Monday, February 27, 2006

"Neutrality and municipalities"

Ed Gubbins, a seasoned telecom reporter, had a piece a bit back that's worth looking over. The story, Neutrality and municipalities, looks at the net neutrality debate with an eye toward its effect on the development of municipal broadband. Overall it's pretty fair though it does have a pretty serious conceptual flaw. The article confuses "net neutrality" --the question of whether certain content providers should be allowed to be favored over others by the owners of the pipe that comes into your home-- with "structural separation" --question of whether the owners of the pipe should be allowed to provide content at all. The current net neutrality debate was set off when ATT & BellSouth chairmen asserted a right to charge content providers like search engines (Google, Yahoo) and VOIP (net phone providers like Vonage) special fees for better-than-best-effort service. No one is suggesting that BellSouth not be allowed to sell phone service or Cox no longer sell cable! That would be structural separation. All that is being suggested for private providers is that they not be allowed to favor certain providers (including themselves) over others on the Internet side of their networks.

So setting up an implicit equivalence between the structural separation issue that's been active in municipal debates and the newer net neutrality debate involving the phone companies is pretty profoundly unfair to municipalities since it sets up dual standards for public and private providers with the public providers seemingly being held to a radically higher standard.

In one place the author shows that he does posses an understanding of the difference between the two ways of encouraging competitive services:
...even wholesale municipal network models don't necessitate net neutrality. It's conceivable, at least in theory, that municipalities could seek to defray part of the cost of their broadband networks by following AT&T's lead, charging content providers for premium use of networks. Baller acknowledged this strategy was possible but said he hadn't heard of any municipalities discussing or considering it.
He's right, but needs to make the contrary explicit as well: a retail model like LUS' (and BellSouth's and Cox's) can still embrace the sort of net neutrality that phone companies want to kill. --If the company involved is willing to do so. The example Gubbins could have used was Lafayette. LUS has declared a policy of IP (Internet Protocol) neutrality. It declared early in the fight that it wouldn't block ports. Packet prioritization --which is what is at stake in the net neutrality debates the phone companies have started--really doesn't make sense in LUS' context. Such issues only arise when local congestion makes makes providing a special "fast lane" for priviledged content noticeably faster for consumers (otherwise content providers would have no reason to pay the extra freight charge). LUS' fiber to the home network simply won't have the sorts of local congestion issues that make prioritization appear useful.

----

But now back to the article itself. The main thrust of the piece is to wonder whether the concerns raised by the phone companies'' declared intent to begin charging extra to improve the speed of some products will make the municipal alternative more attractive.

The story does a good job of dealing with some of the real-world constraints on the practical application of structural separation to municipal broadband projects; after discussing the large scale, wholesale, Utopia model in Utah:
But the Utopia model isn't for every town. One of the rare qualities that accounts for its success, Baller said, is the scale it achieved by harnessing the collective scale of 11 cities. As the network promises to ultimately reach more than 450,000 customers, service providers are confident they'll make a profit, even if they have to split the market several ways. Some other cities that tried to replicate the wholesale network model haven't been able to pull it off because their modest populations don't hold the same enticement for service providers. For example, even with a population of more than 100,000, Lafayette, La., couldn't make wholesale economics work, Baller said, nor could Bristol, Va. Both were forced to adopt retail models for their muni networks. In Grant County, Wash., where the law prohibits municipalities from offering retail service, a wholesale municipal network took on 35 service providers, which fractured the market too much to make it lucrative for them.
It's nice to see an actual, empirically-based analysis of the real economics that are at issue in the wholesale model (even if it is unfortunately confused with network neutrality).

Friday, February 24, 2006

Cox; the competition begins?

If you haven't picked up your copy of the Independent this week you should. In addition to a really fine piece about our local Mardi Gras Indians (much of it located in and around my neighborhood, I'm proud to report) there's also a hopeful article on Cox Communications purported new attitude toward Acadiana. Now this has been brewing for awhile. Cox kept a low profiled during the last part of the referendum fight; it declined to join the later lawsuits; it hired Kathleen Blanco's daughter to represent it; Cox even got a backhanded, indirect endorsement from the Mayor during his state of the city-parish address. Hey, they also went ahead with planned construction in Lafayette without threatening us. Now this article places all that in a context that paints a picture of Cox as a good citizen. I'm willing to hear it, even if I do want to wait to make a final judgment. Actions speak louder than words and recent actions at least have my attention.

Normally, I'd have a hard time taking all this too seriously, much of it, like hiring the not-particularly-qualified daughter of the governor is open to multiple interpretation. But Cox has been through major shakeups at both the national and the regional level and it seems at least possible that good things could honestly come of that. Nationally, Cox bought itself private during our fight here--something which changes its orientation toward the world pretty radically. Locally the "bad actors" that were most visible in opposing the community are gone, victims of a purge whose motivation is still murky. Much of the purge took place far in advance of the consolidation with the Baton Rouge market that followed Cox shedding rural markets across the country in order to help pay for buying itself private. The bulk of the purge took place suspiciously soon after the battle of Lafayette turned into a public relations disaster for the incumbents.

The Competition Begins
But all those musings about PR pale besides further evidence that Cox has decided to compete. Those who've followed the fight here will recall that Cox did not raise rates here when they raised them in Baton Rouge. That was widely read as a direct result of LUS' threatened competition. You don't raise rates while the city is waging a campaign to convince the public to allow it to compete with you.

So it's really nice that the Independent notices the clear implications of the new pricing structure for Cox's triple play:
Cox is offering its "Clear Choice" triple play -- cable, Internet and phone -- for $89.95 for new subscribers and expanded basic cable customers. The deal is available only in Baton Rouge, where it competes against Eatel's triple play, and Acadiana, where the threat of LUS looms.
That's right; you're only getting a great deal where Cox has Fiber to the Home competition: in LUS or EATEL territories. Living in New Orleans? You're out of luck. Now, in the interests of good consumerism I should immediately point out that this price only lasts for six months and the small print on the website is literally too small to read. You'll have to call and speak to a salesperson to find out what other conditions the offer carries.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

"4 BR, WD FLRS, FTTH"

Here's a little taste of something that never got talked about during the July election: the property value of having Fiber To The Home (FTTH). Here's the point:
...an oft-cited study by Render Vanderslice claims that homes with fiber connectivity sell for approximately $4000 to $6000 more than comparable homes with copper connections.
Sounds awfully good doesn't it? Add 5000 dollars to the value of each home in Lafayette. And it's good research--for new subdivisions; which is where this sort of research has had to be done. Fancy new subdivisions are the only places that have had FTTH until recently. And its awfully easy to compare two of the cookie cutter subdivision houses we're seeing all to much of these days. (This sort of research follows similar research done on buried utilities, which is why nicer subdivisions, especially those where the developer is also the builder, are eating the expense of buried utilities.) So the research wasn't done in situations that are very similar to bringing FTTH to a large existing stock of homes.

Less expensive urban homes in a city like Lafayette where everyone will have access are not likely to see such a large or clearly documentable bump. After all, the whole point of a public, municipal utility is prevent real broadband from turning into a rare, expensive privilege of the few. But even so you can expect it to enhance the value of Lafayette real estate.

Even a modest bump value multiplied across the entire city is a very large increase in real wealth. Wikipedia claims there are 46,865 housing units in Lafayette. At the unrealistic 5000 dollars home bump suggested by Render Vanderslice the increase in home value would be 234,325,000, in the neighborhood of twice what the fiber project would cost. But even if housing stock in Lafayette proper only had jump which is 10% of that established number (which seems low to me, given the research) the value of housing in Lafayette would increase by 2,343,250 dollars. Even a two million plus increase in local wealth is real money.

The builders association, the realtors association and not a few individual realty companies endorsed fiber during the referendum fight. These are the folks who'd have cause to keep track of the research on things like the added value of buried utilities and fiber-optic broadband. Seems like they might have thought this through more thoroughly than the rest of us. The increase in the attractiveness of city property would also help the city's aging housing stock compete against newer homes built outside the city, helping avert some of the common center-city flight that has plauged American cities and would help maintain a healty, "smart growth" core for the parish.

Add property values to your list of potential positive outcomes of Lafayette's fiber build.

Post Scriptum: We occasionally hear from people who don't particularly value democratic decision making and dismiss public works projects as some sort of circus for the masses. Typically they claim that only "voting with dollars" is really moral. Leaving aside the huge problems with this excuse for morality, such folks should be moved by the evidence that FTTH increases property values even if they do not value quality of life, self-determination, or equity. Somehow I don't expect to hear any concessions. My guess is that even in the bed-rock domain of property value ideology will matter more than evidence.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Will public access TV go dark?"

Here's a short follow up to yesterday's post on Public Access Channels and our own AOC. The article makes some of the same points I made locally in their New York/National context.
Nationwide, some 1.2 million volunteers and 250,000 community groups who produce the grassroots programming could be blacked out.

"There's an African proverb that says 'When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,'" said Anthony Riddle of the Alliance of Community Media, a group dedicated to preserving public access nationwide.
This is one of those rare issues that only looks like an obscure national issue; it is really 30,000 discrete local issues. Letting the phone companies shift it to the national level means forever separating those that benefit (local citizens) from those who control the benefit (535 reps in Washington). Just how long will it take, once all the rules are made in Washington, for the top 10 cablecos and phone companies in the country to convince Congress to take any benefit at all away from local communities by labeling it "anti-competitive regulation?" I don't give it a decade.

