Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Hearing slated today in LUS complaint" (Correction)

Mea Culpa: an earlier version of this post contained a major misinterpretation of the Advocate story. In it I was working from the mistaken reading that the hearing was before the Judge....not so, as the story clearly states. The hearing was before the LPUA. My apologies for spreading my poor reading far and wide.

The Advocate carries a story this morning about a new hearing slated for today in the class action lawsuit directed against LUS' fiber optic project.

The LPUA has expedited pleadings on the issue at the direction of Judge Rubin. Tomorrow's stories should be interesting.

Update 4:00: The Advertiser is running an brief on this hearing in preparation for a fuller story tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Cable Franchise Bill in Senate Commerce Tomorrow

HB 699, the state-wide cable franchise bill, will be heard tomorrow in the Senate Commerce Committee tomorrow at 9:30.

It's bad law and deserves to be voted down there. Concerned citizens can still contact the members of the committee; the commerce committee maintains a page providing links to the members' data.

At the most basic level it's bad because it takes local control and local sovereignty and transfers it to the state level because it would be more convenient (that is, more profitable) to a single large corporation if local governments could be neutered. Local control threatens the size of BellSouth's profits because local people normally require BellSouth/AT&T to offer cable TV services to everyone in exchange for renting the community rights-of-way to the corporation. BellSouth feels like it would make more money if it could only offer it's service to the wealthiest neighborhoods--and, not coincidentally, they could at the same time stick Cable with the more expensive-to-serve customers. So they go to the state legislature to enhance their bottom line.

Enhancing BellSouth's (soon to be AT&T) profits is not the legislature's job.

And it's certainly not the legislature's job to pass laws that impoverish local communities. But that is exactly what the legislature is considering according to local government organizations across the state. They say that, contrary to what BellSouth/AT&T lobbyists are claiming, BellSouth's bill leaves a loophole for the company to escape paying any fees to local governments. That would leave a gaping hole in many communities' income.

The bill has already passed through the house. Tomorrow's hearing in the Senate Commerce Committe will be one of the last chances to stop it before it becomes law. Contacting the committee members could make a real difference. It also wouldn't hurt to copy Kathleen Blanco with your concerns. Just in case it ends up on her desk.

(To watch the show, follow the link on the Legislature's front page that will go live a few minutes after 9:30)

"Fastest Internet Ever..."

The academic internet is about to be upgraded by a factor of 80....from a 10 gbs backbone to an 800 gbs one according to Sci-Tech Today. Now 10 gbs per second is pretty impressive--that is the speed of the current, famous "Abiline" research backbone so taking an 80X leap is a little breathtaking--and inspiring. Two points come to mind almost immediately: First, it's a demonstration of the oft-repeated and oft-doubted thesis that fiber optic installations are "future proof" and, second, that there are exciting ideas out there on how to use big bandwidth; exciting enough that people are dramatically improving their networks to accommodate them.

Future Proof
The idea that fiber optic based networks are future proof is regularly dismissed by folks who aren't technically inclined. I've always been impressed by the fact that this claim is most often originates from the least likely source: engineers. Engineer types are seldom seen touting products, much less touting them with phrases like "future proof" that sound like marketing-speak.

But the engineers are really making a fairly limited, relatively technical claim. They are not saying that network upgrades wont' be necessary, a claim that some appear to think they are making. Instead they are taking almost the opposite position: that upgrades are inevitable and that installing fiber optics now make the inevitable upgrades--whatever unpredictable form they may take in terms of specific protocols--easy and cheap compared to all alternatives. They are saying that installing the fiber-optic hardware is a one-time affair. You won't be tearing out Fiber to install some new network in order to accommodate the unforseeable specifics of inevitable upgrades.

This upgrade is a good example of why they think upgrades are not an issue; they can squeeze almost two magnitudes of speed increase out a strand of fiber simply by upgrading the electronics/photonics at each end of the fiber. Metaphorically (the actuality is a little more complex) what is being done is that each fiber that formerly carried 10 gbs over light is having new electronics installed that will use 8 different wavelengths--that don't interfere with each other--to carry 10 gbs each. Said that way it's easy to see that Dense Wave Division Mulitplexing (DWDM) can make it possible to subdivide the wavelengths being used to achieve dramatic raw speed improvements coupled. The electronics to achieve that can be imbued with whatever fancy new algorithms emerge to make things more efficient. So a huge amount of new upgrade capacity is possible before you ever has to commit to the expense of running more fiber.

For all practical purposes the fiber that gets pulled is all but future-proof. It's the electronics that get upgraded.

Exciting Ideas
Most of the Sci Tech article is devoted to how folks will use the new capacity--and that's where the fun really is. With Lafayette getting a shiny new fiber-optic system that we'll control it behooves us to think about how we'll use more capacity than most folks can dream of. That's real fun.
Here's the way the Sci Tech author finds his way into the question:
Someday, we might conquer the vast distances of space and visit the stars. But right now, on this planet, we are on the verge of eliminating distance itself. And the vehicle for eliminating distance is the next generation of the medium you are now using: the Internet.

The current Net has little to impede you as you search for information...

But if you want to have a live conversation with someone standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, at night, as if they were on the other side of a clear window -- with the tower shimmering in more realistic detail than you can absorb -- you have two choices. You can either fly there right now, or you can use a PC hooked into the next-generation Internet.

The article emphasizes "telepresence" applications: surgery, virtual travel, advanced cooperation between scientists, access to rare tools, and other forms of "being there." It closes with:

Even when physical distance is dissolved by bandwidth, we'll likely find new reasons to get together in real space. As the New World Symphony's Shook notes: "We'll never replace live interaction in the same room with other people."

But we're getting pretty close.

Telepresence is hardly the end of it...the potential for grid computing, massive multiplayer gaming, and changing our relationship to television or government is enormous. Accessing and manipulating huge data sets may one day be enable each of us does to compose personalized weather predictions keyed to our locales over the course of the day. Or to "look ahead" and help determine the best route for our daily commute dynamically. Each of us could, for the price of a cheap web connection, be our own broadcasting station. Making movies or shows might well become a home craft. A lot of things could change. By far the biggest limiting factor will be imagination.

Give it some thought: what could you do in a community where everybody had a 100 meg connection?

Friday, May 26, 2006

"Earthlink to build wireless Internet system in New Orleans"

The AP reports Earthlink won a franchise from the New Orlean's City Council yesterday. The franchise covers the entire city. The highlight reel:
Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. has won approval for a wireless Internet network in New Orleans that will be built around a free city-owned system that made its debut last fall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina....

Initially, EarthLink's system will cover about 15 square miles of the 181-square mile city, including the downtown business district and the French Quarter...

The company also said it would allow competing Wi-Fi providers to use its network for a price...

The city is not taking down its system. In addition to continuing its current operation, it will provide a dedicated network for first responders to disasters...

EarthLink said its free service would operate at up to 300 kbps and its high-speed service would be 3 1/2 times faster. Tolpegin said the free system would operate "as long as the city is rebuilding and it makes sense to offer the service."
Good for New Orleans. I was really worried that the legislature's shenanigans would completely torpedo the project. What seems to be happening here is that the city's current infrastructure and free service will remain in place indefinitely. The description of where the new Earthlink network will debut is in the same area that the city's network already operates. That only makes sense if the play is to fill in the gaps in current coverage with Earthlinks new service before moving on. That, in its turn, is probably left-over from what seems to have been the earlier plan to build an integrated network. What New Orleans has sacrificed to Baton Rouge's subservience to the incumbents is ownership of the network that serves it citizens. This is no longer a partnership--it is a straight franchise deal. Earthlink is doing a good and risky thing here and I've no desire to denigrate them in any way but the truth is that in the long run the new network will now have no more allegience to the citizens of New Orleans than does Cox's or BellSouth's. The citizens will have no real handle over how it is run or who it benefits. Profit and control will flow out of the city and into the hands of absentee owners. It could have been different.

