Friday, December 28, 2007

Open Systems, Muni systems, and Lessons from Singapore

A Problem
Advocates of muni telecomm are often met with the blanket, essentially ideological, claim that municipal plans will fail because "everyone knows" that government-run enterprises will always lack the competitive advantages of private businesses. It's hard to greet such claims with anything other than exasperation: anyone who thinks that the duopoly represented by corporations like AT&T and Cox has produced efficient pricing or any sign of innovation just hasn't been paying attention.

Customers of telecommunications companies simply haven't seen the benefits of "free enterprise" that competition is supposed to bring. The telecomm market looks like market-segmented, minimally competitive duopoly and produces results that look a whole lot more like staid, expensive monopolies than anything that might result from a real competitive marketplace.

Lots of folks have noticed this painfully obvious fact about the current telecomm market and in some places are even trying to do something about it. Lafayette has one solution. Singapore is trying another.

Singapore Tries Honest Problem Solving
Singapore is about to invest in a truly radical plan to build a world-class, high-speed network and to do it by encouraging real competition in the telecommunications market. (See 1, 2) Naturally they start by mandating and subsidizing the construction of a fiber to the home network. Beyond that it gets really interesting. Their plan takes yet another stab at inducing competition in the fundamentally natural monopoly wireline broadband market. Competition—when it works—provides cheaper prices and drives innovation. Lot's of country's have tried for that golden ring—and failed. (The American FCC's attempts have been particularly laughable.) What is interesting about Singapore's design is that it might work.

It is worth noticing how far they had to go to have a hope of developing real competition. Consider the starting point: Most networks world-wide are fundamentally vertical monopolies. One company owns the physical network, manages it, and sells retail services to end users. Think about your phone or cable company and you'll get the basic idea. The minimal competition between phone and cable companies over the new internet services should not be allowed to obscure the fact that they are both basically monopolies with only a sideline internet business that has, at best, only one competitor—not nearly enough to develop a competitive marketplace that would yield the benefits of innovation and low prices. As digital services converge over integrated data networks it remains to be seen whether even the current inadequate level of duopoly competition will be maintained...and a lot of history that argues that it will collapse back into a simple monopoly.

But everyone wants competition and its benefits. Singapore wants competition. But Singapore wants it badly enough to try and get it realistically.

Being realistic involves admitting that the basic fiber, the physical network, is a classic natural monopoly. But beyond that evidence of clear-headedness Singapore also seems to recognize that operational layers of the network determine what sorts of application services can be offered at retail and that retail providers need to be able to count on a responsive middle layer provider.

<skipable bit>
<time out for a bit of background>
A typical large-scale network is built up of multiple, but integrated, levels. One way of looking at that is to see at the "bottom" a hardware base built up of the actual fiber and low-level switching. Up from that you have protocols and translation devices/routines that knit together the data from the low-level physical layer. Both of these are pretty much invisible to any end-user. On top of that you have applications that show their face to users of the network. Let's call that 1) the physical layer, 2) the network operations layer, and 3) the applications layer. (This 3-layer description, as forbidding as it might seem, hides an awful lot of complexity. The canonical way of looking at network design is the 7-layer OSI description. That hides less of the complexity. Sophisticated readers should feel free to substitute OSI layer 1 for "physical;" layers 2-3 for "operational" and 4-7 for "applications.")
</time out for a bit of background>
</skipable bit>

Singapore is separating the physical and operational level into two different, unrelated monopolies committed to selling the same services to all retail providers at the same price. The retailers would then be in a position of making all their profit from the quality and the quantity of services they could convince consumers to buy.

Structural Separation: Keeping the Monopoly Owner Honest
Singapore is structurally separating the physical, lower level from the upper operational and application levels by creating a completely independent network company to build and manage the physical network (cleverly called NetCo). That sets things up so the only way the owners can make more money is by providing more value to the wholesale renters of their physical capacity. If you can offer more value more efficiently you can sell more capacity for a better price. And that, to repeat, is the only way to increase your take. This is a simple, reliable, structural solution to the problem of a monopoly owner using their control of the medium to eliminate or forbid competitors. The physical network owner cannot be motivated to manipulate the network to benefit its particular set of retail services if it doesn't own any such services....it will not be allowed, for instance, to sell phone or video services to end users and so has no motivation to structure its network to favor, for instance, cable TV at the expense of DV (Downloadable Video). By making the monopoly network owner's profits depend solely on motives that are aligned with the public's interest the task of regulation is much easier. All you have to worry about is enforcing rules that require everyone to be charged the same for the same service. (This is much of what lawyers mean when they talk about Common Carriage rules.)

Operational Separation: A Balance of Powers
The most unusual (and least clearly specified) part of the plan is separating out the operational division of the network into its own independent company. Most structural separation schemes make this the property of the network owner or allow retailers to install their own equipment at the operational level. The problem with the first solution is that investing all the control in the conservative utility would make it less likely that unproven but potentially innovative middle level equipment would be installed, lessening the hoped-for benefit from innovation. On the other hand letting the retailer install whatever equipment they want on fiber strands they have rented virtually ensures that incompatibility will emerge on the network and pretty much ensures that some classes of equipment will be wastefully duplicated—lessening the hoped-for benefit of lower prices.

Singapore's solution is to provide for a monopoly operational company (cleverly called OpCo) that must maintain a separate existence, board, and identity but which retail owners can own pieces of. Presumeably the Singaporeans, being committed structuralists, think that such an ogranizational schema will eliminate wasteful duplication and will tie OpCo to the more innovative retailers. Now this isn't nearly perfect: it would let powerful incumbents on the network control the provision of new middleware and help them keep out smaller new competitors that would threaten their developed markets....but while imperfect, this is a solution that at least makes a stab at controlling the worst defects of previous attempts to foster competition and encourage both lower prices and innovation at the middle level.

Retail: The Evolutionary Melee
The hope, of course, is that by minimizing costs at the physical layer by putting a free-to-be-careful and conservative utility at the physical level, and by structurally maximizing low pricing and innovation at the middle level the crucial retail applications level will attract many competitors who will have no choice but engage in a ruthless evolutionary melee in order to survive. Consumers would reap the benefits of low prices and innovative, powerful services.

It Might Even Work—At a Price
It is clever. It might even work.

In Singapore. As a National policy. And anywhere that the national government is willing to subsidize a full new fiber network to the tune of 25% of its total costs. Anywhere where it can dictate the terms of the new networks operation in order to ensure the incumbents don't kill competition in its cradle. (The incumbent phone and cable companies are among the bidders for the new network.)

Notice that this plan involves the people paying a substantial subsidy for the development of a system that private corporations will end up owning. And those corporations will reap all the eventual profit.

That's a deal only a authoritarian, corporate state like Singapore could love. It's a high price to pay.

What people are seeking when they try something so draconian is to realize the promise of competition in a framework that has been fundamentally hostile toward competition. (And well, maybe, to provide a little grease for their friends...but let's try to be generous). The hoped-for benefits are lower prices and a high level of innovation. Both are presumed to emerge "naturally" when you structure a natural monopoly so that the owners' self interest is deployed in the service of the eventual consumers.

But there is another, simpler, surer, way to align the owners' self-interest with that of consumers.

Lafayette's way

You could make the consumers the owners, by the simple and time-honored device of making the natural monopoly a public utility. Then the owner-citizens would have no motivation at all to exploit the consumer-citizens...since they'd be one and the same. They could ask themselves for, and expect to get, lower prices and the sorts of services that appeal to them.

I can't fathom why that can't be a national policy as easily as giving away the farm.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"Cable TV may go à la carte"

There's a little surprise for media watchers in today's Advertiser: a media story that appears to have no immediate hook or sensational event to drive it to print. —A media story that seems simply to educate about an issue that consumers care about. And since Lafayette consumers will soon have a say about just how we structure our own cable offerings this is one of the few places where such an education might have practical consequences. Good for the Advertiser.

The issue is à la carte cable programming—the idea that you should be able to choose individual stations from a menu of choices instead of being forced to buy your cable programming in bundles determined by the seller. A short excursion into the phrase "à la carte" should be helpful in giving the cable story some context.




VS




Á la carte comes from the French, and the restaurant trade there. It means "on the card"--on the menu. The contrast is between à la carte and prix fixe. The "fixed price," prix fixe, is a full, usually multi-course, meal. There is no menu of choices. In the pure case all patrons eat the same meal and it is inexpensively priced for the courses offered. Some restaurants only offered fixed price—fixed choice menus. This option is rare in the states. Tujaques in New Orleans serves the same five course meal to all comers and is the only prix fixe restaurant I know of that survives—and it was an old institution when people now old were young. American's don't go for fixed price/choice restaurants when they have a choice. What American restaurants from McDonalds to Galatoire's share is the à la carte menu format.

