Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Fiber for all -- finally"

Stephen Handwerk's weekly opinion piece, LeftBlog, is anything but partisan this week. Instead celebrates the way the community came together to win the fiber fight. He's right about that, and has earned the right to his pride.

What might be surprising to some, is that Stephen's weekly "opponent," Don Bertrand, author of RightBlog could pretty much write the same piece. Both were active members of Lafayette Coming Together (LCT), the grassroots organization that did the groundwork for the referendum campaign. LCT was responsible for most of the visible campaign outside of Huval and Durel's own public appearances and most of the last week's television. Members walked door to door, sent mailers, ran an online video competition, cut and bought radio and print advertising, gathered endorsements, worked email lists, and in the guise of Stephen and Don, coordinated the political machines of the two local parties.

Stephen talks about the differing reasons that motivated people to get actively involved:
Some wanted to leave a better city than what they found. Others were goaded to make this leap after hearing what our city founders did with bringing electricity here. Others still were pushed into action realizing that we can and we must address the digital divide that is only fracturing our country even further.
Not a bad summary. Here's the closer:
Lafayette has a lot to be proud of, and coming together to pass this ultra progressive plan for growth is at the top of the list.
Indeed.

Fiber Doesn't Cure All Ills!

A not so gentle (ok, brutal) reminder that fiber won't cure all our sins. It'll just make 'em all arrive faster (as it will for all our virtues).

;-)


[Snake Oil, from the IND.]
Click link or image for a larger picture.

"LUS to hold public input session"

The Ind blog reports that LUS is preparing to hold "a public input session to allow interested members of the community an opportunity to share their ideas for what they would like to see the fiber system offer." Terry Huval is quoted as saying:
"This will not be a session to debate the merits of the plan," Huval says. "It is only to solicit ideas from the community."
Okay folks, this is what it means to have a public telecom utility...you get to have a say in what it does. This is precisely what we fought for. It is up to you to take advantage of the opportunity.

The broadest question is: What do we want to do with our network? What services do we wish to receive. (Beyond phone, cable, and internet.) How do you think it should be done? Early in the fight there was a lot buzz and work done on digital divide issues. The council signed onto a statement of principles concerning the city's promise to use the opportunity represented by owning our own network to help close the digital divide. How would you liked to see those ideas implemented?

Mark your calendars: the tentative time and date is
the evening of March 8 in City Hall. (Last I heard the word was that there would be at least two such meetings but there is no mention of a second here.)

The Independent on the fiber battle

The Independent's news roundup this week headlines Lafayette's victory in the state Supreme Court.

The story highlights the victory, takes a dig at Naquin, repeats the city's contention that the delay has not hurt the project and closes with a citation to Michael Dell's recent affirmation of the importance of fiber to dreams about the digital home.

On the "costs" issue:
...the almost three-year delay will actually save LCG $4 million to $5 million because the price of technology and equipment has come down. “Because of the legal battle we’re going to save money,” City-Parish President Joey Durel says.

“At the same time, the technology has gotten 10 times faster,” notes LUS Director Terry Huval. He says interest rates in that time period have remained south of 5 percent, another factor lending viability to the original business plan.

It's true that we are good to go; and it is true that we'll get a more capable system for the delay. But it is not as simply "all good, no harm" as these quotes might make it seem--and I am sure that Lafayette actually understands that. Lafayette paid a real price, and will pay a continuing price, for the obstructionism of the incumbents and their allies. In insisting on that I'm not advocating a vendetta but a good relationship with the opposition always starts with a realistic assessment of that relationship.

The (Un)Fair Competition Act will, as it was always intended to, cause unnecessary expenses, limit the financial flexibility of the utility we own in ways that the incumbents would never tolerate, introduces a thicket of regulatory rules that are so unusual they can't even all be legally monitored by the PSC, and, most astonishingly, sets a limit on how low a price LUS can give to its citizen-owners. (Wouldn't you like to write a law that limits how low your competitors can go and get the state legislature to pass it?) That law will impose continuing, unfair costs on LUS for as long as it is in place.

Clasues in that law, and unfavorable conditions agreed to by LUS in its authorizing ordinance while the courts battle hung in the balance will surely drive up the interest paid by our community. LUS would normally be able to borrow money at the lowest possible rate, given its stellar history, size and the general reliability of utility loans.

Interest will be, by far, the single largest single expense of the fiber project. While it is true that the delay will not drive interest costs above the 5.5% anticipated by the feasibility study what goes unspoken is that had BellSouth and Cox not stood in our way the bonds would have been sold into a market that was almost unbelievably cheap. The prime rate was 4% for much of 2004 and is now 8.25%. That is 4.5 points of difference. An enormous difference, over the life of the loan. I have no doubt that LUS can get the discount it needs to drive its rates lower than 5.5% but I also have no doubt that in 2004 it could have gotten a similar discount off the prime...wouldn't it be much better if our interest was at, say, 2%? That enormous difference in the cost to us and our children over the 25 years of the bond is directly attributable to incumbent delay. And, we need to clearly understand, driving up Lafayette's cost has been a goal the incumbents have pursued in the legislature and the PSC; its legal strategy contributes to that broad goal.

At this point we've also lost years of receiving a unique service and the price savings that would have accompanied it. In addition we've lost years of a headstart on the rest of the country--and on our corporate antagonists who have used the "time-out" to beef up their own systems.

So we're not getting off "even" in any sense. The costs of obstructionism have been high--and they are not nearly over. If AT&T/BS and Cox wanted to do right by the community at this late date they'd not oppose repeal of the so-called "Local Government Fair Competition Act" an unfair law that imposes continuing costs on Lafayette's now inevitable system and has curtailed the rights of all Louisiana cities. The original purpose of the law, frankly, was to prevent LUS from competing at all. When that failed the incumbents settled for making it as difficult and damaging as possible to operate in order to discourage us. That too failed. The law should go. The incumbents are hoping that we'll not carry a grudge. That's not a reasonable hope as long as the corporations continue to take unfair advantage of our community.

Not to dwell entirely on the negative: it is great that LUS' fiber will be initially speced for 1 gig intead of the 100 megs we talked about during the referendum. (That is the implication of Huval's saying that it would be 100 times as fast.) That, most had assumed, would have to be reserved for the planned upgrades several years down the road. Getting that almost as soon as it becomes commercially available will be a good thing indeed.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

WBS: "Lafayette win could have broad impact"

What's Being Said Dept.

TelephonyOnline trumpets the larger impact of Lafayette's recent court victory saying.... well, you can read it for yourself:

“This victory -- and it is a complete victory, it was a unanimous vote by the Louisiana Supreme Court – will certainly send positive spirit around Louisiana, around the U.S. and perhaps even more broadly around the world,” said Jim Baller, the Washington attorney and municipal broadband advocate. “It comes at a very important time, because the debate about where the U.S. sits in the world today and what it needs to move forward to catch up to the leading nations is beginning to gather steam.”
Other communities can take heart from Lafayette's victory:
“The Lafayette decision is very much a piece of that puzzle – the communities that are not going to be served any time soon with the kind of broadband capability that America needs are looking to communities like Lafayette to lead the way,” he said. The city’s almost three-year battle to allow its municipally owned utility service to issue bonds and build an FTTH network was met at every step by resistance from incumbent service providers BellSouth and Cox Communications, Baller said
That reference to "communities that are not going to be served anytime soon" hints at the root cause for the ongoing battle between communities and the incumbent providers that refuse to meet their needs. The very uncomfortable truth is that the incumbents are not planning to provide modern service for most of the country anytime soon (regardless of the stuff they spout during deregulatory hearings or state video franchise fights).