It is a profoundly bad idea...at once anti-conservative and anti-liberal and anti-community. The only beneficiaries are the phone companies...and 535 people who will probably get two election cycles worth of special-interest funding out of it before it's a forgotten issue.

If you'd like to keep local issues local you really ought to write your congressional representatives and tell them. Ditto for the state reps when this issue appears in March.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

AOC, Politics, Culture & Future Tech

Take a look at the excellent article on AOC in Tuesday morning's Advertiser. The story, AOC: Tune in, speak out, takes a look an institution we may take for granted but which would be deeply appreciated in most parts of the country. (Similarly, we probably ought to be more aware of what treasures KRVS and KBON are.)

I'd ask that you go read that article and think about it for a minute before returning to this post. (Don't joke me; you know this is just the sort of article you skip over in the newspaper.) It'd be helpful to have it fresh in your mind as you read on here.

AOC is a prime example of a public access television; as local viewers will know AOC shows air on cable channels 5 & 19 and carry a smorgasbord of locally originated shows. Popular shows range from call-in shows, to talking head panels, to cooking shows--some in French, some in English and some in whatever it is we talk around here. Space on the cable lineup is a part of the local franchise agreement, as is an amount of money (originally) dedicated to keeping AOC up and running.

Institutions like AOC serve as a bulwark to support free expression and local culture in an era of mass media that threatens to give us all the same accents and make us parrot the same opinions. Community TV varies tremendously in quality. I've lived in college towns across the country and AOC is the first Local Access Channel that I've ever watched regularly. It's head and shoulders above most. It's unfortunate that folks tend to compare AOC shows to slick, commercial shows that appear on the adjacent channels. Tune in, you might develop a taste for unvarnished, awkward, and genuine local content.

Local Access channels are valuable to communities--and endangered. Public Access is tied to local cable franchises and funding for them generally comes from the contract a cable company makes with a local government for the use of the public rights of way. The principle is that some portion of the media ought to be preserved for the public. A similar principle has always applied to the broadcast media. Killing the local franchise is the phone companies latest "big issue" at both state and national levels--they claim they need it to begin competing with the cable companies in offering their version of cable TV. As I've argued the their real purpose is to gain an advantage over cable companies by wiggling out of the local franchise requirements that a company doing cable TV business in town must offer the service to every citizen, not just to the most profitable parts of town.

But even if it isn't the purpose of the legislation, killing the local franchise will also put every local access channel at risk. If it is killed out-right the money and the access to the bandwidth dies. If, as most recent proposals suggest, this money is collected at the state (or federal!) level and remitted to localities it will come directly to the local government which will have to make a conscious decision to continue to support local access. The temptation to "appropriate" that cash, no longer earmarked in a local contract for support of the local channels will be overwhelming and the battle to keep it for its original purpose will be endless.

This isn't a merely theoretical concern and Lafayette's AOC is a case in point. In the last contract revision the money that had always been specifically allocated to AOC was instead handed directly over to Lafayette Consolidated Government with the understanding that it would now fund AOC. You'll not be surprised to learn that citizen free speech which displeased councilmen led to subtle and not so subtle threats to get rid of Acadiana Open Channel. That some councilmen don't like what citizens say--either in council meeting or on AOC--is not a reason to stop letting the public speak--at council meetings or on AOC. Indeed, it's proof that the comments sections of the council meetings and AOC are doing just exactly what we, and government officials, should want it to do: provide a forum for free speech, even if it is a bit bruising to the delicate constitution of our leaders.

But AOC, and other public access channels across the country, are more than irritations to local leaders who get a little too full of themselves. They are also disliked by some, not for what they are, but for what they remind us of: that not all media has to be commercial, that local interests are not necessarily best served by leaving every decision up to large national corporations and that some space for reflecting local values, local customs, and local cultures should be preserved. We here in Lafayette are well aware that if we want our local Cajun and Creole cultures to survive we'll have to do it ourselves--and in media that means we can't expect the national, commercial media to even notice we exist on any regular basis. (You'll not hear any Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes on Comedy Central. And Emeril Lagasse, sadly (1, 2), is the closest thing to regional cooking we're likely to see.)

The Future:
If you listen around town you can hear the beginnings of a real vision for Lafayette: one that focuses on buzzwords like "Smart Growth," "The New Urbanism," "The Creative Class," "The Cultural Economy," "Fiber-Optic Bandwidth," "Diversity," "High Technology" and a renewed sense that we can only count on ourselves to secure our community's future. You can hear that vision coming together in speeches by the mayor, the topics list for the current Leadership Lafayette classes, articles in the newspapers, and invited speakers in yearly series. Something is coming together.

AOC has earned the right to be part of that picture. It's at the juncture of High Tech and The Creative Class -- it is one of the more credibly diverse institutions in the city, and is a mainstay in sustaining the cultural distinctiveness on which hopes for a culturally based economic segment rest. The director, Ed Bowie, and the board seem well aware that the coming death of the broadcast/cable model of TV means they have begun to prepare in rather obvious ways for a new universe in which to provide media access to the public. The podcast classes are a smart move and prepare for the day when video podcasts will be part of the mix of shows. AOC's reaching out to make a connection to LUS in anticipation of big in-system bandwidth is similarly forward-thinking.

Lafayette is lucky to have AOC. In the coming obscure battles over national and state video franchising we should be aware that we do have a dog in that fight. It's in everyone's interest that local franchising and local access stations survive. But it would especially benefit Lafayette in our unique situation.

Data from Japan's Fibered Nation

In a recent post I noted Japan's transition to fiber...a transition with implications for Lafayette's future. A new study adds to implications for any locale that achieves big broadband status.

Dirk van der Woulde, Dutch telecom guru, sent notice this morning of a new paper out of Japan with the off-putting title: "The Impact and Implications of the Growth in Residential User-to-User Traffic." If that sounds dense and hard to read, rest assured that it is. MuniWireless posted a pdf of a slideshow by the paper's lead author that re-presents the major points in classic PowerPoint style that is a bit more digestible.

The earlier post, "Japan, Soon to Be Fiber Broadband Nation" noted the way that the Japanese have used their dense DSL broadband infrastructure (cable is a minor player by US standards) to leverage a rapid shift to fiber to the home (FTTH). The US Telcos haven't been able to manage the same shift--putting the US as a distinct competitive disadvantage as new forms of media and ways of communicating are developed elsewhere. Japan is well on its way, in both its rural and its urban areas, to being the world's first fully fibered nation.

The new "Residential User" study focuses on, well, the residential user. Commissioned by five major Japanese ISPs the study is motivated by an attempt to understand the enormous growth in backbone traffic that has occurred as the shift to fiber accelerated--symmetric residential traffic increased 45% in 2005. What caused that jump? Would it continue? The fear was very explicit:
There is a strong concern that if this trend continues Internet backbone technologies will not be able to keep up with the rapidly-growing residential traffic. More-over, commercial ISPs will not be able to invest in back-bone networks to support this traditionally low-profit customer segment.
In other words they fear that they'll get caught in an American-style inability to support a major network expansion.

The anticipated culprit was the fabled 'power user' using peer to peer (P2P) networking to transfer large music and video files. Network types across the world have been fretting over the threat of these few evil users to "hog" network bandwidth. It seemed obvious that these guys were a big problem that had to be stopped. But a funny thing happened on the way to the obvious conclusion: the data stepped in and confused the matter.

While a few users--on the order of 4%--did use most of the residential bandwidth consumed--about 75%. Now note that this isn't an unusual situation. Consider good ole phones. My guess is that the top 4% of phone users initiates 75% of all calls (or some similar large percentage.) And I think we all know some of those people. The point is that having heavy users is neither unusual or a problem in itself. The concern that the Japanese ISPs appeared to have was that a single application--P2P file exchange was an illegal cancer that threatened to destroy the system.
What actually appeared in the data was evidence that while a few users did account for a lot of traffic, P2P networking appeared to be only one reason more bandwidth was used and, much more surprising, these "heavy hitters" were not a population distinct from all the (good) customers. Instead they were normal users, a sort of leading edge that simply did more of what everyone was doing. An analysis of the traces that P2P traffic should leave failed to find the expected pattern and led to the following conclusion:
This suggests that high-volume traffic is generated not only by peer-to-peer file-sharing but also by other applications such as content-downloading from a single server. A plausible explanation for the large variance is that the majority of users use both file-sharing and downloading with different ratios.
The "evil few" hypothesis was not tenable. It appeared, instead that what was going on was a version of "if you build it they will come." They offered the Japanese people large, cheap, symmetrical bandwidth over rock-solid fiber and the Japanese people quickly and apparently easily found a ways to use it. Those that were using the most bandwidth were not qualitatively different from the normal user; they were not doing something different from the normal user except for the quantity of bandwidth the used. They were simply a little ahead of the curve. P2P filesharing is not threatening the Japanese backbone. A new version of normal use, evoked by the availability of big broadband is. The Japanese ISPs/Telcos are simply going to have to bit the bullet and build more capacity. Fast.

