Friday, March 31, 2006

"City gets 'grid' options, IBM says"

The Advocate covers a luncheon meeting at Don's yesterday that put folks from IBM together with local business and governmental types to take a look at what "Grid" computing could do for Lafayette--and, of course, what projects and potential projects in the Hub City could do for IBM's regional reps and the grid computing team.

LONI, LITE, and Lafayette's FTTH project were nodes in the discussion about making use of excess computing power and big pipe connectivity. The touchpoint for the IBMers in the crowd was the OneCleveland project. A key to the the Cleveland project and to the whole idea of using grid computing and high technology to push economic development was that old methods of local governments encouraging business development--cheifly by directly subsidizing businesses or by tax rebates --were fading and that, instead, building infrastructure and facilitating linkages was on the rise. That, should it prove productive, would certainly make sustaining our tax base easier.

There was a lot of energy in the room but as one IBM rep said:
Grid is “just a technology,” Crockett said.

The challenge is what to do with it, he said...

LUS Director Terry Huval and many on his staff were at the presentation.

“The vision for all this is a big view, down the road,” Huval said. “We need to take advantage of what we have as a community.”
The common theme seemed to be that Lafayette has given itself the potential to shape a unique future for itself. It will be interesting to see how well we can dream.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

"AT&T Project Lightspeed and the Jedi Mind Trick"

Know your enemy department:

Nyquist Capital has an exasperated analysis of AT&T's Lightspeed Fiber to the Node project. (BellSouth has agreed to be purchased by AT&T and its similar plan for gradual network upgrade will be subsumed by Lightspeed. When and if Lafayette gets an upgrade Lightspeed will be its name.)

This analysis contrasts Lightspeed with Verizon's Fiber to the Home project. But the analysis he performs sounds very similar to the one we've heard here. It's nice to occasionally be ahead of the curve.
In short, AT&T is deploying a very complex architecture with major limitations in the interest of saving money. The major problem with this approach is it offers nothing better than what the incumbent cablecos can provide. Cable's broadband is faster. Cable customers don’t need to worry about how many channels a household is watching simultaneously. Verizon’s approach delivers a user experience equivalent to cable with the ability to radically surpass it by deploying new bandwidth hungry applications as they emerge.
Substitute LUS for Verizon in this paragraph and you'll get a good picture of the emerging competitive landscape in Lafayette. And a very good idea why it is BellSouth that has been most frantic to prevent competition from LUS.

Grid Computing in Lafayette

Zydetec had one of its new-style public seminars last night and it was covered in the Advertiser. They're worth attending. The seminars naturally have their geeky side. (Hey, what is grid computing?) But the public rarely gets a chance to sit down and listen to industry leaders and local cognesenti talk about issues that will impact everyone's future. I always find that listening to the conversation after a presentation the most informative part of a presentation and Lafayette's Zydetech is one of the few places anywhere that anyone can walk in and join in the real nitty-gritty of the tech conversation. Avail yourself!

(Confession: I had to be at another meeting last night and missed the seminar. Any reader who wants to fill in the juicy details in the comments would be appreciated.)

The Advertiser does a fair job of reporting on the event itself. What is missing is the background that would let a reader know what grid computing is, why grid computing is important and why it is being discussed in Lafayette just now.

What grid computing is:
Wikipedia offers a technically oriented overview that's pretty complete if you want the whole nuanced story.

But for the rest of us: Grid computing is a way to make massively effective supercomputers out the leftovers of everyone's desktop computer. We look at our computers and see amazingly effective, plastic machines that can do an astonishing range of things. Network managers and uber tech types look at them and think: WASTE. All that processing power going to waste. Most of the time nobody is using any cycles and even when they are working 90% of the cycles are still going to waste. For the tidy-minded this is just silly. For those with real, unfilled compute-intensive needs it is offensive.

Not surprisingly these guys ran out and developed network models that would make unused cycles available to those who needed it.

Why Grid Computing is Important:
Well waste is bad. (Your grandparents told you so and they were right.) But beyond that there really are problems that are either too big to run in real-time on even the most expensive supercomptuer and big, real computational problems that nobody can afford to purchase time to solve. Those are the sorts of problems for which Grid Computing is most likely to be implemented to solve.

One of the virtues of grid computing is that the resulting supercomputer is super cheap. Cheap is good. Suddenly the little guy can do things that only those that could own "big iron" could do before. You've heard of render farms? Expensive. Exclusive. Anyone with cheap access to a muni-sized grid system could compete cheaply George Lucas. The most powerful supercomputers are built to model the weather--globally. We could use the same powerful methods to apply to, say Lafayette parish, and begin to get a handle on truly local weather. (Those summer thunderstorms in Louisiana that drench one field and leave another 300 yards away bone dry? We could understand that.) Trouble is, the finer-grained analysis uses almost as much compute power as the continental-level projections. We trouble ourselves to afford large scale predictions whose accuracy--say about hurricanes--would have astonished the best metereologist in our parent's day. But we can't afford to do the same locally. Grid computing could change that. (The list goes on...)

Why is Lafayette talking about this:
The big hangup with large-scale grid computing is bandwidth. There's never enough of it. People don't want to give it up and private providers, who profit off maximizing the difference between the bandwidth you buy and that which you actually use, don't want to do anything to encourage a new, big drain on their resources that they don't get paid for. All that is why grid computing is rare and why most small models are on public networks like those at universities who view local network usasge as something to maximize. (They've paid for it an want to use it fully--short of the point of congestion, of course.)

When Lafayette gets it big bandwidth 100 megs internal fiber-optic system from LUS most of us will have that bandwidth to burn. It won't cost us anything noticeable to share our cycles and bandwidth with others. Maybe those who chose to do so could get a small rebate on their bill and/or cheap or free access to the computational power that the community has provided itself. The 100 megs would make the grid plenty quick enough for distributed computation. Everyone benifits and a major, cost-saving, unique, and radiacally disruptive tool is added to the resources of Lafayette residents and businesses.

Uniquely cheap services are the kind of thing that businesses travel to a locales to take advantage of--the food and music here would be a nice plus.

Worth thinking about, no?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Breakfield Back At It for AT&T (aka BellSouth)

It's hard to know where to start.

Neal Breakfield, unrepentant sock puppet extraordinaire, is back at it again with a guest editorial in the Advertiser. Talk about misplaced loyalties. Even as BellSouth prepares to sell out to AT&T to create America's largest phone monopoly, Breakfield continues to act in ways that benefit the telecom incumbents and damage the interests of a project the local community has overwhelmingly approved.

While Breakfield neglects to mention his long-standing opposition to Lafayette's project, readers should be reminded that Breakfield was one of the very few voices to be raised against the project locally. He vociferously opposed the idea with various rationales and ran a distasteful site called fiber 411 on which posters regularly trash-talked the project and the character and motives of local citizens from behind its wall of anonymity.

But the best place to start is with Breakfield's charge that Lafayette somehow considers itself "above the law" for pursuing repeal of a law that has repeatedly been used to thwart the will of the voters. It's hard to understand where Neal finds the gall to claim that Lafayette considers itself above the law. Talk about hypocritical. Beyond running fiber 411 and appearing at press conferences Neal's main claim to fame was to file a dubious, "unsworn" complaint against Mayor Durel which, apparently, was found to be without merit since the time has elapsed when a verdict to the contrary would have been announced. In the normal course of events a finding against a person like Mr. Durel would be the first the public would have heard of the matter since it is against the law to discuss unsworn complaints publicly--precisely to prevent folks from using the ethics commission to publicize and give weight to what is essentially rumor-mongering. But Neal's unsworn complaint was announced on the editorial pages of the Times of Acadiana. Neither he nor his partner in unethically discussing a charge he wasn't willing to swear to (Eric Benjamin) has found it convenient to apologize for illegally publicizing a complaint that turned out to be baseless. This makes his strange plaint about others believing that they are "above the law" more than a little hypocritical.