Baller, one of Lafayette's attorney's from the beginning, sees our victory in light of the country's falling ranking in the broadband standings:

“We don’t have the luxury of time to sit back and quarrel when the U.S. in the broadband area is significantly behind the leading broadband nations of the world,” Baller said. “Given the importance of broadband infrastructure – many things in many areas will pass us by and will be much more difficult to seize – we can’t waste time fighting. I hope this will stimulate the sense of greater cooperation between the public and private sectors that will make much more rapid strides forward possible.”

I am afraid I can't see that hope growing out of Lafyette's experience. Lafayette's experience gives little hope for cooperation. I wish it did. But the facts are that BellSouth and Cox fought us every step of the way. They fought us even though they refused to build such a network themselves. They fought us even though they knew that their bottom lines would be unmoved by our success. They fought us because the thought they were entitled to reap their profits unopposed by annoying competition and they fought us in order to discourage others from following our lead.

It is an illusion that the phone and cable companies can be convinced to sacrifice a single dollar to serve our national interest -- any more than they could be convinced to sacrifice a single dollar to let Lafayette do for ourselves what they refused to do for us.

If a small city deep in southern Louisiana can defy the corporations and win just imagine what the Congress could do for this country if it showed a little backbone.

What Lafayette proved was the value of standing up for yourself instead of folding.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Round Two?

Bill Decker has published one of his occasional commentaries on the LUS fiber project. Decker has matured, going from a rabid opponent to one who has, intermittently, sounded like a reluctant proponent. This morning's offering is "Round one in fiber fight goes to LUS; round two up next." The underlying take, as Decker sees it, is that LUS may have (finally) secured the right to enter into competition (round one) but that actual competition (round two) is another matter--and that Cox, in particular, is going to be a competitor.

I think there has be a better metaphor out there than the boxing one. In boxing there is considerable effort put into making sure that the fight is a fair one. It's hard to imagine a boxing commission, for instance, that would allow one of the dominant heavyweights to compose and bring to them a re-written set of rules that would forbid a new bantam-weight from even getting into the game. Even if the heavyweight said the newcomer had an unfair advantage because he was light and quick. The commission would laugh heavyweight out of the room and tell him the bantam-weight was no threat to his standing. It's hard to imagine that they'd do as our state government did and "compromise" by letting the bantam-weight fight but insisting that he wear heavy ankle and wrist weights tied together by "light" bungie cords to compensate for his "advantage" in the upcoming battles. (But then boxing commissions have some sense of fairness.)

However, Decker is right to say that we are entering a new phrase. And right to cite Kutztown as a one example of what we might expect in the future. (See earlier LPF entries on the town: 1, 2, 3) Kutztown is not even a bantamweight; at 5000 people small it couldn't rate higher than
Minimumweight. But it turns out that size is not the real issue—customer trust and loyalty are. Kutztown has succeeded admirably even in the face of what seems like the open and shut case of predatory pricing described in Decker's commentary. It now has a healthy locally-owned telecom utility that saves its township beaucoup money every year.

Kurtztown demonstrates that the little guy can be successful if it gets community support. But there's more to look forward based on looking at Kutztown than the business not failing or even saving their subscribers a chunk of change. And a chunk of change it is--over one 3 year period little Kutztown saved its townfolk $400,000 dollars over what others nearby were paying. That's not just money that stays in local pockets--its is also money that is much more likely to be spent locally--money that does not drain wealth toward some corporate center.

Unfortunately, Decker, even while offering us the evidence we need to assure ourselves that it is possible to radically undercut the incumbent's monopoly pricing doesn't seem to have much faith in our much larger town's ability to match little Kutztown. He says:

LUS clings to its original claim that it can offer phone, Internet and some level of TV service for $85 a month. Even if we build in a 25 percent government bull factor, the LUS fiber services would be very competitive with those offered by Cox, maybe a little less so with BellSouth's rates.

So talk up, turn on and log in. Let slip the dogs of war. If you get a good deal, get it long-term, and get it in writing.

I've got more faith in Lafayette than that. I'm uncertain, on the basis of the evidence that he himself presents, as to what funds Decker's lack of faith.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

From the Horses' Mouths

One of the nicer things about the new media/multimedia is that you can relatively easily get to the raw source of some stories--if the reporting medium makes it available you can go directly to the horse's mouth. Sometimes you might even see something that wasn't widely reported--like the idea that now that the fiber battle is settled we might get wireless even before the fiber build is done. (See the Durel video linked to below.)

The Advertiser is haltingly, but more and more consistently offering us sources as well as their version of the story. I've pointed to this in a recent bit about Mardi Gras--there it allowed the reader/user/interpreter (what will we call ourselves?) to construct a sense of what Mardi Gras means to different locals in a way that writing just won't cover.

The fiber story de jour is the Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for the FTTH project to proceed. You can read the Advertiser's articles on it. But you can also look at some of the source material.

Most obviously: They provide access to a pdf copy of the Court's decision. Download, read the thirty pages, and be grateful that you don't have to do it for a living. Digging into the details will allow you access to rare gems. For instance the Chief Justice drops a footnote, number 11, which uses a quote from BellSouth Louisiana president Bill Oliver speaking in USAToday to support the court's contention that the Local Government Fair Competition Act was intended to allow LUS to form a competing business. Judical Snark? Seems so to me. A nugget of humor in tangle of words.

But even more fun, and potentially informing in subtle ways are the short videos of some of the principles take right after the decison was rendered:
Dee Stanley on "putting your money where your mouth is."

Joey Durel...about the decision: "it's a slam dunk" and, of anonymous critics: "their motives are not pure." A short scan of the administrative team giving hugs all around is moving. But the really interesting quote from this interview is: "my guess is that we will probably be wireless before we get fiber; there's a good chance of that." Now that, for many of us, is news- news that didn't make the printed version. Durel had moments earlier acknowledged that wireless is "only as good as the backbone it is attached to" and he claims that a wireless play has been held up by the behavior of "the obstructionists."

Pat "the man" Ottinger..."we are very, very happy."

Terry Huval..."Lafayette won."
There's something about seeing 'em say it. And sometimes you notice something important that didn't get widely reported-- like the news about wireless.

"Fiber victory gives Durel boost"

One of today's stories--it appears on the front page of the Sunday newspaper--is more about the next mayoral race than it is about fiber. The gist is that the court victory gives Durel a leg up in his first re-election bid and the subtext is that maybe he's doing so well he doesn't need it.

Prevailing in the long-fought fiber battle "is the tallest feather in Joey Durel's cap," Cross said.