For the more technically minded Sabludowsky over at Bayou Buzz also covers the deal and has a bit more detail on the network hardware--Tropos nodes and software with a Motorola "Canopy" backhaul system. Unless I'm mistaken this is pretty much the setup that the current New Orleans-owned network uses, so they ought to "mesh" well.

Sadly, no one seems to have the details on the deal itself. (Does the T-P really not cover city council meetings? I find that hard to believe. But I'm not able to find the report.) Is the deal exclusive? How long does it run? In other places that Earthlink is building systems there are citizens panels and discounted service for low-income neighborhoods. Will New Orleans get any of that? Will schools be served? Will first responders be able to pull needed bandwidth in times of emergencies? Is there a public service/police element to the contract?-- That could save New Orleans a bundle.

Regardless of questions: Good for New Orleans and good for Earthlink. They're both sacrificing the easy path--and what would have been the less risky path--to serve the people of New Orleans. It's sad that the incumbents, and a subservient legislature, forced them to take additional risks and sacrifice any element of community control.

Endless Lawsuits parts 25 & 26

My mother used to call things "kooky" when she was trying hard not to use more colorful language in front of the children.

The latest developments in our legal battles are kooky, damned kooky.

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate run stories attempting to make sense of the latest developments in the legal case brought by a batch of class action lawyers from Plaquimines on behalf of two mysterious clients that are supposed to be from Lafayette.

Here is, if I've got it right, the list of developments:
  • The Lafayette Parish Utility Authority (LPUA) met and passed new rules governing the appeal of rates changes.
  • Members of the LPUA expressed a desire to be shown the extortionists plantiffs Matthew Eastin and Elizabeth Naquin; apparently some doubt exists that they exist and have standing to sue.
  • LPUA chair Marc Mouton calls the whole affair: "some net-dragging class-action lawsuit."
  • Lawyers for Lafayette ask Judge Rubin to follow the intent of the bond law and not "suspend" a court hearing for 21 days that is required by law to be decided in 10 days. (uh...duh)
  • Lawyers for Lafayette ask Judge Rubin to find that the LPUA can't rule on bond issue questions because state law defines rigid ways that involve him ruling quickly and exclusively based on that law on any matters concering bond issues.
  • Lawyers from Plaquimines get around to a formal complaint against the bond issue with the LPUA.
  • In the same filing where they ask for bond relief lawyers from Plaquimines ask the LPUA in to recuse itself because it is the agency responsible for making decisions about utility matters, including rate increases, and because the larger council of which the LPUA is a subset passed the laws governing, well, the LPUA. (Recuse yourself from deciding on the request we just made because you are the decision-makers. How Kooky is that?)
  • Lawyers from Plaquimines also ask for the lawyers for Lafayette to recuse themselves. Because they are also lawyers for the city. Wait, won't that be the case for any lawyers that defend the city? Wouldn't that logic that make it impossible for the city to defend itself against "net-dragging" lawsuits? ...Oh! Clever boys! (Kooky? Kooky.)
I think that's most of it. Read the articles for details.

I saw a show last night in which an actor said he'd never want to be a lawyer because the work was "too much like doing homework for a living." This morning I think I understand what he meant.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Shreveport editorial urges caution on franchise bill

An editorial in the Shreveport Times urges legislators to be cautious when considering House Bill 699, the state-wide cable franchising bill.
Whether it's "cable competition" or a "sweetheart deal," the legislative proposal to give BellSouth a leg up into the world of television delivery service appears to be a case where technology again outstrips both the law and the public's ability to comprehend.
The author tries to balance the competing issues of technology, fairness, and concern for the future of local government income and confesses some personal confusion on these fronts. (Some of that caution is justified--remarks in the story indicate that he or she thinks that the technology involved is fiber to the home. It is not; it is a brand of DSL.) It was particularly heartening to see the poorly covered issue of lost franchise fees revenues and the importance of universal service make it into this editorial.
Tinkering with the current cable TV landscape could put a cloud over the future of franchise fees paid by cable providers to local government, which is a chief reason organizations such as the Louisiana Municipal Association oppose the BellSouth bill. Local government also would lose leverage that now ensures cable operators provide service to all residents.
In the end the editorialist decides to opt for caution. And this is indeed wise: the best action when you're uncertain about how to proceed is often to do nothing and see if the situation won't clarify itself. The legislature would be wise to do the same. Once AT&T is actually providing the service it now promises the issues involved and AT&T's committments to local communities will be much clearer. That will be soon enough to decide whether special legislation favoring the corporation would be useful to the people of Louisiana.

BellSouth/AT&T, Bad Actor

My previous post reported on the responses of local government to HB 699--the state-wide franchise bill. Both the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Police Jury Association have recently issued urgent alerts to their members. I was struck by the prominence of the belief that BellSouth/AT&T won't pay the franchise fees they are promising. That's a little unusual. Thinking a law is a bad one for the people you represent is one thing. Telling those people you believe the proposed law is dishonest is something entirely different.

The local governments of Lousiana appears to have concluded that BellSouth, and its new master AT&T are bad actors.

One of the most striking and unique features of the battle in Louisiana over this issue has been that Louisiana's local governments have clearly recognized the likelihood that AT&T (after it has bought BellSouth) will not pay franchise fees as the bill appears to promise--and regard the conciliatory phrases in the bill that indicate that the telephone company will pay fees as so much flash and noise. The corporation's real object, they clearly understand, is to prevent local government from making service for all -- and equal prices for all -- a condition of AT&T/BellSouth using community-owned rights-of-way by moving control of the rules governing the use of local property to the state level.

The basis for thinking they do not intend to pay local communities a dime is clear cut: AT&T has repeatedly made clear that it considers its product an "information service." It has written a clause into HB 699 that excludes "information services" from the definition of services for which franchise fees are owed. The conclusion is pretty obvious and doesn't require an advanced degree in the law or technology--or experience in anything other than human nature.

In two separate negotiating sessions over the last weeks BellSouth's representatives have pretended they did not understand the implications of the phrase "information service." That's just not credible and has to be seen as a sign of fundamental dishonesty. The FCC's definition of this phrase is what allowed the phone companies to enter the internet business and is at the heart of their current DSL broadband business. It is impossible to believe that any executive or telecom lawyer is not familiar with the phrase or the way that their DSL business is dependent on the exclusive federal control the FCC established for that category. Similarly it is just not credible that any BellSouth executive does not understand that their new product is an xDSL-based product. They MUST understand what their counterparts across the table are worried about. The refusal to deal with that legitimate concern directly, and the unfulfilled promises to get their lawyers to "look into it"and "get back" with them are fairly interpreted as deceptive.

There is a cure: the phone company could acknowledge the central significance of the phrase "information service," acknowledge its belief that its IPTV service is an information service, acknowledge the role of federal definitions in exempting such service from local or state control, and then explicitly and voluntarily give up exclusion for video services delivered by "channels" in Louisiana and agree to pay for the use of local property in the same fashion that cable companies do. That's the sort of thing a corporation might do to clear up any uncertainty about whether or not it will actually pay what it is promising the people of Louisiana it will.

BellSouth/AT&T has not done anything like this--and has not even been willing to acknowledge the existence of the issue in a fair and open manner.

There's a very rancid taste left by all this. What the people of Louisiana need to recognize based on this (and similar dishonesties in Lafayette and New Orleans) is that BellSouth simply cannot be trusted to negotiate openly and honestly. In our everyday business dealings we understand what to do when we come across people whose self-interest overpowers their integrity. We first try and exclude them from anything for which we have responsibility. And, if that is not possible, we try and hem them in with rules and watch them like a hawk with the plain presumption that they will exploit any opening for their own benefit. Finally we try and develop alternate partners for the future. Lousiana should do the same.

Local Governments Oppose State-wide Franchise

Louisiana local governments are begining to trumpet the danger that HB 699, the state-wide cable franchise bill, presents to local communities. Alerts have been issued by both the Police Jury Association and the Louisiana Municipal Association.