This guest editorial represents a return to the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) strategy so long pursued by the incumbents. Powerful, dominant, corporations have long used such tactics to smear their upstart competition. Issues are raised that are, generally, either untrue or irrelevant but which always raise doubt about the character or the competence of their opposition. The point is not to lay out a good or even defensible line of reasoning in opposition to what a corporation dislikes. The purpose is simply to raise a long series of scary "possibilities" that surround the opposition's product with so many ugly suppositions that people come away with the impression that something must be wrong.

In the odd, mirror world that Neal occupies trying to repeal a law is the same as being "above the law." It's not--it is obviously the opposite of that. Neal has no objection to the endless lawsuits and obstructionism at the Public Service Commission that has served to delay a project Lafayette voted to approve. His emphasis is entirely on the successes that the incumbents have enjoyed with this strategy. He ignores the fact that the ordinance we all voted on and approved is the same one which BellSouth finally found a court to take it side on--after the author, Cox, the city, the public service commission (who filed a brief in support) and various legislators have all indicated that they think BellSouth is betraying deals made in conference and misinterpreting the law. He rhetorically asks whether we voted on that ordinance. We did! Explicitly. On July 16th

Breakfield ignores the fact that the co-sponsor of the Local Government Fair Competition Act is now spearheading the effort for repeal in the Senate just as he ignores the fact that the people did in fact vote on the ordinance BellSouth sued us over. He's not eager to ask why the Acadiana delegation has lined up for repeal. He doesn't ask why Cox refused to join BellSouth's suit over this ordinance.

Breakfield wants to pretend that the city joining all these folks in thinking BellSouth wrong and defending itself in court when sued by its potential competition was to engage in "blatantly illegal" behavior. Wildest nonsense. Defending yourself in court is the opposite of "illegal" behavior just as seeking repeal of an unjust law exhibits the opposite of considering yourself "above the law."

At some point you would think that having been repudiated at the polls would end this type of self-indulgent foolishness. Or that a decent regard for the judgment of the community would induce a little more care in attacking its interests. Apparently not. The community has ignored this sort of nonsense from Neal before and I've little doubt that it will be ignored once again.

"Political Gambit"

Nathan Stubbs at the Independent has a wrap-up story on the original trio of bills that propose to neuter or repeal the "Local Government Fair Competition Act." He focuses in on Joel Robideaux who is happily fronting the bills in the House.

The story highlights heroic dimensions as the unassuming first term representative takes on not one but two telecommunications Goliaths in defense of home and hearth. But it hints, as well, at intricate behind the scenes maneuvering:
Passed in 2004, the 21-page law was touted as a compromise agreement between LUS and private telecom providers, enacting detailed guidelines and scrutiny over any public entity’s bid to offer telecommunications services to the general public. Last year, BellSouth used the law to file a lawsuit that tied up LUS’ bond ordinance in court. LUS and city leaders felt burned, claiming BellSouth was underhanded about its intentions during the bill’s negotiations. BellSouth Rep. John Williams did not return calls for comment for this story...

Cox Communications spokeswoman Sharon Kleinpeter says her company was a bit taken aback by Robideaux’s bills....

The bills prompted the scheduling of a pre-session meeting with all interested parties to talk about possible compromises — a meeting that was abruptly canceled late last week. Even before that development, Robideaux wasn’t holding out too much hope that everyone would come to a friendly agreement.

“They had these meetings before the [Local Government Fair Competition Act], and Lafayette thought it would be allowed to progress, and that wasn’t the case. So I’m not sure what could come out of this meeting that everybody would feel like, ‘OK, good, we know exactly what’s going to happen after this point.’ But, I’m an optimist, so we’ll see.”

You begin to see an emerging strategy perking out when Robideaux nonchalantly suggests that the bill that would make many of the restrictions apply equally to the parties is pretty much common sense--for any entity that wants a shot at government money or subsidies:
HB 244, would require any private telecommunications company that receives public funds to adhere to all of the regulations in the Local Government Fair Competition Act. Telecom companies have received government assistance in the past, in the form of tax incentives and grants for opening new offices and expanding services into rural areas. Robideaux won’t be surprised if BellSouth or Cox look to capitalize on federal funds or tax incentives now being offered to spark rebuilding in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“If they see this as an opportunity to put down some infrastructure in the state, which is not necessarily a bad thing, [under this bill] they would then be subjected to the same rules and regulations that any other governmental entity would be, since they’re receiving government money to do it,” says Robideaux.

What a fun little trap; it is a classic double bind: Damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
While Robideaux lays it out as a common sense measure, the bill appears to be a long shot.
A long shot? Sure. And so? It'd be fun to pass it, no doubt, but the real reason to put it out there has to be to set the stage for what should be the real argument: Just how FAIR is the fair competition act anyway? After all if it is fair, and if it actually does establish a "level playing field" which is all the incumbents piously say the want, why shouldn't the law's restrictions apply equally to any publicly subsidized entity? Cox's Sharon Kleinpeter unwisely took the bait:
If enacted, it would open the door to placing unprecedented government auditing and financing restraints on private telecom companies. Cox’s Kleinpeter says public and private businesses are different animals that can’t be covered by blanket guidelines.

“I think you’re comparing apples and oranges, and those two things could not ever be put in the same basket,” she says. “All of us in business have to follow rules and guidelines from the FCC, the SEC and anti-trust laws.”

Really, all you can do is bluster. And bluster is just not very convincing.

You get a little hint of a further strategy in the following (LPF analysis here) remarks:
The triple-threat political gambit could not come at a more auspicious time for LUS. Last Wednesday, the city-parish council approved the public utility’s latest bond ordinance for the project, starting a 30-day window for anyone to issue another legal challenge to the bond ordinance. The benefit of having a fresh debate on the Fair Competition Act opening at the same time as the window for a new legal challenge to LUS isn’t lost on Robideaux, who smiles and says, “It just happened to work out that way.”
Nah, it didn't just happen to work out that way. The ball is in play.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Louisiana & Lafayette's Tech Story Gets Told

In the heart of Cajun country, Louisiana state and municipal officials are completing the construction of a $27.5 million, supercomputer-powered 3-D visualization complex that they hope will become the nucleus of a new Silicon Valley.
Ok, so it's a little over the top and bit hyperbolic. Still the story in FCW is great publicity for the state and Lafayette. National publicity for all your best toys is always welcome:
The Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), which could be operational by late April or early May, would immediately support research and development activities for independent oil and gas companies that don"t have the expertise or investment dollars for such immersive technologies....
There's a fairly detailed description of the netw LITE center for the curious. Unfortunately there's no picture of the futuristic building that's currently being finished.

If researchers need more computing capacity than the facility can provide, officials said, the center can draw aggregate supercomputing power statewide through a 60-gigabits/sec connection to the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative. It is a $40 million statewide fiber-optic network that links mainframe computers at the state's major research universities.

The statewide network also connects to the National LambdaRail, a transcontinental optical Ethernet and IP networking infrastructure built on more than 10,000 miles of fiber-optic cable. National LambdaRail is designed for national-scale research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications....