That contrast makes it easier to see why the current prix fixe cable programming model offends people. And it makes clear why the cable people's objections don't seem very important to most US citizens. Cable providers say, as the story demonstrates, that allowing people to construct their own cable "meal" from a menu of choices might end up causing their customers pay more.

They claim to object to that.
Sharon Kleinpeter, vice president of public relations for Cox Communications' Greater Louisiana Region, says it may do more harm than good in the pocketbooks of cable companies and customers.
While it's pretty much true that an à la carte menu means less income for cable companies like Cox it is also pretty clear that it does NOT mean more costs for most consumers. Fixed price formats make it easy for the seller to minimize the costs for a deluxe meal...you can buy only what materials you need in quantity, and waste, server, and cook time is all minimized. A huge pot of a savory soup costs little to prepare and keep ready. Keeping five soup choices ready for the 5% of people who order is considerably more expensive. Galatoire's is understandably more expensive than Tujacques for the "same" meal.

But we don't all want the same meal.

If we don't want a desert or a soup we don't want to be forced to buy it and watch it go to waste. That is the real trouble with current cable business model and the cable companies are in the position of the old fixed price restaurants. They know that they can't provide the same fare they've been providing without charging more if people are allowed to refuse to pay for the soup or the salad course or the drink. And they can't charge enough more for the main course to make up the loss from selling far fewer high-margin salads and drinks. It is true that a change is not a good deal for those few patrons who continue to order the five course meal; those patrons will pay more. But most, history shows, won't. And the average customer will pay less and cable companies will have less income--and have to work harder to get that income. In fact the average cable customer watches just seventeen channels, according to the FCC, the article says.

What is revealed is that the folks who want to eat cable modestly have been subsidizing the patrons who want the deluxe version. Those who would order all the fancy trimmings get it for the cheapest possible price. But those who only want a quick sandwich at the end of a hard day pay more. The many have been subsidizing the appetites of the few.

Consumer advocates have noticed:

Consumer Federation director of research Mark Cooper points out that the current system forces subscribers to subsidize channels they don't watch.

"The current system requires everyone to subsidize ESPN viewers," points out Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation director of research. "Why is the cable company making these choices for people?"

Well, the short answer to Cooper's question is the same as it is for prix fixe restaurants: They can make more money with less effort off a large volume of business, much of which is low cost, than they can if most of their clientle is transformed into price-conscious consumers of only the products they like best.

The equasion is pretty simple and the same, both for the cable companies and for consumers. Where they differ is in what they want out of the relationship. And in cable, restaurants, and marriage that makes all the difference in the world.

Something for us to think about here in Lafayette where the owners of the restaurant are the customers. How do we want to arrange our video world?



Lagniappe: If you'd like to look at the article in Gannett's "The Tennessean" that apparently inspired this story you'll find some interesting details about federal policy, the role of advertising in this game and other fascinating (to a few) bits and pieces neither I nor our local reporters bothered with.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

They want Fiber in the Wilderness...

I spotted this during a weekend drive in the country with out of town friends. It's on Wilderness Road (aptly named) in the extreme northeastern corner of the parish. I'm pretty sure the sign is one of those Robert Dafford, the muralist, put out on his own dime during the fiber fight.

No, this house, won't be among the first to get served by LUS...in fact it will probably be one of the last places in the parish to get it, even presuming (as I tend to) that one day fiber will blanket our area. No doubt the owner of this house knows that—and supports the idea anyway.

But the desire is clear. We all share it. We all should get it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Signs of the Times 1; LUS prepping poles

Signs of these Times Dept. — Poles being prepped for Fiber

LUS came yesterday and reworked the poles and electricity on my street; ostensibly to fix voltage problems. --They did put in 3 transformers to handle the load formerly carried by one and said that would help stabilize voltage and make it easier and faster to repair damage after a storm. But more interestingly for our readers: they made room for the upcoming fiber in the middle of the pole by moving three wires and the street light currently in the middle to the top of the pole. That consolidated the electricity near the top. So now there is ample room for fiber between the electricity on top and the the cable/phone wires below. (No doubt, a survey of the poles I mentioned in an earlier post found they needed more space on my block. I didn't get my hopes up then.)

One of the linemen explained it all to me. He also said my North Lafayette neighborhood (off Louisiana near Hwy. 90) would be included in the first area built. (Wahooo!!!) From there, he claimed it would go out as far as Pont des Mouton Rd. and, after I queried further, out Johnson to near Don's.

That's a huge chunk of the city...I hope he's right. (At least about my little block. I'm gonna burn a candle...) Now I'm looking forward to an announcement. I speculated earlier that LUS might bite off a big chunk initially based on the way the budget was structured. This encourages me to think I might have been right.


Langiappe sighting:

While doing final Christmas shopping yesterday I saw an Atlantic Engineering truck with magnetic LUS and "Utility survey" stickers on the side tooling down Johnson. All the signs are good...

(If you have a construction sighting you'd like to report, just drop me a line. I'd love to hear about it.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Net Citizenship and You

Food For Thought: Wouldn't you rather your master be you?

I'm going to have to lay out an unfamiliar thesis: You, fair reader, are almost certainly not on the internet. Not really. You are a second class citizen who is not allowed to make many of the most basic decisions that full members are free to make; you are a dependent of your modem and the wireline owner it is connected to. Generously: you are a client of AT&T or Cox or ____ (your local duopolist here). Less generously: you are a second class citizen of the internet allowed only the access that Big Daddy allows you. And Big Daddy, as in Tennessee Williams' play, is more interested in wealth and power than he is the welfare of his dependents.

Full citizenship on the web can be defined simply enough: full citizens can use their connection in any way that they want. They are independent actors who are free to make available or view anything.

That's not you.

Take a look at your TOS (Terms of Service). Cox and AT&T's, for instance, do meaningfully differ. But they agree about the essentials that concern us here:
1) You are the client, clients of clients are forbidden; you may not distribute service to others,
2) You can't talk bad about Big Daddy, (e.g.: Customer is prohibited from engaging in any other activity, whether legal or not, that AT&T determines in its sole discretion, to be harmful to its subscribers, operations, network(s). This includes ... or which causes AT&T or the AT&T IP Services to be viewed unfavorably by others.)
3) Free speech? No sucha thing. They get to say what you can say. (e.g.: "Cox reserves the right to refuse to post or to remove any information or materials from the Service, in whole or in part, that it, in Cox's sole discretion, deems to be illegal, offensive, indecent, or otherwise objectionable."
4) No Free Enterprise. You can't sell things, for that you need the master's special permission and a (higher-priced) service, regardless of how much traffic you use,
5) It's not your connection. "Unlimited, always-on" connections are both limited and subject to an abrupt end. AT&T is bizarrely vague while Cox gives clear limits--which are seldom enforced. It's not your connection; you need to remember that.
6) Your client status is a privilege, not a right. They can kick you to the curb at any time using whatever rationale seems most useful at the moment. (e.g.: Customer's failure to observe the guidelines set forth in this AUP may result in AT&T taking actions anywhere from a warning to a suspension of privileges or termination of your Service(s). ...AT&T's decisions with respect to interpretation of the AUP and appropriate remedial actions are final and determined by AT&T in its sole discretion.)

7) Lucky 7 Laigniappe clause: Masters don't have to follow the rules, only clients. (e.g.: AT&T reserves the right, but does not assume the obligation, to strictly enforce the AUP.)
You are in a master-client relationship with your network provider. You are NOT a full citizen of the internet. Your "location," your IP address belongs to someone else. They have an assured, static IP. You do not. As long as they own that property you are dependent upon them and they can dictate the terms of that use.

Be aware that this is not the way it was supposed to be. The internet, right down to its IP core was designed around your freedom to connect.

One way of looking at network citizenship is through the lens of internet protocols and the operation of "the end to end principle." From wikipedia:
The end-to-end principle is one of the central design principles of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) widely used on the Internet as well as in other protocols and distributed systems in general. The principle states that, whenever possible, communications protocol operations should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resource being controlled.
That's a mouthful. Translated: The internet is designed as a transmission device that is supposed to be controlled by those on ends of a communication. You and the person at the other end. A request from one end is simply passed on to the other end—no single positive, centrally-controlled "circuit" exists. No controller stands in the middle. This is in contrast to the underlying design of the phone network with its centralized circuit switching system that designates a circuit for you and holds it open. (We're talking about protocols, now....not physical implementation or the practical experience of users.)

Net neutrality battles are raging around the edge of this nascent war. We want to be full citizens of the new order. The incumbents would prefer that we be clients, vassels, and that they be the masters. Right now they are winning. Right now few of us even realize that current order is not necessary or natural—it was arranged for somebody else's benefit; not for ours.

It really is that simple.

What we need to recognize is the nature of the war. What we need to be fighting for is ownership of our own connection. For full citizenship. To kill the Master-client relationship that constrains our current access to the network.