There are a few points to ponder for Lafayette's anticipated build:
  1. "If you build it they will come." There is no need to be concerned that people won't find uses for the bandwidth made available; apparently it's not difficult to figure out. Make sure our local backbone is plenty beefy.
  2. "Symmetry is good." One of the surprises for the researchers was that upload and download amounts were roughly equal. Much of the American model is built around the presumption that we only need to "consume" download bandwidth, so its more efficient to limit upload speeds and use the scarce capacity for download bandwidth. The evidence here is that this is an artificial constraint. Give people symmetrical bandwidth and they'll find a way to use it. Gaming, serving, telephony, and video telephony all come to mind.
  3. "P2P networking is not the source of all Evil." Fear of P2P networking is widespread among system administrators. But the evidence is that it is only one element in an exploding demand for bandwidth. A demand that will have to be met in any case.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Tollbooths on the Internet Highway - New York Times

The NYT gets what the phone companies are after and say so in this editorial.

In true journalistic fashion, the gist of the piece is found in the lead paragraph:
When you use the Internet today, your browser glides from one Web site to another, accessing all destinations with equal ease. That could change dramatically, however, if Internet service providers are allowed to tilt the playing field, giving preference to sites that pay them extra and penalizing those that don't.
Recall, if you will, that the phone companies didn't invent the Internet and, in fact, have waged a prolonged war against packet-switched networks in the hopes of wringing every last depreciable penny out of their out-moded copper infrastructure. Now that the Internet has established itself as an essential tool of business, commerce, entertainment, and lifestyle, the phone companies want to jump in and (in typically wrong-headed thinking) want to change it all so that it works better for them.

Write this equation down: "Good for Them = Bad for Us." The NYT editorial explains:
If access tiering takes hold, the Internet providers, rather than consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves. Those corporations' profit-driven choices, rather than users' choices, would determine which sites and methodologies succeed and fail. They also might be able to stifle promising innovations, like Internet telephony, that compete with their own business interests.
The phone companies, like Mr. Jones, know something's been happening but they don't know what it is.

They could start by reading this.

BellSouth to N.O.'s Mid-City: 'Yes, We Have You No Dial Tone!'

WWL-TV's Action Reporter, Bill Capo, has posted a story on the station's website that reports on how the lack of phone service in the Mid-City area of New Orleans is hampering recovery efforts there.

Seems our friends at BellSouth are having trouble recovering from the Katrina disaster, too. But, nearly six months after the storm, as families and businesses have cleaned out the flood debris, restored their buildings, and committed to move forward, BellSouth's inability to deliver phone service has emerged as a serious impediment to the recovery of New Orleans, particularly areas like Mid-City (the area around the intersection of Carrollton and Canal streets).

The businesses there are primarily small businesses, the kind that have the strongest commitments to neighborhoods, employees and communities.

BellSouth's spokesman says that reports of no phone service until June are "a worst case scenario."

A brother of mine works for a New Orleans social service agency that is located on Canal Street, much closer to the central business district than Mid-City. They still don't have phone service and have been told it will be months before they get it.

Sure, they're rebuilding the network, but it seems that if doing this was a real priority there would have been significantly more progress than there has been.

Maybe if they put some of those Baton Rouge lobbyists on their payrolls to work doing real work this could move a little faster? ;-)

A Ponderable: Web to be dominant media?

Here's something worth pondering on a cold, wet Monday: The Web is about to become the dominant "eyeballs" medium outpacing the reigning champ, TV. Among online consumers it's already neck and neck:
The average online consumer spends the same amount of time on the Web, as the do on TV, a market research firm said.

Respondents to a U.S. consumer survey said they spend 14 hours a week on line, which is the same amount of time in front of a television, JupiterResearch said.
As broadband speeds rise and the platform has more and richer applications and entertainment expect that division to more and more clearly favor the net. Traditional media continues to fade.
'Even the most intensive users of newspapers and magazines spend less time reading these publications than they do online or watching TV,' JupiterResearch analyst Barry Parr said in a statement. 'TV and newspaper companies risk losing an entire generation of users unless they immediately start promoting their online products,'
According to the report book readership has also suffered.

Them's the facts. Is it a good thing or bad?

I'm not sure. People have been complaining about the "new media" since Socrates got put out with the innovation of writing down speech. He thought, with good reason, that writing was a debased, arrogant, and ignorance-making substitute for real conversation.

(Part of Socrates' irritation was that written text just sits there unchanging--it sounds smart but it is completely unresponsive when you argue with it. He was right about that and its "insistence" has turned out to be it greatest power. Ironically, the survival of the Socratic Dialogs and the endless arguments with them that have defined Western philosophy would be impossible without the written dialogs' stubborn resistance to change and the consequent unceasing challenge they represent to later thought on issues.)

Ever since Socrates seminal critique of writing people have criticized new media, often for the very qualities that were to make it powerful and useful. Printing, it was feared, would allow every half-literate burger access to sacred and profound texts they were unprepared to read with understanding. True enough. But in its train came the reformation, the renaissance, the enlightenment, widespread public education and the ideal of an educated, democratic state. Much of modern history can be read as a struggle to be worthy of the printing press.

The Telephone, Radio, TV, and now the Internet...we've not had time to adapt to these media nor even to be confident that they won't go the way of the telegraph, subsumed by more powerful descendents.

But beyond any hesitation to leap to a too-quick condemnation of the Web as a media there is also the question of the web's plasticity. There's no single medium there. It can imitate other media and intergrate them all. The web has been compared to a printing press, to a huge encyclopedia, to the postal service and more.

The evidence is rolling in that, whatever it is, the web is powerfully attractive and that it can be the basis for a less passive, more creative relationship with media. It's hard to passively consume the web. Not only are many people creating web content but the simple act of unceasingly choosing what you view every few minutes is a radically different starting point for experiencing media.

So...it's worth thinking seriously about the evidence that shows a rapid transformation of online users into people whose dominant media environment is the web. Good or bad? What's exciting is that it's probably our generation and the several that follow us that will determine the answer to that question.

Part of the fun of living in Lafayette is that we will be out ahead of the curve on this as big broadband comes in with the fiber build and thus in a position to have a hand in setting the patterns for use for a maturing media. Part of the responsibility, too.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

State Legislation: No Wireless Bill Passes

The call for first 2006 special session anticipated a wireless bill to facilitate the construction of an emergency wireless system that would serve all levels of government during a crisis. That session ended yesterday with no action on any bill, including the resolution that would have only requested that the problem be studied. I'd thought that one was slotted in for uncontested, feel-good passage but, like much else about this session, good-sense, much less feel-good was not on the table.

It's absolutely true that we need to improve emergency communications and that wireless should be part of that mix. Both the 9-11 commission and analyses done immediately after the storm focused on communication failures as costing lives and engendering unnecessary confusion.

While a good law, based on a good plan to solve the problem would be invaluable this session wasn't the moment for it.

Primarily, Louisiana had bigger fish to fry: keeping the water out of peoples' homes and getting them back into those homes should and did take precedence over this issue.

But the secondary problem with the session lay in the call. As I understand it the folks who pushed for wireless to be in the call that defined the limited topics the session was called to consider wanted to protect New Orleans' free, public, wifi network from the unintended consequences of the Local Government Fair Competition Act--especially that part which would have closed the system to public use. So the backers were extremely disappointed to find that the governor's call made no mention of public use, an absence that led to the bill drafted for that purpose to be ruled "beyond the call."

From that moment there was no urgent constituency for any communications bill and various alternatives died on the vine.

The proposed New Orleans-sponsored bill would have tried to exempt wireless technologies from the provisions of the "Fair" Competition act and streamlined the decision-making process by locating decision-making authority solely in parish executives. These, while understandable impulses, just aren't practical or wise.

Removing wireless from the matrix of technologies available for emergency use makes little sense. It cripples any attempt to build a truly powerful and reliable system. Wireless bounces back from storm damage wonderfully. But it is largely useless during the hurricane itself and is subject to interference both from other wireless systems and atmospheric conditions. The gold standard for reliability and capacity remains buried wireline--be it copper of fiber. Louisiana's' roads are lined with dark fiber; a very usable portion of it reserved for state or local governments in return for right-of-way concessions. Little of it is now used for any purpose. The political story is familiar. BellSouth owns the state contract to provide state agency telecommunications, a contract that it is said is BellSouth's single largest single contract. Using that dark fiber for state agency communications would cut that bill dramatically. Somehow that dark fiber never gets used. Using our fiber for emergency purposes ought to be in the mix of solutions considered. (And letting the state use its own resources to dramatically cut its costs for every-day use in this moment of fiscal desperation should be a no-brainer. I'm not taking bets that it will even be discussed.)

The attempt to locate power in parish executives was simply misguided--a detailed critique of that mistake was posted earlier but the underlying mistake lay in shifting control of an essentially local question away from local people and their well-adapted practices for getting things done and vesting it in some plan --any single plan-- designated at the state level.

The solutions to our emergency communications problems are political. Much will be made of technical interoperability and bandwidths and ways of knitting together disparate types of carriers and protocols. Some few of us may find that interesting. But fascinating technology is still just technology. The solutions will remain political.

The State of Louisiana needs to take control of its own telecommunications resources and to allow the localities to do the same.

On state level that means stiffening its spine and defying BellSouth's lobbyists and campaign machine by lopping huge unnecessary annual tribute to BellSouth out of the budget.

On the local level it's easy and cheap: Repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act and let local governments find creative and, yes, profitable means to serve their own communities telecommunications needs free of state meddling.