But even if the state Supreme Court had ruled against LUS, it probably would not have been enough of a failure to hurt Durel's re-election bid, he said.

No two ways about it—the fiber campaign has been the defining issue of Durel's tenure. Durel ran as a Republican "reform" candidate and was backed by some of the city's most powerful power brokers. That got him elected but it didn't, couldn't, unify the community enough to make him a powerful and effective mayor in his own right.

The downside to running as the business/Republican candidate is that, even among the moderate wing of your own voters, that support and stance raises inevitable concerns that in office the interests of the few and powerful will be served and fears that ideology rather than the good of the community will rule decisions.

Early mistakes on budgetary and symbolic matters heightened concerns. (The suggestion that the city rename Louisiana Ave., one of the most trafficked streets on the predominately black north side after the failed Confederate general, Johnson--now, really.) The fiber initiative, undertaken in his fourth month has served to redefine Durel...and one suspects that the experience has been to some degree transformative; abstract beliefs may well have been tempered by practical experience. —Durel is now willing to define himself as "a progressive Republican."

Even running an honest, open administration will only go so far in countering such suspicions--the fiber campaign and Durel's willingness to get out in front of his power base in support of fiber and to defy large corporations in uncompromising, arguably populist terms has gone a long way toward defusing that sort of low-level distrust. It is no longer credible to worry that Joey Durel will be mindlessly ideological or incapable of following a star to which the local king-makers haven't given prior approval. Nor can anyone think that Durel is unwilling to take political risks to achieve things he thinks are valuable for the community. In retrospect winning a battle against Cox and BellSouth seems quite possible. We tend to forget that going into that combat history showed that the incumbents almost always found a way to turn their money and influence into victory. Many, even most, of the sage, wise heads thought it couldn't be done--and hence were late to the party. Durel went on without them and in spite of them. And in the end Lafayette won against all the bets of all the oddsmakers.

For long months he and Terry Huval were the highly visible leaders of a Lafayette genuinely unified against a dauntingly powerful set of opponents. And the city won. The fiber referendum came largely down to trust and Lafayette decided that it didn't trust Cox and BellSouth--and that it trusted Joey and Terry. That battle defined Joey as an independent, capable of forging his own path and allying across divisive lines to achieve good things for his community.

That sort of trust is hard to earn.

Those things last.

Ediorial: "Fiber project finally can go forward"

Today's Sunday editorial experessing relief that the fiber project can now go forward is another in a series of strong supportive ediorials from the Advertiser. (The Advertiser's initial endorsement series was a model for how editorial endorsements should be done: it expressed a strong, reasoned position and followed it in the subsequent days with fact-filled analyses of the major issues of involved. Powerful stuff.)

Highlights:

The FTTH vision is of an infrastructure for the high-tech world of the future, when the movement of information will be as much a focus of business and industry - or more so - than the movement of cargo on today's air, rail and highway transportation infrastructure.

...the transfer of information will be a priority of businesses looking for places to locate or expand operations. The FTTH plan will draw them to Lafayette.

That will mean more good-paying jobs and a better quality of life for our people...

Staying abreast of the technology should not be a problem. Lafayette has experts in all phases of telecommunications technology. There is a rich field from which to draw...

The plan is on a fast track now. Three years after the first customers are connected, the LUS fiber services - cable television, telephone and high speed Internet - should be available to all residents...

The facts are clear. The electorate supports the project. The courts have found no legal basis for stopping it. Lafayette now can move forward in giant steps toward accelerated economic growth and technological leadership.

Good stuff.

But there is a bit of revisionist history in the editorial and my old history teacher self feels obliged to note it--the Advertiser now claims that it supported the fiber project "from the beginning." Would that were so. In fact the first few comments were anything but supportive with phrases like “What’s next? A five-year plan? A hall of socialist labor heroes?” In fact the daily, like the Chamber, came late to the party, endorsing only after community support had firmed up. In this vital battle neither were early leaders, however valuable their final contribution.

"City, LUS launch work on fiber-to-the-home project"

Well, heck... in yesterday's rush I missed a very informative story in the Adverstiser. (I had meetings and family all day.) Mea culpa!

If you missed it too, go back and dig it up. It's a very satisfying story to read in that it covers the flurry of activity that ensued as soon as the fiber plan was approved by the court.

In a nutshell:
Employees hit the ground running Friday morning, while City-Parish President Joey Durel fielded telephone calls congratulating him on the fiber victory.
There's a grab bag of interesting points:

•• Ottinger too thinks it unlikely that any request for a rehearing will be made--on the grounds that it wouldn't likely be successful. Of course, being seccessful in their myriad legal hassles hasn't really been the point; delay has been. But the time when the obstructionist nature of their game can be denied is over. Neither the lawyers, nor Naquin, nor the incumbents that many think behind this as well as an earlier string of lawsuits are likely to have the stomach for the sort of rude dismissal that the court is reputed to be capable of--a dismissal which would underline again that these lawsuits have never been about substance but about delay and trying to get the courts to agree to anticompetitive measures the legislature never intended. (The ones the legislature did intend are bad enough; the incumbent's law still badly needs repealing.)

•• Huval says they might not go for the entire bond cost:
...CCG Consulting, which conducted the feasibility study, is updating his numbers to determine how much in bonds LUS needs for the fiber initiative, Huval said. It will probably be about $110.5 million or less, he said.
Now that's surprising and exhibits a certain confidence that the cost barriers that Cox and BellSouth have institutd in the (Un)Fair law won't delay the pay-back schedule suggested by the feasibility study. Not selling the whole amount that the people authorized would be to forgo a cushion that will be hard to get in any other way. Perhaps (and I don't know) the remainder of the bonds authorized can be sold later should need arise but there would be a political price to pay at that point that might be prohibitive. I do like confidence, however.

•• The hardware issues are being looked at, the requests for proposals are being drawn up, and you can know with certainty that the vendors are flocking in to make their pitches. LUS has committed to public forums that are intended to discover what we, the public, want in a system. Those desires might well have an impact on the eventual technical specs of the system so I'm looking for an early announcement of such forums to clear the way for the detailed technical work.

•• Cox says this "changes nothing in terms of its ability..." to compete. Sheerest Nonsense. Denial is not a river in Africa.

•• Mayor Durel cautions against taking any long-term contracts with the incumbents. I can see what he means; a tactic of the incumbents has been to try and lock up customers before local competition begins--even to the extent of hiring door-to-door salesmen, an expensive tactic seldom seen these days. I don't see why you shouldn't let these folks spin out their spiel--and then calmly offer to accept those juicy terms if the contract end date can be set to be the month before LUS is expected in your neighborhood. Reap the benefits of competition and the go directly to the hometown boys. (Do keep track of that end date, though, you'll not want to miss out on any of the fun.)

The ball is rolling now and a different set of games are being played out. Good. The delay game had gotten real old.