Gothreaux said the project was conceived three years ago to help Lafayette, located in south central Louisiana, diversify its economy. The city has a relatively low unemployment rate, and the community voted last year to spend $125 million to bring fiber optics to every home. "We were looking for an economy-changing--even, to a certain extent, a society-changing--science," Gothreaux said.
LITE, LONI, the LambdaRail and FTTH! That's a big chunk of the new Zydetech grand plan being mentioned all at once. Somebody's happy. Too bad they didn't mention grid computing or Tech South.

Update: A recent email delivers a blast from the past on grid computing. Does anyone recall the Acadiana Virtual Supercomputer project? The upcoming Zydetec public forum on grid computing should be really interesting for those with the taste for a little productive dreaming. (Here's a dream: a distributed computing network built on the back of Lafayette's 100 megs of internal bandwidth could power an extremely cheap, easy way to make the hugely compute intenstive elements of digital special effects and various levels of cartooning possible as a cottage industry. Currently those activities are forced by limited bandwidth to put the artists involved in a cubicle farm perched on top of a fast LAN full of servers. In Lafayette contract workers or cottage industries could sit out on the fast local network and pull on distributed computing network. We've already got creative video development going on at the University, Carencro High, and Game Camp. Those folks don't necessarily have to go away to put their talents and traing to use if we can get something like that going.

(You can peek at an earlier version of the Lafayette video gaming distributed network if you find the idea intriguing.)

Watching Sausage Being Made

We've all heard the old saw: "People who enjoy sausages and respect the law should never watch either being made."

The author clearly wasn't from Louisiana where getting up close and nasty with what we eat is part of the feast. Consider boucheries, corner-store boudin, and boiling crawfish alive. Folks with a delicate constitution don't hang around long. What's true of food is equally true of legislation. Politics is a spectator sport in the "gret state."

The sport has been waning in recent years, what with cheap cable television and TV preachers providing an unwholesome entertainment alternative to Dudley LeBlanc, Puggy Moity, Mr. Edwards and their colorful commentators.

With modern telecommunications you needn't get your legislative entertainment at one remove. You'll be able to watch much of the proceedings this year for yourself--and judge for yourself the quality of work done in your name. (Mostly, the few times I've attended such, I've been pleasantly surprised...but the moments of duplicity are rewarding to the cynic in me.)

One of the advantages of a modern telecommunications network is that you can watch the sausage being made every day on regular old cable TV courtesy of LPB and the Cable companies and get streaming video of the actual committee meetings from the legislatures website. Louisiana's cable companies and Lousiana Public Broadcasting have teamed up to provide widespread access. (Here is where Cox Lafayette has done a good thing: this is the first year they've carried LPB's signal; maybe hiring the Governor's daughter to dispense PR has had some positive effect.)

LPB/Cablecos provide:
Access on the cable channels from 2 to 6 every legislative day. I presume that will be mostly shots from whichever house has the more interesting "action" going on. Here in Lafayette tune to channel 98; the channel location for other participating cablecos is located on the web. LPB will also provide occasional live coverage on its stations across the state starting with Blanco's opening address on today, March 27th @ 1:00.

The Legislature provides:
For more discerning viewers with the dollop of broadband needed for small steaming video windows you can can choose from multiple committee hearings. (Obligatory remark: this is another reason we need real broadband.) In my experience, this is more likely to be rewarding than trying to decipher the goings-on on the floor of the legislature. All legislative downloadable video requires a copy of the (free) RealVideo player be installed on your machine.

The House:
House Committee Streaming Video Schedules. Even more nifty is the House archives of the netcasts. Time shift your viewing, it's like an online TiVo. (The commerce committee will be venue for issues relating to Lafayette's fiber to the home project and repeal of the Local Government Fair Competition Act.)

The Senate:
The Senate's live netcasts (and they are ONLY available as streams, no archives are publicly available) are more awkward to use than the House's. You'll have to track the bills (LPF cheatsheet) you are intersted in; find the bill's info which will list the committee where they will be heard, find the committee's page and then see when that bill shows up on the agenda and the rooms that those committees will meet open the steam from that room. Again, for most of our purposes here, that will probably be the commerce committee. Waaay too complicated. But still, it's possible and the fact that you can look over their shoulder as they do a lot of this work is a very good thing.

It'll be serious entertainment. Real things will happen in the public view if the public cares to pay attention. It's a level of access that modern technology makes available that used to be pretty much the sole province of paid lobbyists. What'll be really fun is when the pieces fall into place to put the video on something like an RSS feed and integrate it with your own PVR. At that point you'll be able to graze through the recordings, find the good parts, and share them with others. That would be real sunshine.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could ask him, I guess.

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

"Bandwidth to the home, how much is enough"

Mark Cuban, tech entrepreneur, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and something of a maverick in all his manifestations runs a thought piece in his personal blog on how much bandwidth folks will really need in the future. An interesting issue to contemplate on a Sunday morning.

It's a lot; more than 100 megs. He creates a family, "the Whales," to illustrate why he thinks that high value families will push the telecom companies to deliver a 100 meg or more pipe to its most valuable customers.

A sampler....
So lets look at our customer, The Whales, and their 3 kids and see what services they use.

First, each of the 3 kids has an LCD HDTV that operates both as a HDTV and a PC monitor. Their PC is of course connected to the net and is their stereo. It is not their TV PVR because of the hassles of cable card or lack of satellite PC connectivity for programming. Instead they have a provider installed HD PVR that shares a multi terabyte drive with their PC.

The kids are collectors...

When it comes to TV content, they use the same front end to programatically control the provided PVR. With the front end, they don't use season passes any more. They save networks. Everything on MTV. It gets saved to the PVR. Everything from HDNet and HDNet Movies, CBS, NBC, HBO, Showtime, ABC, TNT, ESPNs, they all just automatically get saved...So their PVRs have basically become network spiders pulling in content 24x7x365.
You can see where this is going. Add in mom and pop doing a few work projects and a little IPTV and pretty soon it adds up to real bandwidth. (I've ranted on this line of reasoning before in the context of Lafayette and the fiber referendum, if some of this seems a little familiar.)

Now be aware that Cuban's not a disinterested observer; he's made a bundle off the sale of broadcast.com (an early "IP video caster") and is a big investor in HDNet, a high def satellite network. So he's putting his mouth where his money already is, so to speak. Of course, his bets have been pretty good so far.

At any rate, it's an amusing read and worth thinking about for the rare locale, like Lafayette, which will have access to a local high speed network at 100 megs. The real reason we can't have cheap access to the world wide web at 100 megs is the cost of transport to the backbone and transport over it. But we can, and will, have that much transport locally. How much of the capacity that Cuban attributes to his upscale family can be recreated locally and cheaply if we decide to do so?

I suspect a lot of it. Much of Cuban's dream is premised on terabyte storage in the home. And that's not too far out considering the cost of storage. But with a fat local pipe we don't all have to own the terabyte. It'd be a whole lot cheaper to share it online with our friends and family, or cheaply through small local businesses, or as a small tack-on fee to our telecom utility bill. If 400 people in Lafayette want to watch Desperate Housewives the next day they can record it up to net and watch it later. And there need be only one copy on the net. My guess is that most of what Cuban locates in wealthy households could be located on the local backbone for a pittance.