You can bet that the next regular session will consider emergency telecom. Interested parties in the public should plan to protect their interests now. (The corporations surely have their strategies in place now.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Navel Gazing: LPF Stats

Something's changing and I don't know what it means or why its happening....

Long-time readers will be aware that I don't often indulge in talking about server-reader stats. First, they're not all that accurate, secondly, they're near impossible to interpret reasonably, and third even keeping track of these things distracts the writers from the point of the blog. (Which is not circulation but the local dissemination of information.)

By far the best use of my ISP's minimal stats is to enforce a little humility. The website as a whole (including the moribund static portion) had a long-term stable "unique" visitor readership (uniques only get counted once a day no matter how often they drop by or how many pages they view) that has varied around 230 a day. Nothing to brag on by any means but enough to do the job of circulating good information on this topic to enough different local folks that the pro-fiber, pro-development, pro-technology, pro-equity, and pro-community position that I fear would otherwise go underreported has a chance to be heard and become a visible reference point in the local conversation. LPF is pretty content to be a small voice heard fairly well locally. That's all the point has ever been.

A count of the total number of page hits --an even more dubious statistic-- are more impressive with a long-term average of 1100 hits a day. That has added up to more than 600,000 page hits over the last year. Knock off the 7-8% that look like spiders crawling the web and that's still fun to look at (and hard to make sense of ).

All of which brings us to the curious changes that prompt this post: LafayetteProFiber has experienced an approximately 37% jump in the six weeks since the first of the year. That's a lot, and it's sustained and continues upward. Daily unique visits this year are in excess of 300 a day and 350 in the last week. We've had over 100,000 hits in 2006. Previous jumps have been clearly spikes -- they have been easily explicable by "big events," and less sustained. They were clearly tied to local events that sent occasional readers over to check out what our take might be.

Now, I'm not complaining--but I am confused. Two "big picture" explanations occur to me. 1) the site has become well enough know in area circles to have reached some sort of tipping point--so the jump represents a "more of the same" readership. Or 2) This change argues and augers a shift in readership. Different people have found the site and have decided for reasons of their own to hang around.

I'm inclined to think that number 2, a new group has started hanging around,--but if that is so I'd love to be clued in as to what the story is.

Ideas? Thoughts?

Back to our regularly schedule show.....

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Counterattack: The Bells as Network Hogs

There's been a huge outcry about the regional phone companies' ongoing demands to be allowed to change things so that they can "manage" the internet in order to charge specialized "services" a fee for prioritizing their product, or the product of corporations who pay a special fee, over the rest. That's a big change over the current system. Today we get what is called "best effort" services. Carriers toss all the information into the pipe and do the best they can.

The idea is to change the payment plan from one in which both consumers and providers pay for the amount of bandwidth they think they need to one in which they do that AND pay a special fee to actually get usable service. Inevitably this means that premium priority service will occupy bandwidth formerly used to provide "best effort" for all. Non-premium services will suffer; the incumbents will have to rob from the common pool to create fancy services they can charge for.

As noted here recently, the better way to deal with bandwidth constraints on video and internet telephony is to provide more bandwidth. (Shock: Federal Representative Talks Sense)

Which, finally, brings us to the the inspiration for this post: a BusinessWeek article, "Is Verizon a Network Hog?" While the Bell companies, including our less-than-beloved BellSouth, are screaming like stuck pigs about how unfair it is is that they've not getting paid enough and trying to make firms like Google and Vonage sound like bandwidth hogs for using bandwidth they've paid for to provide customers with services over bandwidth they've also paid for some folks are beginning to notice what is really happening and who's really snatched up all the available bandwidth on the Bell's part of the network: the Bells.

According to Marvin Sirbu, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who examined the documents, more than 80% of Verizon's current capacity is earmarked for carrying its service, while all other traffic jostles in the remainder...

As consumers try to search Google, buy books on Amazon.com (AMZN), or watch videos on Yahoo! (YHOO), they'll all be trying to squeeze into the leftover lanes on Verizon's network. ... 'The Bells have designed a broadband system that squeezes out the public Internet in favor of services or content they want to provide,' says Paul Misener, vice-president for global policy at Amazon.com.
The service referred to is Verizon's new cable TV service--a service which closely echoes the traditional cable model. As I understand it, it is simply true that these systems use a single framework to provide both TV and Internet. At some point you have to trade channels for internet bandwidth. --This constraint is the chief immediate reason that Verizon is limits the bandwidth it sells consumers. (Of course the basic reason is that they built the system to provide video and much prefer to sell you an expensive specialty service rather that cheap commodified bits. A point also discussed in the "Shock" post linked to earlier.)

An interesting -- and smart--feature of Lafayette's planned network is that it will separate cable and internet functions. Channels and Bandwidth will be functionally independent and the time will no doubt come when that be a major competitive advantage. BellSouth's IPTV plan for offering cable-like services is a joke in terms of bandwidth. From the day they launch they'll have to make hard decisions to make about how to dedicate the roughly 20 megs they'll have available. Two HDTV channels per household and not much internet or 1 HDTV channel and healthy bandwidth. Neither choice will appeal to the wealthy consumers they really want. Cox has a lot more headroom. By killing a few channels they could pump up the bandwidth. But they'd have to kill channels. By contrast LUS would not have to do any such thing. Frankly, I doubt that being able to offer more channels to upper end packages wouldn't be that much of a draw and won't afford LUS a big advantage by itself. But suppose LUS were to offer a smorgasbord of channels to choose from as one or two freebie add-ons to every tier? Channels that only a few folks want but that those folks want passionately. I'd not be surprised to find that a LOT of people, given otherwise similar packages, would choose an LUS offering that allowed them to add the soccer channel or a Chicago station or a fine arts channel or the fisherman's channel to their package. These oddball channels are cheap. Cox can't do it because they don't have the space. But offering that level of "customization" could turn into a huge differentiator for LUS. (This is what's becoming known as a "long-tail" marketing strategy. See the seminal article in Wired.) Something like that could turn LUS' huge bandwidth advantage into a real competitive advantage.

Bandwidth is good. The guy with the most wins.

"Cable TV Model Broken"

The bell is tolling for the broadcast/cable model of video. Watching a TV channel is dying. Watching video advertising is dying. Watching half hour or hour shows is dying. The idea that shows are "TV shows" --that they are to be viewed on a TV--is about to end.

The death rattle is starting to get loud enough that even consultants are beginning to notice. Red Herring quotes a Jonathan Hurd as saying:
"The whole notion of channels, bundles of channels, and programming being available only at a fixed time and only in a fixed place is evolving," said Mr. Hurd. "With TiVo, PVR technology, and SlingBox, people are going to be able to consume video where they want and when they want. The trend is toward flexibility."

Mr. Hurd points to the surprising popularity of video iPods as proof that America's voracious appetite for TV is indeed evolving.

"The video iPod is the ultimate in a la carte programming. I can download an individual episode..."
There's been a lot of enthusiasm and hopeful comment recently about a la carte programming and IPTV. They are both supposed to give the consumer more choice. A la carte would let you choose whatever channel you wanted and only pay for that channel. IPTV would let you use internet streaming technologies to emulate cable TV and provide a type of competition for cable TV's channels.

It's all a lot of half-measures and hooeey and if consultants are starting to recognize it you know the end must be near. You want REAL choice. You don't want to "tune into" channels whether cable or IPTV; that's just the awkward interface you currently have to use to get to your shows. Shows are all you really watch. You don't really want the poor imitation of cable that you'll get from IPTV. You'd be happier with using the bandwidth they want to dedicate to that to download the shows you actually want to watch. It would serve you better if the telephone companies would just give you the bandwidth they're using trying to compete with the dying broadcast/cable model and let you use it to download what you actually want quickly.

See the old post Die TV. Die, Die, Die! for why you're gonna be happy when the old cable model finally croaks.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

State Legislation: When Doing Nothing is a Good Idea

Bulletin: The latest from the lege on a statewide emergency communications system: Study it.

Considering the history of the bills in the current session it's not a bad idea to back off it for awhile.

It looks like the role of the wireless telecom emergency bill anticipated by Governor Blanco's call is about to handed to a concurrent resolution introduced, and under suspended rules, passed yesterday in the house. This is the sort of "fast tracking" thing that happens when the fix is in. I expect it to pass the Senate shortly and be signed into law quickly. It asks the military department to study it. (Who knew we had a military department? Not me. Who knew that was the proper place to study communications? Not me.)

The resolution presents a progressive watering down of earlier bills introduced to accomplish this purpose. Like the levee consolidation mess and a lot that is going on in Louisiana's legislature right now the final represents what's left over after well-intentioned attempts to "do the right thing" gets gored by a combination of petty politics, naivete, and special interest pleading. Better, frankly to let it go for now and wait for better days.

That was the executive summary. The rest is a grumpy look at why I think it's just as well that the legislature has decided to wait for a more appropriate time to examine this question.

Read on at your own risk.





Ok, don't say you weren't warned.

A short history of wireless emergency bills in first 2006 Louisiana Special Session:
The intent (if not the practical effect) of one early bill was to free local communities to build their own wireless networks for emergency purposes and to allow citizens to use the excess capacity. (This bill was discussed extensively in the last post and elsewhere on this site.) The bill was blocked for not fitting into the Governor's call but not before being neutered in committee. Backers of the bill are more than a little distressed since they had understood that the emergency wireless part of the call was added to accommodate the bill that it was later found to exclude. At any rate New Orleans will get no relief. And there will be no exclusion for wireless from the onerous conditions of the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act.

