Saturday, February 03, 2007

New bid to close ‘digital divide’

Every so often I run across something that indicates that Lafayette is way out ahead of other communities in surprising ways. (We all already know about food and festivals. But did you know that the state-wide local library system has long been considered a exemplary model and that circulation figures astonish folks from other states?) Even that most progressive of cities, San Francisco, is only now stumbling toward the same conclusion about local telecommunications infrastructure that the people of Lafayette have settled on.

A storm has blown up in San Francisco over the best way to provide broadband to the city. One day after San Fran inked its agreement with an Earthlink/Google team to setup a wireless networks with a free (if low speed) component a report came out that further fueled concern over the deal and the city's choice of technology.

Coming to a final agreement in San Francisco's high profile wireless network has taken much longer than anticipated, partly as a result of criticism that implied the proposal was hastily done. Critiques have included concerns about the financial deal, how useful the particular network will be (especially for digital divide purposes), non-local ownership of the network, the effective monopoly granted, and security. The latest dustup had concerned allegations that the mayor had pushed the deal through without looking into alternatives--especially the fiber alternative--as the original authorization to pursue negotiations had required.

The upshot was that a new study was commissioned that was to explore the potential of fiber optics. A story in the Examiner titled "New bid to close ‘digital divide’" examines the tale:

Ammiano said the fiber network is not meant to compete or undermine the Wi-Fi agreement, but he did say the fiber network would truly close the digital divide while the Wi-Fi would not since it is an “iffy” service and may be hard for some people to draw the signal into their homes, particularly in low-income neighborhoods...

Chris Vein, head of The City’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, who negotiated the Wi-Fi deal, acknowledged fiber is a superior technology, but its drawback is that it costs more and takes longer to set up, whereas Wi-Fi is cheaper and quicker to set up.

It's nice to see that some folks are beginning to give more serious consideration to dealing with digital divide issues than throwing "free" WiFi at it. Finding a sustainable way to make truly modern, truly affordable, real broadband universally available--and to make its utility easy to grasp--is a much harder problem than that. Making sure that a network penetrates to where it will be used, that it is fast enough to really enable folks to get up to speed on modern networks, and supported by a plan that is sustainable over the long run will take a lot of work. Gaining local control of the last mile, not offering it over to distant corporations is the first step. I like to think Lafayette has gotten out ahead of places like San Francisco and Philadelphia in treating the problem seriously. Once the courts approve the network plan here it will be time to think seriously about what the community wants to do with it.


Some backstory: SFBay Guardian Overview of objections to wireless plan; Silicon Valley Observer on local control and digital divide issues.


PS...for those who are gluttons for punishment: A PDF file of the San Francisco study which recommended a fiber-optic network to the city is available online. At 196 pages it is not a quick read. But for anyone who really wants to understand all the decisions that go into 1) deciding whether or not to install a municipal fiber-optic network and 2) deciding what sort of fiber optic network to install (there are choices to be made that effect what can be done with the network) and 3) understand just what would be involved in actual implementation, the study is just about the best introduction that I've found. The only caveat I'd make is that its strong point is also its weak point: it is about a specific, real, situation. On the plus side this means that there is little glossing over the hard issues with hand-waving. On the other hand not all San Francisco's "hard issues" apply to Lafayette or other cities considering fiber and, of course, they don't have some of our particular local issues with which to contend. That said, a review of the study teaches a lot. If you're a patient sort--or one of the rare birds that actually like such study--I highly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

John and Mike
Can you please share with me what services the Lafayette Parish School Board has with the LUS fiber network. How much did the school board come out of pocket to help pay the construction cost to deploy fiber to the schools? Could this play part in the budget problems they are having. I had a discussion this morning with someone who said the school board came out of pocket millions to help with the construcion of the network. How would I prove this person wrong?

John said...

I'll be frank in saying that I don't know the details. -- I am pretty sure that I didn't see any discussion of upfront costs in the media (if any such had substantially come out of local monies I think it would have been covered). At any rate that will be a matter of public record. It would be most easily recovered by 1) just asking and 2) taking a look at the budget.

I do recall that there was a very big Federal grant involved that defrayed 70 percent of the costs. (wow!) That money would have passed through local system but would not have come out of monies otherwise available for the system. (Such grants can only be used for grant purposes.)

So the system may have handled some pretty substantial sums but not (to my way of thinking) been out of pocket much if any money at all.

(And there's this to point out to your friend as well: Having big bandwidth available to all your schools will allow local grant writers to apply to huge grants that they could not have otherwise qualified. Heck, you could even go seeking grants to match your vision--having a unique resource like this in a community as large and diverse as this will open up all sorts of potential. I think this is a money-making investment --on which the feds have mostly paid for. What a deal!)

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Anonymous said...

Yea, he did mention the 70% should have been paid by the fed's because 70% of our children are on a free lunch program(I don't understand that) but his point was the local govt was the provider and the customer, so Lafayette didn't get approved for the grant and this is why they are having problems. They also said they didn't put it out for a proper bid to other providers which is what the grant requires. I am not so sure I believe this guy, as you know by now with is knowledge of the process he works for a national service provider that wants the business. He did say he was going to talk to some school board members about the issue so you may want to spread the word. Have you ever heard bell south or cox cable complain about this issue? I would think they would have cried like babies or filed a lawsuit to prevent LUS from providing the service.