Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Time For Dreams....

It's amazing how quickly things can change.

A few days ago the fiberistas of Lafayette were in anxious stasis, fidgeting and hoping that a court decision expected on February 27th would break in favor of the project. It did--on Thursday the 22nd. Jubilation! Unrestrained Jubilation!-- with whoops and hollers on the other end of phone connections as the news ricocheted around town. That, however, has quickly given way to the sense that now, finally, the real work can begin. By Friday afternoon the conversations I was having with both people long deeply committed to the project and friends just eating dinner at the Filling Station downtown had turned to "What next?" and "Let's get on with it?"

Blanchard over at the Advocate has an article in this morning's paper that pushes that impulse one step further. He's shifted the focus of his report from the fight to what we intend to do with our bright, shiny, new toy. That, I think, is the right thing move for us all to make. But the speed of the transition is enough to make your head spin.

I find the article exhilarating--and a little disconcerting.

The exhilarating bit is easy enough to understand. The story delves into a range of exciting possibilities that I really think are important and which need to be discussed by the community. The disconcerting part is that they are largely presented via attribution to me. I'm not used to being quoted. Both as a recovering academic and a blogger my stock in trade has been referencing others and it is truly odd to be on the other end of the stick. I feel obligated to say that I regularly share fantasies and hopes with a good number of other folks in our town--they end up being a community product and people who worked with me on LUS' digital divide committee, Lafayette Coming Together's fiber fight, the Cajundome computer center after the storms, and LCT digital divide projects have earned their fair share of the blame for the dreams I carry around.

With my discomfort hopefully out of the way, back to the story...

Boiled down, here's the way I read it:

This guy St. Julien thinks that the fiber to the home system Lafayette is about to have is potentially game-changing, not only for Lafayette, but perhaps for the country. Lafayette could, if makes bold decisions correctly, end up not only way ahead of the game but also helping to define the rules of the game. It could be THE example for communities wanting to control their own future and could set up patterns others would be eager to follow. Lafayette could lead.

That hope is based on three factors that make Lafayette unique; a combination that no other community can currently match:
1) It will have a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network available to every home and business in the city. 100 megs of bandwidth will be available between subscribers within the network (the intranet, not out on the internet as the story indicated--there we will have more nearly conventional limitations) and that kind of capacity and universal availability is vanishingly rare in these United States. LUS has solidly promised to cut rates...and that, the research clearly shows, will increase the percentage of those who signup for various services. Lafayette could easily develop the highest "take" rate in the country--it could be the most connected city in the country.

2) That muscular network will be deployed in a large, ethnically and economically diverse city. Most other fiber networks are much smaller and are seldom comparably diverse. No other installation comes nearly as close to matching the diversity of the country as a whole.

3) Lafayette's system will be owned by its users/citizens. Lafayette's system will be a utility and as such its central purpose is reliable, affordable, service. Most high-capacity fiber installations in this county over the next 5-10 years will be made by private corporations with immense debt and an obligation to produce short-term profit for distant shareholders. Lafayette can reasonably make decisions without that baggage. We will be one of the few communities that own our own roads in the digital era.

Played right these differences can translate into a huge continuing advantage for the community.

The article mentions that Lafayette could, for example, decide that its digital set top boxes will do a more than those that other communities offer. (Analog broadcast will end in 2009--about the time Lafayette's system comes online--and such boxes will be a practical necessity after that point.) Current set top box/DVR combinations (like TiVo or Cox's DVR) are actually specialized computers using fairly standard hardware. It is not in the private provider's interest to let customers use that capacity and it is effectively locked up. But LUS's users are both its owners and its citizens. It might make sense to lock out the service functions but let users have the rest of the device's computer capacity to use as a net-connected machine. That one stroke could go far to closing the digital divide by eliminating the most important barrier to computer use: the cost of the machine. With the price of computers dropping dramatically that may be less important than it once would have been. And maybe the details would prove unworkable. But the point is: Lafayette could consider it.

Lafayette could also turn its size and diversity to good advantage. That combined with futuristic broadband could -- and should-- make Lafayette the place for testing the practical and commercial viability of the the "next great thing." Video? Educational applications too advanced for the current infrastructure? Community distributed computing? It is hard to overstate the potential.

As the article states:

LUS Director Terry Huval said LUS will hold public meetings to ask for public input and hear what types of services people would like to see.

St. Julien said the group he helped form during the election, Lafayette Coming Together, supports the idea of public meetings to discuss these technical aspects, which will have an effect on the end consumer

We have a lot to discuss and LUS is stepping forward to say that it is already eager to do what no private provider would care to do or dare to do: ask its users what they want to do with the network. That kind of openness is hard to find in today's protect-your-rear world. We should take LUS up on their offer--enthusiastically and thoughtfully.

Let the conversation begin! --Time's a-wasting.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why stop there? If the City is un-corking a 100 Mb/s connection to every home, then go the extra step and give every home a networked PC.

John said...

Anon,

I strongly suspect that you are being a little sarcastic.

But I am not.

Why not indeed? For a whole raft of downstream services (most immediately a set top decoder box) LUS will need a point of presence inside the home.If you get digital cable TV and a DVR you already have a subsidized computer in your house from the cable company. (I buy my own from TiVo. It runs Linux.)

For a few pennies more that could be a cheap Linux box running really nice free software. Why not?

Or, if you want to centralize and hold down hard drive costs, let the box be a network box and hold most of its storage online, connected at 100 megs there'd be no appreciable lag time for most current user apps. Heck, go the whole way and a la Cosmopod put a remote desktop online for every subscriber.

Too much? Maybe.But how close can we come?