It's the "hot topic" on the Police Jury's current legislative report where they debunk the idea that this bill will benefit rural areas. The Police Jury also has an information page which details their objections point by pont. Of particular interest is their conviction that this law's build out prohibition is particularly bad for rural areas and the concern for the exemption from franchise fees. From the Police Jury info page:

2. HB 699 prohibits local build-out requirements.
  • Without this provision, local government will not be able to ensure service to the citizens in rural, less developed areas, or poor areas.
3. HB 699 specifically exempts “information services” from franchise fees.
  • AT&T/Bellsouth is litigating around the country that video programming over internet lines is "information services” which, under the bill, are not subject to franchise fees.

The Louisiana Municipal Association's most recent newsletter has yet to make it to their online archive. Here's their lead article on the franchise bill. It emphasizes even more strongly the hidden "loophole" that allows the phone companies to evade paying franchise fees:
House-Passed Telecommunications Legislation
Set for Senate Commerce Committee Next Wednesday
“A very real economic threat for municipalities, local governments”

The Senate Commerce Committee is the next stop for the LMA-opposed HB 699 by Rep. Montgomery, the “Competitive Cable Services Act.” The committee hearing will be held Wednesday, May 31. HB 699 proposes to allow providers, such as BellSouth, to enter the cable television business (with Internet Protocol Television, or digital television delivered through fiber optic service lines) in a municipality without negotiating a franchise agreement with the local governing authority or making franchise payments directly to the municipality or doing “build-outs” of services in rural areas.
On Monday, May 15, the House voted 73-26 to send this measure to the Senate. This bill poses grave concerns for LMA and local governments in Louisiana, and LMA and its allies have conducted several meetings with telecommunications and cable television providers to discuss concerns over HB 699.
The LMA, the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, and the cable television industry all oppose HB 699, which would create a loophole enabling telecommunications companies (like BellSouth and AT&T) to escape payment of franchise fees, a significant source of revenue for local governments. That loophole is created by exempting revenues from “information services” from the definition of gross revenues covered by the bill. AT&T, the company that will utilize the provisions of this legislation, has adamantly stated that its new video service is not a cable service but is an information service. By exempting information services from franchise fees, HB 699 would give AT&T sole discretion for payment of any fees to local government. What this means is that HB 699 would leave local government subject to economic threat and intimidation by the largest telecommunications company in the nation. This threat is very real and will leave local governments defenseless against AT&T/BellSouth.
A May 23 Shreveport Times editorial states that the broadband TV proposal raises issues of competitiveness fairness. According to the editorial, “Tinkering with the current cable TV landscape could put a cloud over the future of franchise fees paid by cable providers to local government, which is a chief reason organizations such as the Louisiana Municipal Association oppose the BellSouth bill. Local government also would lose leverage that now ensures cable operators provide service to all residents.” It advises lawmakers to tread carefully with HB 699, stating “They must keep an eye first on the short-term economic and governmental impact, as well as creation of a fair playing field. But they must also divine the long-term effects in making our state competitive for both entertainment consumers and industrial prospects.”
ACTION CALL: The AT&T/BellSouth alliance has a very strong and well-financed presence at the Legislature and has placed advertisements in many Louisiana newspapers urging consumers to contact their legislators in support of HB 699. The LMA and its allies believe this is an attempt to overhaul the Local Government Franchise Act, and mayors and other local elected officials should demand fair play and insist that the new video services be subject to the same franchise agreement and fee requirements that are imposed on telephone and cable services. Your presence at the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, May 31, would be a convincing demonstration of the importance of franchise fee revenues for all local governments in Louisiana, and the need for a level playing field for ALL telecommunications and cable operators in the state. If you cannot be present, please call or email your Senators immediately and urge their opposition to HB 699. The Senate switchboard is (225) 342-2040.
It's the fundamental dishonesty of presenting a bill to the legislature that will allow the company to avoid paying local governments altogether while arguing to legislators that the bill might in fact increase their revenues that is so disturbing. Its hard to avoid the conclusion that BellSouth and AT&T are dealing dishonestly and are simply not to be trusted.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Neutered Wireless Bill Clears Committee

LaFonta's wireless bill (HB 1188) made it out of the House's commerce committee yesterday but was neutered to near meaningless by amendments offered by its sponsor.

Gone are clauses that would have repealed the Local Government Fair Competition Act for wireless technologies which was the cause that was at the heart of the original bill. What has been substituted is a one-year extension of the right of disaster-stricken communities to run a wireless network for one year after a declared state of emergency is lifted--but only if it is free and unsupported by advertising. It extends the life of New Orleans' WiFi network.

Gone with the hope to free cities from state interference, one has to assume, is the millions of dollars in investment in infrastructure that had been promised by Earthlink. (That investment, which was to fund a free, ad-supported wifi indefinitely, will not be legal.) Microsoft's promised support was to have integrated wireless capacities into its mix. That portion will no longer be worth investing in either. You have to ask yourself what high-tech companies must think of a state who refuses their attempt to provide New Orleans with free recovery infrastructure and resources in order to protect the profits of incumbents--especially when those incumbents aren't offering to do anything remotely similar to help out.

There is a silver lining: The current version of the "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" allows a municipality to offer any service it wants to the public if the speed is restricted to 144 k--an effective ban since that speed is basically useless. The new law, if adopted unchanged, would raise the number to 512 k. That's the current speed cap on New Orlean's free network and the provision will presumably allow that network to continue to operate at that speed even after the ban is reinstated. That's a real value. For New Orleans. But only if the city can afford to support it without the fees or advertising that would have kept it from being a drain on the treasury. New Orleans may well decide to do so--chiefly because a skeleton of the network is already paid for and because large swaths of the city remain without phone service. (Ironically, expanding the current network to included underpopulated areas of the city as was recently planned will directly benefit BellSouth by lessening the pressure on it to provide its traditional services.)

For other communities--the new speed is not much of a concession. 512 K is simply not a fast enough speed to justify building a new network. 512 k, even reliably provided, is slow under present conditions. It would be a waste of the public's resources to build a network with no possibility of expanding to meet the needs of the public that would be solely responsible for funding it.

Even with all the reservations noted this bill, and more pointedly New Orleans, still deserves support. It's passage will allow the city to continue to serve its citizens in some fashion and in Louisiana these days we can apparently hope for little more.

LPUA rule-setting meeting Thursday

Just so you know: The Advocate reports that the LPUA will meet Thursday night to approve rules for appealing LUS rate increases.

On Monday, Rubin ordered the authority— which governs LUS and is made up of the five city-parish councilmen who represent mostly city districts — to decide the plaintiff’s complaint within 21 days.

Rubin said he will take up the matter again once the authority has decided.

It's more than a little hard to understand what Rubin is up to here. A ruling on the merits of the extortionist's plaintiff's case has no logical connection to whether or not the bonds can be blocked. The bond question will have to be decided regardless of which way the LPUA rules and does not depend on the findings of a hearing; in addition, the delay Rubin imposes appears to ignore the clear mandates of the law that governs bond issues.

It's hard not to wonder if this is one of those cases where the judge has overstepped his bounds in order to realize his personal vision of what the case should be rather than decide the case set before him. What's Lafayette's real alternative to doing as he asks? To appeal? That would delay things even more. And it would offend the judge who still has standing to hear the case. Being the one who decides what a law means gives a judge power beyond applying the law to the decision at hand. But applying the law to the case at hand is all that is supposed to be happening.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wireless Repeal Up Today

Last week's attempt to roll back the Local Government Fair Competition Act failed in committee. LaFonta is back today for another bite at the same apple. You can watch the process by logging into the House Commerce committeee hearing this morning at 9 from the link on the Legislature's front page. (An icon will appear when the stream is live--this can be as much as 10 minutes after the scheduled hour, depending on how slowly the committee is brought to order.)

Last week's version was structured as an indendent law that had the effect of repealing the law in relation to wireless technologies. This week's version is set up as a straight exemption of the provisions of law in regard to wireless.