Ownership of the network is the most complete solution. Any limits we impose on ourselves are limits that we impose; they are not the dictates of the master. We may start out copying what we know in some ways. But that won't last.

Lafayette, with its community-owned, fiber-based network utility is a good example of how that will work. From the begining things will be different here. We'll have static IP addresses...and a lot of potential will flow from that. We'll have full access to the speeds and capacity of our own network--that is what the 100 meg intranet is all about. As it becomes more and more obvious that many of the limits imposed by the current owners are not natural and not in the interests of users we'll change those aspects as well.

That's the real value of the battle fought and won here in Lafayette.

Worth thinking about...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"Winning LUS bids set to be revealed"

Lafayette Utilities System will announce on Tuesday the apparent low bidder on two contracts to run fiber-optic lines in front of each home and business in the city.

...There are actually two construction contracts, one to run fiber-optic lines over existing utility poles, the other contract to bury lines where no poles exist.
That's the latest construction news on Lafayette's fiber network as pulled from the Advocate's story.

The article also reviews the head-end contract (this version comes in under-budget) and the Alcatel-Lucent electronics contract. The fiber itself, according to the Advocate, will be bid out separately next week.

The main import of all this is not so much the particular contracts, their terms, or who wins them. Our interest lies in the progress they represent: The project is moving forward. The day when the first truck rolls begin is nigh. Presuming the schedule continues to hold we should have a nice New Years present early in January.

Lafayette is getting its fiber.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

"Laptops key in students’ learning"

Mike forwards the URL to an Advocate story that adds some meat to yesterday's excursion out to the intersection of Educational Theory, Ubiquitous Computing, and Interface Design. The article, Laptops key in students’ learning, looks at the “Turn on to Learning" program that has seeded laptops in 54 school districts.
Louisiana’s laptop initiative, “Turn on to Learning, Critical Learning Tools for the 21st Century,” was funded by a $5 million legislative appropriation and has put an Apple MacBook computer into the hands of more than 3,500 sixth-graders and 150 teachers across the state.
One of the more interesting things about the program is that it isn't focused solely on laptops; it also included digital tools that offer a more robust way to interact with the world using the computer:
Each classroom also gets supporting equipment and software valued at almost $3,000, including a storage-battery charging cabinet, wireless access station, printer, data projector, an external hard drive, digital camera and a digital microscope.
The wireless access station, coupled with the built-in WiFi N that built into macbooks emulates the connectivity that the OPLC laptops discussed in yesterday's post offer. (The macs could even more closely emulate that model by flicking a switch in its WiFi preferences that would make each laptop to also function as an access point the way OLPC computers do by default. The kids could then remain connected to each other via an ad hoc network while doing fieldwork at a museum, for instance.)

The projector makes it easy to cast a screen image big enough and bright enough to be used as a common teaching tool; the equivalent of the blackboard. Providing such analogs to established practice are essential to the benefits of teacher's existing teaching skills. Good for Apple and the Lousisiana program.

The camera and microscope are nice additions and its easy to see how a sixth graders could use them. (In the realm of capturing images, each macbook has its own built-in video camera, low res admittedly, but more than adequate for the sorts of video-enabled interaction that I dreamed about in yesterday's post. I once helped work a fun project in a community center in Delaware that used cheap digital cameras to help tie school learning to the life kids live at home. Some amazing stuff is possible using such tools.

The West Feliciana tech director mentions the differences that such technology can make in the way we teach children. Changing the assumptions that drive educational practice has proven hard; technology's greatest gift may not be anything intrinsic to the technology but that it provides the excuse to begin teaching the way that we have known we should for more than a century.

“This whole process is going to change the way we go about educating children,” West Feliciana Parish school technology Director Jerome Matherne said.

“Under the one-to-one concept, the teacher will no longer be the ‘sage on the stage,’ dispensing information. The teacher will be more of a facilitator because students now will have access to the information themselves,” Matherne said.

“You may have heard the saying, ‘We’re drowning in information, but starving for knowledge.’ That’s going to be the (teacher’s) challenge,” he said.

It's all very interesting and Lafayette's participation in such program still seems to me like one of the more obvious ways to leverage the integrated fiber/wifi network that we are currently building. We'd be smart to encourage the kids to learn how to use our shiny new network fully. They'll figure it out a lot faster than us old fogeys (by which I mean -- roll eyes -- the over 12 set). Once they get it, they can teach us.

It's an interesting world we live in.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Laptops in Schools: A tale of two cities

The Gist: Regional cities are getting laptops to school kids. Both in Birmingham, Al and in Alexandria, La. I'm envious.

If you are interested in the intersection of computers and education the big news this week is that Birmingham, Alabama has announced its intention to buy 15,000 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) computers for its elementary and middle school students.

That's right, the struggling steel city a few states to the east.

The Dream — OPLC and Birmingham
The OLPC program, attuned readers will know, is a product of the fertile imagination of Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. It's the famous "$100 dollar laptop" that has been widely touted in the media. It's been grandly promoted as a project to put a computer in the hand of every child in the world. The purpose laid out on the website is only a bit less grandiose:
OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.
It's not just a nifty computer we're talking about; it's a nifty networked computer—which is an entirely different animal. Each machine is capable of using wifi and creating a node in a mesh network—the machines create an ad-hoc network that extends any user's connection to all the other computers in the neighborhood. That opens up large areas for collaboration with local users and potentially with any internet user world-wide. Spend a moment thinking about that. Of course the reliance on ad hoc mesh networking introduces both speed and reliability issues that the OPLC people don't talk about. But the integration of networking into the core makes applications which were previously impossible to consider because of the lack of infrastructure pretty easy. Kids won't need to go offline to work together.

Negroponte's TED talk is worth a watch if you'd like to get a flavor of the project..and the man. While the ideal of building a machine for every child is a bit grand, less grandly, the OLPC laptop is a tour de force effort to make networked computing technology affordable, durable, power efficient, usable and cheap. In a phrase: a cheap utilitarian commodity. The computing industry hates it. They're too close to a commodity already.

OLPC also offers a frontal challenge t0 both the software industry and the educational community. The radical software innovations start with the operating system. In contrast to the "modern" desktop and document metaphor popularized by the Macintosh the "Sugar" interface operates on a social-activity metaphor (see guidelines) where the central visual organizer is organizing ongoing activities around the child. (Literally central--the image at right with the child in the center of their ongoing set of activities is the equivalent of the desktop in the Sugar interface.) The challenge to the educational community is embodied in that metaphor—the organizing principle of the educational arm of the project is that learning consists not in storing facts but in successfully joining ongoing activities. (Just for the record: this is NOT far out; Most modern educational frameworks for learning theory since the the 1890's take a version of this stance. It's practice that has lagged.)

Looked at in that way one has to wonder whether the florid global ambitions of the OLPC aren't, in fact, a way to distract observers from the really ambitious project that lurks in the background: to transform modern computation and software so as to drive a fundamental change in educational practices--in learning-- in the 21st century. (Now there is a really grandiose, if noble ambition. If that is the hope, then putting the idea that they want to give every child a laptop front and center is a way of being modest.)

That's what the city down the Interstate is getting into.

The Dream—Alexandria
Now laptops in the schools are not new...Apple, in particular, has a long history of pretty aggressive marketing into schools and once produced a set of rugged laptops (example, emate 300 at right) tricked out with kid-driven software and extensive online support. Maine was an early adopter has had a successful laptop program for years. (Negroponte was associated with it in the early years.)

That legacy lives on. Now it has come to Alexandria, Louisiana.

A recent Town Talk editorial lauded a Louisiana/Apple program that has put Macintosh laptops in local schools:

"Turn On" has put laptop computers into the hands of children in 54 of the state's public schools. In Central Louisiana, Bolton High School students received laptops at the start of the school year. Now Cottonport Elementary School and Mary Goff Elementary School sixth-graders have received them.

Twenty years ago, computer literacy was optional. Not any more. Today it is fundamental to the working world and to an individual's ability to succeed.

...It is no surprise that Gov. Kathleen Blanco has helped to get the "Turn On" program going in Louisiana. Blanco has been out in front of significant technological initiatives during her tenure, including the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise Center.

The Problem
Lafayette prides itself on being a progressive city...going for something like this seems an obvious addition addition to a city-wide fiber and wireless build. Programs like Maine's, Birmingham's, and the one in Louisiana use laptops because they give each child learning tools both at school and at home. Apple's program requires that schools have a good internet connection in order to be considered—one of its few real requirements. Where these programs run into trouble is with having easy, fast access at home. No school system can mandate that homes have an adequate connection; there is not only the cost, but some homes or apartments in every district simply cannot buy, at any price, a reasonably fast connection.

But bandwidth is essential to the vision. And not having a fast connection available in every home has been THE major stumbling block in pushing the use of network-based learning.