A second bill (also discussed in an earlier post) charged the state's military dept. (didn't know we had one? Me neither.) with developing a state-wide wireless emergency system and included no provision allowing local people an exception from the provisions of the (un)fair competition act to accommodate emergency services. This is the bill that did advance; apparently someone didn't think it politic to let local governments take care of their own needs.

That bill, in its first drafts, included an interesting provision that would have allowed the system to be constructed so that it could be used, during an emergency, to communicate with mere citizens--a sort of emergency broadcasting system for the digital age. Even with the bill inappropriately limited to wireless communications that was an interesting and potentially ground-breaking idea. But that got taken out too. BellSouth? I think so.

What we were left with as a result of the crazy-quilt of cross cutting purposes and interests was a bill that mandated a system that used only one modern communications modality, ignored established and useful systems already in place, and ignored the considerable advantages of modern buried wireline connectivity for emergency services. At the end of all that they were happy to ignore providing for the ability to communicate directly with citizens...much less the value of allowing citizens to communicate with their government and with each other during a crisis.

We can do better than that. And we have to.

State Legislation: Stopping Short of Repeal No Solution

What follows is an essay I wrote outlining my concerns with a bill (discussed earlier on these pages by both Mike and I) that attempted to carve out an exception to the Local Government Fair Competition Act for wireless networks. New Orlean's wireless networks proved invaluable in the first days after the storm and opening it to the city's citizens was enormously popular and useful. The idea was to allow New Orleans--and other cities--to deploy such systems quickly and to let citizens use them without intereference from the state.

That bill has apparently been abandoned due to a concern that its provisions didn't match the call. (Letting mere citizens use the network apparently can't be considered.)

I've decided to post it here because I think it serves as a practical case study of why simple repeal of the Local Government Fair Competition Act is to be preferred over trying to "fix" the bad law or carve out strategic exceptions to it. You can't fix a mess by messing with it a little more. This is a whole lot like trying to fix a gumbo with a burned roux by "improving" the spices--it isn't going to work and will only make things worse; the solution, as we all know, is to dump the pot.

No problem discussed below would appear if the law were just repealed.

We simply need the state legislature to restore to local communities the right to take care of themselves in their own ways and according to their own lights.

------

No one can do anything but applaud the intent of the recently introduced “Municipal Wireless Internet Act.” It intends to protect New Orleans’ new publicly-available, free, wireless network from being all but turned off when the current state of emergency ends and the provisions of the 2004 “Municipal Fair Competition Act” are re-asserted. That’s right and fair. No one should be trying keep any city, but especially not New Orleans, from doing everything possible to serve its citizens with whatever resources it has at hand. This bill intends, as well, to extend the benefits of New Orleans’ successful experience in getting its wireless network going after the storm to all of Louisiana -- and that intent is noble as well.

Unfortunately, the bill as it has come to stand does not serve those purposes as well as it should. There is a simpler and more effective way to serve those goals: all of South Louisiana should band together and demand the repeal of a law which has had the surely unintended consequence of outlawing an obvious, affordable, and demonstrably effective way of building a hurricane-resistant emergency communications system. Repeal -- and only repeal -- would also preserve the communities’ rights, as they struggle with an economy devastated by hurricanes and storm surge, to build infrastructure that could bring new commerce to town or help persuade those that have fled that there is something exciting and vital to which to return.

The law currently proposed has no advantages over repeal and carries more than a few disadvantages in relation to it.

The first and most disturbing issue is the apparent legally-imposed limit on speed to 1024 KB -- less than 1/50th of what current, cheap, consumer-grade equipment is capable of today. That speed is an acceptable, even healthy speed today, but it won’t be for long . . . and it won’t be the sort of exciting service that will pull communities back together again, nor will it allow them a hand in determining their own future. For real broadband they will remain dependent on the same corporate providers who proved uninterested in supplying advanced services to South Louisiana even before two massive hurricanes hurt the economy and scattered the region’s people. The 1024 limit is designed to serve the economic interests of large corporations, not the interests of local communities. Those interests are not now, and will not in the future, be the same. The state should not enter this fight on the side of corporate profits and against the reasonable desires of towns and cities across South Louisiana to do for themselves what needs to be done. The 1024 limit is a fatal flaw in the current version of the law.

The governance provisions of the proposed “Municipal Wireless” act are also worrisome and serve to minimize rather than maximize the number of systems that are likely to be deployed. The title of the bill is something of a misnomer, since only parishes and no municipalities as such are authorized to build wireless networks. ONLY the “parish administrative head” may decide to deploy a wireless network. While this may not be a hardship for New Orleans -- where the parish and the city are the same -- it makes a mess of the politics of the state’s other large, hurricane-devastated city: Lake Charles. There, the “parish administrative head” is an appointive position under the police jury. The mayor of Lake Charles, who’d have the resources and control of the city property necessary to make such a program possible, would have no say in whether or not the city would be allowed to build a wireless network and neither, apparently, would any other elected official or body. Clearly that isn’t or at least shouldn’t be acceptable. Just as clearly, any hope that vesting all power in an executive to make this decision would have the effect of making it easier to go forward with building much-needed emergency infrastructure is a miscalculation. This provision will have the effect of forcing cities to go hat in hand to the police jurors of Louisiana. The historic tension between parish and city governments would surely reduce the number of towns which would try to build their own systems. The cities will have the resources and desire; the rural parishes will have only control. This is not a design which will encourage quick, widespread adoption.

Lake Charles and most other cities and towns are likely to have a problem with the governance portions of this bill, but Lafayette, the third major city below I-10 and the second most populous, has a separate set of issues. The same law that prevents New Orleans from keeping its wireless network up and running usefully has been the target for some months of a repeal campaign spearheaded by Lafayette. Self-determination should not be a privilege only of those cities that have decided on wireless technologies -- especially not wireless technologies that are capped at speeds so low that they cannot be the basis for credible attempts to develop or redevelop local economies. This would leave communities forced to wait for actions by corporations that failed to find them profitable enough to serve adequately even before disaster struck.

If more cause for concern should be needed, it should also be noted that the law sunsets in five years. I presume that, since there is no state prohibition on owning a wireless network, parishes that built such networks would get to keep them for use by the government. The chief thing that would be lost, then, would be the right to let the public use what they’ve paid for. A sunset provision on public use dramatically reduces the incentive for communities to invest in this technology. Right now it seems wise to invest in a public communications infrastructure; our travails after the last set of storms demonstrated that. But the five year sunset provision, coupled with a cap on speeds that makes it clear that the system will not be allowed to grow in ways that directly benefit the public, will make it much more likely that cash-strapped “administrators” and those responsible for funding such projects will decide, at best, to buy “good enough,” cheap but dead-end systems or, at worst, some other pressing need the state hasn’t decided to should die in five years.

There really is a better, simpler way: repeal the “Municipal Fair Competition Act.” Then New Orleans could build any system it wanted to and could do anything it wanted to with it. So could Lake Charles and Lafayette . . . and Abbeville and Rayne, and Golden Meadow, and Erath and Cameron and every other city, town, or parish that wished to do so. They could build using whatever technology they thought wisest and keep it as long as they wanted to. They could partner with incumbents (who would know that they could go their own way if they wanted) or they could build local utilities whose only concern was local needs. Any city, town, or parish could invest in itself and its own future using the latest technology without any interference or “guidance” from the state . . . or from corporations whose core interests differ from their own.

Monday, February 13, 2006

"Bell South doesn't care about geek people"

OK, so I missed this one initially. Mea culpa. I may not be fast but my net eventually catches most all . . . .
Lafayette hit the front page of Digg last week. (They're the first site to give Slashdot a run for their money as the geek news website leader. A huge number of tech types visit there daily.) The story was highly dug . . . meaning folks found it interesting and recommended it. Then, the next day, Gizmodo -- the place to graze the latest gadgets -- picked up the story. Those two sites are huge, and between them it means that an awful lot of tech types saw the tale of Lafayette's struggle.

The Digg article, Bell South doesn't care about geek people, is short, but the most interesting part is the comments -- which go on forever. What's caught my attention is the vitriol expressed in regard to BellSouth and Cox and the sympathy expressed for Lafayette.

Locals showed some healthy participation on the site, so for extra entertainment you can try to puzzle out who the commenters are.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Sunday Read: "The End of the Internet?"

If you're one of those who like to spend part of your Sunday drinking coffee and reading an interesting piece that you might be too busy to consider during the work week, I've got a pretty good read to offer up.

Jeff Chester, writing in The Nation, has published an article that ties together pieces from different issues of the day. It starts with net neutrality--and gives a good overview of the movement to rob us all of the open internet--but ranges from there into the 1996 telecom act, astroturf research-for-hire, internet porn, warrantless wiretaps, media convergence, political advertising, and deep packet inspection. He makes a good case that these are all parts of the same story and he's got me, at least, agreeing.

Worth chewing over: The End of the Internet?