Expect to see the same faces and the same arguments at the table. Oddly, BellSouth did not appear to testify against the bill, leaving Cox and the Cable guys to carry their water. BellSouth has much more immediately at stake--they offer a version of paid wifi that they'd like to substitute for real landline service for some areas of the city and Cox has no WiFi product and no visible plans for one. BellSouth's lobbyists are working the topic and BellSouth has consisitently opposed New Orleans on this issue. The most dramatic instance was when threats that it presumed were made in private were made public in the Washington Post. Granted it's all been a real PR nightmare for BellSouth, so it is understandable that they'd not want to be upfront if they could manage it. But the real question is why Cox would carry water for BellSouth. Especially at this moment when doing so frees up BellSouth's lobbying contingent to pursue a state-wide cable TV franchise bill that is aimed directly at Cox. LaFonta, the author of the repeal bill was reportedly furious at Cox and had not expected their opposition.

You gotta wonder: What's the deal? You have to think that there is some horse-trading going on in the background.

Endless Lawsuits Part 24 [Update]

Update: The Advocate also has an article on yesterday's court hearing. (It's not available from the news page so I missed it until I sat down with the physical paper and a cup of coffee.) It's a good bit more informative than the Advertiser's brief. In this instance the clearer understanding of events only leads to a bit more confusion. As far as I can tell the judge isn't fond of the fact that all either side care about is the issuance of the fiber bonds and are mostly ignoring the faux question of whether or not LUS is overcharging its owners that gives the class action lawyers their thin opening to challenge the bonds. Apparently the judge has stepped around the cases set up by both LCG and the class action suit lawyers and structured the proceedings to his own vision of what should happen next. --And what will happen next is more delay than people one either side believed would be possible based on the laws involved. Puzzeling...and frustrating.

Here, from the Advertiser article, is what you need to know:
In 2004, when the project first was proposed, city officials predicted LUS could offer all three services for lower rates than its competitors charged at the time. The project has yet to get off the ground. Competitors, including BellSouth and Cox Communications, have battled the city's plans in the state Legislature, before the Louisiana Public Service Commission and in court.
The story, such as it is, is that Judge Rubin has told the LPUA--the governing body of LUS--to get on about the process of hearing the complaint.

This is all about trying to stop or drive up the cost of the sale of the bonds that will support the fiber build. --That bond sale is has NO logical connection to putative complaint. My guess is that this lawsuit, which began as a way to smear LUS during the fiber fight, has degenerated (if that is possible) into a pure extortion game. Eastin, Naquin and the bevy of lawyers probably want to get paid off for going away. That's not uncommon in class action lawsuits.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Repeal!! In Nebraska

The Journal-Star in Lincoln, Nebraska discusses a study reporting to a state task force charged with finding a way to bring broadband to Nebraska.

The study's chief conclusion is that the best way to get broadband to more of Nebraska is to allow Nebraska's public electrical utilities and municipalities to get into the business. The study points out that the private providers have had more than a decade to provide competitive services and haven't done so and that prohibiting local competitors puts Nebrasksa at a disadvantage.

That involves getting rid of a law that unduely constrains public competion.


They get it in Nebraska.

"Opponents: BellSouth is seeking unfair deal"

The Advertiser carries another article on BellSouth's state-wided cable franchise bill. The event prompting the story is:

The battle goes behind closed doors today, when warring sides will meet privately with Sen. Ken Hollis, R-Metairie, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who has invited the four major groups involved in the fight to a meeting to see if there is any common ground.

The telephone companies are on one side; joining the cable industry in opposition are the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Police Jury Association.

The local government group and BellSouth/AT&T tried meeting before the hearing in the House Committee as well. It didn't go well. BellSouth/AT&T was willing to compromise on a lot of issues that were not central and unwilling to compromise on things that were. The bill reported out of the House Committee was an odd creature: a bill that was extensively amended, ostensibly to please local government, that was implacably opposed by local government. The story gets the basis for local opposition at least partly right:
The police juries and cities have different reasons from cable operators for opposing the telephone companies. Local governments have two major issues: They want a requirement that the telephone companies would have to build out to every possible customer within their jurisdictions, and they do not want to lose control over the rights of way as they would under the legislation.
Those are the two related issues that were emphasized at the House hearings. But the Louisiana Municipal Association has also promoted two other reasons to oppose the law to its membership in a recent action alert. A third reasons to oppose the bill is that it is unnecessary--nothing stands in the way of BellSouth or any company getting a franchise now and providing competitive services. But the fourth reason is still not being talked about much publicly: BellSouth and it's purchaser AT&T who will actually be the corporation to benefit from this law has put itself in the position to pay NO franchise fees. People are uncomfortable talking about it because to bring it up is to all but accuse BellSouth of lying and its allies in the legislature of being dupes.

Southern delicacy aside, for the people of this state, this is will be the big issue downstream. The gist of this matter--and the line of questioning that reporters and legislators should pursue--is whether AT&T/BellSouth:

1) Believes that its IPTV service (Project Lightspeed) is an information service? AT&T has repeatedly made the claim that it is.

2) Ask if it is true that the Federal government, in the guise of the FCC has forbidden any regulation of information services and forbidden local governments from, in any way--including franchise fees or buildout requirements--from having any influence over information services. (If they try and give you any guff on this ask if AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre didn't claim as recently as two weeks ago in Detroit that IPTV was not subject to franchise rules because it wasn't "cable TV.")

3) Has AT&T/BellSouth ever paid a franchise fee anywhere based on it having served its IPTV cable TV "information service" to any community?

4) Whether the answer is no (as I believe it is) or yes:What obligates AT&T to pay Louisiana franchise fees given that the current bill explicitly exempts income from information services from franchise fees? Is there any legal mechanism by which BellSouth could be compelled to pay its franchise fees if its own definition of its IPTV services holds up in court? (At this point there will be fluff about a term in the bill called "video services" that is supposed to cover IPTV. Pay no attention. Stay focused on "information services," federal regulations, the FCC's exclusionary rules and the letter of the proposed law.)

5) For good measure ask: "Has AT&T ever, in any locale, no matter how densely populated or potentially profitable, ever been willing to compromise on its position that it is unwilling to offer its new cable-like services to the whole community in order to use the community's property? When you get the answer "NO" --or more likely some mealy-mouthed hedge--ask: "Is avoiding build-out requirements the real point of this law? --Is AT&T/BellSouth willing to say anything in regard to fees, or other non-buildout franchise issues (since it has no plan to comply with them) in order to secure a state-wide exemption from the legal consequences of local property rights?" (Ok, number 5 is a rhetorical question. Ask it anyway. Sometimes we learn from the way people evade answering questions.)

John Hill appears to be the only reporter in the state that is covering BellSouth's state-wide cable franchise bill. That's extremely unfortunate. It ought to be a huge story and, even in this post-Hurricane milieu, we ought to be having a vigorous public debate. This is one of those issues for which reporters exist: they ought to be educating the public. If I am correct, and I really think I am, the consequenes of passing this law will be enormous in every town and city in the state when AT&T decides it is not obligated to pay local governments a penny. (At 3%--2% below the more common 5% maximum--cable franchise fees are a quarter of Lafayette's budget. New Orleans gets 5 million dollars.) Any reporter that is on top of it will have a career-making set of stories to write.

As citizens we all have an obligation to contact our Senators and drive home the risk they will be taking if they approve this law. Call, write, and complain. Let you Senator know that a vote against Ellington's bill, SB 386 is what you expect. Contact your Senator (find your Senator)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dreaming; Your Network Desktop--and Community [updated]

Dreaming Dept.

Here's a Sunday think with CosmoPod, a free, remote desktop with a batch of nifty programs installed. At heart it's a Linux remote desktop. As far as I can tell it consists of the remote desktop and apps, both located on a server, and a downloaded client to let you access "your" desktop. ( has a short interview with the devoloper that will fill you in on more details if you'd like them.) The downloaded client is a small cross-platform java app hooks you up to the online desktop regardless of your own computer's OS. Play with it a bit. Devote a little time to thinking about how you could use this to improve your life--and how a community could use the same technology to make itself a better place to live.