Worth thinking about, Lafayette?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Our New Overlords: ATT's Fiber To The Rich Nodes

The new AT&T (recently SBC) is set to absorb BellSouth as soon as the regulatory bodies scuttle out of the way. So it seemed useful to do a little checking on what we can expect from our new telecom overlords. It seems that if you and your neighbors don't average a phone bill in excess of $110 dollars a month you will not get a network upgrade from them. (Not even the stangled fiber to the node kind that ATT and BellSouth are currently touting, much less real fiber to the home.) I spend about 19 dollars with BellSouth each month. Not a few of my neigbors get by on cell phones. I guess we up here in north Lafayette aren't on the list. No surprise.

AT&T and BellSouth are hot to abolish Louisiana's local video franchises and wanting to sell only to the wealthy is a big part of the reason. They don't want to sell to poor folks. Cox does, their local franchise agreement requires them to serve everyone. LUS will serve all too--they've pledged to do so and politcs will make it certain that they do. ATT/BellSouth doesn't think they should have to follow suit. Their profit would be a lot bigger if they didn't have to mess around all those little accounts. That explains two bills lined up in our legislature that forbid local governments requiring a new competitor to serve all equally. (That is really what they say. Check it out for yourself: SB 386, HB 699.)

A bit of googling around popped up the following article from USATodays' Leslie Cauley, whose coverage of muni/telecom issues has been stellar. Here's a telling clip from her article when the franchising issue first heated up in late '05 and SBC had yet to finish swallowing up AT&T and adopting its name. In the story SBC/ATT reps have been complaining that the cable companies attempts to make the phone companies play by the same rules the cable companies do is unfair "regulation." Cauley writes:

Yet, SBC itself has been using regulation to strangle its rivals for years, complains Mark Cooper, director of the Consumer Federation of America. So have the other Bells. Cooper notes that SBC and the other Bells are seeking to bar municipalities from building broadband networks that might compete with their own.

In many cases, he says, the Bells are making these arguments in the same states — Texas, for example — where they're seeking to evade cable-franchise rules.

“My heart doesn't bleed for them,” Cooper says of the Bells and their complaints about franchising rules. “They don't have a public-interest bone in their body.”

Cooper says SBC reinforced that idea last fall when it unveiled plans for “Lightspeed,” its broadband project. SBC plans to spend $4 billion over four years to reach 18 million households, and ramp up from there.

During a slide show for analysts, SBC said it planned to focus almost exclusively on affluent neighborhoods. SBC broke out its deployment plans by customer spending levels: It boasted that Lightspeed would be available to 90% of its “high-value” customers — those who spend $160 to $200 a month on telecom and entertainment services — and 70% of its “medium-value” customers, who spend $110 to $160 a month.

SBC noted that less than 5% of Lightspeed's deployment would be in “low-value” neighborhoods — places where people spend less than $110 a month. SBC's message: It would focus on high-income neighborhoods, at least initially, to turn a profit faster.

Some policymakers, though, said they were appalled. “It was one of the worst self-inflicted wounds in the public policy arena that I have ever seen,” says Blair Levin, who served as an adviser to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt.

At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., accused SBC of offering Lightspeed “for the well-off and ‘Snailspeed' for everybody else.” Cable operators also piled on. Brian Roberts, Comcast's CEO, dubbed SBC's FTTH (Fiber to the Home) project “FTTR” — Fiber to the Rich.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who watched BellSouth evade the digital divide issue during the refendum here in Lafayette. Even under duress they wouldn't say they'd serve everyone. 80 percent was all they were willing to promise.

If you figure out the "promise" SBC/ATT is making it works out to about 52. 5 percent of the total population. A little over half of the people in the communities they serve. The wealthiest half.

It doesn't look like our New Overlords will be any improvement over the old BellSouth ones.

Statewide video franchising. It's a simple way to exclude half of our citizens.

Almost Repeal!!

There's another wrinkle in the set of Louisiana bills being offered by the Acadiana delegation to overturn or substantially modify the notorious Local Government Fair Competition Act. One of them, HB 537, might look at first glance like it just adds the names of new sponsors to HB 257. The lineup of Representatives Robideaux, Pierre, Trahan, and Alexander and then Senator Michot, gives it more weight. Their names on the bill helps. My first take was that adding heft to the bill was the point.

But I was wrong.

HB 537 doesn't just grandfather Lafayette out of the (un)Fair Competition Act and provide a full wireless exemption for Louisiana localities, 537 effectively repeals all of the act except for the referendum provisions for any local government whose people vote for telecommunications in the way described in the Act. Here's the deceptively simple change; in the originally filed bill, HB 257, description of the "scope" of the new law you find that it won't apply to any local government:
(2) Which has held an election on or before August 15, 2005, pursuant toR.S. 45:844.50(A)
That would have excluded Lafayette (but only Lafayette). HB 257 cuts the August 15th bit:
(2) Which has held an election pursuant to R.S. 45:844r
The law and all its obnoxious and anti-municipal bits that force prices higher and impose absurd conditions on the operation of public utilities remains on the book but no longer applies to anything that can actually happen. --A city must vote to offer the service and no city which has voted will have to follow the rest of the provisions of the law. (Readers with a long memory may recall that this is basically the same strange way that the anti-muni "Broome bill" was gutted. [1,2,3])

This amendment basically repeals all but the feasibility study and referendum parts of the law. (Check the difference in the "scope" section, by eliminating language about August 15th it effectively widens the exemption to all municipalities, not just Lafayette.) This is almost surely the bill that Acadiana will ride forward with. It will be a perfect fit with the rhetoric of self-determination.

I can still wish for full repeal...Lafayette dodged the bullet of a vicious, full-scale, incumbent campaign during the referendum only by making it clear that the community and its officials both were willing (and even eager) to match every attack from the incumbents with a fast, hard return that emphasized local pride and lambasted "out of state monopolies." BellSouth and Cox, used to casual intimidation of little local guys, got none of the fawning respect they are usually able to count on as a consequence of their proven political power and enormous wealth. After enduring an initial firestorm of response to their ugly tactics they flinched during the homestretch.

Lafayette is unique in many ways--and lucky to boot. No other community ought to have count on having the resources and fortune Lafayette did in order to do what's right for their people. We elect representatives we trust to do the research we as individuals don't have the time or inclination to do. Utility decisions are exactly the sorts of technical decisions that we elect representatives to make for us. There is no reason to make a referendum issue out of this particular decision unless it is to make it more difficult to offer competition to the incumbents. That isn't a good enough reason to single out telecom decisions. (A city could decide to offer electricity without all this bowing and scraping in the direction of incumbent monopolies.)

Still, this is not bad law, all told. The feasibility study and referendum requirements are enough to concede to power and campaign contributions.

You might want to congratulate the guys while they're doing good: Representatives Robideaux, Pierre, Trahan, and Alexander; Senator Michot


Lagniappe: HB 244/SB 192, the "Poison Pill" bill would apply the governance provisions to "subsidized" private providers. If it were to pass first and then this "Referendum & Wireless Exemptions" bill were to pass the result would be to effectively turn the table on BellSouth. The onerous, absurd restrictions BellSouth intended to apply only to public utilities would suddenly apply only to them. As we used to say on the playground: "Turnabout is fair play." Sly.

A guy can dream....

State Legislation Department, repeal!!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Doesn't Apply to Lafayette

Here's a fellow who doesn't think that TV is going to be replaced by DV (Downloadable Video) any time soon. He has a point--for anyone who's relying on the Cable or Phone companies for their broadband.

He is worried about how far short the stated plans of the incumbents fall of the capacity that widespread DV will require. Says he:
I tried to address the expectation that the telcos are rapidly rushing in to meet this need and to provide competition for cable incumbents. In fact, by their own best estimates, they'll be able to reach no more than 40% or so of American households with fiber over the next seven years.