Nation-wide folks like Apple have simply had to compromise the vision. No comprehensive assignments can be made for completion at home. No teacher can assume that learning, practice, and reinforcement are available anywhere but in the school itself. That limitation keeps anyone from seriously designing programs that really encourage the habits of life-long learning that a dynamically changing society has come to demand.

Testing the idea of pervasive, always-on learning hasn't been possible.

Solutions
OLPC's ad-hoc mesh networking comes as close as anyone has to proposing a viable solution to the lack of universal, always-on broadband service. A laptop taken home wouldn't be assured of a connection to either their fellow students or the internet. Mobile Ad hoc mesh networking only works even half-reliably in the confines of a small area--like a school. Because it implicitly relies on one connection to the larger internet it is limited to dividing the available bandwidth (usually a small fraction of wifi's potential bandwidth) it is, on its best days, slow. Video "show and tell" using cheap, built-in cameras like those found in Alexandria's Macintoshes isn't possible--and a whole range of program and screen sharing capacities are but theoretical dreams given those limits. But the OPLC implementation of networking is the best solution for collaboration that I can imagine without comprehensive support from the surrounding community. After all the OPLC was designed for use in third world countries where the village simply doesn't have any way to provide connectivity. Some of the laptop's most widely praised features result from its not being able to count on reliable electricity; in those places local networking can only come from the computers themselves.

But here, in these United States, electricity isn't an issue. We could provide robust pervasive wireless access. If we had the will. That is what the wireless municipal dream has been about. (While I have critiqued the simplistic version of that dream it was never the dream I distrusted—only the suitability of the tools to realize it and the unwillingness of some promoters to deal with the weaknesses of their plans.)

A Solution; The Dream — Lafayette
Lafayette will soon have a functional fiber-optic network in a every corner of the city. A wireless network hooked into the fiber at every other node will closely follow that build. At the end we'll see the nation's first integrated fiber-optic/wifi network with speeds on both sides funded by 100 megs or more of bandwidth. Each wifi node could, if we chose, distribute 50 megs of bandwidth to its local area. That's enough to provide more than enough bandwidth for all the kids on the block to use good quality mpeg-4/H.264 video for their collaboration--even at home. Lafayette's kids could do screen sharing and use whiteboarding applications.

It would be easy to lock a code into the laptops that would give them special speeds and access privileges to school-provided programs. The school system and even individual classes could tunnel their own VPN's (Virtual Private Networks) to provide tools and security. None of this is technically difficult. Access control and provisioning have all been more than adequately developed on university and large corporate campuses.

There's grant money going begging and imaginative projects that lack grant support only because no one can imagine where the bandwidth to use them will be widely enough available to justify helping out.

With the essential, fast, universal infrastructure in place, the only limits for Lafayette would lie in our imagination and in our willingness to boldly use public assets for the public good.

Worth thinking about, don't you think?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

LUS accepts bids for fiber head-end facility

The Independent blog carries a short, LUS accepts bids for fiber head-end facility, that lays out the details of the new head-end facility. Alert readers will have encountered this issue before (1, 2) but he gist is that LUS had to withdraw its original RFP for the construction of a custom headend building and substitute a call for a smaller prefab building. From the INDsider:
The total bill of approximately $957,000 is well within LUS’ $1.4 million budget for the facility. LUS recently re-bid the project as a smaller, prefabricated facility after original bids for a custom building came back more than 100 percent over budget.
It's disappointing that we'll not have the larger, custom building to work with...expansion and long-term durability in hurricane country are both desirable. Of course the legal climate engendered by the (un)Fair Competition Act makes keeping costs down in the initial phase imperative. (That law mandates that the network has to be continuously self-supporting even in the first years while it is working without income. That foolishness can be dealt with but tools to insure that LUS stays within a punitive law means opting for longer, larger loans—and the subsequent expense in interest—than would otherwise be prudent. Yet another way that our legislature has allowed itself to be used as a tool to stifle competition with the incumbent providers by raising the costs of runnig Lafayette's system.)

On the other hand, it's encouraging that the headend cost has not only been brought in line with the budget but has come in substantially cheaper so that there is now a bit more breathing room in the early cost picture as a result. All dark clouds have silver linings.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dreams Realized

Lafayette's Fiber Faithful will recall that during the referendum fight the slogan of the pro-fiber citizens group Lafayette Coming Together was : "For our Future, For Our Children" Artwork, bumper stickers (at left), guerrilla video, yard signs, and billboards all bore one or another versions of this sentiment.

The most effective argument for building our own network turned out to be the most basic: family. People want their children and grandchildren to be able to remain in Acadiana and not to be forced to move away from hearth and home in order to get a decent job in a field they love. That, simple civic pride, and a streak of contrariness moved more votes than any combination of rationalistic economic, business, or technological arguments—however valid those might have been.

It appears that the hope is being realized.

Saturday's Advocate ran an interesting article in the right hand column of the Acadiana section. "Unemployment rate hits bottom" the lead-in paragraph tells the basic story:
Lafayette Parish's unemployment rate in October dropped to the lowest level since at least 1990, continuing what's been a historic, almost two-year trend.
Given that those encouraging two years have been posted following the regional devastations of Rita and Katrina which left Lafayette the only untouched metropolis south of I-10 I'm not yet ready to call them historic. But it is undeniably good news.

But what might interest the folks interested in seeing our children able to stay here after school is:
City-Parish President Joey Durel said Lafayette's position as a technology leader in the state is helping show the rest of the country that Lafayette is "forward-thinking" and a "very progressive community."

... as the economy is expanding, especially in technology-related fields, there is growing anecdotal evidence that young people who left Lafayette or the state for work are now coming back home, Stanley said.

"That's almost a dream come true for this administration," Stanley said. "It's a real exciting time."
Indeed, it is almost a dream come true—and not only for this administration but for the vast majority of the city who expressed their support of that dream on July 16th, 2005.



--------
Operational note:

Readers who conscientiously click through to the Advocate article will notice that it does not link to the Advocate site, a result they will surely have grown used to. Instead they end up at NewsBank open url that has the archived story. The Advocate site is not carrying the story online and, as far as I can tell, a new site redesign incorporates a policy of not carrying all the stories published (and making it impossible to easily tell which were published today). I consider this bad policy, bad design, and ultimately bad business. A newspaper's strong suit is its role as the provider of comprehensive, daily, local, news. It is, ultimately, all they have to sell. Compromising this by making their web offering 1) incomplete, and 2) confusing as to what is current minimizes their few natural advantages.

On the other hand it is great that the State Library and the local libraries have cooperated to make a stable, comprehensive archive of the state's dailies available to the public. It makes sense, of course, since there is little that they are uniquely situated to do that would more directly address what has to be the central reason for having public libraries: providing for an informed citizenry. If you've got a Library card from a Louisiana public library you can use to gain access to these files. (And if you don't have a card you should. So saith the son of a librarian. :-) )

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Appalling: Jindal Picks BellSouth Lobbyist

Here's an appalling bit of news: Governor-elect Bobby Jindal has chosen Tommy Williams, a recently retired BellSouth lobbyist, to be his top legislative lobbyist.

Really.

Jindal--who ran emphasizing an ethics platform—is putting a lobbyist in as his legislative director. And not just any lobbyist: The former chief lobbyist of the most legislatively powerful corporation in the state. That's gotta be a funny man to put in charge of what Jindal has said was his first priority in the legislature: Ethics reform. My guess is that no legislator will misunderstand the obvious meaning: Ethics reform is not aimed at stopping corporations from buying our legislature. Since that is the most serious form of corruption in this state ethics reform a la Jindal must be about something else. Appointing a major lobbyist to this position is hugely symbolic: it is akin to putting the fox in charge of hen house. No doubt the Louisiana legislature breathed a collective sigh of relief. They've seen this game played out before. Lots of rhetoric but with the "right" people in charge nobody really has to worry.

An AP wire brief reports on Wednesday's announcement. The bare bones report out of Baton Rouge is simple and does no more than highlight his former position. We here in Lafayette, however, have a rich history to draw on with Tommy Williams and his family.

Tommy Williams, seasoned readers may recall, is the father of the BellSouth legacy that ran BS' operations in Lafayette during the fiber fight. John Williams was a loyal son of the company who toed the company line on both how unnecessary fiber was and on how "someday real soon" BellSouth was going to run fiber. (Contradictions never faze such folks.) Williams was the man in charge when Fiber 411's anti-fiber petition went out on company trucks. And he was the fellow who backed down when employee resistance and popular resentment made it clear that was a bad move. He was the fella whose designed-to mislead remarks about "functional equivalence" inspired the "Slick Sam Spade" video. He had to crawfish about his company's lying about their role in the season's ugliest moment: the push poll that ignited a firestorm of derision.