The technology behind all this is apparently not too exotic in the Linux world and the designer of this website looks to be cobbling together readily-available, for-free pieces to achieve the effect.

Whether it works well or poorly right now the question it raises is profound:

Do you really need to have your own computer?

Really--the ultimate in low-cost computing is having NO computer. Do you want to travel light-weight and are still trying to get you laptop bag under five pounds? How 'bout no pounds? Interested in bridging the digital divide? There's nothing like non-existent to beat even free. Really don't like viruses--and even worse being afraid of viruses--messing up your machine. If you don't have a machine it's not your problem. Hate having to upgrade your software just to keep on being able to exchange documents with those who upgraded last week? Let somebody else worry about ensuring interoperability.

Store everything on the web. Apps, docs, everything. Access it all from whatever is to hand.

Why not?

Well I, for one, can think of a number of reasons. But most of them have to do with how I live with technology--and I'm not a typical user, either. With that caveat, here's what I think would be really nifty: an environment where your basic apps and your important storage was both online and offline and kept synched up automatically. Different users could choose their own points on the continuum of use. Some wouldn't own their own machine and would use public ones or friend's machines to access their secure account. Their essential data and apps would reside online and, at some cost in convenience and accessibility they could have access to a complete computer environment for free or very close to that. Other users would work out sharing arrangements--with family or roommates typically--and store some material online and some off, depending on available connectivity and personal preference. Others still would use their online account mostly for backup and "emergency" use, keeping essential or 'active' docs backed up automatically. This class of user might only logon to use some "exotic" application that they don't use often and can't justify owning.

Such a setup could be marginally useful today--as CosmoPod seems to be. (Yes, everyone complains about the name.) To make the user-experience better you need raw speed, low-latency, storage capacity, and perhaps most importantly: ubiquity.

The speedier the connection the more you can do with it. A speed that would be enough for writing letters wouldn't be anything like good enough to drive photoshop manipulations to the local screen. Everything is better with more speed. Related to speed is "low latency" which leads to things that applications are consistently and smoothly responsive--not slow sometimes and fast others. That's best accomplished (IMHO) by simply having the server local so that data doesn't have to hop all over the web in fragments to get to you. You also would need a lot of local on-network storage for documents. Ubiquity is more subtle and harder to accomplish. The ideal network service would be available whenever and wherever the user was and on whatever device he or she was using. Cell phones, wireless laptops, PDA's, desktops, next generation iPod's--whatever the device a person ought to be able to get to and alter the material in their account. Unless it was always available, even if in constrained ways, people wouldn't be able to make the transition to trusting enough for most folks to change their behaviors. If something like this were available reliably enough I might quit my habit of carrying my laptop almost everywhere "just in case" I need it.

Long-time readers might be suspicious that I'm about to point out that Lafayette would be the ideal place to try this out. Such readers would be right.

With 1oo meg or faster insystem bandwidth every local user could have access to vastly beefed up version of the functionality of CosmoPod. With a wireless component integrated into the system the potential for making access truly ubiquitous in the city and available over the net from Breaux Bridge or Bangkok would be exciting. All the technical prerequisite are available or could easily be made available here.

But with the big portals like Yahoo or Google already drifting in this direction and with Web 2.o apps popping up all over its probably not all that apparent that it needs to be local. Frankly I'm not sure that it does need to be local. But I do suspect that it ought to be. It's easy to be generous locally. Lafayette have bandwidth to burn internally--the incremental costs in terms of infrastructure would be limited to funding the server farm that drives it. A local version could be integrated into LUS telecom services more broadly. Your voice mail, calendar, video recording schedule, email, and much more could be easily accessed from this desktop. Local neighborhoods, schools, and churches could have calendars. Local neighborhood watches, the police, and events like Festival International and could have alerts. You could subscribe to any calendar or set up any alert to notify you directly. Catastrophic public safety alerts could go out on all "channels."

The possibilities go on and on--and would do much enhance any community. The digital divide committee, way back when the fiber optic network was first being discussed, suggested a "super ISP" or portal that would leverage the speed and capacity of a locally owned fiber network to make computing inexpensive and to enhance the community. A few short years has made available technologies available that have transformed what was then vague and visionary into something that a determined cadre of tech types could snap together out of available parts. To repeat, the developer of CosmoPod appears to have done nothing more than bring together readily available parts, come up with a name and some graphics, and put ads down one side of the page in order to pay for it all.

The model that is emerging for such services when they are stand-alone commercial services is to pay for the free version with advertising and to make the more capable version/s available for a monthly fee. It remains to be seen whether this model will fly. But Lafayette need not be tied to the commercial model. The major portals like Yahoo and Google who are doing a version of this are not paying for them directly and there is no "super" version. These services are so cheap to deploy that the Portals are using them as loss leaders; as enhancements that build traffic. That's smart business and getting people to put their valued content into Google or Yahoo's mail or calendar program is arguably the smartest and cheapest way to build the value that is needed to keep folks coming around and making the companies money by their presence.

LUS could do a very similar thing to enhance the value of its upcoming product. Following Google it could offer a good, clean set of online apps and capacities. With its promised 100 megs of internal bandwidth to all users it has already moved past the biggest barrier to a robust setup: the differing speed of users and the very limited speed of some. By reducing the price people have to pay to get a full computing experience and by building a strong community-based ISP/Portal/Web Applications nexus that exploits its bandwidth advantage it could build a services strategy that its competitors simply could not match. Those services could be offered at an additional cost to LUS that would be trivial in comparison to the additional members the services would draw. Like any new entrant LUS will have to distinguish its product from the established ones and highlight its advantages. It's hard to think of anything more appropriate for a publicly-owned utility to do than to leverage its advantages to lower the costs of entry and to enhance the community in which it operates.

We're going to have something unique here. The key to its success it to take advantage of its unique capacities to build value for those who are once its owners and consumers: the citizens of Lafayette.

Update 12:10 5/22/06-- I followed my own advice and played with CosmoPod thing this evening. I'm impressed! It's a real desktop environment. You're able to load open office, email, browsing, datebooks, calendars, etc. --the whole range of productivity tools in very sophisticated forms. There's games and creative tools available as well. Anyone using this would have basic equity with folks using windows or mac office products and a buncha other "personal" type apps as well. (Cookbooks, photo organizers and the like.)

It's not a "cheap" or less capable version of a "real" computer. It is, instead, the real thing. Arguably, it's more capable than most folk's "default" computers that they use with the apps provided by the manufacturer.

And it is free--and could be free and even more capable if we'd do something similar locally.

It is the final link in the digital divide conumdrum--with hardware costs dropping like a rock and already into the commodity range for new machines a person could have the capacity to runs such a system off a fast local network for very little. And once in wouldn't have to update their local machine very often since all the real work would be done on the net. A second big cost is connectivity. That gets to be more than the machine costs very quickly. LUS as a public utility will take a big bite out of those ongoing connectivity costs--giving folks more for less. The last great barrier is the cost (and for many the hassle) of getting useful apps going and keeping them usefully updated. A remote desktop system like CosmoPod's could kill that cost as well.

The costs of real participation could be driven into the ground.

And should be.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Georgia subsidizes Public Broadband

As municipalities in Louisiana fight to merely be allowed to build free wireless networks other states "get it" and are actually encouraging municipalities to get into the provision of wireless and other broadband networks. According to an AP story:
Georgia communities interested in establishing wireless, broadband networks can apply for state funding to help.
Separately, a state program is providing $5 million to rural communities seeking to establish any kind of broadband networks.
Now be aware that both Cox and BellSouth are headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Apparently the state of Georgia doesn't think that private corporations alone are going to be sufficient to meet the needs of the people.