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.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Earth to Cox: Denial is not a river in Africa

The Advertiser posts excerpts from a recent Cox Press Release to their website under the title "Cox: LUS court decision ‘changes nothing’"

The full quote from which the phrase is pulled:
“Yesterday’s decision changes nothing in terms of Cox’s ability and willingness to compete in the city of Lafayette and throughout the Acadiana and Baton Rouge regions,”
That's either denial or bluster. Yesterday's decision changes everything for Cox. It dramatically effects their ability to compete. It means that in less than 2 years Cox will go from having the most capable network in Lafayette to being an also-ran with a technology decades behind a homeboy competitor that has already received a majority endorsement by the citizenry.

The bluster that this "changes nothing" is belied by phrases used in the very press release that denies any changes are taking place: Cox is now describing its perfectly conventional Hybrid Fiber-Coax as--and I qoute--an: "
existing state-of-the-art fiber network." That goes beyond bluster and marketing to the flat-out deception that we grew used to during the height of the battle in the year before the referendum. HFC is NOT a state-of-the-art fiber network. No one uses the terminology that way. Cox's technicians know better. Only some advanced version of Fiber To The Home (FTTH) can qualify for the title. What is revealing about this pitable attempt to cover itself in undeserved glory is that it demonstrates that Cox knows 1) that the people of Lafayette want a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network and 2) knows that since it doesn't have one to offer it needs to pretend that it does. Cox spent several years trying to convince us that we didn't need fiber and now it deceptively claims that is what it had all along.

That is a lie, and an obvious one.

That the current market-leader Cox feels the need to make it is all the evidence one needs that things have, indeed, changed.

The AP & the T-P pick up the story

The Times-Picayune in New Oreans has picked up an AP story on Lafayette's win in the fiber-optic battle.

Pull Quote:

The court also threw out a large portion of Naquin's arguments, saying her suit had been filed past the 60-day hard and fast deadline to challenge bond issuances passed through an election.

That's the first reaction beyond our media market. I expect many more....this is news far beyond our borders.

"LUS wins fiber-optic fight"

"Lafayette Utilities System is free to begin its much-debated and long-delayed plan to bring low-cost phone, cable and high-speed Internet to homes and businesses in the city, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday."
That is the way the Advocate story this morning opens up. Its coverage focuses on decision itself, the history of the lawsuit, and the distinctions the Court made in overturing the 3rd Circuit. On the Appeals Court mistake:

The 3rd Circuit should have ruled that the cross-subsidization prohibitions in the Fair Competition Act should be viewed separately from other provisions that allow governments to pledge those resources to secure bonds, according to the ruling.

The Legislature meant the cross-subsidization rules to apply only after LUS had started providing services, the court ruled.

How to pay off the bonds is dealt with in a separate section of the law and one portion of the law allows for LUS to help pay for its system with loans, as long as those loans are paid back with “market-rate” interest, the court ruled.

“The opinion fully embraces all of the arguments which we have advanced from day one,” City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger said in a news release.

On the path forward:

LUS has been preparing for months for this day, Huval said. It will be meeting with its financial and bond experts today to lay the groundwork for proceeding, Huval said.

The delays have been frustrating, but they’ve not hurt the nuts and bolts of the project first laid out in a 2004 feasibility study, Huval said.

The cost of technology has decreased significantly since then and interest rates are lower than what was initially projected, Huval said.

On the technology decision; the first of the points which need to be settled to begin concrete planning:
LUS will also start finalizing its decisions on exactly what specific type of technology it will use for the project, so that it can hire an engineer to lay out the system in preparation for construction, Huval said.
That's an interesting suggestion, and one that is due some community and not merely technical consideration. The technology used will have a strong influence on both the entreprenual and digital divide potential of the system we build. It will shape what we do with it by making some tasks easy and some harder.

We've seen in various interviews with public oficials a lot of (well-deserved) praise for this community and its resilience and steadiness during the fiber fight. The people of Lafayette refused to be panicked by threats; they didn't allow themselves to be cowed by the power of their opponents or mislead by the confident nonsense they spouted. They've earned the right to be talked to plainly about the positives and negatives of say PON architectures--and proved they can be counted on to grasp the essentials.

We are, at this moment, beyond the defensive stage of this project. It will be hard to shift gears (least of all for me!) but now is the moment for openness, inclusion, and conversation.

Let's get on with it: time's a wasting.

"LUS wins fiber fight"

The Advertiser, in "LUS wins fiber fight," focuses its coverage this morning on reaction, both public and official, to yesterday's victory at the state Supreme Court.

The story also offers a succinct overview of the decision itself, highlighting the crucial error made by the 3rd Circuit of failing to separate the building and operating stages of the fiber project. The Court held that the 3rd Circuit erred in applying constraints set on cross-subsidization of operating expenses to the building phase.

Reaction included the note that the ruling in favor of Lafayette's project means an end to bond challenges according to City Attorney Ottinger:
...Ottinger said Thursday that no additional lawsuits challenging the bond ordinance can be filed because the time for doing so has expired.
Greg Gautreaux, of LEDA, naturally enough emphasizes economic development promoting Lafayette as testbed for new ideas and projects.

Reaction from beyond downtown came from Stephen Handwerk who said that Lafayette would become
"branch location" for Hollywood and that "They're going to come here now."

Walter Guillory insisted that digital divide issues, a central selling point in planning for a fiber-optic network not be forgotten saying "
he plans on holding officials to those promises."

Richard Warren was qouted as a member of the Lafayette grassroots organization central to the referendum battle, Lafayette Coming Together (Stephen Handwerk and Walter Guillory were members as well) focused on opportunity:

[Warren] said he hopes entrepreneurs benefit from the fiber initiative.

But more importantly is that low-income residents have affordable access to high-speed Internet, particularly for educational purposes, Warren said.

Its' a new day. The next task is to decide how to build and what to do with our new system. That sounds like a lot more fun than the battle we've been engaged in.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Media Roundup on Supreme Court Win (2-22)

Advertiser:
“It means that Lafayette gets to lead Louisiana into the future,” said City-Parish President Joey Durel.
Advocate:

LUS successfully defended its plan at the state district court level but lost when Naquin appealed to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

LUS appealed to the state Supreme Court, which issued a unanimous ruling Thursday that the 3rd Circuit had erred in its decision.

City-Parish President Joey Durel said his administration is still studying the ruling, but at first glance it appears that “we get to finally start doing what we started three years ago.”

KATC:
"We get to start putting our packet together to go sell bonds and bring the greatest communication technology available in the world to the citizens of Lafayette," said City-Parish President Joey Durel.
Both KLFY and KATC promised more at 10:00-----

Update:
KLFY:
"Thursday may be called one the most important days in the history of Lafayette."
The KLFY page has a link to a movie. If you are a Mac or Linux user the weird, broken, proprietary javascript (NOT your system) prevents you from using their video. Unwrapping the stuff it calls reveals the real URL http://www.klfy.com/Global/Video/WorldnowASX.asp?os=mac&vt=v&clipid=1257063 Pasting the URL directly into Windows Media Player works best. (The tech guys at KLFY really ought to be embarassed. Fixes for this are as simple as giving the users you refuse to adequately serve a direct link.)