A paragon of ethics. But the senior Williams, Tommy Williams, was the guy who carried on the battle against Lafayette at the state level with an even more impressive lack of character. Tommy was prime mover in pushing through the (Un)Fair Competition Act--the law that tried to outlaw the project, did provide avenues for delaying it for years, and which remains a knife pointed at its heart. Tommy followed up on the legislative and legal tactics by taking the battle to the Public Service Commission (PSC) and trying to convince it to institute all sorts of anti-Lafayette rules. He mostly failed but having failed he persisted in trying to at least delay the bond issue. BellSouth's lawsuits failed--but added to the delay. That didn't work either but it wasn't for lack of trying. We will probably never know who funded the Naquin lawsuits that were the last to stretch out the delay—but we do know they used material from BellSouth lawsuits that weren't yet publicly available.

Tommy Williams (with his son) has been a consistent and relentless foe of Lafayette's aspirations. Williams balked at nothing to oppose what the people of Lafayette voted for. He was in the line of command on all the questionable tactics and had a visible hand in much of it. None of it was ethical unless you subscribe to the anything-goes-for-a-bit-of-profit school of ethics. I, and I think most Lousiana's subscribe to that older standard that has to do with honor and character. An honorable man doesn't do dishonorable things at anyone's bidding.

This is the man who will be in charge of shepherding our new governor's ethics package through the legislature. I'd watch closely.

Terry Huval of LUS, qouted in a recent IND blog item is more forgiving than I can convince myself to be. He says:
“Unless we see something otherwise,” Huval continues, “I’m going to trust that Tommy’s going to follow what the governor wants to do, and my hopes are that the governor wants to do the right things.”
That's trusting that the man is the sort that can put aside a lifetime of carrying water for his bosses and invests a lot of hope in the idea that he is only a loyal agent of his new master. I'm afraid I can't be so trusting. In my experience people who've spent most of their lives justifying something are committed to it—especially if they were required to convince others of the righteousness of that position. But even if you trust that Tommy Williams can be honestly bought he's still got a lifetime of habits in thinking about a set of issues that matter very much to Lafayette.

Who is talking to Jindal? Who in Lafayette has a pipeline to the new governor that can act as a counter-balance to the natural inclinations the man he is relying on to pass every other element of his agenda?

I hope someone is thinking about it and developing that pipeline.

It's not a pretty sight.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Broadband To Overtake TV

Interesting:
WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS, more than 16 million U.S. households with televisions will use their broadband service more than they use their TV sets today, says technology consulting firm In-Stat.

Up to 30% of viewers will drop subscription TV and use the Internet for watching TV, according to a recent survey by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat. More than 40% say they aren't getting enough international news and information from their current TV service, despite having hundreds of channels to choose from. (Use Of Broadband Service To Overtake TV Viewing)

Now that's much quicker than I would have thought...at least without real, reliable broadband. On the other hand: where there is real, reliable broadband.......;-)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

We're Already Cyborgs

Sunday Food For Thought Dept.

Take a gander at a recent Wired Magazine article for something to chew on intellectually. "Your Outboard Brain Knows All" takes off from a recent study that shows that younger (and presumably more techy) folk have poorer memories than older ones:
This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.
That last sentence pretty much sums up the story. But if you'd like the explicit version:

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I'm talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us. [emphasis mine]

The author, it seems to me, is right. We've woken up in the future and are already linked into the net in ways that aren't so visually dramatic as we might have seen in Star Trek (and yes, that's "Jean Luc Picard" as Locutus Of Borg at the head of the entry) but are every bit as real socially and personally.

Not only do I google items when I am on the phone, my daughter calls me on the phone in order to have me google stuff for her when she traveling with her cell but without direct access to her own "outboard brain."

Another striking bit:
What's more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I've been blogging for four years, which means I've poured out about a million words' worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don't even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I'd forgotten I knew — it's what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an "outboard brain."
It's a nice treat to find that occasionally a fiber topic I've searched for returns Lafayette Pro Fiber as the top hit. I am generally surprised at how much sense those guys make. ;-) I've learned to Google for my own work rather than make any effort at all to recall when and in what context I wrote something.

And it's not just the net. My laptop holds more of my life than I can easily recall existing--what was I doing in April 6 years ago? I don't know. But my iCal calendar program does. Ditto for birthdays or the last time I went to the doctor. When did I first run across a particular author? Well a content search of my laptop will reveal the date I first entered anything by him in email, an article, or my old hand-made HyperCard reference library. My email archive is a treasure trove of history about myself that I'd forgotten.

And I rely on all that "offloaded" memory on a regular basis. It's part of my life and a resource I count on. It's "my" memory every bit as much as something I "wrack" my brain to remember. And it is a good bit more reliable.

We are already cyborgs.

For my money, it's a good thing.

Of course not everyone is so sanguine—there is a real fear of, if not losing our humanity to the Borg, then at least becoming less capable people because of it. That's not a new fear. No less than Plato feared external memory (in the form, gasp!, of writing) would lead men to let their memory atrophy and lose the basis for true human wisdom.

Plato wasn't entirely wrong. Anyone with any pretension to learning in that day and age could recite long epic poems that very few in our day would bother to learn. Part of the art of rhetoric was memory practices. But the Greeks and Romans adapted. They decided that perhaps the ability to recite long poems wasn't what really made a man learned. Ironically, the ability to ask the right questions, for which Plato/Socrates was famed, became much more important in determining who was wise.

That same sort of thing has been at work in our own day. Until recently we thought that the ability to parse logic and perform calculations were the indisputable signs of high intelligence. Then computers got so easy to use and so ubiquitous that no one had to be able to do math in order to possess its power. Now being able to do long calculations in the head is merely a quaint skill, not quite on the level of reciting epic poetry, but clearly approaching it.

As terabytes of storage go on sale at Best Buy, as flash memory lets you store gigs of data in your pocket, as laptops that would have recently been classified as supercomputers too powerful to export legally show up at WalMart, as we locally share a 100 meg intranet and a truly capable and ubiquitous wifi net it is interesting to wonder what we'll come to think of as valuably and uniquely human.

People will have levels of memory, calculation, speed, and depth of access to facts that savants in earlier eras could not match. I don't imagine that making those abilities common will make our land as much better a place as the savants might have imagined.

But it should be interesting to see what we do with our new powers. And what we come to value in ourselves instead of those things.

Friday, November 23, 2007

AOC & LUS' Franchise

This morning's Advocate has a story focusing on one benefit from Tuesday's approval of the LUS' cable franchise: Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) will benefit to the tune of $50,000 dollars and a new capacity to offer on-demand programming.

As Blanchard points out, most of the franchise agreement is, for legal reasons relating to the (un)Fair Competition Act, a clone of Cox's 2000 agreement.

There are some differences, however, including the way the LUS agreement deals with the Acadiana Open Channel:

Each year, the Cox franchise agreement requires Cox to pay $50,000 to the open channel to run a public access channel, although that figure can go down if the city-parish doesn’t match funds up to a certain amount.

The LUS agreement calls for the open channel to get a flat $50,000 regardless of any conditions.

While there is a dark lining on this silver cloud, my guess is that Ed Bowie over at AOC's Lee Avenue offices regards this as a good thing. After all, the perennially cash-strapped organization is getting a new, solid, continuing funding source for the next 10 years. With new federal regulations threatening to further erode the principle of local control of cable media by telling localities that they can't demand much of anything other than cash for letting cable corporations rent their rights-of-way all public access groups are facing a bleak future. Likely LUS' commitment will make it politically difficult for Cox to back out of its commitments just because the Feds say they can renege. Cox appears to have a good relationship with AOC. The corporation recently extended AOC's reach into the surrounding communities recently (you can see AOC's programming throughout Cox's Acadiana footprint now) and provides AOC with net connection. (LUS should certainly match that.)

Even as AOC programming has solidified—it now really fills the two channel slots it has been allocated—and in part because of increased demand for its services AOC's staffing problems have increased. This is especially true in the critical technical area that will be its future and the additional shot of money will no doubt be helpful there.

But there is a downside to the LUS' unconditional gift to AOC. It's unconditional. That means that should the council decide it doesn't want to match LUS' contribution in the same way it matches Cox's then their decision to be chintzy doesn't let LUS off the hook. With the Cox money the local government has to continue to support AOC or let Cox walk away with money that could be returned to the community. The way LUS has set up its contribution the city is freed from that responsibility. Of course that doesn't free it from the moral obligation to help pay for valuable community resources. AOC is a magnet for creative types and AOC's broadcasting of public meetings is an essential public resource. The city-parish should do the right thing.