During her election campaign Governor Blanco promised to bring broadband to the whole state--but all we got was an industry-dominated broadband commission that, no surprise, has not been able to find much to do. If she really intends to do something she'll have to stand up to the industry as Georgia's Governor Perdue has apparently done. As a start she could back repealing laws that prevent local people from building their own networks using their own resources.

Georgia is actually doing something other than waiting around for others to act; we ought to do the same

Georgia grants for wireless communities
Georgia grants for all broadband

Friday, May 19, 2006

New Orleans to Partner with Microsoft

New Orleans is apparently in the midst of final negotiations on a vague but tantalizingly described deal with Microsoft.

From the outset it ought to be said that holding a press conference without your putative partners in order to announce a deal you've not yet signed off on is a bit unusual--and suspicious. There are at least two reasons for rushing the announcement. The most obvious is to give Nagin something to brag about in the last two days of the mayoral campaign. The less obvious reason is to metaphorically line up Microsoft with Earthlink as partners in a rebuilding plan that involves "free" or minimal cost contributions to new infrastructure that are dependent on New Orleans' free, public, wireless network. New Orleans has to be hopeful that it can get the state to repeal the part of the law that prevents it from taking full advantage of such largesse. --Another bill concerning a legislative exemption for wireless networks is currently scheduled to be heard on Monday (the first didn't make it out of committee.)

From the Times Picayune story:
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Thursday announced a "new partnership" with computer giant Microsoft Corp. that he said will make public education, public safety and city finances more efficient by using Windows-based software developed for other cities around the country.
The part that is most likely to be interesting to folks outside of New Orleans is the digital divide and educational aspects of the partnership.
Nagin and his chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, said that part of the aim of the program is to close the 'digital divide' that separates rich and poor in New Orleans. The new technology, the mayor said, would be available to low-income families, who he said would pay $100 or less for a personal computer. They would access the Internet for free on a wireless wi-fi network the city is building.

As for the $100 computers, the mayor said such machines already exist. But Meffert noted that they're not available "off the shelf." Officials did not explain how low-income residents will be able to purchase one.
We've confronted a number of these issues in Lafayette--it's not nearly as easy as it might seem. As far as $100 dollar PC goes it seems that Meffert and Nagin are conflating two projects that aren't compatible. Microsoft's version of a digital divide computer would cost more than $100 dollars while a version of a laptop from an MIT-backed consortium has a target price of about $100 but is committed to a Linux OS. (One story) Gates has been heard muttering darkly about it not being a capable enough computer and software stability. MIT's Negraponte has fired back about proprietary software. There are also the dark horses. One set is network "thin clients" from the likes of Sun (recall the flurry about Sun during the referendum) or Linux-based computers with similar functionality (I've even thought Linux-based cable settop boxes could stand in for network-centric clients). Groups in both India and Brazil have put together low cost machines--the Indian one runs on a chip intended for cellphones. Long story short: A $100 per seat computer suitable for distribution and subsequent use over New Orleans is not yet available; the most likely candidate is MIT's laptop but Microsoft wouldn't be part of that deal.

It'll be interesting to see how this story plays out. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Lafayette wants LUS suit dismissed"

An Advocate article this morning carries a brief review of the legal filings made in preparation for Monday's hearings the Naquin-Eastin class action lawsuit.

The lawsuit is another in a series of lawsuits that seek to stand in the way of Lafayette issuing bonds in support of LUS' fiber to the home project. Regardless of pretext preventing the bonds sale has been the central element in all these lawsuits.

With luck we'll see a favorable decision on Lafayette's arguments and the suit will be dismissed around June 1.

I think I'll light a candle come Monday. | News | Lafayette wants LUS suit dismissed

AT&T Speaks Plainly--In Michigan

AT&T is speaking plainly in Michigan and we will be making an enormous mistake if we don't listen here in Louisiana.

BellSouth is currently ramming a state-wide franchise bill through the Lousiana legislature. It is doing so by issuing promises that it cannot keep and which its new owner, AT&T does not intend to keep.

No less than Ed Whitacre, AT&T CEO, told the nation plainly Monday that he doesn't think he has to pay franchise fees regardless of what laws states and communities pass. Here is what he said in Detroit:
If Michigan doesn't pass a new law, AT&T may begin delivering TV service anyway, Whitacre said after his speech, noting that Internet-based TV is not cable TV and therefore existing regulations don't apply.

'Could we just come in and do it? Sure,' he said. 'We're still contemplating that. But we'd rather work within the system. We hope to make friends.'
So he doesn't have to sign state--or national--franchises; he can do what he wants to do. The laws don't apply to his company. He's only agreeing to hand over to locals 5% off the top of his gross because he's being nice and wants to make friends.

I don't believe that. I don't think anyone who watched the telecos manipulate the 1996 telecom act to neuter and then eliminate competition from CLECs like EATel does either. They're not in it for nice. Whitacre is the last monopolist. He's in it for control; for empire; to recreate, quite literally, the old AT&T monopoly.

In Michigan they are zeroing in on what Whitacre really wants--and it is not about being thought of well:

If bills pending in the Michigan legislature pass, AT&T and other cable providers would be able to get a statewide franchise that lets them decide which neighborhoods to serve. AT&T has told investors it plans to serve 90 percent of what it calls "high-value" customers and 5 percent of "low-value" customers.

Municipal officials fear that means low-income areas will be bypassed and that cable companies eventually will stop serving unprofitable neighborhoods. Existing local franchise agreements require Comcast Corp. and other providers to offer their services to everyone in a community.

Municipal officials don't just "fear" their communities will be abused in this way. They know they being taken for ride--municipal officials across the country belong to national organizations and actually talk to each other. They know that AT&T brooks no compromise with local communities. They are hearing from their colleagues that AT&T is suing where locals assert that their laws apply and is being sued where they ignore local ordinances. In every venue what AT&T has refused to compromise on is what is called "build out requirements," local requirements that would force them to serve all of the people of the community if they want to use the public's rights of way. AT&T fully intends to keep its promises to its investors and it can't do that unless it runs over local resistance.

AT&T intends to use any law it gets from the states to exempt it from having to follow local rules to serve all and to serve all at the same price. That's what it's all about.

It doesn't matter a whit what outgoing BellSouth lobbyists and executives claim. Their AT&T overlords have spoken clearly.

The boys from BellSouth have been claiming in conference calls to local leaders, in committee hearings, and when they eat lunch with legislators is that the franchise bill they are pushing is merely a convenience for them. They are dangling a huge pot of money in front of people and suggest that they'll serve almost everyone with shiny new systems.

It's just not true and their AT&T overlords are willing to say so: Whitacre himself says they don't have to get anyone's permission. AT&T promises their investors that they'll offer service to 90% of "high value" customers and only 5% of its "low value." Low value customers spend $110 a month and less on telecom. What percentage of Louisiana's users spends that much?

We need to stop listening to the BS puppets. Whitacre is telling us plainly: they'll be no money and they'll be no huge buildout. Not in Michigan and certainly not in much poorer Louisiana.

We're being told clearly and plainly. We need to listen up. And we need to tell our legislature to junk this bill. This bill has already cleared the house. Contact your Senator (find your Senator) and let them know that you expect them to do the right thing here and preserve the local franchise.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

New Cox, Same as the old Cox

A letter to the editor that I submitted about three weeks ago popped up in the Advertiser today. Back then (so long ago!) there were several active repeal bills in the legislature and Sharon Kleinpeter had had published a pretty seriously misleading letter that attempted to discredit LUS and present the (un)Fair Competition Act as, well, fair. She was ostensibly responding to an editorial by Terry Huval that focused on disaster preparedness and the potential for using "go zone" money available in the wake of the storms to build modern communications systems. (An editorial in support of repeal by the Advertiser, which presented a target that couldn't be portrayed as self-interested, was conveniently ignored.) All that context has gotten forbiddingly distant.