Lagniappe: You know those newly available "directors cuts" and the commentary and "additional scenes" on more interesting DVDs? If you are one of the sorts who likes to see and try to understand the difference between the "edited for mass distribution" and the "artist's vision," you might want to compare the Nation's version of this essay with the version the author posted on his own work website at the Center For Digital Democracy, "Hijacking the Internet: How Big Cable and Phone Companies' Plans for Broadband Threaten Democracy." If it's too cold to get yard work done you could easily fritter away another 45 minutes making that comparison.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

New Orleans: Cox reply worsens cable conflict

If you open up a Louisiana paper today and read about the special session and all the utter BS coming down from the federal level, it's hard to get too excited about mere disrespect coming from a company that's never shown the least hesitation to put their business needs above serving the local community. But sometimes it's the little things that make you crazy. From the Times-Picayune:
Public affairs manager Arthurine Payton repeatedly told the council that the TV Guide Channel, which provided on-screen TV listings, was no longer in business.

'That channel is gone away . . . they are no longer in that business. It just doesn't exist anymore,' she said.

But after discovering that the TV Guide Channel still is very much in business, with 70 million subscribers, including some Cox cable systems elsewhere in the country, the council and Parish President Albert Laque sent a letter blasting the company for the statements.
The dispute grew out of Cox's decision to remove the TV Guide Channel from the cheapest, analog "basic" tier. When the feds deregulated cable, one of the few things they left in place was a requirement that a basic, analog, cheaper tier be offered that includes local channels, local access channels (like AOC in Lafayette) and a few basic cable channels. It is supposed to be analog so that consumers can avoid the rental fee for the digital set top box.

Grundmeyer said the company removed the TV Guide Channel to make room for digital channels that broadcasters are required to adopt by 2009, but beefed up its digital offerings to replace them...

Grundmeyer said the bandwidth occupied by one analog channel can hold four digital channels.

This is one of those things that if not actually a lie was intended to be one. Let me explain. What's happening in 2009 is that analog broadcasts over the airways will be replaced by digital ones. Cable companies will have to follow suit. They will have to carry the new digital channels. And they will be able to carry four digital channels for every one analog one that they have now.

Whoooooops.... did you catch that?

They'll have four times the space. Going digital benefits Cox and lets them offer four times as many channels in the same space. So just exactly how is that an excuse for cutting out a channel from the least expensive tier?

It's not. It's all a song and dance. A little sleight of hand. Some flash. A bit of misdirection.

What they'd rather you not think about is that the cableco's, including Cox, are eager to get as many folks off the basic tiers as they can. Those cheapest tiers are loosely regulated by standards set by the feds. (It's complicated and inexact, but they can't arbitrarily jack up the price like they can--and have--with every other tier.)

So it's really a lot simpler than they make it out to be: they're taking away the TV Guide Channel precisely because it's popular. Because, they hope, that people will want that function so much that they'll upgrade to a more expensive digital tier to get it. Even if they don't want all those extra channels. And don't want to pay for them.

Its all pretty insulting. Do they really think we can't figure this out? My best guess after watching them for a while is that they do think we're that stupid. And, in all honesty, the reporter didn't flinch; he just reported it as if Cox was making sense.

All that's upsetting enough. But then Cox has the gall to blame us for not wanting to buy their high-priced product. How? Well shucks, and gee golly, we're all Southerners down here and in addition to not being able to figure out their shell game, we're all kinda backward and stuck in our ways:

At the January meeting, Payton blamed regional influences for some customers' unwillingness to upgrade to the digital service.

"As Southerners do, we tend to resist change and progress," she said.

Nice guys, the cable guys. Your Friend in the Digital Age.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Shock: Federal Representative Talks Sense

In a shocking display of actual competence Representative Boucher of Virginia talks good sense about the saving the internet and Net Neutrality. Saith the Rep:
Internet2, a nonprofit partnership of universities, companies and affiliate organizations, including federal agencies and laboratories, has been studying this matter and has demonstrated that a multitrack Internet model is unnecessary to assure quality of service. Internet2 has for the past seven years deployed an advanced broadband network to more than 5 million users and has learned that in a network with enough bandwidth there is no congestion and no bits need preferential treatment because all of them arrive quickly enough to assure excellent quality, even if intermingled...

In countries such as Japan and Korea, network speeds over the last mile of 100 megabits per second (mbps) are common. In the United States, our typical speed is less than 1 mbps. If broadband providers would increase their network speeds to approximate those in other countries, all content would reach consumers with assured quality. No prioritization of bits would be needed.
So where's the competence? Well, first off Boucher notices that the US problem is in the last mile--where our incumbent providers have failed us. We have excess backbone capacity. So he first locates the problem correctly. Then he goes on to notice that other countries with real last mile broadband don't need fancy Quality of Service or other bandwidth sapping prioritization schemes because they've got plenty of bandwidth. And he backs that up by qouting our own smart guys and noticing that where we have enough bandwidth the problems the incumbents are whining about go away. The man's thinking. Hell, he's competent.

The problem the folks at the telco's want to solve (choppy VOIP, blocky video) with "tiers" and "prioritization" is a problem of their own making. Rewarding them for their own failure is exactly the wrong way to go. (The right response? Fund your own big broadband utility. Lafayette is right.)

I worked at the university of Delaware when Internet2 came in and we got hooked up to it. Very damned nice, I assure you. The limiting factor was our ethernet switches which actually got used at something near to capacity on occasion. I had nice service from Comcast at home but I'd trek up to my office to watch net video...full screen, no stuttering at all.

Boucher is right: the solution to the consumer issues Verizon, ATT, & our own BellSouth try to mislead us with is simply more bandwidth. Good VOIP. Bandwidth. Streaming HDTV. More bandwidth. I have no doubt that the Internet 2 eggheads are right that there are ways to get big bandwidth over that last mile that are cheaper than squeezing your entire network through elaborate filters. Control is always expensive. All that prioritization really does is take the limited bandwidth the Bell's failing business plan gives us and allocates enough of it to, say, BellSouth's VOIP product so that it works. (Oh, and Vonage or Google's version doesn't. But hey, that's the telco's "best effort.") What Boucher is too much the politician to say is that minimizing your expense is not the point. Maximizing the profit the Bells get out of "their" network is.

The Bells want to avoid "commodification" of their bits. You, dear reader, desire nothing less. Technology, and history, is on your side and the Bells know it. Unless forcibily prevented the natural flow is from specialization to commodification. The transformation from commodity service to high priced specialization won't happen unless the telco's can enlist the aid of the federal government. Unless they gain control, and soon, you are going to get used to paying less and less for a faster and faster flow of what is really nothing more than a bunch of undifferentiated series of ones an zeros. The telcos rather you paid for "services" that they can make "premium" or degrade to "best effort." They'd like to conceal the fact that all they really have to offer is control of the last mile of the bit pipe. If you understand this you'll never be convinced to give them anything like the income you're giving the cablecos.

(And yes, its not just greed that's got its hooks into the telcos, its also envy--a second of the deadly sins. And yes, what we really should want is to move cable toward the commodification model as well. But that's a much harder row to hoe. And an even longer post.)

Here's how commodification works if that term is proving unfamiliar: Most products start out as specialty, hand-crafted items. The parts that go into them are rare and and expensive. The skills needed to construct them are pricey. But our entire economy is built to take such items and make the progressively more and more common, more similar, and less expensive. We really are the wealthiest generation the world has ever known and this process is at the basis of a lot of that. If you're willing to give up a little uniqueness you can get almost anything absurdly cheaply. If you're reading this you're almost certainly using a recently commodified object: the computer. I recall (don't laugh) when 512 K machines with a 9 inch black and white screen sold for 3,000 uninflated dollars and a LaserWriter printer with a staggering 3 megs of memory and a 10 meg (that's meg) hard drive was in the 5000 dollar range. I helped my wife's graphic business buy them and while they were called personal computers the only people we knew who owned one were either typesetters or architects. A machine with those specs would not be considered adequate to describe the laptops MIT hopes to provide 3rd world grade schoolers these days. At a projected price of 100 dollars per. Graphic designers and Architects are using machines that in that not-so-far gone era would have been so powerful that they would have been called supercomputers and have been illegal to export to many nations.

That, my friend is commodification. Computers have gone from being expensive, finely crafted machines to standardized, knock-off, el cheapo stuff that you can't charge much for. (Much better machines than our 3000 dollar one are on sale now at WalMart.com for 300.) A commodity is defined by the production of mass quantities of the product that are, for practical purposes indistinguishable. All commodity markets are cutthroat by definition. The producers make pennies on the dollar and have to make money by selling many units cheaply.

You, as a consumer, like commodities. But companies hate it.

The telcos hate it.

They aren't interested in the commodity sale of bits. They are interested in transforming their commodity transport of undifferentiated bits into an elaborate series of "specialized services." Right now you are buying by the bit--so many bits per second regardless of what is represented by those bits, be it video, web pages, google searches, email, whatever. All you care about when making your purchase now is how fast and how cheap. The telco's want to change that so that they sell souped up products such as "video gold" or "google search premium." It's a huge con. Here's the dirty secret: Packet prioritization always less efficient for the network as a whole than not prioritizing anything. The process of prioritzing bits in one place always eats up more capacity overall than it saves locally. Sort of an "entropy" principle for the information age. The consumer will always be better served by solving service problems by throwing more bandwidth at it.