The LUS contribution will give AOC a nice boost on becoming a next-generation public access institution. The addition of a video-on-demand (VOD) capacity is a window into that new world and LUS will be smart to put lots of local programming into its VOD library. LUS wants—or should want—VOD to be become very popular. It is by far the easiest way to get long tail content and very local content onto any network. Satisfying the actual desires every ecclectic and very local taste rather than forcing them to watch lowest-common-denominator stuff that is popular in both Peoria and New York is the best way to satisfy video customers and build market share. Beyond actually serving your customers encoraging VOD use makes a lot of sense for LUS because, frankly, Cox is going to have trouble competing in that arena. It's current implementation is just plain klutzy and it stresses the network. At least at my house it is possible to try and log into that function and to have the network tell you that it is busy. Their network is already oversubscribed and they've not allocated the bandwidth to keep it flowing smoothly at times of peak demand. So to try and match LUS in encouraging a larger percentage of its subscribers to use VOD would mean investing more bandwidth in VOD--and without a system upgrade that means reducing profitable services elsewhere.

But VOD is only a hint of what is possible. Just on the other side of the closed system of downloading video from your cable company through your TV's settop box (which is what VOD is all about) lies the unconstrained land of real "Downloaded Video," DV (See "Die TV, Die!, Die!, Die!"). DV replaces the broadcast model based on limited bandwidth and the desire of broadcast networks and cable companies to profit off every minute you spend watching the boob tube with a system that allows you to download video you care about (instead of what some "average" American doesn't dislike too much) video you want (and only video you want) at any time (instead of on their schedule). Setting up a download server on the LUS intranet would be the next really big leap into the next era for Lafayette and AOC. From there you could download HD versions of the city-parish show (look at the grimace on your councilman's face in excruciating detail), or your kid's latest soccer match, or that Monday night political show or last Sunday's homily. Even better, download the version of the meeting your councilman commented and submitted. Or the edited version by your favorite local cynic. Or a compendium of Mr. Benjamin's funniest remarks updated with bits from that last meeting. Those outside the intranet would get the YouTube version. (Or they could move to Lafayette.)

In the long run DV is where video is going. Lafayette could be far ahead of the curve if we invest just a little bit in a fat connection for AOC and a minimal investment in a couple of fast servers and a dozen inexpensive terabytes of drive storage. The future is cheap and available at Best Buy. It's the vision that we've got find.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

LUS Cable Franchise Set

The LUS franchise agreement was approved yesterday evening in a quick, low-key Lafayette Public Utility Authority session before the main event. The LPUA, the five person subset of the city-parish council meeting that has legal authority over LUS, was down to three members all of whom voted to approve the measure. Williams and Benjamin, as has been their wont, did not choose to attend.

Huval gave a brief powerpoint presentation which focused on one main point: the franchise agreement is as near a copy as is possible of Cox's 2000 agreement. A chart of the ways in which the two contracts were the same was the central feature of the presentation. This parallelism was repeatedly presented as a direct consequence of Lousiana's "Fair Competition Act," a point we have made in these pages as well.

The point I found most interesting—and most promising in view of my disappointments with the franchise—is that at the begining of his presentation Huval was careful to emphasize that LUS intended to do considerably "more." That "more" was completely unspecified but leaves a lot of room for hope.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

LUS Franchise Goes to Council Vote

LUS' cable franchise agreement is on the agenda to be approved this evening during the 4:30 LPUA meeting before the regular council meeting.

Now this little story doesn't rate so much as a mention in local media since various tempest in a teapot issues are distracting us from this more fundamentally important issue. (The Redflex and the Settlers Trace Boulevard controversies will have been forgotten when the money rolling into consolidated government from this contract are a central portion of every year's budget.) I've earlier gone on at some length about why this is a big deal, and how state and federal shenanigens play into the unhappy need to write this franchise contract in a way that helps Cox and AT&T avoid full price competition. You can get the sad story in my November 3rd post.

If you poke around a bit and use Google you can actually find the text of the agreement on the council website. (The links in the agenda document do not work...a common problem, I have found. Someone needs to show the folks uploading them how to redirect the links.)

It makes for interesting reading. Well, ok, maybe not really interesting reading. But it makes interesting points. For instance here's my top ten (in no particular order):

1) No Censorship. LCG denies itself the right to censor any content that flows over the LUS system:
8.12 Selection of Programming.
During the term of this Franchise, and consistent with 47 U.S.C. § 533(e)(2)[Link], LCG shall neither prohibit LUS Communications from providing nor require LUS Communications to provide any program or otherwise censor communications over the Cable and Telecommunications System; except that, nothing in this section shall be read to authorize LUS Communications to engage in communications which are prohibited by law.
This writes into the local ordinance a reassuring portion of the Federal Code that forbids a local franchising authority from exercising any editorial control over programming. Good. This firmly eliminates any stupid attempt to tamper with programming that has a paying audience in order to satisfy the self-righteousness of those who would like to control the tastes of others. With the passage of this ordinance it would be against Federal law, local ordinance, and LUS' franchise contract with the city-parish to mess with programming. Endless pointless and silly debates in our city-parish council are thereby avoided. Kudos to the drafters of this ordinance.

2) Yearly Surveys. Consolidated government reserves the right to do yearly surveys of LUS' telecommunications.
B. LCG at its sole option and expense may undertake an annual survey of community views of cable operations in the City, including but not limited to technical quality, response to community needs, and customer service. LCG shall provide thirty (30) days advance written notice to LUS Communications of such a survey and shall, upon thirty (30) days written request, report the results of the survey to LUS Communications.
That's a good thing as well—and has ramifications well beyond asking the obvious question "Is LUS doing a good job." Lafayette is going to be way ahead of the curve with its fiber-optic network and some elements of the project will be unique, like the 100 meg intranet. We really should be tracking the sorts of changes that grow up in our community. It would be invaluable to other communities, essential to our finding grant funding for all sorts of nifty experiments, and crucial in justifying the expense when the project is inevitably challenged down the road. (If you think Cox and AT&T will quit badmouthing the project and trying to convince people it is worthless after it starts cutting into their market share you really ought to rethink.) We need a series of good broadband surveys. This has been suggested before...André Comeaux had made a project of this. The idea should be incorporated into a yearly survey. Done right we could get national groups that would like to get their hands on such unique data to help us pay for it. But with or without help we should get on the stick about this. A baseline survey done before LUS offers its first services is absolutely essential to being able to prove that the project has helped Lafayette.

3) In the Public Interest
1.9 Public Interest Promoted.
The provisions of this Franchise shall be liberally construed in favor of the promotion of the public interest.
Perfect. 'Nuff said.

4) Updating the Agreement
SECTION 6. AMENDMENTS TO FRANCHISE
LCG may amend this Franchise upon the application of LUS Communications to provide services in addition to those authorized by Section 8, subject to appropriate additional conditions to protect the public interest. LCG may also amend the Franchise upon the application of LUS Communications when necessary to enable LUS Communications to take advantage of technological advancements in Cable Services and/or Telecommunications Services that, in the opinion of LCG, will afford LUS Communications an opportunity to serve its customers more efficiently, effectively, and economically. Such amendments shall be subject to such conditions as LCG determines are appropriate to protect the public interest.
It's nice that someone is being proactive about anticipating technological changes that will drive new services. A clause like this will make it easier to work such changes into the services lineup.

5) Privacy
7.2 Privacy.
B. LUS Communications shall not use the two-way communications capability of the Cable and Telecommunications System for unauthorized or illegal subscriber surveillance of any kind. For purposes of this subsection, tenants who occupy premises where LUS Communications provides Cable Service and/or Telecommunications Service shall be deemed to be subscribers, regardless of who actually pays for the service.
That's probably should be obvious. But given the loosey-goosey way that phone providers, including our dear AT&T have played loose with the wiretapping laws during this administration this clause clearly directs LUS to make sure that surveillance is legal. That is, to wait for a court to order it. Good.

6) Universal Service
1. Within Franchise Area. For requests from persons within 300 feet of an existing distribution line, LUS Communications shall provide service within seven (7) business days for no charge other than the then-prevailing normal installation charge, unless LUS Communications demonstrates to LCG’s satisfaction that extraordinary circumstances justify a waiver of this requirement or the customer requests that service commence at a later time.
The clauses for those outside the 300 feet area will apply to very few if any folks --since the current franchise area is the well-built-up city of Lafayette. But even there LUS is obligated to offer service at a reasonable cost. Universal service is assured.

7) Public Service
E. Requested School and Public Building Service Drops. LUS Communications shall provide upon request and without charge one cable television service outlet activated for Basic Cable Service to each police station, fire station, School, public library and LCG office building...
That's only basic, and there are some conditions on service more than 300 feet from a line, but its still pretty sweet. A public utility should provide public services.

8) PEG Channels (aka AOC)
8.9 Public Educational and Governmental Use.
A. PEG Access Channel Capacity. Within six (6) months of the date service begins under this Franchise, LUS CommunicatioLCG two (2) downstream channels solely for PEG access use.
Another 3 channels can be earned by the community if they an fill up the first two.