City Attorney Ottinger on the Decision

Congratulations where congratulations are due: Lafayette's legal team pulled this one out for the home team. The unanimity and strength of the court's decision in favor of Lafayette's legal arguments has made it clear that it was the 3rd Circuit, not Lafayette's legal eagles, that were out of the loop.

Here's a relevant extract from Pat Ottinger's press release:

"We are obviously elated by the unanimous decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The opinion fully embraces all of the arguments which we have advanced from day one. As we have argued before, most of the arguments were brought too late, but the Court went further than that and held that those arguments, even if considered, were not valid. The Court held that the city’s bond ordinance comported fully with applicable law."

It's a good day for Lafayette! (And a bad day for corporate shysters.)

FLASH: LUS WINS!!!! Supreme Court Rules in Lafayette's favor!

Victory!!!

A unanimous ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court allows Lafayette to get its long delayed project underway.

This was the last legal impediment to Lafayette selling the bonds that will allow the project to begin. The deadline for challenging the present ordinance has passed. Once bond sales are made constitutional provisions make the basic project unstoppable.

We have won!

(Media roundups and LPF analysis to follow!)

Time Out: Carnival in Lafayette

Occasionally, often around Mardi Gras (1, 2) or Festival (1, 2) I take a little time-out from fiber and tech-related issues to post a little something about the community and culture for which we are fighting. While Lafayette Pro Fiber is an unreservedly local outlet, our "battle of the bayous" has attracted a loyal and helpful readership with regular correspondents strung between California and Amsterdam. They put up with our no-doubt obscure references and tediously involved local stories to get to the information that is meaningful to them. Every so often it seem fair to let 'em in on some of the exciting and interesting local stuff. This entry is dedicated to them and, of course, those folks who make the Mardi Gras.

Yes, Mardi Gras. I've never tried depict Mardi Gras here. Not the real Mardi Gras. That thing you see on MTV and Fox News and that all America and the world knows all about because they've seen on TV it is faux. Whatever expression of a genuine cultural moment that Mardi Gras in the Quarter once had (as late-adolescent ritual moment of time-bounded "wildness" in a culture that is fundamentally more Creole than American) has been absorbed into an American fantasy of licentiousness. As a fantasy it is disturbingly revealing of a persistent puritan psyche and a mass media shaped by what products of that psyche finds fascinating. But it doesn't tell you much about Louisiana's native cultures or the role a real Mardi Gras plays in them.

I can't do that either.

I could natter on about traditions of mocking the powerful and satirizing power and sexual roles by inverting them. I could point to the idea that a cycle of excess and restoration once seemed as natural as spring being followed by summer. I could claim that the suppression of the idea that everything had a season and its replacement by the belief that self-control is an absolute virtue is one peculiarly Puritan idea that is both unattainable and arrogantly unattractive. But that wouldn't tell you much either.

Luckily the Advertiser has posted an amazingly rich body of material to their website that gives the patient reader-viewer a chance at generating a little insight.

What's more pouring through the archives is fun and a bit challenging -- and challenging our self-perception is what Mardi Gras really does best. I've linked to some suggestive material in my brief rambling on Mardi Gras below. I think most folks who aren't from Southern Louisiana will find them...alien... and a lot harder to understand than drunkenness and voyeurism.

Real Mardi Gras marks a transition from the revelry of Mardi Gras to the reflection of Ash Wednesday. The ending is inevitable and community leaders, even in cities like Lafayette are expected to ritually acknowledge it. The parades are a tradition--not just a spectacle. But they are far from the only tradition. The rural run, the courir, is storied and over-analyzed but the medieval resonances and the overtones of something more than mere mischievousness are real. Making private resources communal points to something the dominant modern economic ideologies find quite strange. Costuming is an essential part of the season. Being someone or something else, losing your "real" self is part of the moment. Costuming traditions are very local--sometimes as local as the family itself. In my neighborhood in North Lafayette a distinctive masking tradition in the black community is "the Mardi Gras"--"tribes" of people who dress in very distinctive and concealing suits made of cardboard boxes and crepe paper, usually in two colors. That tradition is often associated with the more famous New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians and the flash and feathers of that tradition has come to Lafayette in recent years.

There's more to explore, much more--have fun with the index. (Scroll down the page, look to the right, the material is there, just not very well organized.) Try to grok the balls. Take a look a the Krewe des Cheins. There's a world of weirdness down here. And we hope to keep it that way.

Thanks to all that have supported us in the fight.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"Fiber costs city $3.5M"

Well the Advertiser has decided to write up the story that Durel announced last week: that the cost of supporting the fiber to the home project against the opposition of Cox, BellSouth, and those few citizens that supported the corporations has accounted for most of the 3.5 million spent to date.

Lafayette Pro Fiber reported on this last week, when Durel included the basic information in his state of city address. The Advertiser story on the address didn't mention this topic then; presumably they didn't want to dilute the dramatic effect of this story.

The article also covers savings due to lower Cox rates and benefits due to new jobs already gained but neglects to add up the results for the reader. Those gains would mean putting the 3.5 million in costs to the city against the 13.4 million in savings and new salaries injected into the community. That comparison, available only to readers who did the math, is pretty convincing in making Durel's basic point. Beyond that the Advertiser neglects to mention Durel's larger claim that to get the true value of the new income it should be multiplied (as is common when talking about private investments). That would have raised the contrast to a surprising "30, 40, 50 million" in yearly gains against a one-time 3.5 million in costs. Of course, thinking it through like that doesn't make for nearly as dramatic a front-page story.

Durel's claims transform the story into one in which the real issue is not about costs--that was story the Advertiser had intended with it breathless "Not a strand of fiber-optic line has been buried. Not a single customer is receiving Internet, telephone or television service" introduction. Such an introduction is intended to set up the interpretation that we got nothing for our money. That was the "exciting" story that was originally intended. Unfortunately for the paper Durel nicely moved the story to a cost-benefit analysis and took the punch out of the story. He got his defining licks in before they went to press and if you read the story carefully you can see that the author is a bit irked by how it all played out. The author lays out the timeline very carefully laid out; the reader is told exactly when each player made their move and the clear implication is that the city and LUS are engaged in defensive maneuvering. (Frankly, I don't doubt that is the case. There seems to be a pretty deep unwillingness on the part of LCG and LUS to engage in public discussion of potentially uncomfortable issues. That makes them vulnerable to suspicions like the one this article tries to raise. Given the nature of the opposition that is understandable. But not wise.)

But the media story is a sidelight, really.

What the current article usefully adds to our understanding of the city project is a list of who received the money, which is quite interesting--but not particularly surprising if you've followed the fight closely. The list can be roughly divided into engineering-planning, legal, and political costs. What is interesting is the relative size of those pies and the way the players divided them up.

Engineering-Planning: $1,646,720
The R. W. Beck consultancy has been the big, quite, behind-the-scenes player through all this. They do engineering and planning specializing in electric utilities--they were involved in developing the electrical plant that went online in 2005. Their engineering expertise is not all they sell and in this instance may not be the most of it. They also sell management and financial expertise--the nitty gritty of how to organize and run a new business. Beck does not appear to have much in the way of telecom expertise, hence the presence of CCG in the planning lineup. One might think that the 1.65 million in this category would have been spent regardless of the opposition. But that isn't really true; delays and "redos" have raised these costs. Beck, for instance, did a second feasibility study to satisfy legally imposed requirements that wouldn't have been necessary without incumbent opposition.