And most of that will be in the form of hybrid fiber/legacy copper networks, such as that being constructed by AT&T under the banner of "Project Lightspeed..."

More importantly, in 60% of the country, there are simply no new networks on the horizon, and the existing infrastructure from the telcos -- DSL running at speeds of just 1.5Mbs or so -- simply won't be adequate to be considered "broadband" in five years or so.
There are ways around this, and the comments do a good job of pointing out what they are.

But it's pleasant to realize that this, at least, is not something we have to fret over in Lafayette.

Legislative Overview: Bill Roundup

Well, there's a crowd of telecom bills wandering the halls of the state legislature ready for the session to open on Monday. Here is a pregame list of the players. They range widely from bills that would repeal the Local Government Fair Competiton Act, to ones that would extend it to private companies, to ones that would provide various exemptions. There's also a bevy of emergency preparedness bills and a set of bills that would transfer municipalities rights to control their rights of ways through franchising agreements to the state.

It's hard to know which bills will actually turn out to be important but with this list you can try and keep track as game advances. We'll be most interested in those that directly effect municipal issues like Lafayette's fiber-optic project, New Orleans' WiFi system, and state franchise attempts. I'll try and do occasional updates to this list and a fuller post/summary of individual bills contents and implications.

Typically the bulk of bills are prefiled--meaning they are officially registered in advance of the session. Prefiling of bills has closed but each legislator can put forward five more before April 18th, so we've likely not seen the last of them.

Here is the current list:
  • HB 244, Robideaux, SB 192--Michot, Poison Pill, Would apply most of the rules that apply to municipal telecom entrants under the Local Government Fair Competition Act to "subsidized" private telecom providers. (Prefiled)
  • HB 245--Robideaux, SB 495--Michot, Repeal!!, Would Repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act. (Prefiled)
  • HB 257, Robideaux, SB 243--Michot, Exemptions Would exempt Lafayette from the Fair Competition Act and exempt all wireless technologies. (Prefiled)
These three have been covered in these pages previously. But there is another batch that, for now, I'll just list. More later....
  • HB 537, Robideaux, Exemptions Redux, Would exempt Lafayette from the Fair Competition Act and exempt all wireless technologies. (Prefiled) [This version of the bill has several Acadiana co-sponsors: Representatives, Robideaux, Pierre, Trahan, and Alexander as well as Senator Michot]
  • SB 211, Murray, Wireless Exemption, Would exempt all wireless technologies from the Fair Competition Act. (Prefiled)
  • SB 386--Ellington, HB 699--Montgomery, State Video Franchise-panel, Would eliminate local video franchises and vest control in a panel appointed by the governor. (Prefiled) [co-sponsored by in the Senate by Smith]
  • HB 258, Farrar, State Video Franchise-PSC, Would eliminate local video franchises and vest control in the Public Service Commission. (Prefiled)
  • HB 540--Burns, Emergency Preparedness, Would mandate the development of a an emergency preparedness system. (Prefiled)
  • HB 619--Burns, Emergency Preparedness-Coastal, Would mandate the development of a an emergency preparedness system in coastal regions. (Prefiled)
Louisiana Legislation Dept.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"New Orleans, BellSouth in Wi-Fi VoIP Tussle"

New Telephony posts an article today giving additional detail to the story on BellSouth, Wireless, & New Orleans I posted earlier today. Based on presentation N. O. CIO Mefferet made at a Voice Over Network Conference in San Jose, the piece makes clear that the city is confident that BellSouth is attempting to block its WiFi network.

The article recounts a good bit of the heroic story of getting an operations center back online after the storm and the role wireless technologies and plain old geekery played in patching together some semblance of a communications and control network. It's inspiring stuff.

But a large part of to the tale concerns the smoldering resentment of BellSouth. The telecom giant, on Meffert's account, is unrelenting in opposing anything that might someday cut into a profit it might claim. Meffert says:

Although the Wi-Fi network today is critical for the city’s functioning, and Meffert is looking for sponsors, such as Google Inc., to expand it to 100 percent of the city, he reports that BellSouth has opposed the city’s development of the network.

“They say I’m going to compete with them, that government shouldn’t compete with the private sector and that we will be using federal funds,” said Meffert. “We will not go above 512k, which is not a huge network pipe. We are not going into the cable business and the network business, not competing with any of that, and they think we are. They told me that to my face.”

There is a law in Louisiana, passed about a year ago, that bars municipalities from competing commercially with private interests for communication services...

That municipal network legislation includes an exception in emergency situations. According to Meffert, there is now an effort in the state legislature to end that exception, which would force the city to close down its network. “Our lobbyists are saying they politically will succeed,” said Meffert. “We put in legislation to open a window for 512k, and it was killed before it went to committee.” Meffert says, no matter what the state legislature does, the city leadership will not turn off the network because too many citizens depend on it.

Meffert is talking about bills that were shot down in the special session and about bills that are being proposed now for the upcoming regular session. He's also, IMHO, conceding too much upfront. New Orleans went to the legislature hat in hand, humbly asking for the crumb of being allowed to keep its emergency system going in the face of extremely slow rebuild by BellSouth and a publicly announced doubt by the company that all its old infrastructure would ever be rebuilt. BellSouth and its lapdogs in the legislature simply slammed the door in their face.

It's time for New Orleans to learn what two years of battle have taught Lafayette: there's no getting along with these guys. They don't keep their promises and they'll lie shamelessly. I have no doubt that when Meffert says that they've told him some pretty ugly stuff to his face that he's telling the truth. On the other hand there are plenty of reason to disbelieve the public pronouncements of BellSouth; BellSouth's denials fit a well-established pattern.

Meffert and the city of New Orleans would be best served by an aggressive, public attack on BellSouth and BellSouth's law that prevents them from serving their people. This sort of attack is what worked in Lafayette and led to our referendum victory. Private discussions and quiet legislative entreaties are utterly useless with these guys. The current flurry of net commentary on Meffert's VON talk make it clear how easy it would be to pursue this course and how sympathetic the public would be. New Orleans and the Acadiana delegation would make a potent and hard to ignore lobby in the legislature. Somebody pulling in the folks in Lake Charles--who've done a lot with little help or attention--would make it a solid coastal Louisiana trifecta.

New Orleans should fight for complete freedom. It shouldn't settle for a puny 512K network deliberately crippled to accommodate BellSouth. If New Orleans is to have the control of its destiny it so desperately needs, if it and not a handful of out-of-state corporations are to decide what sort of supporting infrastructure shapes its future, then it needs to have a horse in the race that has plenty of room to maneuver.

Repeal the law and watch Lafayette's municipal system take off. Cox and BellSouth would suffer some real competition--which is all they really fear. If BellSouth and Cox pussyfoot around about providing services that New Orleans thinks are vital to its community's revival Lafayette would prove a salutary lesson in what can happen if the incumbents don't pay attention to community needs.

Repeal!!

Lagniappe:
Muniwireless covers the same VON talk.
The Wireless Report also has the story.

update:
The Red Herring Story, "Wi-Fi Fight Brews in Big Easy" with the subhead:
"City CIO says he’d rather go to jail than shut down the city’s free wireless network." was the day's # 4 story at digg.com when I checked in around 6:30

BellSouth & Wireless & New Orleans

One of the few bright spots in New Orleans' slo-mo recovery has been the widely praised free municipal WiFi network that has filled in the blank spots left by the slow rebuilding of the city's telecommunications infrastructure. Articles from venues such as Forbes have praised the city's verve and willingness to find creative ways to do for itself.

