsor). Favoring both would mean they were really voting with their citizens' best interest in mind.

But it's not altogether clear from reading the story and glancing over the bill that it is as simple as that.

For one thing, the law does appears to obligate the state to extend a huge raft of unspecified privileges and special protection for the "storm recovery property" (very complexly defined) that secures the bonds. In the proposed law the state promises not to:
Take or permit any action that impairs or would impair the value of storm recovery property
There's a clause further down that opts out the PSC and the city of New Orleans from being limited by this bill but that is a huge open-ended commitment that I can't believe needs to be made or should be made. The scope of things which are legitimate matters for public lawmaking and regulation that would "impair the value" is huge. The public is granting privilege--a favor--with this bill; it shouldn't be asked to pass on its sovereignty at the same time. What, by the way, ever happened to the old concept of tit for tat? What do the private corporations have to give up to gain this favor? Nothing visible.

What makes all this even stranger is that, actually, the law does not obligate the private utility companies to actually return any of their savings to the people of the state. And our legislators get all huffy when it's politely pointed out to them. Really. You can't make stuff like this up. The AARP rep wants to change the word "may" to "shall:"
....changing the word from "may" to "shall" would guarantee the companies and lawmakers would pass along any savings to consumers, he said.
Our lawmakers are astonished at his temerity.
"I am astonished at your opposition," said Rep. Diane Winston, R-Covington. She said utilities, like other businesses, need to increase their rates to cover their increased costs.

Winston said the wording changes sought by the AARP amounts to a mandate that consumers reap the benefits of any savings realized by the utility companies.

"Everybody's cost of business has gone up," she said. "You have to give a little allowance for them."
Hey, I'm astonished that Ms. Winston is astonished that anyone would want to make sure the declared purpose of a law she favors should actually be served. She ought to want to "mandate that consumers reap the benefits of any savings realized by the utility companies;" that is the only reason for our public officials to get involved. Without such guarantees, the only purpose of the law is to hand over special profits to the corporations who wrote this law. (And yes, this is another bill that is openly admitted to have been written by the corporations who benefit from it.)

Part of the way this bill works is that it authorizes a special, dedicated rate increase to fund storm recovery cost (costs incurred directly or indirectly) and to build up a reserve fund for that purpose (though no visible restrictions are placed on funds so reserved). The Advocate story doesn't make the rate increase visible. But the law itself certainly makes clear what the Public Service Commission is authorized to do:
If determined appropriate by the commission and provided for in a financing order, such amounts are to be imposed on customer bills and collected by an electric utility or its successors or assignees, or a collection agent, in full through a charge, which may be collected as part of the electric utility's base rates or in any other manner deemed appropriate by the commission, for the time period specified in the financing order, paid by existing and future customers receiving transmission or distribution service, or both, from the electric utility or its successors or assignees under rate schedules or special contracts approved by the commission. The commission may provide for payment of such charges even if the customer elects to purchase electricity from an alternative electricity supplier including as the result of a fundamental change in the manner of regulation of public utilities in this state. [emphases mine]
That last sentence would keep the surcharge on your bill in the unlikely event that this state follows Texas and other states and "deregulates" energy. These representatives are being careful, very careful, to make sure that corporations benefit. Would that they were so careful in pursuing our interests.

If these representatives are being honest about their true motivations, they'll vote to repeal the (un)Fair Competition Act and amend pro-private utility act to make sure that it serves the people of the state. Cheaper bonds would benefit the citizens of this state in both cases. If, instead, they are actually simply motivated by a desire to pass laws benefiting the private utility providers of this state, they'll keep the (un)Fair act and not do anything to hold Entergy to its promises.

It's not really all that hard to tell who our legislators are representing. You watch what they do.

Monday, April 10, 2006

ABC Offers Free Online TV

AP carries news of the ABC announcement that drives another nail in the coffin of the Broadcast/Cable TV model: Free, ad-supported Downloadable Video.
ABC will offer four prime-time shows including "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" on its Web site for free for two months beginning in May as it continues to expand the ways consumers can watch TV online.

The shows will include advertising that cannot be skipped over during viewing.
This will require real bandwidth. The idea is basically to trade you an online PVR in exchange for you, the consumer, agreeing to keep the old advertising model and not skip the ads.

This is not a stable solution. People will save the video stream to disk and skip the ads just as the users of DVRs like TiVo do now. The result will be that users will come to view the ABC site as a large online storage place for "their" videos.