Legal and Political
A quick look at the list at the Advertiser reminds the reader of the various phases of the fiber fight. Baller Herbst is a national firm that gives both political and legal advice and has been "in" since the beginning. Spiegel and McDiarmid are national and deal with federal regulatory matters. (Remember when there was some talk of Lafayette opposing the BellSouth/AT&T merger--but that got dropped in return for BellSouth promising not to sue--which only got us the Eastin-Naquin suit...hmmn.) Kean Miller defended LUS when the incumbents tried the "cross-subsidization" argument at the Public Service Commission and lost. (This is the same logic that the Supreme Court is currently reviewing. It is something of a pattern for the incumbents to 'shop venues' for their nutty interpretations.) The Graham Group handled the money for the television "air war" during the fiber referendum and hired political consultants at that time. Haynie and Associates is the famous lobbyist Randy Haynie, hired to defend Lafayette from further attack in the legislature. That, and fees for the election all seem "political" to me, even when it is law firms doing the legislative and regulatory lobbying.

Legal affairs evoke a similar story of the lawsuit portion of the fiber fight with various firms involved in different of the myriad lawsuits filed by the incumbents or their minions. It's been a long row to hoe, folks.

And whose fault is it?
An implicit question is how should "blame" for all these costs be accessed. The article implies that some of the legal and political costs are assignable to Lafayette and some to the incumbents. As I read it those costs should all be assigned to the incumbents. The first move in all this was theirs: they went down to Baton Rouge in the middle of the legislative session, gutted a bill that would have done something good and inserted a lobbyist-written bill in its place. That bill eventually became the Local Government (un)Fair Competition act and NONE of the ensuing lawsuits, jockeying at the legislature, or battles in the Public Service Commission would have been necessary without it. Before that law Lafayette, and every other Louisiana city could have made its own decision about starting a telecom utility without the "help" of their big brothers in the state house.

Cox and BellSouth wanted to block competition and they went to the Louisiana Legislature to pursue that goal. Without that anti-competitive urge to involve the state in supporting their monopoly profits there would have been NO further cost to the people of Lafayette.

Every penny of the subsequent 2 million or so in costs should be laid to their feet.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Advertiser Does Video--and more

Sometimes what you are looking for appears right under your feet. The Advertiser is quietly takng real steps to implement downloadable video. Right chere in river city, cher. And they are doing a pretty credible job of it too, even if the bandwidth and the interface to the material is pretty seriously lacking. They're even smart enough to be focusing on what's truly local (e.g. the weather and Mardi Gras).

If they get really smart they'll rent themselves a big chunk of LUS' forthcoming fiber to the home network, stream hi-res video and photos, hire some smart editor/designers, partner with Google's new local advertising initiative and figure out how to make money on the internet with local content. But more on that later.

You think YouTube is last word in short video content or that Flicker is all she spoke for interesting photography? Take a look at what the Advertiser is producing and be pleasantly surprised. The recent tornadoes have kicked over a pretty amazing little series of videos on the Advertiser site. Photographic images of Mardi Gras balls and parades have been similarly impressive.

Example tornadoes: 1) 90 year old victim, no insurance; 2) low key rendition of a truly frightening experience, and there are many more available from the sidebar of a recent story. These are real, interesting, and valuable to the community. Part of what is impressive about these shorts is that they are well-composed and the audio is pretty good. Someone put some training and thought into these--they're not just random shots or interview afterthoughts. They're short but they are composed stories.

Example Mardi Gras: 1) The Krewe of Apollo ball (a short peek at one end of the glitterati spectrum; but there is a larger gallery), 2) the Krewe des Amis ball (a different end of the spectrum) 3) Another spectrum altogether: royalty of the Krewe des Cheins, the Krewe des Cheins on parade, and 4) The Rio Parade 5) Lafayette Mardi Gras, Inc. Now that, taken together, is a picture of Mardi Gras that is at once more realistic and more interesting than you'll get on MTV or any of the national media.

All this media occasionally comes together in some pretty impressive ways. Even if the reader has to stretch to construct it. An example might be the recent story on Patricia Rickels. There's the story, a set of audio pieces from a sidebar, e.g. #1, a (hard to find) photo gallery, and a full, footnoted written transcript. Very nice.

Just for Fun...Laigniappe

Great stuff, no?

But you probably didnn't know that any of that grand material exists. In fair part that's because they verge on impossible to get to in any consistent manner. The main access points are in boxes found on the right hand side of some stories that use teeny-tiny type to link to bare-bones video the size of business cards or MP3 bars floating on a gray field. The photos are too small to reveal interesting detail. The sidebars only point to material related to the story at hand and the one "central" location clearly doesn't provide a path to the full library. Improving the interface, making it more attractive, making it searchable, integrating it better into stories, and providing a consistent framework would go a long way toward making this the popular community resource it deserves to be.

Now, be aware that these goodies can't be credited to some sort of Lafayette-based tech innovation inspired by something the city fathers put in the gumbo. Gannett is, by all reports, the most aggressive of all the national paper chains in its attempt to move its paper online and to make its content "hyperlocal."

(An aside: the nifty content this post is concerned with is but one element of the top-down changes associated with Gannett's new corporate strategy. Have you wondered about the left wing/right wing blogs that suddenly appeared? The new crop of, well, odd commentators? The Youngsville/Duscon/Broussard weekly material? The calls for reader photos and content? All traceable to Gannett's attempt to stem the systematic loss of readership that dailies have been plauged with for the last two decades. You can read up on it if you like: Gannett To Change Its Papers' Approach; A Newspaper Chain Sees Its Future, And It's Online and Hyper-Local.)

While better organization and a little inspired interface work could go a long way toward making some damn good content accessible and valuable the truth is that the small videos and the tiny photographs are not only small--they download frustratingly slowly. What is needed to make this content compelling is not simply a better interface. What is needed is enough bandwidth to use as a starting point.

The Advertiser/Gannett and LUS ought to consider a little mutual benefit pact. LUS provides some monster bandwidth for city customers and the Advertiser offers some lush monster video and photo files to match. LUS needs applications that show off its competitive advantage in bandwidth. Gannett needs to find a way to turn a pile of files into a profitable local news site before time runs out and newspapers vanish.

Their interests meet in a news application that is second to none running over a network that can't be matched.

Wouldn't that be fun?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Durel's State of the City: Fiber & Wireless

I sat through the "State of the City" address this afternoon. The headline in tomorrow's papers will doubtless be about "Safe Lafayette" plan (which, Joey hastened to say, didn't mean that anyone should think that Lafayette wasn't safe now). That and plans to increase funding for roads received top billing in the addresss.

But if that was what you wanted to read about right now you wouldn't be reading Lafayette Pro Fiber. So yes, the mayor did talk about fiber and even mentioned LUS' recent wireless RFP.

