Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Digital Divide & More at Council meeting

I went to last night's Council meeting as there were two fiber-oriented issues on the agenda: the digital divide and small/minority business participation in the buildout phase of the project.

Digital Divide
Terry Huval's power point presentation on the digital divide went off smoothly. The first part of that report focused on reminding listeners about what had come before--it's been a long time since people have had cause to look back over the entire story. Early slides evoked memories of enthusiastic first council meetings where the idea was brought up and numerous benefits were suggested in the areas of jobs, development, cost savings, education, and the possibility of addressing the digital divide. The chief digital divide benefit anticipated was the promised 20% cost savings that would allow more people to afford services--or, alternately, to add access to the internet while not increasing their total outlay for communications services.

Most of the rest of the presentation focused on the recommendations of the original digital divide committee. Mention was made of interim efforts by locals that included Lafayette Coming Together's projects: the Cajundome effort after the storms, the collection and disbursement of refurbished computers, and work on issues like free software. The kicker was in the final slides where LUS promised to reconvene the Digital Divide Committee and complete an implementation plan based on the recommendations approved by the council in the same eighteen month time-frame during which the fiber network will be working to serve its first customer. (Remarks indicated that the 18 month period will apparently start this coming July, which is when the bond sale is currently anticipated.)

Walter Guillory, chair of the committee, gave a brief speech in which he indicated that he'd like to see more computers installed at housing projects and community centers. He also said he'd be looking to get the committee together in perhaps a week or two.

The Digital Divide Committee's new task will be very different from its original charge. Then it was tasked with coming up with a state of the art plan to encourage wide . The new issue will be how to implement those ideas: how the task will be broken up, what organizations/s will be responsible, and how it will be supported.

The presentations were well received. Both Benjamin and Williams proffered thanks and made supportive remarks.

NOTE: Terry Huval made a call for volunteers--if you're at all interested please put your name in the pot.

Small/minority business participation
If the digital divide report went smoothly the discussion of the participation of small businesses, minority businesses, and minority hiring was more contentious. LUS' basic position is that their hands are tied by state bid laws which brook no exception for such considerations. LUS would like to keep more of the construction business local but state law mandates a strict lowest-bidder selection process. They offered a plan to work with the general contractor to define areas where local businesses and workers could participate, to divide the jobs up so that these areas were conveniently joined and then to hold education sessions with local folks to help the learn how to qualify for those positions.

Chris William (chiefly though not exclusively) pushed for more, claiming that Shreveport, for instance had been considerably more successful in achieving minority participation and suggested a study of it and other cities that had achieved these goals.

Keeping local monies local was always a big part of the motivation for having a telecom utility. It only makes sense to try and keep as much of that money in the community during the build stage as well.

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