The public, the people Boucher and all our representatives serve, will be better served by increasing their bandwidth than by allowing the telco's to transform our current, increasingly commodified, system into a series of "products" by carving up an internet they serve with inadequate bandwidth into specialized pipes which work ok--if you pay extra for it.

The battle cry should be "One Big Pipe." (I've no hope we'll rush to the barricades under the banner of "Increased Commodification." :-))

That is what Representative Boucher of Virginia understands. Boucher gets it. We need to demand that our representatives get a clue too.

New Orleans' Wireless Bill

The New Orleans-sponsored wireless bill that Mike covered recently made it to the Senate Wednesday.


It exempts New Orleans' current wireless system from the Municipal (un)Fair Competition Act that you've seen objected to here. It would allow New Orleans to continue to offer its current wireless system to the public even after the state of emergency that currently exempts it from the law is ended. It seems obvious that the city of New Orleans could allow its citizens to use their own property (its existing wireless emergency and security network). And that's the way it was before the passage of M(u)FCA. Such decisions shouldn't involve the state, much less the pack of corporate lobbyists working for BellSouth and Cox.


But the best way out of that situation is not to try and cobble together a law to exempt one set of technologies from another, bad law.


The best solution is repeal.


The real problem with M(u)FCA is that it writes the interests of the current, corporate telecom providers into state law and makes the state their agent for enforcing those corporate interests. This allows BellSouth to wheel the whole apparatus of the state from the legislative auditor, to the Public Service Commission, to the courts into play to delay, make more expensive, or block municipalities from offering services that neither BellSouth nor Cox intend, by their own admission, to offer. More laws simply exacerbate the problem. It gives the incumbent providers more tools with which to frustrate local communities.


The proposed law will surely serve the incumbents in the same way. Already the process of bending the law to incumbent purposes has begun.

One noticeable change from earlier drafts is that, regardless of the bill's title, "The Municipal Wireless Internet Act," the latest version doesn't apply to municipalities at all. Instead, sole decision-making power is vested in the parish executive. That means that in Lake Charles the elected mayor will have to go hat in hand to a fellow appointed by the Calcasieu Police Jury to serve as "Parish Administrator" who will be vested, by state law, with the sole power to make the decision for Lake Charles about how Lake Charles (and Sulphur and Iowa) uses its rights of way and resources. How palatable will that be for Lake Charles' popular mayor? It leaves a relatively minor appointed official in a position to dictate to Lake Charles whether it will have a public wireless network and just exactly how it will be built and run. (If he doesn't get his way, he can simply rescind his solitary decision to allow it at all.) Madness, pure and simple. And it reeks of the sort of "compromise" that Lafayette has had such trouble with. Since Orleans Parish is the City of New Orleans, this doesn't have much effect there. But for a bill which represents itself as being all about preparations for the next hurricane to have so misunderstand the situation of the "other" Louisiana city devastated by Katrina leaves one with real questions about how seriously this bill is intended to serve the whole state.

Additionally, I have serious questions about another paragraph in this bill that wasn't in a draft version I saw and commented on earlier. That paragraph reads:
The Parish may provide wireless Internet services for free to subscribers at a minimum rate of 1024 KB per second or may charge for the whole or a component of the services. During an emergency declared by the governor or the parish president or the duly elected administrative head of the parish, the parish president or parish administrative head may increase the wireless Internet speed.
That reads very ambiguously to me. Can the "administrative head of the parish" decide to "increase" speed to 2048 KB only during an emergency (even if he declares it)? Is 1024 the most or the least that parishes will be allowed to offer under normal circumstances? Normally I'd read minimum to mean "the least," but the context seems to mean that it is a normal limit...and I can think of no reason to declare a lower limit on this service. Why?

My confusion and concern are reinforced by an interview with the person who drafted his bill, Steve Sabludowsky, held with the CTO of New Orleans, Greg Meffert, covering the issue of this wireless law for New Orleans. Here's Sabludowsky asking the question and Meffert answering:

Why is 1028 Kilobits important as a minimum speed?

It is the minimum usable speed for use for very basic web applications and communications. It is also not a threat to true broadband, and other valued-added providers.

That really makes me uncomfortable. Meffert is clearly interpreting the "1028" (surely a misprint of 1024) as the least that is both usable and not a threat to the incumbent providers. He understands it as the most that will normally be available. And Sabludowsky does NOT correct him.

I've written Sabludowsky for clarification and have yet to receive a reply. He's been a reliable correspondent and I expect to hear from him. When I do I will post here.

But if my concerns are correct, this would be "a really bad thing." They and everyone else in the state would get crippled municipal wireless that was deliberately made marginally useful in order to avoid threatening the current corporate interests. They could invest real money in themselves to serve serious emergency needs that the current providers are not in the least interested in serving themselves. That would be okay with BellSouth and its agents in state government. But the citizens would be limited by state law to using 1/50 or less of the rated capacity of the system for their own, free, nongovernmental use. Why?

What really confuses me is the political naivete of this proposal. A bill like this needs allies in other communities. The need for emergency communications is absolutely real and your natural allies are all the cities and communities below 1-10. How does this bill serve those potential allies? Not all that well, frankly. It flagrantly ignores the situation of the "other" major Louisiana city extensively damaged this last hurricane season by excluding the city from deciding its fate altogether and handing over control to an appointee of a police jury. If you think this makes any sense, you don't understand Louisana politics. If you think Lake Charles doesn't already resent its interests being ignored while it methodically goes about taking care of itself while the state and New Orleans thrash, you don't understand human nature. The governance provisions of this law are a huge mistake...and that mistake seems unlikely to be accidental to me. I, for one, pointed out that an earlier, milder version of this mistake would be politically divisive. Lake Charles is merely the most glaring example. Hammond, Morgan City, Abbeville, Erath, Delcambre, Cameron and every other town below I-10 has to be asking itself why the police jury should dictate when the city is the natural entity to actually deploy the system. Many, many more systems would be deployed if every city were free to go its own way. And maybe that is why they aren't being allowed to do so.

Lafayette, the hub city of the Acadian region least damaged by this year's storms, has chosen after a pitched battle with the incumbent corporations to build its own fiber optic network to secure its telecom future and in the course of the battle has developed a huge resentment for the M(u)FCA. Local representatives have been beating the drums of repeal for months. Watching New Orleans try to carve out an exemption for its choice instead of allying with an ongoing repeal effort that would leave it with unlimited capacity to serve its beleagured citizenry has got to raise questions.

I wish New Orleans would have taken a different path.

The right way is repeal of a bad law. Not the imposition of another layer of bad legislation.

This is not the way forward for South Louisiana.

Update: In correspondence with Steve Sabludowsky he's confirmed that the 1024 KB is an upper limit--that speeds above that would indeed require an emergency.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Copyright is Dead. Is the Network Stranglehold, too?

An opinion piece by Larry Downes in the January edition of CIO Insight makes the argument that copyright is dead. He bases his opinion not on legal decisions but on the way large segments of the American population have opted to ignore the law.

Downes is the Associate Dean of the University of California @ Berkeley School of Information Management and Systems and the author of Unleashing the Killer App and The Strategy Machine. He says copyright was killed, ironically, as a result of the attempts of the entertainment industry to strengthen it.

Here's the crux of his argument in three brief paragraphs:
A few statistics have been bothering me for a while. Here's one: 72 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 years old who use the Internet say "they do not care whether the music they download onto their computers is copyrighted or not."

That's from a survey performed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in July of 2003. Here are two more: Just a few months ago, as the Supreme Court was getting ready to hear arguments in the Grokster file-sharing case, the Pew project found that over 7 million adults had already copied a file from someone else's iPod or other MP3 device, moving beyond the embattled peer-to-peer networks. And as of July of this year, another Pew survey found that nearly 90 percent of all teenagers were active Internet users.
Then this:
Fueling the backlash against the entertainment industry is an emerging ideology among young consumers of collaboration, free culture, open source and bartering value for value in an economy of information. Add to that the long-standing tolerance by the content industries of home taping and other limited, technical copyright violations, and we have a generation of new consumers who don't care what the law says, or even what the Supreme Court says. The law simply doesn't reflect reality anymore. Game over.
It is this emerging ideology and a backlash against the network operating giants (the Bells and the cable companies) that has the potential to undermine the efforts by these companies to erect toll gates at all levels of networks and their gateways.

There is, as has been amply commented upon here, a pretty intense battle being waged in Congress, at the FCC, and to a lesser extent in the media about the power grab of the network operators and the resistance that has sparked from content providers.

One relevant, but thus far unreported aspect of this issue is that the Bells, at least, are actually seeking to position themselves in position to tax their competitors. That is, the Bells all view themselves as becoming content providers. Yet, all their tiered network/walled garden talk focuses on charging other content providers for the kind of network performance that, you can bet your last dollar, they are going to provide their own services as a matter of course.

No doubt they'll have some video on demand service or partner with some companies on search or music, or whatever. A term of the agreement would be guaranteed access to the fastest, sweetest spots in the network. While the specific deals might be vague now, what is certain is that others, not part of those deals would be expected to pay the going freight on network access.

The Bells have been here before.

It was when they were required to open their networks to Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs), but particularly CLEC DSL providers. Many times the CLECs were attempting to drive new services over the network that the Bells had not yet developed. As a result, the Bells would routinely sabotage efforts by the CLECs to deliver those services over their networks. Once the Bells actually had services which matched the CLECs, things did not improve; in fact, they got worse. The Bells were able to undermine the service reliability of CLECs (and thus their very businesses) precisely because they owned the network they were charging the CLECs to use.