"Let’s talk Fiber:" was the way that part of the speech started. Laying into "obstructionists that don’t care about Lafayette or the will of the people"--by which Durel meant Cox, AT&T/BS and their legal minions--he said that they had forced Lafayette to spend the better part of the $3.5 million that Lafayette has laid out so far. But the cost was money well spent according to Durel:
Based on cable rate increases in Baton Rouge that we didn’t experience here for two years, we saved this community $3 million. That is a savings all cable customers enjoyed, even if they voted against our initiative. Competition is good for the consumer and we have proven it.
Durel's right there--and also mentioned in the rest of the Acadiana region had benefited as well since they were locked into pricing structures based on Lafayette's. (That has since changed--Lafayette is now yoked into a Baton Rouge-Acadiana framework and it will be hard to raise or lower prices in one municipality without pulling all the others along with it.)

He also touted the job-creating capacity of the city demonstrating its progressive side saying:
We have already created jobs. I mentioned NuComm earlier. 578 new employees are already on board, with an average pay + benefits of $18,000 a year. That equates to $10.4 million a year economic impact without using any of the usual multipliers.

I said earlier, the CEO told me that our fiber to the premise initiative played a huge role in their decision to locate in Lafayette. When I said that we didn’t even have it yet, his response was “the fact that your community is embracing technology so aggressively was important to us.”
The mulitiplier effect is real and has been an issue on the forum before. In the spoken version of his speech Durel mentioned that taking the mulitipliers into account would up the total to "30, 40, 50 milllion dollars." That's in line with conventional wisdom though I've seen higher ratios numbers used to justify the public subsidy of some private enterprises. It's worth spinning out the math: a 10.4 million payroll plus a 3 million savings to city residents alone yields a minimum of 13.4 million additional dollars circulating in Lafayette. Take a modest multiplier effect of 4X and you get $54.6 million dollars a year as a rough estimate of the yearly wealth increase of the local economy.

$54.6 million dollars. Every year. Add it all up and pretty soon you get real money. And that is before we've actually got a strand of fiber in place. Imagine what real competition will do toward lowering prices and staunching the wealth drain to Atlanta that every AT&T or Cox bill represents. Imagine what a few more businesses that make use of high-grade telecommunications would do to that figure. And that is all before we get to quality of life rewards, digital divide benefits, educational benefits, or the entrepreneurial potential of a full-fledged fiber system.

Durel claimed:
So, just the hope of our bringing fiber has had a tremendous benefit to our community. The legal battle has been some of the best marketing dollars we could have ever spent.
Here applause started to drown out his speech and he slowed down but the Mayor had in mind a more rousing close to this section of the speech. He pushed on:
The money we have spent is an investment in our future! So, I ask you today: Should we continue the fight for Lafayette!?
He got the applause he was looking for even though the timing was a bit off and closed with:
Thank you, I have my marching orders!
Not bad.

The mayor mentioned one silver lining to the long legal delay: Durel said that the cost of the project had fallen by 8 million dollars due to "the maturing of the industry." It's been clear that equipment costs are falling and some claim installation costs are falling as well so it's interesting to see a number put to projected savings. Eight million, that's nice; it amounts to something in the neighborhood of a 6.5% savings.


Wireless? Oh yeah, wireless. It got mentioned but only in the context of LUS operations, governmental efficiency, public safety, and first responder issues. No hints on the possibility of a public wifi network. Oh well.

(If you'd like to look at the written version of the speech in its entirety you can find it at the LCG website.)

Action item: US House, the FCC, & Lafayette

Here's another chance to show some good citizenship moxie. Write or call your Federal House member and urge them, not the FCC bureaucracy, to make federal telecomm policy. Louisiana even has an "in" on the subcommittee overseeing the FCC' s behavior: Charlie Melancon. And, of course, urge your representatives to vote against the phone companies' attempts to federalize cable franchising and for bills that would forbid states outlawing municipal broadband networks.

This week the news from Congress is all about every member's five minutes of squirming as they stand before the cameras and try and articulate a position on Bush's Iraq policy. But that thunder is all about a non-binding resolution that may (may) have symbolic value but certainly has no immediate practical effect.

But at the same time Congress members will speaking in nearly empty chambers actual work will be taking place in the back halls. One meeting that will be important for those of us in Louisiana and Lafayette will be a grilling of the FCC this Thursday by the House Commerce Committee. The list of national issues is long but locally we are particularly interested in the FCC's recent attempt to take it upon themselves to reduce local communities property rights in order to benefit the bottom lines of 3 or 4 of the world's largest phone corporations.

Readers will recall a similar Senate hearing recently for which LPF asked it readers to write and call David Vitter, who sits on that Commerce Committee and detail on this issue can be found in that post. In a nutshell: "At stake for you: millions of dollars in local revenues, access to truly local channels like AOC, protection against your neighborhood being "redlined" out of new technologies if it's not rich enough, and the principle of local control of locally-owned resources."

Lafayette's congressman shows little interest or aptitude for technology issues but luckily for South Louisiana Congressman Melancon of the neighboring third Congressional district does and he he's got himself a crucial vice chair position on the subcommittee oversees the FCC. When Commerce Committee Chair Dingell decides to go after the FCC (and all signs are that he will) Mr. Melancon will at the center of any ensuing battles. Here's what the National Journal has to say about the new chair:
Last year, during the protracted battle over Republican-backed telecommunications legislation, Dingell came out swinging against AT&T, BellSouth (now part of AT&T) and Verizon Communications, as they sought to eliminate local franchise restrictions and prevent regulation of their growing high-speed Internet businesses.
In fact, that legislation failed, as Congress refused to pass such a bill. For a while there was a concern that a lame-duck Congress would try and push it through and its corporate backers and some Congressmen hinted that they would try that. But in the end the 109th Congress adjourned, having decided that such a bill wasn't worth passing. The phone companies turned to the FCC and convinced that panel's Republican majority to try and install by pure regulation what Congress refused to pass a law to accomplish.

Congress critters, Dingell prominently among them, were offended by the FCC's presumption. This is from an interview with Dingell and was offered in response to a question on the FCC's attempt to institute a national video franchise:

What I'm saying is that the FCC has made several mistakes. First, they have not had a proper list of findings about public interests and the public convenience and necessity.

Second of all, they have disregarded the law in asserting powers, which the statute does not give them. And third of all, they have not addressed the broader questions, which need to be addressed, about seeing to it that consumers of these services are fairly treated and this is a bit of an arrogance on the part of the FCC.

So you can expect some oversight of the FCC on this issue. And Congressman Melancon will play a crucial role in that oversight.