A lot of national attention has focused on the ability the wireless mesh network showed in bouncing back from the storm's devastation. The traditional networks showed no such resilience and are still not able to support the city's need as a quote (my emphases) from a recent ComputerWorld article shows:

...as the lone public communications system left in the city, it also carries VoIP traffic that is the lifeline for many city businesses, said the city's CIO, Greg Meffert.

The storm wiped out wireline phone service and cellular networks...

"We still have a third to a half of the city blocked out for telecom and power," Meffert said.

The mesh creates a Wi-Fi cloud over the downtown business district and the French Quarter, with the bandwidth segmented for public safety and public Wi-Fi...

He said the situation is likely to continue indefinitely because the traditional wireline phone companies say they will not rebuild in the city for a long time. "We're letting this Wi-Fi technology become indigenous infrastructure to help bring the city back," Meffert said.

He said businesses have no alternatives, so law firms are actually doing business over VoIP out of coffee shops, "as long as it's in the cloud."

Four months ago, the city population was 50,000, and now it's 250,000. "The wireless network is part of what's making them able to come back," he said.

Given the fact that the wireless network is proving a workhorse in providing service where BellSouth can not or will not rebuild its been hard for many people to understand BellSouth's well-documented and remarkably mean-spirited opposition to the city's wifi network. (This is largely a matter of experience, folks from Lafayette have become familiar with BellSouth's unwillingness to let a community do for itself what BellSouth refuses to do for them.)

It's no secret that BellSouth has been pulling jobs out of New Orleans, that it's rebuild effort has been slow to the point of obstructionism. A lot of that is explicable by assuming a cold-hearted business calculation that demands a certain size return on investment and doesn't much value loyalty. You deal with large corporations with no organic ties to the community and that's they way they think.

You'd think that same cold calculation would apply to the wireless network: what they don't intend to supply they could leave to others without injury to themselves. Why do they buy themselves such bad press and political trouble if they don't intend to do it themselves?

Because, it's now revealed, the DO intend to do it for themselves. When they get around to it. And, astonishingly, as a product that would charge businesses extra for wireless as a backup to BellSouth's slow repair of their primary, landline services. The city stepping in and quickly just making public property freely available is embarrassing. But the real issue is that BellSouth really doesn't want the community to help itself cheaply if it foresees the chance to make a buck off the failures of its aging infrastructure.

From the Reuters story, BellSouth to test Wi-Max, sells wireless as backup:
"Coming into hurricane season, BellSouth is also starting to push its existing wireless service as a backup option to help businesses maintain data links between offices if services on the wired network are disrupted.

BellSouth, operating in nine southeastern states, used wireless technology last year to help provide communications in New Orleans after hurricane floods drenched the city's wired networks.

'There's a higher level of customer interest in these solutions based on the hurricanes,' said Michael Bowling, vice president for development at BellSouth."
Astonishing. Part of this story is that BellSouth is just as willing to stand in the way of state efforts to build a wireless emergency network as it is to stand in the way of a municipalities like New Orleans or Lafayette doing so. A bill promoting a statewide wireless emergency system in the recent hurricane-themed special session of the legislature died, according to its author, because of "telecom" opposition. In Louisiana that really means one company: BellSouth.

BellSouth is not a good corporate neighbor. Their interests diverge from ours and they are not in the least afraid to promote their interests over ours. It's time we recognized the reality of the situation and started acting as if we understood it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Schools Told to Prepare for Bird Flu

This story from the Washington Post is really about the LUS fiber project and the (for now) hidden costs BellSouth's legal tactics are imposing on our community.

Sure, on the face of it, the story is about federal health experts directing local school districts to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic of bird flu to strike the United States. But, it is also about what could be Lafayette's secret weapon to dampen the social and economic impact of such a pandemic on our community should it strike.

That secret weapon is the LUS fiber project.

Here are key passages that hint at the challenges such a pandemic could cause:
Who coordinates decisions on closing schools or quarantining kids? If classes shut down for weeks, how will a district keep kids from falling behind? Who will keep the payroll running, or ease the fear of parents, or provide food to children who count on school meals?
Then there's this from North Carolina:
In North Carolina on Tuesday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to encourage schools to prepare. Spellings said schools must be aware that they may have to close their buildings _ or that their schools may need to be used as makeshift hospitals, quarantine sites or vaccination centers.
The biggest challenge would be how to keep the education process going during a state of quarantine:
Children age 5 to 18 tend to be the biggest spreaders of flu viruses in the community, experts say. Schools may be ordered to close to prevent spreading the disease.

In Massachusetts, school administrators are considering using an automated phone bank to announce homework assignments and update parents. Another plan would use the Internet for communication between students and their teachers.

Ah, there it is: "use Internet for communications between students and their teachers."

The fact is that existing telecommunications infrastructure is not adequate to sustain heavy traffic for any extended period of time. See the report on the attacks of 9/11/01 and what happened in the wake of Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast.

As anyone who has ever communicated via email knows, it's a poor substitute for face-to-face contact, particularly in relaying critical information. It's a poor substitute because everything relies on how good one is at conveying information via typed words and how good another is at interpreting the meaning of those same words. Email is weaker than a phone conversation because in a phone conversation the listener can hear inflection and emphasis. Email is decent, but it is fairly ineffective because it is so 'thin' compared to the richer context of signals and meaning that get conveyed in a normal face-to-face encounter.

So, imagine the quality of, say, education when the sole communication between students and teachers is via email.

What the LUS fiber system offers Lafayette is a robust network architecture which could allow live streaming audio and video delivery of classroom instruction using the kind of rich media environment that can both engage students and convey knowledge to them.

According to the Lafayette Parish School System website, there are more than 30,000 students in the public schools in Lafayette. I don't know what the number of students is in private schools, but let's say there are another 10,000.

Could the existing telecommunications infrastructure in Lafayette support the delivery of remote instruction for the several weeks of sustained school closures a bird flu pandemic might require?

If that was all that was needed, one might argue that the network might be able to do it.

OK, so how will business be conducted? Face-to-face? During quarantine?

Other news stories have pointed to business leaders across the country considering telework responses to a bird flu outbreak.

Could all that education and business traffic be carried simultaneously over existing telecom infrastructure?

All the real world evidence we've seen in recent years about surges in traffic demand indicates that the existing infrastructure is not up to the challenge.

Communities will pay a dear price for this inadequacy.

But, Lafayette need not be left unarmed. The LUS fiber system offers Lafayette a clear path for a unique response through a network infrastructure second to none. Fiber to every home and business will deliver enough bandwidth for Lafayette businesses and educational institutions to continue to function in ways that will just not be possible in other communities.

This is what we voted for last July when we voted to approve the LUS fiber project.

This asset -- this secret weapon -- is just one thing BellSouth is trying to deny our community when they sue to kill the LUS plan.

Clever, Canille, Ordinance Passes

Both the Advocate and the Advertiser have stories today on last night's passage of the bond ordinance. (Clever, sly, canille ordinance!-- on which more later.) A quick look at both stories is a good idea as they touch on various issues.

The Advocate exhibits a "what next" approach. Tracing out what LUS intends to do until the bonds are locked in... or BellSouth sues to stop their competition again.

The Advertiser also takes a look at the rate hike dispute that was recently revived. That's a likely source of a lawsuit to try and halt the bond issue as BellSouth's involvement is not immediately visible. And BellSouth might soon want a legal opportunity to try and interfere with the final adoption of the Bond ordinance which does not directly bear their name as plaintiffs.