Once people get used to the attractive combination of DVR functions and price (free!) that this represents the only issue will be how quickly the material can be downloaded in High Definition.

Downloadable Video will be the killer app that drives the demand for really big bandwidth and this little announcement heralds that day.

I've already got a nice, hot swappable drive bay. Now if I could only get that fiber bandwidth that would make filling it feasible. Soon...

BellSouth's 20th Year FTTH Anniversary

CableWorld sez:
In 1986, BellSouth, born from the 1984 divestiture of the old AT&T, built what its developers believe was the first fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) digital transport system for cable video service.

The system, built for Hunter's Creek Cablevision near Orlando, Fla., used FTTH to send digital signals to about 300 paying customers.

'I realized this really represents the 20th anniversary of digital cable,' says Bill Strickler, former system director of Hunter's Creek Cablevision. 'Everything happened right there in Hunter's Creek.
What is that the old son says? Everything old is new again?

AT&T's Role in Warrantless Spying Scandal

A new story on the warrantless wiretapping scandal has implicated AT&T, BellSouth's suitor in the unfolding warrantless wiretapping scandal.

--timeout for a quick background paragraph with an emphasis on how packet technology and political calculation appear to intertwine in this instance--

That crux of the affair has focused on whether or ont the president had the authority to order "wiretaps" (and the modern IP equivalents) of American citizens without a specific warrant. To date the administration has claimed that it does and that, in any case, its "intercepts" were limited to those calling Al Queda oversees. Technical types understand that such limited targeting would be difficult to achieve with any packet-based technology. Networks packets from one source are mixed with packets from other sources as a regular and necessary part of the way packet technologies work. Intercepts, therefore, would have to be based on various filtering schemes that would require dipping into and examining everyone's material. (The old, circuit-switched technologies did allow one to capture, or "wiretap" only the one "circuit" that comprised a phone conversation.) Not understanding this basic technical fact has lead political pundits to exhibit confusion as to why the current administration was unwilling to ask permission from a very agreeable secret court. If all it wanted to do was monitor calls to overseas Al Queda operatives that court would surely have granted it and was even empowered to grant permission retroactively (odd, contradictory concept, that; but it is part of the law) so as to not impede anyone who had to act quickly to block an immediate threat. The trouble is that the nature of the technology really requires spying on packets pretty much randomly and nearly universally to be useful enough to bother with. (An earlier version of this sort of technology, "carnivore," provoked a huge public outcry in the late 90's.) My guess is that once the administration fully understood that it was unwilling to go to a court and either 1) go on the record with deceptive characterizations of what it intended to do or 2) admit that it wanted to run its fingers over the whole internet, in effect spying not only on our citizens without a warrant but pretty much anyone whose data ran over the world wide web's key backbones.

--close timeout for a quick background paragraph on how packet technology and political calculation appear to intertwine--

The Wired story and interview covers a BellSouth employee claims that he helped route internet data into a secret room set up at the request of the National Security Agency (NSA).
AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers' internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the company.
With AT&T buying out BellSouth this becomes not only a national issue for citizens but a local issue for citizens of Lafayette and Louisiana: AT&T is worth worrying about when it comes to your privacy and AT&T's willingness to allow wholesale examination of customer data outside the rule of law. Those that run AT&T clearly believe themselves to be as much above the privacy laws as does the administration that made the requests of them. From the wired story and interview with the whistle-blower.
AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers' internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the company."
The worker, Klein, said in the interview:
Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet -- whether that be peoples' e-mail, web surfing or any other data.

"Despite what we are hearing, and considering the public track record of this administration, I simply do not believe their claims that the NSA's spying program is really limited to foreign communications or is otherwise consistent with the NSA's charter or with FISA," Klein's wrote. "And unlike the controversy over targeted wiretaps of individuals' phone calls, this potential spying appears to be applied wholesale to all sorts of internet communications of countless citizens."
Things have gotten seriously out of whack. And your local phone company is about to become part of it. As I understand it, the Louisiana Public Service Commission can raise issues that could block the sale if it thinks the people or the laws of the state would be damaged by the merger. I wonder what they think of all this. (Oh yeah...there are state laws against unsanctioned (aka illegal) interceptions as well, for what it is worth. And, for that matter, international treaties. If federal law does not suffice.)