Lafayette Utilities System is looking for retail space to set up a showroom for its fiber-to-the-home products.That sounds great--and it is the first concrete sign that LUS understands that it is entering a market in telecommunications services that requires a different sort of relationship with the public than that of a traditional utilities supplier. Putting out a technically advanced, low cost, reliable service (a fair characterization of LUS' other utilities) is not sufficient. LUS will need to sell fiber. Aggressively. It will need to tell the consumer why FTTH is better and show them how our local utility can do an excitingly superior job.
"When customers come in and want to sign up, we're going to have a showcase where they can see some of the products in action," LUS Director Terry Huval said.
A storefront "showoff" location is a great idea and a great way to introduce the advantages of LUS Fiber to the people. The committment to such a store shows that LUS is coming to grips with the idea that being a credible competitor involves the perception as well as the actuality of quality.
Just to be blunt: Cox gets it. (AT&T doesn't, at least not locally) Since losing the fiber fight Cox has been pursuing a high-profile strategy of affiliating itself with local organizations and with ULL in an attempt to cut into LUS' perceived hometown advantage. It has aggressively--using both the public media and its background chatter to "influentials"--tried to sell the idea that it has a "fiber network" when what it really has is a perfectly standard cable-style hybrid fiber-coax network like any that you would see more honestly described elesewhere. That is an attempt to cut into LUS' perceived technology advantage. Cox has an uphill climb on both counts: LUS is owned by the people of Lafayette and Cox is a huge corporation run out of Atlanta and owned by a small family. LUS has an inescapable home field advantage. Cox's hybrid fiber-coax switches from fiber to copper coax at a node shared by somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 homes (or more--Cox is cagey). LUS fiber goes straight to each home. LUS will provide more for less in every category using that more capable and cheaper-to-maintain system. Again, actual advantage to LUS. What Cox "gets" is that it can blunt those actual advantages by pushing a strongly as it can the perception of something near to equality. LUS' task is to not let that go uncontested. The storefront will be a great forum for insistently demonstrating the local utility's advantages.
I have to hope LUS will model itself on Apple's storefronts. Slick, hightech, "cool" presentations of the best technology, coupled with a special cadre of "genuises" to answer technical questions and give reliable technology advice have made the Apple Store chain into an enormous win for Apple. Designed as much provide a reliable showcase for the company's advanced technology as to directly sell products the Apple Stores are now regularly cited as an important factor in Apple's increasing market share. It is easy to imagine an "LUS Fiber Store" (somebody needs to start the branding machine up!) that is filled with big HD flatscreens, computers, and phones all interlinked...the flatscreen serves as big display monitor, phone messages can be retrieved on the computers, caller ID that flashes on TV when the phone rings, linking in to address books on the 'puter or online to place VOIP phone calls. A few VOIP video phones for fun. Some WiFi phones for the adventurous mobile user. Demos that show how to integrate iPhones, Blackberrys, fancy PDAs into the system's hooks. Demos of cheap security cam integration. In-home wifi advice. Digital Video Recorders that you can program from work. ...I could go on here for a long time but you get the idea. These are all things that really have to be shown to be compelling. But once shown they are compelling. (I'll give up my TiVo DVR and home WiFi when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. :-) )
The storefront is a bit of a surprise to me. But I'm thrilled with the idea. I don't know that of any other muni fiber provider that is doing this (I'd be happy to be corrected) and it represents yet another way that LUS can push home its advantages.
Fun! I'd line up for the opening. ;-)