The Advocate notifies us that we now enter an important waiting period:
Once this new ordinance is officially published in the newspaper, there will be a 30-day deadline for anyone to file suit to challenge its validity — sometime around the end of April.
And that, fair reader, is part of what you need to know to recognize the sly, canille part of the ordinance. The rest of the story can be found on the website of the Louisiana legislature:

2006 Regular Legislative Session
To convene at noon on Monday, March 27, 2006
Final adjournment no later than 6:00 pm on Monday, June 19, 2006

So a sly aspect of the ordinance is the time when it was presented. It is presented at a moment when any lawsuit seeking to overturn it will have to be filed during the legislative session. I, for one, had wondered why LUS let such a long time pass between the 3rd circuit ruling and actually putting another ordinance to place before the council. The delay had been attributed to a desire to go over every dot and dash with a careful eye. I now suspect that at least as big a factor was that LUS and the city had a strategic moment in mind for introducing the ordinance. This moment.

We are less than a week out from the opening day of the regular session in which three (count 'em 1, 2, 3) bills have been introduced that will repeal or radically modify the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act. If BellSouth or its allies are to sue yet again they will have to do it while three anti-BellSouth bills are being considered in the Legislature that are at least partially based on the idea that BellSouth and its allies prefer to file wild, unfair lawsuits instead of competing at all--much less "fairly." The bills offer lush opportunities to point out how unfair the original bill is and how much damage BellSouth's law is doing to south Lousiana in the wake of the hurricane.

BellSouth wants, badly, a chance to dip into Louisiana's reconstruction funds for a subsidy to rebuild its networks. Recall that one of the bills ( HB 244) would force BellSouth to adopt all the restrictions its law unfairly imposes only on LUS if it accepts "subsidies" from the government. You can bet that BellSouth does NOT want to have to deal with questions during the hearings on whether it intends to ask for "subsidies" from Louisiana while it beats down projects in two of Lousiana's coastal cities. Especially not while it is simultaneously trying to defend suing the city of Lafayette yet again.

Repeal is a real prospect; authors of the repeal efforts include the man who co-sponsored the original act and, in addition to Lafayette's continuing anger, New Orleans is sitting out there seething about BellSouth's attempt to shut down New Orlean's free WiFi system so it can charge businesses for a similar but "backup" system. (More in a later post on this developing story.)

BellSouth will be forced to choose between adding fuel to fire of repeal by suing Lafayette yet again or standing aside while the bond ordinance gets locked into law. Once the bonds are sold it will be difficult, verging on impossible, to stop construction of LUS' network.

That, my friends, is a fine definition of canille.

(You can get into the fun by penning a little letter, tapping out a little email, or placing a small call to your legislator supporting repeal and rumbling about the unfair tactics and greedy nature of BellSouth. --Addresses-- The more folks express themselves, the more credible repeal becomes and the less BellSouth will want to risk an inflammatory lawsuit. No reason to let LUS have all the fun.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

USAToday: New Orleans' free Wi-Fi

Almost let this one slip by...and am grateful for a reader alert.

USAToday carried an interesting story on the front page of the money section Tuesday. I'm not sure how many legislators take the most widely read paper in the nation but I hope that lobbyists from Acadiana and New Orleans had the presence of mind to raid the coinboxes and hand out batches to the legislators. From the leading 'graph:
More than half of New Orleans still doesn't have phone or Internet access. But that isn't stopping BellSouth from campaigning to shut down a free Wi-Fi service that has become a lifeline for thousands of residents, the city's top technology officer says.
That should be enough to convence a few more legislator's that Louisiana's interests and BellSouth/ATT&T's are not the same. (Though they could try just listening to their colleagues.)

But more interesting was the news that EarthLink has signed on to expand the service. Reportedly it will offer a free low-speed tier and a series of higher-speed ones for which it will charge. It will be interesting to how the deal is structured but I have to hope it doesn't amount to a give-away of community resources--a concern that has emerged about a similar -sounding plan in Philadelphia.



USATODAY.com

The Dead Rise; Rate Complaint Returns

Endless Delaying Lawsuits Department

The Advertiser's version of this story quotes Pat Ottinger with all you really need to know about this story:
"It should not go unnoticed that the lawyers found it necessary to wait approximately four months after their prior lawsuit was dismissed, to file their complaint on the very day that the LPUA and the Council will take up the bond ordinance," Ottinger said. "It stretches one's imagination to think that this is a mere coincidence. It is obvious that this is yet another attempt which is designed to impede the will of the citizens relative to the fiber project."
These are the same characters that joined BellSouth's previous suit. The first question is "who's paying?" You can bet it's not the names at the bottom of the petition. It's a question reporters and the council should ask. The obvious answer is BellSouth. Follow the money.

The Advocate's version lays out some of the details of the complaint, the history of the complaint's previous dismissal by the courts, and also notes that the LPUA (the city subset of the council that regulates LUS) is being asked to recluse itself by plaintiffs. A key detail is the complaint stretches itself to find a way to involve bond issues that have no discernable relationship to the allegations about rates that are at the core of the complaint. This will give BellSouth yet another path toward filing a delaying appeal. But this one will not rely on the (un)Fair Competition Act. If that act is repealed this challenge, however weak, can be fired up to provide a last line of defense for BellSouth against the threat of local competition.

It is abundantly clear that BellSouth understands that it will have the least capable network in Lafayette when LUS comes on line--and that in a battle between Cox and LUS the first casualty will be BellSouth Lafayette. So BellSouth is using it considerable advantages in lawyers and compromised legislators at both the state and federal levels to prevent open competition with better networks. Welcome, Lafayette, to the world of modern corporate "competition" where neither price nor service determine the outcome if sheer size or influence can be substituted. More proof, should more proof be needed, that this has never been about "free enterprise" but has always been about extending monopoly power.

"Council to discuss new LUS fiber-optic plan"

Kevin Blanchard of the Advocate has a story in the this morning's paper previewing tonight's joint LPUA/council meeting on the fiber optic bond ordinance. The article exhibits his laudable ability to provide the reader with the background necessary to understand the story. It covers the history and legal technicalities that lead up to tonight's vote in a clear and concise manner. Take a look; it's worth the time spent.

He goes over the central issue of default particularly clearly; the appeals court had bought what are in my opinion some obscure arguments about the legal definition of a "pledge" that the trial court and most participants didn't seem to know existed. A pledge was said to require a default. From the Advocate:
The new ordinance provides for a default...

But the new ordinance folds in a new section that allows the communications system to “obtain loans from any source (including the city) for purposes of providing covered services and for any other purposes consistent with applicable law.”

Those loans could conceivably be used to make bond debt payments and therefore stave off default. The loans would have to be repaid at a market interest rate and be subject to audit, the ordinance says...

In its ruling, the 3rd Circuit affirmed the ability of LUS to loan itself money with market rate loans.

“We recognize that the city could loan the communications services funds derived from other sources so long as the loan is ‘at interest rates and on terms and conditions available to private enterprises in the open market,’ ” the court said in its ruling.
What's being said here is that it's pretty obvious that the city and LUS won't allow the telecom unit to go into default and that they are writing into the bond governance ordinance a device that clearly provides for preventing default.

