Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cox to build Broussard's WiFi?

There's interesting by-play being reported in the Advertiser today. The town of Broussard, just south of Lafayette is set to renew its cable franchise with Cox....and install a government-use WiFi system there. Anybody besides me think this is the opening move in a years-long chess match between LUS and Cox in Lafayette Parish and Acadiana? From the short story:
The cable company has agreed to provide the city with wireless Internet for the police and fire departments and city administration. "We'll pay a nominal fee for the service," said Mayor Charles Langlinais shortly after the March 28 City Council meeting. "Whether they expand city-wide will be dependent on them."
One point under negotiation has been the fact that the company is not required to provide service in rural areas, unless there are at least 40 residents per linear mile, Langlinais said.
Langlinais recommended lowering the number to 25 per mile, which he estimated will provide the opportunity for cable to most residents of the Broussard area.
There are at least three pieces of context that a reader should take into account.
  1. Cox does not, anywhere to my knowledge, do municipal wi-fi.
  2. Langlinais has been a very vocal supporter of the LUS project and
  3. Broussard has talked about putting up its own wi-fi system; a system which would have run afoul of the anti-Lafayette "Local Government Fair Competition Act."
Juxtaposing those three reveals a nexus of conflicting interests and local politics. What's going on? What are the interests of Cox, the city of Broussard, and local citizens?

Cox:
Why would Cox offer a totally new service to a small town in south-central Louisiana? In doing this Cox is substantially adding to the list of things a local community can demand in its franchise agreements. Every city wants wifi. The cachet of being a wireless city is being pursued by cities ranging from tier 1 cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco to tiny places like Chaska, Minnesota. The idea that just any little city can forgo all the pain of building its own wireless net or enticing a commercial entry with tax funds, tax givebacks, or exclusive contracts in order to get them to do so is just stunning. If Broussard can just attach wi-fi to its franchise agreement upon renewal why can't anyone? This is a big deal--perhaps a bigger deal nationally than it will be locally.

That Cox is willing to go this far reveals some things: This offer reveals that Cox takes widely-speculated-on elements LUS' expansion very seriously and feels compelled to respond.
  1. They believe that LUS will build a wi-fi network as part of its fiber-opitc build. (I am confident they are right—but no such announcement has been issued.)
  2. They believe that LUS is poised to extend its retail telecom presence into the parish outside its traditional city footprint. (I think they are right—but no such announcement has been made.)
  3. They are terrified that the addition of wireless services will give LUS a large advantage. So large that they believe that Cox can't afford not to respond with a preemptive product of its own even if it has to offer it out of sequence with its national plans. (Which, they have hinted, will someday include their own wireless product.)
As a consequence they are willing to use Broussard to place a roadblock to LUS' expansion to the south even at some risk to its larger corporate interests. The City of Broussard won't be available as an anchor tenant on any LUS system.

I won't be shocked if Cox tries to launch such a system in Lafayette proper. But I will be surprised. Competing with LUS' wireless system will be very hard: LUS will be running off a dense fiber network and that will enable it to run a system that will be as far ahead of other wifi networks as its FTTH system will be ahead of other wired competitors. I expect 30 times the bandwidth provisioning of conventional muni wifi networks. Entering into competition with that could be embarrassing.

Broussard & Langlinais
If Cox's interests are clear, so are Broussard's—and Langlinais'.

Municipal wifi is almost universally a mayoral project. Securing a major, new, hot, "visionary" service for its citizens (at no cost) has got to look good to any mayor.

That aside, Broussard is, I strongly suspect, playing a smart game with its franchise agreement. Typically municipalities have NO leverage come franchise renewal time. In the normal course of events the cable company knows that there is no practical chance a competitor will enter the fray and give local citizens choices. Given its practical monopoly status, no city council will dare endanger their citizen's cable television shows. (You think potholes are a big local issue? Try disturbing a man's Sunday afternoon football game. Or access to Opra. NO way.)

But Broussard has managed to get city-wide wifi (with a "possibility" of residential access). That alone is an amazing feat. Broussard is also negotiating with Cox for an expansion of its build-out. Changing from a density requirement of 40 per linear mile to one of 25 might not sound impressive to some. Such folks might want to take a good look a map of Broussard. Broussard—much more than any of the other communities surrounding Lafayette—has incorporated huge swaths of rural land with only the spottiest development. Some large tracts have no development at all. Changing this requirement will mean that many new areas will get service (and you can bet Mayor Langlinais knows just who should be grateful). Nation-wide the phone companies are driving hard to eliminate municipal franchising precisely so they won't have to serve all parts of the community; especially poor and sparsely settled areas. Cable companies have mostly been going along, asking only for an equal ability to not serve whoever they don't think will yield a large profit. What is not on the table is increasing build-out requirements during franchise re-negotiations.

Should this plan go through Broussard will have pulled of an almost unimaginable coup, getting governmental wifi, a potential retail wifi network, AND forcing Cox to serve a greater portion of its citizens. For this Langlinais and Broussard will owe the citizens of Lafayette who have created a credible competitive alternative to the local Cox cable TV monopoly a vote of thanks. (Eatel's competition, those with long memories may note, did the citizens of East Ascension a similar favor.)

Citizens
So the citizens of Broussard are in for what looks like a really good deal. At least in the short run. And for as long as neither the Feds nor the state of Louisiana succeed in stripping franchising power from local governments. But the citizens should be going down to the city council and asking some hard questions. Questions which will determine whether this short-term treat is a long-term good deal. I suggest starting with:
  1. How long will the new contract run? How long is the city locked into Cox as its wireless provider?
  2. Will Cox's system have mobile capacity? (A huge advantage for police and firefighters.)
  3. How robust will the system be? (LUS' will be huge--potentially running at 30 megs, a speed unheard of in muni wifi.)
  4. Is there any exclusivity element in the wifi agreement? Can others come in and compete?
  5. Does the city have any influence on what Cox charges its citizens in return for use of city-owned poles and rights-of-way?
  6. Is there any revenue sharing on the retail wifi end in return for the use of city property--as there is for Cox's cable TV product?
  7. Just how "nominal" is the nominal cost for governmental services?
  8. Will citizens be allowed to access the system while on city property--say while doing research at city hall?
One question about LUS' system is absolutely put to rest by this development. I've heard people ask what possible benefit LUS' fiber-optic network will be to the rest of the parish. I've not heard this as much since LUS ran fiber to every school in the parish. But this development shows what an astounding benefit the tonic of even the threat of a little competition can bring to surrounding communities.

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