At the time I posted an fuller objection to Kleinpeter's letter that included my sources for claims I made about the accuracy of the letter. Here is today's letter reworked to include similar references.
New Cox is the same as the old Cox

In a recent letter, Sharon Kleinpeter, a Cox official in Baton Rouge, sings a song that sounds like the old Cox. That Cox, you may recall all too well, raised Lafayette's rates 49 percent between 2000 and 2004, commissioned misleading push-polls, sponsored a dishonest 'academic forum' that misled the public, dismissed the competence of Lafayette officials and sneered at our desire to have a state-of-the-art telecommunications network.

We've not seen any new price increases since LUS' plan was announced, and most of the Cox officials who tried to scare us are now gone. This new letter, however, reawakens that old distrust.

Kleinpeter's letter tries to convince us that repealing the (un)Fair Competition Act that has been used to block the fiber optic utility we approved last July would leave us open to 'cross-subsidization' problems that beset Bristol, Va. The trouble, as Ms. Kleinpeter knows or should know, is that Bristol was cleared of cross-subsidization charges a year ago. The electricity rate increases she tries to scare us with came about because an unusually good long-term contract with its electricity supplier expired. The increase merely brought Bristol's rates up to the regional average and was unrelated to telecommunications. The truth is easy to find in Bristol's local newspaper.

Cox should to stop trying to block repeal of a law that serves their interests - but not those of our community - and try building a relationship with Lafayette based on trust, not deception.
I still think Cox would be smarter to quit trying to impose special disadvantages on Lafayette and simply compete. The "poor pitiful me" routine doesn't work when the purveyor is obviously one of the biggest bullies on the block.

On Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg

The Advocate carries the odd story, splashed across the front page of its Acadiana section this morning, that retells the tale one Steve Pellessier told the Concerned Citizens for Good Government yesterday. Pellessier wants Lafayette to sell off LUS to pay for current shortfalls in road funding.

Thank heaven that at least some folks have a classical education. Joey Durel responded humorously but basically dismissively to the suggestion by saying that do so would be like getting "rid of the goose that laid the golden egg."

The idea of selling off a consistent money-maker, to the tune of 17.2 million and a quarter of the city-parish budget each year, for a one-shot, quick fix play to meet the parish's road needs following Katrina & Rita is plain foolish. It has to be one of the purest examples of the lessons of Aesop's fable concerning "the destructiveness of greed, the virtue of patience."

First, historically LUS has had lower prices than its private competitors (the current rough equity is unusual) and Pellessier appears to know that. Citizens would end up paying twice: once in the form of 25% higher taxes--the money has to come from somewhere--and once in the form of higher utility bills. Second, and this point appears to have very discretely not been raised considering the current divisiveness of the issue in the council, it would be a sale of city assets to benefit almost solely suburban needs and the downstream cost of more expensive electricity would be borne solely by city residents as well. Politically this should be a major nonstarter. The current push to dissolve the city-parish form of government is mostly based on formless resentment. Any movement in this direct would give that movement a basis in real injustice and a real constituency.

Beyond the foolishness of the idea of killing the goose you've got the fact that this goose is fertile. The goose in the fable is obviously sterile--it lays golden eggs but those eggs don't hatch. It is unique. LUS however is incubating another goose that promises to lay even larger golden eggs. The mere threat of an LUS Telecom network has kept Cox from raising prices. The reality of a cheaper, more capable alternative will save us all a bundle off our monthly bills.

Beyond the cost savings we should all be aware that the income to the city-parish coffers should be substantial. That 17.2 million LUS gives us comes chiefly from electricity...a low-margin utility. The money coming into the coffers from the Telecom division will mostly be from high-margin cable industry competition. How much do you spend on electricity? How much do you spend on cable, internet, and phone service? Think about it...

If there is anything that's more foolish than killing the goose that laid the golden egg it's killing one that has offspring that also lay golden eggs.

Though the Advocate story doesn't mention it Pellessier, in a recent letter, did say that LUS could keep its recently voted-in telecom division. That's a crock and Pellessier, an opponent of the LUS plan, should know it. Much of what makes the telecom unit economic--and the main reason more cities are not in a position to make the same decision Lafayette has--is that Lafayette already owns and operates the necessary infrastructure in poles and maintenance crews in order to service its electrical division. It is hard not to suspect that a suggestion this off the mark isn't motivated in some part by left over resentments from having lost that fight.

You'd think a "Certified Commercial Investment Member" -- someone who specializes in commercial real estate investments--would understand that trading a growing revenue-producing asset for a one-shot wasting asset is always a bad idea. Don Bertrand makes the point more succinctly:
Don Bertrand said he's glad to have a discussion about how to fund roads, but that LUS is the city's best asset. Bertrand said there are other options to raise funding without giving up a revenue-producing entity like LUS.

"When we're done, we'll have roads, but roads don't produce money," Bertrand said.

Franchise Bill Passes in House

Correction 6/5/05: A reader email alerts me to an error in this article: Trahan voted for the bill, not against it as I originally reported in the summary table below. I must have misread the officially tally that I'd linked to in the paragraph above. My bad. (Strikethroughs denote the original mistake and red text the corrections.)

The state-wide franchise bill backed by BellSouth moved through the bowels of the House today. (You may correctly assume I think this bill s__t. Insert appropriate scatological jokes here.)

This is the same bill that strips localities of their property rights in regards to Telecom (and only telecom) companies. Local governments ability to make contracts that serve the interests of local citizens based on their ownership of local rights of way would be usurped by and handed over to corporations. The most immediate effect will be to exempt AT&T/BellSouth from the current rules that require that cable service be offered to all in a community by any corporation that leases their property. AT&T has been insisting that it won't pay a dime in franchise fees, and doesn't have to pay attention to local desires about how its land is used and what is placed on that land. In some places it has sued to forbid local governments from exerting their property rights and in others it has been sued for ignoring them. In all cases it is clear that AT&T believes it has no obligation to pay franchise fees. This will have a huge impact on local income. Lafayette gets $900,000 a year and New Orleans got $5,000,000. That's based on cable income. Every dollar BS takes from Cox will mean another dollar in taxes that someone in those cities has to pay.

There has seldom been so raw an example of our state representatives selling out the interests of localities to boost the profit margin of one of the world's largest corporations. Their mothers would be ashamed.

The bill passed 73 to 26. If you like to see a list of the heels and heroes visit the page detailing the final vote. If your representative is a heel you really ought to let him or her know.

Here's how Lafayette's reps did. Even up. That sad showing is twice as good as the state average. I expect that's pretty much a product of Lafayette's first hand experience with the untrustworthy nature of BS. No better than the state's average and that's a real shame.

Ernest J. Alexander Hero Republican
Clara Guilbeau Baudoin Hero Democrat
Wilfred T. Pierre Heel Democrat
Gillis J. Pinac Heel Democrat
Joel C. Robideaux Heel
Donald Mark "Don" Trahan Hero Heel Republican

Pinac, who represents the sliver of Lafayette that includes Duson was particulary embarrasing though. As the chair of the committee he has used his leadership role to pretty consistently help the telecos out on several bills. Maybe the mayor of Duson should give him a call. though. As the chair of the committee he has used his leadership role to pretty consistently help the telecos out on several bills. Maybe the mayor of Duson should give him a call.

Monday, May 15, 2006

FYI: Lafayette Wireless

Found in the "notes" to both wireless bills being considered today in the House Commerce Committee:
The Lafayette City-Parish Government is also studying the feasibility of providing a wireless Internet system for public access. A representative of the Lafayette Utilities Systems told us that capital costs for a typical wireless system could be $110, 000 to $140, 000 per square mile, depending on density and geography of the covered area. Operation and maintenance costs could be 25% to 40% of the capital costs per year.
These Fiscal Notes are from the office of the legislative auditor and serve to inform legislators about the fiscal impact of proposed laws. The analyst says these bills will have no impact on state government and will only impact local governments if they choose to build wireless networks.

It's good to see this a bit more out in the open (though responding to the legislative auditor's questions don't really constitute public discussion). It's also gratifying to see that LUS is studying the possibility in useful detail.