So what's the big deal, you might ask? Why not just do it that way from the beginning? The big deal is that this is yet another clear attempt by BellSouth to raise the cost of doing business ONLY for LUS and hence for LUS' customers. As to why LUS didn't want to do that way from the, it is because LUS actually does have its rate payers best interests at heart. Doing it BellSouth's way will potentially jack up the price its customer/owners have to pay and LUS, naturally, doesn't want to go there unless forced.

BellSouth in Lafayette can take money from any division (cell, phone, cable, etc.) anywhere in its region (and soon ATT's!) and use it to subsidize its "competition" in Lafayette. Their gargantuan size makes it a trivial matter. If the LUS telecom division wants even the smallest semblance of the same flexibility it will have to pay a premium for it. The right hand will have to pay interest to the left hand. From the company's point of view it's just as silly as a family charging a spouse interest on the money "loaned" for lunch...in the end it all comes from the same pot.

Since it's legal, even under the appeals court ruling, to transfer monies by a loan the only question is whether LUS (the company) will have to charge to LUS (the telecom division) interest on loans. Now it will. That means LUS will have another expense it wouldn't otherwise have and that BellSouth will not have, driving LUS's price up and its margins down. Happy day for BellSouth, a sad day for competition and Lafayette citizens.

This is yet another reason to push hard for repeal in the Louisiana legislature. Of the three bills that seek to mitigate or repeal BellSouth's law the one which would amend the (un)Fair Competition Act to force government-subsidized companies like BellSouth to abide by the same rules the public utility does would be particularly satisfying to pass. If the "subsidization" clauses applied equally to both BellSouth and LUS you can rest assured that BellSouth's lobbyists would be buying lunches in every fine restaurant in Baton Rouge to secure the (really)Fair Competition Act's repeal.

Monday, March 20, 2006

"Council to consider fiber issue"

The city-parish council and Lafayette Parish Utilities Authority (LPUA) are meeting tomorrow night to consider the latest interaction of the fiber bond ordinance. That ordinance sets conditions on and authorizes the issuance of bonds to support the fiber build. You can show up to watch the goings-on. The special LCG-LPUA meeting starts at 5:30 and, unusually, for a council meeting you can be sure to actually see the ordinance heard at that time. The bond ordinance is not only the first item it is the only item on the agenda for the meeting.

The most important point is covered in the closing paragraphs of the Advertiser story:

On July 16, by a vote of 12,290 to 7,507, or 62 percent to 38 percent, city of Lafayette voters agreed to issue up to $125 million in bonds to pay for the fiber-to-the-home project.

Unless additional lawsuits are filed, LUS could be prepared to issue bonds in July with the first customers receiving service 18 months later, said LUS Director Terry Huval.

The voters of Lafayette need to be very aware that without continual interference from BellSouth we'd already be building our network. --And that it could have been built more cheaply and without legal strictures that seek to force LUS to charge more for its services than its expenses would otherwise necessitate if BellSouth would have chosen to compete with rather than legislate against LUS.

The latest ordinance seeks to align itself with the latest, appeals court, interpretation of the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act. (This differs from the interpretations of the city, LUS, legislators involved in the negotiations that shaped the law, and the trial court. Cox, apparently finding some residue of honor, did not feel free join the suit. The author says he thought these issues were covered in negotiation. The co-sponsor is spearheading repeal in the senate.)

LUS and the city have offered this new ordinance in the hopes that they can keep the ball rolling but I imagine that what they really want is the chance to rewrite it again after a repeal effort succeeds in the Louisiana legislature.

Folks, Lafayette could use your support again. Both at the meeting tomorrow and, more importantly, during the upcoming lobbying effort at the legislature. Hang in, we are getting there.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

How To Think About Building Fiber Networks

Mike recently forwarded a link to an article that makes a pretty good Sunday read. It's a readable, sensible story that can fill in some background that readers may want to have in order to understand the decisions that will go into building a fiber-optic network like Lafayette's. Most material on network construction is pretty academic or technical. It either abstractly about describing different options or about the virtues of building a particular type of network (usually a vendor's).

It's rare to find an article that puts the academic and technical choices in a realistic enough context that the reader can see how real decisions are made. The piece "Fiber at any price" is set in Asia but the choices faced by Asian Telecom companies are largely the same choices we face here. What you can learn from an article like this is what factors it is important to pay attention to...factors like what drives companies to build out fiber (Video) and why backhaul expenses are an issue in big bandwidth deployments.

The story focuses on the factors that go into deciding 1) whether to build a fiber-optic based communications network and 2) what type of network --not all fiber-optic networks are the same--you build once you've decided you need one. A few teasers:

The catch is that fiber does not come cheap. The cost of the equipment itself isn't a problem so much as the cost of running the network, particularly in the backhaul, where bandwidth costs grow as traffic increases.

Interestingly, how big a barrier this is varies from market to market and carrier to carrier. Some carriers find FTTx very cost-effective to deploy, while others find it tremendously expensive. The regulatory environment is a factor in some cases, but it's also a matter of choosing the right technology and the right FTTx architecture for the job, as well as the right business model to cover the opex costs.

If you mull over this one for a bit you'll have a better appreciation of the decisions being made in Lafayette. Not a bad read for a reflective moment.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Mike Michot Sponsors Repeal in the Senate


Mike Michot, a senator from Lafayette parish, has sponsored in the Senate (1, 2, 3 Repeal!!!) the same three bills Robideaux prefiled in the House. Good for Mike!


Mike was a co-sponsor of the Local Government Fair Competition Act that he now seeks to repeal. It should speak volumes about the problems with this law that a co-sponsor has repudiated it. Michot was a part of the negotiations that lead to the compromise and he can speak with authority about the way the agreement was betrayed. That should help sway his colleagues.


Congratulations are are in order.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Editorial & BellSouth Ad; Good Placement?

Enjoy. A screen shot of the page that came up when I first opened the Advertiser's pro-repeal editorial. (The ad is in rotation; click refresh to get your own version.)

Advertiser Favors Repeal

The Daily Advertiser endorsed repeal of the Local Government Fair Competition Act in its editorial this morning. From the closing paragraph:
We have chosen to support the Robideaux legislation for one primary reason: Lafayette citizens have gone on record as favoring the LUS telecommunications plan, but BellSouth maneuvering, based partly on provisions of the act, has thwarted the will of the people. We urge local and area legislators to vigorously support the Robideaux package.
Kudos to the Advertiser.

It's good for the local newspaper to endorse the fiber repeal bills and to urge our representatives to give the bills vigorous support.

Even better would be for citizens to do the same.

Repeal of this unfair law is exactly the sort of issue in which an aroused citizenry has the most effect. It is a pretty nearly pure case of the desires of the voters of a community being opposed by the interests of a corporation who hopes to thwart those desires. The people of Lafayette voted, 62 to 38%, to build a fiber optic network. BellSouth has moved aggressively to thwart that vote. You can do something about that by supporting repeal in letters or calls to your legislators. Political influence in our system is driven by two factors: votes and the money needed to win votes during elections.

In the end it all comes down to winning votes. Special interests have so much influence only because legislators believe--with some good reason--that only corporation and some special interests care to have an opinion about most issues.

You can make it clear that repeal of the Local Government Fair Competition Act is one of those issues about which voters care. You can make it clear that your vote will be influenced by your legislator's support, or failure to support repeal.

Write early; write often--you can make a real difference. Ask your friends to do the same. Aside from requesting a vote for Repeal you can also ask that your Representatives and Senators co-sponsor the bills. Co-sponsorship puts their name on the bill and signals their colleagues that this is something they will fight for.

The state of Louisiana offers up a plain but efficient page that helps find your legislators' addresses. Have at it.