9) AOC support
G. Equipment and Facilities. Each year during the term of this Franchise, LUS Communications shall provide an annual grant for the PEG access equipment and facilities to LCG or, as directed by LCG, to the Access Corporation(s) designated by LCG, in an amount equal to $50,000. Beginning on the Effective Date, the payment shall be made monthly in an amount of $4,167. LUS Communications shall be permitted to recover all such payments in its monthly Basic Cable Service charges or as otherwise permitted by LCG.
This is support for AOC. I'd be happier if it went directly to the designee rather than passing through the fingers of the council but it cements support for the valuable local institution even in the face of looming federal rules that would put its existance in danger.

10) 21st Century Public Access
L. On-Demand PEG Access Programming. In addition to therequirements of this Section 8.9, LUS Communications may make PEG Access programming available to Subscribers on-demand, or may permit any designated Access Corporation(s) to make programming available on-demand. On-Demand PEG Access programming shall not be required to be carried on a Basic Cable Service tier.
This hints at the beginings of a 21st century vision for what AOC could become. Even niftier would be access to net bandwidth and support for high bandwidth, on-network storage. Maybe we can negotiate for that at a later date.


Parting Thoughts:
All in all not a bad document. Not the document of my dreams however. That one would have had glorious clauses pushing a real digital divide program, extended public obligations, funding for a commons portal and a 21st century version of AOC. Sigh. Still, I have to say not a bad document. Just not worthy of the full vision I think most of Lafayette shares.

Quickie: Bust Broome

A quick note:

Sharon Weston Broome, she of fiber fight infamy, wants to be Louisiana's Senate president pro tem.

She shouldn't be considered and no Acadiana region legislator should support her bid.

The fast rundown:
  1. Broome is the legislator that "authored"the infamous anti-Lafayette revision to the (un)Fair Competition Act. That bill, eventually passed in drastically ammended form, was submitted only 1 year after the "compromise" law was passed and was the incumbents' attempt to get additional advantage before the law was ever used the first time.
  2. That act was clearly written by and submitted at the behest of Cox Communications.
  3. It would have forced a second referendum on Lafayette
  4. It would have fined Lafayette $900,000 dollars if the voters approved building a fiber network of their own
  5. To add insult to injury the law would have given that nearly $1 million dollars to Cox!
Lafayette's people rose up in a campaign of letter writing and calling that led Broome to recant the more obvious mistakes in "her" bill, ask our representatives to tell the people of Lafayette that she was not a "vicious" person, and to say that she was not planning on returning to Lafayette until "it's safe."

Ms Broome has demonstrated her incompetence and her willingness to carry water for entrenched special interests to the detriment of the people she was elected to represent.

She has not earned any position of respect or honor.


PS: If that's not enough to convince you, you might need to be reminded that this is the same Sharon Weston Broome that embarrassed the state by seriously suggesting that the state of Louisiana pass a resolution saying that it was our understanding that Darwin's theory of evolution is racist.

Really. I couldn't make stuff like that up.

Let your reps know that Ms Broome shouldn't be an officer of our legislature.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cox Degrades and Blocks P2P

Broadband Reports tells us that Cox has joined Comcast in chocking P2P traffic. (Readers and netizens will recall the uproar over Comcast's public relations nightmare—blocking the Bible by using your control of the network to lie to both sides of the exchange about the state of the other is considered uncool.)

Like Comcast, Cox is using its control of the network servers to forge the identity of users on both sides of P2P (bittorent, etc.) connections and tell both users that their partner has asked for a reset of the connection. The consequence is a dramatically slower connection or, once one side of the software "gives up," yielding a blocked connection. By forging false information about both ends of the communication Cox denies users the ability to exchange the data they choose.

Why? After all, people buy bandwidth in order to communicate. And Cox has plenty of tools that already control how much bandwidth you're allowed to drink. Cox, like the other cablecos, sells you a speed-throttled product (1.5 megs, 7 megs, etc.) and they have an unpublicized monthly usage cap. So you can only use so much at a time and you can only use so much per month. That should be enough. Why do they feel the urge to tell users what kinds of connections you can make within those limits?

Well...because 1) Greed: supplying bandwidth costs money they'd rather keep and 2) Lying (or more generously, its cousin "advertising). Even though they've set out limits those limits are pretty much fakes that are used to sell product rather than rationally inform consumers. They are counting on very, very few people ever really using the capacity that they sold them. If any substantial number of users really starts to use anything like their monthly allotment everyone's shared speed would drop like a rock. Cox just don't have the capacity to give consumers the speeds they've sold them. At the root of this sort of behavior is that Cox (and the other major telecomms) oversubscribe their bandwidth...sort of like "overbooking" the seats on a plane. Only Cox et al do a lot more of it than than any airline ever dared. (See a recent fine discussion post on gigom for a clear elaboration of the business and network dynamics involved.)

When P2P begins to entice users to come somewhat closer to using the speeds and capacities they've bought that overbooking is revealed: the network slows down and the advertising is revealed too obviously for what it is: a commitment they can't keep. It doesn't help Cox stay calm that P2P also looms as a threat to cable's core business. (We do know what most torrents are used for don't we? Video, legal and otherwise.) Instead of announcing rational speeds and caps that would reflect their actual network capacity Cox follows Comcast in surreptitiously blocking the upstart P2P network in ways that are fundamentally deceptive.

Notice please: exchanging data is exactly why customers buy an internet connection, the blocked technology is perfectly legal technology; the content presented for exchange is not Cox's responsibility; and internet users that never, ever signed a contract with Comcast are having their access blocked.

It's profoundly wrong on multiple levels and no amount of handwaving about ensuring quality of service can obscure it.

Here in Lafayette LUS users will avoid the worst of this because LUS won't sell you a product they can't supply. That's not the way that utility people think. It's not about marketing for them. Besides, they won't have any need for marketing deceptions. The sort of advertising that Cox is engaged in is intended to convince you that you are getting more than you actually are. LUS will have the bandwidth to give you exactly what you pay for. And LUS has been very direct in saying that they intend to do just that. I don't think many people have heard them; it sounds too obvious...but the engineers at LUS know that your local cable connection is horrifically oversubscribed and it hurts their engineer's sense of right order. They want you to know they won't do that. (This is similar to the no connection fees, no penalty-laden contracts promise LUS has made—not doing that marketing stuff is the utility way.)

Does that mean that LUS will never mess with P2P? I hope they won't. There is a lot of nervousness about uncontrolled usage among engineers and servers and P2P is at the center of that angst. I think such anxiety misplaced. But...My point is that LUS won't have to deceptively block services you want to use in order to keep up the facade that you've got plenty of speed. LUS will actually have plenty of bandwidth. And if you use a lot more bandwidth going out of our network (generating a cost we all share) than your fellows do there is no reason not to simply tell you that you are pushing costs onto your neighbors. And charge you for fairly for it if it gets too disproportionate.

Oddly enough I'm looking forward to having that sort of relationship with my net provider. A more honest approach would be a refreshing change.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Coming Soon: aL, La and the Magical Municipal Tour

As we head to the end of this year, the pace of progress on the LUS fiber project is increasing. The electronics vendor has been selected; property for the head-end has been purchased; a building for that is not far off.

Some of the specifics of the network offerings have become public, the most notable of which is the fact that every LUS fiber customer will have 100 megabits per second of in-system connectivity. What that means is that Lafayette will have an intranet that will rival any corporate or academic campus in the world.

This will create the opportunity fundamentally change life in Lafayette. With that much in-system bandwidth available, it will be possible for a new, asynchronous Lafayette to emerge — asynchronous Lafayette, Louisiana (aL, La).

Lafayette and The Network

The power of networks to drive change is well documented. There is Metcalfe's Law. There is the fabulous, thought-provoking 2002 book by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: The New Science of Networks, which explores the power of networks and what new, more powerful networks mean for science, business and everyday life. I'm sure you can find other examples and references.

Because of the design of the LUS network and the commitment to create an intranet for customers of that network, Lafayette is going to be a community where the impact of this meeting of network power and the various aspects of network connected life will be explored first. We will be pioneers on the great adventure that will not come to other communities in our country and the world for years — if not decades — to come.

All that bandwidth will mean that access to aspects of life Lafayette will no longer be tied to time. That is, large swaths of public life in Lafayette will migrate to a point where access to events will no longer depend on your ability to physically show up. Any public event in Lafayette will have the potential to be preserved for posterity.

The path to opportunity in Lafayette will run along the ability of government, companies, institutions, associations, clubs and individuals to push the transition from 'Lafayette in the now' to 'asynchronous Lafayette.'

The LUS fiber system and the intranet capability it will provide its customers will make it difficult to leave Lafayette. Life will be different from other places here. We will miss the amenities that the fat connection that the LUS network will afford us. But, if we work this right, we will not have to miss Lafayette in the sense that more of our civic and social life can and will be made available to us via the network in ways that will not require our physical presence at the event in order to observe it or, in some cases, participate in it.