So, now the Bells are claiming that they want to charge their competitors again as a means of paying for the shiny new networks they are building in some parts of their respective service areas.

It's 'deja vu all over again.'

So, how could this ideology of "collaboration, free culture, open source and bartering value for value in an economy of information" undermine the great network power grab of the Bells? I think the answer is in two places: one, the power of the ideology itself; and, two, the great fiber network busts of the turn of the 21st Century.

First, the ideology isn't just confined to college students. There are a lot of young, wealthy, free-culture oriented entrepreneurs who have no allegiance to the phone companies, no respect for them, and who might well rebel at the limits that Bells are salivating to put on networks.

Second, those entrepreneurs could still buy up national fiber networks for pennies on the dollar as a result of the great fiber network busts of the first part of this decade. Enron, Global Crossing, 360 Networks, XO, Williams, and others sank 10s of thousands of miles of fiber into rights of ways across the country in the 1990s. Just about all of that fiber led to the largest markets in the country, but passed plenty of mid- and small-sized markets on the way.

A Google, Microsoft, or other company or even individuals could scarf up fully operational networks whole and circumvent the backbones of the Bells (now owned primarily by AT&T, Verizon and Qwest).

Last mile? Municipally owned networks! Co-0p networks. Utility-owned networks. Fiber and wireless. IP over power line. Suddenly, there are many viable paths to the consumer that by-pass the Bell's Maginot Line of tiered, tarriffed traffic.

Like the entertainment industry Downes depicts in his column, the Bells and their (thus far) more discreet brethren in the cable industry are making a serious blunder by making this grab. Their efforts of control run smack into the face of what people want and how content companies want to respond to those needs.

It's an untenable position. The hierarchy-flattening revolution of Internet Protocol networks is in full swing. The network companies behave like we live in a public switched network world. They might, but the world, increasingly, doesn't.

This will probably not end well for them.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Franchise: New Tactics in Virginia

Here's a change of pace: a look at a Virginia telecommunications law. Normally I wouldn't impose my attempts to understand other state's laws on the readers of this blog but this one just might turn out to be important for Louisiana. Here's the deal: I'm expecting the next regular session of the Louisiana Legislature to have a real battle over a state-wide video franchise bill likely to be introduced by BellSouth. In other states this has been a battle royal between the cable and phone companies. The phone companies want to change the rules that govern TV-channels-for-sale-over-wires to allow them to serve only the most profitable neighborhoods while sticking cable with its current universal service requirements. As you might imagine the cable companies aren't happy and ally with municipal organizations and consumer groups to fight it. It's a combination that is potent enough to fight even the infamously effective Telco lobbying machine to a standstill.

That's been heartening to those who think that communities should have a say in its own future--especially when the phone companies are fighting to gain unrestricted access to city property without having to serve all of the community that owns that property.

But what's going on in Virginia right now suggests that the cable companies might be willing to join the phone companies and sell out local communities if they can get a good enough deal for themselves. What should be interesting to us here in Acadiana is finding out what cable wants and what phone companies are willing to give up.

If you'd like to look into all this yourself a local paper has an article, and you can even look at the law itself. (Warning, tough sledding.)

Background:
Some background: Northern Virginia is significant on two grounds. First, it's emerged as the most important battleground between the cable giants and the phone company Verizon's new fiber-optic based video services. Secondly, it is the home of Bristol, VA's "Optinet," a municipal fiber-optic utility which is proving both successful and aggressive. Optinet is capturing market share in excess of its business plan and has provided services and facilitated the development of local networking beyond its home town footprint.

Both of these unique factors appear to have had major effects on Virginia's bill. As far as Lafayette and Louisiana are concerned the first feature, phone company fiber to the home, is in contrast to Lafayette's situation. BellSouth is in no position to exert a competitive advantage in the same way that Verizon is in Virginia. The second, a successful local, public utility willing --even eager-- to play the role of a regional telecom leader is a parallel that must give BellSouth Louisiana nightmares.

It's also true that Verizon needs to be making money right now off its enormous investment in fiber in the Virginia region. The market is expressing doubt about its huge national investment in what is surely a long-term winner but does not promise much in the way of short-term profit taking. Add to that its (amazingly self-confident) "strategy" of building out an expensive network that can only be paid for in anything like the near term with the profits from the cash cow of cable TV service without first getting permission to offer cable TV. Verizon obviously decided that it would be easy enough to change the law and ignored all that "nonsense." Unhappily for them they'd never had to really deal with the idea that "all politics is local." They failed to take into account that offending every mayor, and town councilman in your little state house district by killing a traditional revenue stream just might not be considered smart politics even by legislators who'd happily trade less obvious local interests for re-election funds. Verizon's push to get state legislators to knife local government by removing local franchise agreements has ground to a halt in state houses along the east coast--bills that once seemed assured of passage are mired in rewrites and many doubt that any such bills will actually pass.

Add to this the growth of a successful muni fiber-optic based utility and the development of a regional coalition anchored by that public utility in the Appalachian western area and uncertainty and potential danger is high for all the incumbents.

So both the cable companies and Verizon had good reason to compromise here. A lot was at risk, the outcome of a blood-letting in Northern Virginia has no clear winner and a growing public insurrection in the western coalfields threatens to introduce significant new player. A compromise between the big telecoms that stabilized the situation and better defined the risk was in everyone's interest.

The take-home message? Things are in a complicated, chaotic, and dangerous moment in Virginia. What the corporations are willing to do there might prove unique...or, to the extent these factors spread, it might well prove a model for the future.

The Virginia Law
So, given that background, what do the cableco's and Verizon want?

From reading over the current version of the law (passed by the house and senate but not yet signed into law):

What cable wants is 1) parity. They want telephone companies that deliver video to be subject to the same rules they are. This law would provide that. (Fees, public access channels, etc. are provided for from all competitors.) 2) quick reduction of competitive disadvantage. Force any competitor to serve most (at least 65%) of a community on a relatively short 3-year schedule. 3) freedom to drop least profitable neighborhoods. If the teleco's decide not to build out to the last, presumably non-profitable 20% of a community the cablecos want the freedom to dump them too by getting out of old contracts with cities that required universal service.

What the phone company wants is 1) quick deployment. They don't want to wait more than 3 months after they decide they want to offer video to be able to provide it to paying customers. 2) quick profit. To be able to cherry-pick the most profitable parts of town for initial service and so show some fast payoff to investors. 3) no dregs. To never have to offer service to the least desirable 20% of a town or county (Significantly, not serving this last 20% is what BellSouth here in Lafayette made clear that it would refuse to do without taxpayer support.) 4) utterly predictable franchises. In practice this Bill impose a nearly uniform state franchise on all players. (The only possible changes would be if a provider decided it wanted to give a community more than the minimum provided in this bill--since the city must accept the minimum they've got no leverage to ask for anything special.) 5) no expansion/no teleco competition. The phone companies don't want to be required to ever have to step beyond the boundaries of their already paid-off phone-based infrastructure in order to compete in a community. This clause insures that, for instance, ATT will never have to compete with Verizon head to head in order offer local video service. (These guys are all monopolists by inheritance...competition does not come naturally and competing with your brothers baby bells for the same "ecological niche" must seem especially unpleasant.)

What both Cable but especially the Phone Corps want: 1) containment of the public "threat." No public entity that isn't already running an electrical utility gets to play in the telephone field. (No similar restriction exists for new private "overbuilders.") 2) reduction of phone price competition. As in Louisiana, public entities are forced to pretend to have expenses the do not have when setting prices they charge their citizens. (An example being that they are supposed to "impute" the cost of rental fees for property and poles they already own.) No similar "offsetting" fee is charged for the natural advantages of private providers--such as huge advantages in buying equipment in bulk. 3) force the public phone provider to operate without the financial support of the full utility company. This is accomplished by a no "cross-subsidy" rule. No similar rule applies to Verizon's wireless or phone divisions. Significantly the State Corporation Commission, the body that regulates utilities can approve a subsidy at its discretion...but not if it would result in lower prices than private providers. See #2 immediately above. (This cross-subsidy issue is the morass that is currently keeping Lafayette from deploying its system.)

What the munis and countys got: Mostly not as much. 1) preservation of the status quo ante in video and its applications to new cable providers. The phone companies have tried in various places to simply eliminate the franchise and its fees, cable access channels, community access provisions and the like. This, sad to say, is a huge win for the communities of Virginia. 2) no special, unique regulation of municipal cable services. Listing this as something the munis wanted and got might seem like a stretch. Who'd do something so whacky? Louisiana, that's who. Our nutty version deputizes the legislative auditor to regulate only municipals--meaning only Lafayette--because the constitution forbids the Public Service Commission to do what Cox desired. Virginia's solution is much saner.

This law, unless there is something I've missed, is only bad for fundamental reasons: the state should stay out of local attempts to help themselves and especially shouldn't dictate to local governments that they let outside corporations use community property without agreeing to serve the whole community. This law also persists in the malevolent silliness that little towns have some sort of unfair advantage over ruthless, international megacorporations. A sane level playing field should tilt toward the small local entities, not the big corporations. But beyond the basics this appears to be an almost honest law. The legislature in Virginia must be growing up.