According to Wikipedia the city of Lafayette covers about 47.7 square miles. Working with the figures LUS gave the auditor the cost to provide Lafayette with a wireless system would work out to between $5,247,000 and $6,678,000. That's roughly between 4% and 5% of the $125,000,000 planned investment in our fiber-optic network. (But with a substantial continuing cost.) That's been the cost estimate bandied about on Lafayette Pro Fiber for awhile. It would be a great thing to go ahead and build out a wireless net concurrently with and integrated into the fiber-optic network. LUS would achieve some economies by combining the two operations.

But more important would be the integration of the two networks. Since we began the odyssey toward a publicly owned telecom network the "holy grail" of a triple play of cable TV, telephony, and internet has expanded and has become a "quadruple play" with the inclusion of wireless data/cellular services. Such a package is in the works by both AT&T/Bellsouth and Cox. A strong, high bandwidth wireless system would allow LUS to offer its own, tightly integrated, powerful counterpoint. Such a network could, by building on the ubiquitous LUS fiber backbone provide much more bandwidth than is being contemplated in any other wide-area wireless network. The difference would be as striking as the difference between the fiber-optic based system and older technologies. High bandwidth wireless would support wireless VOIP and a partnership with a cellular company would provide roaming capacities outside the local network.

By offering such a product LUS could again leapfrog its competition and provide its citizen/customers services that would be unrivaled in capacity. There'd be a raft of associated benefits--the possibility of a free (or very low cost) low bandwidth tier could be an effective way to address the digital divide (and make visitors and tourists remember us fondly). Full available bandwidth could be a part of, or a cheap add-on to standard bundles--and could be so inexpensive as to make that addition an easy decision.

This is the sort of bold move that has always marked Lafayette; Let's go for it.

(And let's all hope for a quick resolution of the current lawsuits.)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Outsourcing Big Brother"

I try and point to something fairly thoughtful and, usually, upbeat on Sundays in the hope that people will find something interesting to reflect upon on the day many of us devote to rest. Today that's Feld's "Outsourcing Big Brother" which qualifies on the thoughtful if not upbeat dimension. (I've been chewing over a wild idea that is at the intersection of geeky and social and, if I get it formed up before obligations of the day you might get that to chew on too.)

Most of us have a pretty upbeat sense that the internet is a technology that promotes freedom. Feld agrees and celebrates that aspect. At the same time:
It is the paradox of our time that just as new technologies offer unlimited possibilities for freedom of speech, government “deregulation” creates new bottlenecks. It is a race between the new technologies for freedom and what I call “censorship by outsourcing.”
While Feld's thesis might appear to be derived from this week's headlines this essay is actually almost a year old and sounded its warning before the recent revelations of collusion between big government and big corporations made this topic the day's hot ticket.

What seems most worth thinking about is Feld's contention that some forms of "deregulation" that we usually think of as fostering freedom collide with free speech rights on the internet. The tension between frees speech and corporate ownership of media is nothing new--we even have a hackneyed saw about it: "Freedom of the press belongs to those that own it." In this instance the worry is that deregulation is actually in the service of concentrating ownership (not the usual intent) and that the resulting huge corporataion (Like SBC/AT&T/BellSouth/?) have a vested interest in pleasing and sustaining the regulators at the federal level on whom they depend for their very existence.

The thought that deregulation leads to corporate consolodation and a general loss of freedom is an idea that seems counterintuitive on the surface but looks pretty credible if you look at the actual dynamics of this particular case.

So, if you're interested in a little dark reflection on what is an overcast day here in Lafayette, take a look.

Oh, what the hey...Here's a teaser:
...[The internet's] nirvana of free speech did not arise spontaneously out of nature, or even as the result of technological determinism. The internet grew out of two important principles. The first was “common carriage,” the idea that the provider of the essential service (here, the phone lines that carried the original dial-up internet) must make that service available to everyone at the same rate and cannot interfere with anyone using the service. Mark Cooper has called this principle of common carriage “essential to the DNA of capitalism.” Historically, we have applied it to inns and tolls, so that goods could move freely. We applied it again to railroads, then public utilities like electricity and phones. This prevented the entity that controlled transport of goods or information from using control of this essential facility to extort monopoly prices or favor one type of goods or services over another.

The second principle was the right to interconnect. If I run a communications network, I have a right under US law to interconnect with any other communications network. This allows networks to compete. Without this principle, a rival network could never have a chance. The competing network would refuse to connect, and the few customers on the new network would not be able to reach the majority of people on the other network. (Economists call this phenomenom a “network effect.”)

The internet arose from this universe of common carriage and interconnection. It placed control of content and services in the hands of the people at the edges of the network, rather than under the control of the network operator.

But the FCC has eliminated both of these requirements...

BellSouth Lies

From a CNet story dealing with the fallout from recent revelations involving the NSA and phone records. Without further comment. Emphasis mine.
A CNET survey published in February asked telecommunications carriers whether they 'turned over information or opened up their networks to the NSA without being compelled by law.' Neither Verizon nor AT&T would answer yes or no to that question.

But BellSouth did answer in the negative at the time. A BellSouth representative on Thursday said he could not explain the discrepancy, and provided with a statement saying: 'BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.' The statement did not elaborate on what 'proper legal authority' might be, and whether it would encompass a mere request from the White House.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

BayouBuzz On Monday's Wireless Vote

BayouBuzz's Steve Sabludowsky posted a story yesterday that is worth pointing to here. In a story titled "Louisiana Faces Most Important Issue In Legislative Session On Monday" he makes the case that Monday's house commerce committee vote on freeing wireless communications from the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act is the most important piece of legislation this season. That's a pretty dramatic claim but he makes a good case.

The immediate issue is emergency preparedness--the Fair Competition Act prevents cities from using city resources to build public networks that are used to provide services directly to the public--whether free, paid, or emergency-based. New Orleans is evading the law by ignoring it during the "emergency"-- a dicey move at best and strictly time-limited. The city would like to continue to offer free wifi service to its beleaguered residents but BellSouth and Cox are standing in the way of a partial repeal.

New Orleans' need is critical but the need across Louisiana and especially south Louisiana is chronic as Sabludowsky documents. We simply don't have a decent emergency communications network in place. Neither does the rest of the country as 9-11 demonstrated but in our case the need is utterly predictable. There will be another hurricane, and another, and another. We need to be free to take care of our own. No emergency service is profitable and the incumbents are NOT going to do this for us. We have to do it for ourselves and we have to be allowed to defray the cost however we please--after all it is our resources and we bear the costs both monetary and social. The state should stand out of our way--as they stood out of our way before the incumbents had this odious law passed.

I can add this personal note: I worked at the Cajundome after Katrina and Rita and modern telecommunications, when they came back up, were immeasurably valuable in the immediate aftermath of the storms. Part of what Lafayette Coming Together did at that time was put in VOIP phones, a WiFi node, and a computer lab with an internet connection. Members helped rework the dome's network infrastructure to handle new traffic and stabilize the existing framework. All this was not as visible as other relief efforts but without them the Cajundome would have worked much more poorly and the evacuees would have had a much more difficult time locating resources. Communications is absolutely crucial.

Sabludowsky asks:
Is there any more important issue on the Legislative agenda than saving lives, saving parishes and saving our state?
He's right.

The article closes with this plea.

Here are the members of the House Commerce committee. They must know you want the best protection possible.

Please contact them now. Please attend the hearing on Monday. The lives we save, might be our own and if we fail to set up every means to communicate when we have had a year to do so, Lord help us because Congress won't. Please forward this column to your friends and business associates. For the record, I am not being paid by anyone for writing this. I have written this column because I truly believe this is the only way to save Louisiana and Plaquesmines, St. Tammany, Orleans, Jefferson, Cameron, St. Bernard and other parishes in the direct path of the storm.

He's right about all that too...please let your legislators know that the people are watching and that they care whether or not their representatives allow local people to do for local people with the state stepping in to forbid it because a couple of contribution-wielding corporations wants to protect what they imagine to be "their" future profits.

It's our state.