Let him know what you think. Urge your friends, neighbors and cousins that live in his district to do the same. Tell him that local property ought to be controlled by local folks and that you expect him to stand up for that principal. Tell him that you like the Lautenberg-McCain bill that kept the states from standing in the way of local communities that offered a little competition to the incumbents. Most of all let him know that some of us down here care about this stuff--and that he is being watched on telecomm issues

Send Melancon an email message.
Phone: 202-225-4031
Fax: 202-226-3944

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Monopoly Thinking

The phone companies really don't get it. Even when they are bragging on how competitive they are they still think like the monopolists they are at heart. Take Verizon. Verizon is the one telephone company that has the sense to build a fiber to the home network--they want to compete for video service with the cable companies and are doing what is obviously necessary. That shows they have some sense--about video capacity. But no less than Verizon's director of internet and technology policy says:
“The speed we offer is based on competition from the cable sector,” says McKeehan. “If they offer 6Mbps, we go a bit better. We don’t see the need to ramp up the speeds just yet.”
There's an internet and technology policy for you! Good grief, if you've got capacity that the other guy doesn't have and could offer product people want you just go after it. Offer real speed--you know, like they get in Korea or Amsterdam. Build a little customer enthusiasm. What you don't do is let the other guy stay within striking distance.

Here's what Verizon would do if it had a lick of sense: offer really big bandwidth for just a cut above the carriage costs. Make everyone think you actually are on their side. Offer them real value where it costs you little. Get a reputation for advanced technology and earn customer loyalty. Encourage you customers to think that you wear a halo. Then sell your video product against the cablecos for just a tad less than they do while that nice healthy halo is hovering overhead. Eat their video lunch and make yourself absolutely dominant on the IP side--and IP-based services are the future.

But Verizon doesn't get it. And you can bet that if fibered-up Verizon doesn't know how to use its advantage then AT&T/BellSouth, which hasn't even bothered to develop any advantage, certainly isn't capable of beginning to get it.

Nationally stuff like this makes it obvious that the incumbent providers -- and especially the phone companies -- should be written off. That sad fact leaves most of the country looking at a pretty bleak picture in regards to getting real broadband.

In Lafayette we have reason to hope that LUS won't use its fiber network so ineptly. Incrementalism prolongs the battle in dangerous ways. Offering real, fast broadband service at rock bottom prices is the way to develop customer loyalty and a reputation that will spill over into more conventional (and more profitable) video services.

Durel Focuses on Fiber

If you had three goals you want your administration to accomplish before the end of 2007, what would those be?

There’s no doubt, and it’s kind of out of our control, because it’s occupied so much of our time, energy and vision of our future, is that we’d be in the process of getting fiber-to-the-home.
That's the way that the Durel interview in this week's Independent begins. Before anything else Durel wants to get the fiber to the home project going. He goes on to tell editor Scott Jordan that Michael Dell's recent attempts to chivvy the telecoms into building fiber to the home networks providing at least 100 megs of connectivity validates Lafayette's plan. (See LPF's recent take on Dell's remarks for a little background on that point.)

Down the page we get this note about the Supreme Court case currently holding up the fiber plan:
If the Supreme Court rules in your favor regarding the fiber-to-the-home project, do you think that will be the last legal challenge?

What I have been told is that if the Supreme Court rules in our favor, there are no more legal challenges available to stop the project. We expect, after a year or so of doing fiber, that there will be those that will still try to give us headaches and challenge things. But there should be nothing else that can stop the project from moving forward.

If the Supreme Court rules against you, what next?

We’ve already had discussions about that. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Finally, Jordan asks him about the recent WiFi RFP:
You just put out RFPs for a wireless network. Is this the first step toward building a wireless network in Lafayette that the public could tap into?

The RFPs that went out are to ramp up communications for LUS. I think that the very next step for us is get that up and running for LUS and make sure it’s working properly and get the bugs out of it. Then the next step will be to make that available to our emergency services personnel — policemen, firemen. We’ll see from there. The good news is that the infrastructure is going to start getting into place.
On that score LPF has its own take on the Wireless RFP...take a gander.

There's more of course (some people are actually interested in things like roads and crime) so take a look at the full story.

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers"

Ok, Ok, I'm on it....

I just received my 4th and 5th emails pointing me to the recent NYTimes article "Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers." Thanks! That's ample evidence that readers are interested in a topic I would have thought was off the beaten path here.

What motivates that interest is probably the prospect of a solution to the fabled "last mile" connectivity problem that relies on the "bottom up" efforts of individuals. That always attractive, at least ideologically, and when coupled with the promise of being radically cheaper to implement excites people.

Problem is, the writer's enthusiasm for individualism, dislike of municipal efforts, and perhaps a bit of naivete regarding points of physics and economics leads him to push a story about a system that can't be sustained and to miss the real story hidden in the hardware/software combination examined.

First, the naivete: The author, Stross, is touting a wireless mesh system. All such systems start from a connection to a network backbone that supplies bandwidth. Data is handed off between closely spaced access points whose coverage overlaps enough to provide redundant paths to downstream access points and to user's computers or other devices. The result is area-wide coverage...in theory. Stross is right that this "area" system isn't working all that well, and that part of the problem is getting the signal inside the house where most use occurs can be spotty. Where he goes astray is in assuming that the network that he proposes can work even this well.

The Stross-proposed system implicitly starts from the interior of buildings with individuals or a small service provider making the intitial point of contact. The problem is that wifi signals have at least as hard a time getting out of house as getting in--and that relying on voluntary subscriptions and the resulting in randomly spaced nodes will make it irrational to expect that there will ever be enough nodes to mesh together effectively. Also, unhappily, it violates most bandwidth contracts to share bandwidth in this way. This really is not going to work as any sort of substitute for metro/area networks and implying that it might is misleading.

But there is good news. The story he misses is almost as interesting, and considerably more viable: As it currently stands this sort of system would be good alternative in apartment buildings. It could effectively deal with data and VOIP needs for apartments and dense public projects (but not video). In that situation a small ISP could provide legal bandwidth and control a stable, adequately dense, placement of access points at a minimized cost.

The best news is twofold: 1) The hardware is really cheap in comparison with other outdoor equipment. 2) Open source mesh networking software is maturing. The software that the Meraki system discussed runs is based on an older MIT project, RoofNet. CUWIN software, completely open source, runs on the Meraki hardware. Both projects have been supported by Google to at least the extent of providing software-writing interns.

Both developments promise to radically lower the cost for mesh networks in the long run. And lower costs will do more to make networking widely and usefully available than any fantasy.

Update 4:01: Jim Baller's always informative newsletter points to a muniwireless post that echoes some of the points made here, to wit:
The article, "Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers," takes a roundabout road to discussing Meraki's offerings, talking first about the challenges of hanging mesh access points off lamp posts - relatively expensive, easily blocked by trees and buildings, etc. But Meraki's products today don't really fix those problems; you'll still need a street-based mesh, or some in-building Internet connection, to reach the wider Net. However, if you want to cheaply distribute a WiFi signal inside a building, this is a great solution....
It's nice to know that my contrary reservations are sometimes shared by the big dogs.

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.

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

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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.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Superbowl Update

If you were worried by my earlier story that you'd not be able to watch the (Saintless) Superbowl in HD this weekend without rushing out and buying an antenna you may breath a sigh of relief: KLFY says they reached an agreement with Cox to carry KLFY's HD signal.

New Orleans fans, effected by a similar threat, have received a reprieve according to the Picayune.

Enjoy!