We won't stop attending these events, but the LUS network will enable citizens here to experience more of Lafayette life because those events will be available to us at times that our hectic lives — family, work, and play — don't currently allow. For instance, I like good music, but I can't always find the time to say, go to a Louisiana Crossroads performance. Or, maybe I have to be out of town on the night that there's a PASA show that I'd otherwise like to catch.

In asynchronous Lafayette, those events could be captured, stored and be made accessible to folks who can't attend the live event — or who might want to experience the event from a different perspective.

This is one way that the network will set public life in Lafayette apart from life in other communities.

I think it's important that we focus on this opportunity in order to ensure that the changes resulting from our new distinctiveness enable Lafayette to capture and leverage those aspects of our community that make us unique; that we use our infrastructure to knock down the barriers between us, not to widen existing gaps.

Here are some ideas of how the LUS network might enable asynchronous Lafayette to emerge.

Government

This new infrastructure has the potential to improve the ability of citizens to participate in governmental processes with the result being that government becomes more responsive to them and their needs. In asynchronous Lafayette, public meetings will be recorded, stored and be able to be accessed by citizens who were not able to attend the meeting. Documents presented, discussed or distributed in the meeting will be available for viewing and downloading via the webcast (live and stored) of the session.

Those web-accessed meetings could also have links to allow citizen input on the process. It will mean a number of structural changes will need to take place. First, local government and agencies will need to put cameras and microphones in any room used for public meetings so that the sessions can be recorded. Second, they'll need to invest in the storage capacity to allow these meetings to be tagged and archived for later access. Third, they'll need to provided wider windows of opportunity for citizens to submit formal comment on proposals, issues and ordinances.

I'm not talking about the kind of Blog of the Banshees that the comment sections of The Daily Advertiser and other papers have become; but a formal channel for citizen comment and involvement that will become part of the permanent public record of the proceedings, even though the citizens might not have been present at the event when it actually occurred. Asynchronous access to government might actually lend itself to richer, more thoughtful citizen involvement by affording interested parties the opportunity to review the materials and sessions away from the heat of the moment.

Lafayette may need to come up with its own version of public meeting laws to ensure that our rich digital infrastructure is used to enhance citizen access to government and its decision-making processes.

Education

In asynchronous Lafayette, students will never miss another day of class. That is, classrooms could be equipped with cameras and microphones which would enable teachers to deliver their course content in a real-time session that could be available to students too ill to attend class that day. The course could be accessed from home either via a video stream or accessed later when the student was feeling better. When I made this case to my daughter a couple of years ago prior to the fiber election, I have to admit that she was not wild about this idea.

The network will also facilitate more collaborative learning, as students, teachers, even researchers will be able to interact in real time with voice, data and video on projects ranging from homework to science projects to specialized research projects.

Entertainment/Culture

We can use this infrastructure to improve and enrich Lafayette's cultural life and, in the process, bolster and sustain artists and the institutions that support them.

Asynchronous Lafayette will be a boon to businesses built around entertainment and culture. More specifically those places offering 'live' music are going to have a real opportunity to emerge as global purveyors of our musical culture. There's a hint of what is possible by what's transpired in Austin, Texas. Austin City Limits helped transform that city into a multi-media entertainment center, drawing musicians from around to world to a place that has no obvious other reason to attract them. The show now has its own music festival.

Big whoop.

Imagine asynchronous Lafayette, where we are capturing on video live performances at Grant Street Dancehall, the Blue Moon Saloon, Louisiana Crossroads, Festival International, Festival Acadiens, Downtown Alive, the Heymann Center, and other venues. We could establish our city as THE live music capital of the world by letting the world access all the great live music that we grow and bring here.

Put cameras in the venues, run a feed out of the sound boards and — voila! — shows could be streamed over the web and stored on servers here in Lafayette for later access. The webcast versions could be free or very inexpensive, serving to feed demand for the higher quality recordings of the sessions that could be produced from the archived digital files and sold at a premium.

I happened to catch T. Bone Burnett on The Charlie Rose show on LPB the other night. In that segment (he was on as the producer of the new Robert Plant and Allison Krause album Raising Sand), Burnett said that he believed the future of the music business would revolve around live performance. He added that he wanted to be involved with producing live shows and the recordings that resulted from them.

Asynchronous Lafayette will be ideally positioned to lead this transition by using our wired infrastructure to enable the capture of high-definition, high-quality recordings of all that great music that is some what wasted when it is only captured by the ears that are in the room.

It'll take some server capacity (hey, Google and Sun both offer 'Data Centers in a Box' that bring huge storage capacity in a modular unit that looks like a shipping container), but opportunities like this are going to abound in the arts in the new, wired, asynchronous Lafayette.

Business

The strictly business crowd (you know, the folks who buy Dell and HP computers) won't be shut out either. In fact, businesses in Lafayette are going to have a strategic advantage due to the bandwidth that the LUS intranet affords them. For starters, it will be possible for businesses in Lafayette to work in a more distributed way. That is, people here will really be able to telecommute (i.e., work from home) in ways that are just not possible now. Massive bandwidth will make information sharing easier so things like white board sharing over multiple locations will be able to take place seamlessly. This could be a key to our traffic problems since no one seems to want to pay for roads.

WebEx and similar services should be recruited to conduct pilots here because the kind of network capacity we have here is going to be a while in reaching the rest of the country. Imagine the possibilities that engineering firms located here will have to look at problems via a network, fashion solutions and get them to the fabrication floor in a much shorter cycle.

Healthcare and Public Health

Healthcare in Lafayette can be fundamentally different than it is in any other place in the country. Home monitoring of patients will be able to rival that currently available only in ICUs. Any kind of telemetry that can be captured from a patient in a hospital will soon be able to be captured from home via the network. This could reduce hospital stays and with that the cost of care — without adversely affecting the quality of care.

A few months ago, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals conducted a series of drills across the state to test preparedness for a potential flu pandemic. I happened to attend a meeting in a community where the results of one such drill were discussed. One aspect of the outbreak that the providers did not mention was the impact of an outbreak on the telecommunications system. In the event of an outbreak, there will likely be a good bit of what people near chemical plants know as "evacuation in place." That is, people will be advised to stay home in order to avoid exposure to the virus that would be causing the flu outbreak.

With the robust telecommunications infrastructure that will be in place in Lafayette, we can diminish the extent of the outbreak by ordering children to stay home from school (with a wired community, teachers could teach from home to students at home). Some companies could have their workers stay home, using the network to conduct their work from there. All of this could have the effect of limiting the extent of the outbreak and, perhaps equally important, limiting the disruption on community life that such an outbreak would otherwise inflict.

Sports

People in Lafayette love sports and they particularly love watching their kids play sports. In asynchronous Lafayette, soccer, baseball, basketball and football games could be recorded, as well as swim meets, track meets, and other events could be recorded and shared. Sports leagues could use the network to produce highlights of games/tournaments, post stats, show standings, schedules and other key information.

Again, what will be needed are cameras, servers and the people to operate them.

Religious, Social & Civic Organizations

Churches, community organizations, civic groups will be able to record their meetings and make the content available to those unable to attend the live event.

Scratching At The Surface

Beginning sometime in late 2008 or so, LUS will begin offering services. At that point, the transformation of Lafayette and the potential it offers will move from the dream state to reality. The possibilities mentioned above are a wholly inadequate and incomplete list that doesn't really even scratch the surface of the potential that awaits us.

Think about your current life in Lafayette. Think of how big bandwidth, affordable network technology can be used to enable you to to connect (or re-connect) to those aspects of life here that interest or intrigue you, but that your schedule will just not allow you to get to.

Thinking this way is how citizens are going to be able to transform life here. It will be a bottom-up process that will be built on the foundation of the Lafayette intranet afforded to us by the LUS fiber network. Digital technology has unleashed revolutions in video, audio, and communications in general. With the bandwidth available to each of us and the institutions we align ourselves with, we can — and will — define new ways of joining, belonging to and participating in these institutions and, through this process, change Lafayette.

This will be an opportunity unique to Lafayette in North America because we will be the largest, most diverse community with access to the fattest network pipes. We can pioneer new and unique approaches to civic, social, cultural and community life using the network, just as our geography shaped those aspects of our life here in the centuries leading up to this point.

As the network builds out and as we begin to capture the potential that our fiber infrastructure will offer us, asynchronous Lafayette can come to embody the notion that you never really have to miss Lafayette at all — at least, not any public event.

The time to think about how to turn that potential into reality is now, just as the LUS network itself is moving from the engineering tables to the streets.

This great adventure of asynchronous Lafayette is coming sooner than you think right down your street. The time has come to start preparing to take advantage of the opportunities that will abound. You're only limit will be your imagination.

Step right this way!