Friday, June 29, 2007

The Money's in the Bank

The sale of LUS fiber to the home bonds officially "closed" Thursday both the Advocate and the Advertiser report. LUS sold $110.4 million in revenue bonds to support the construction and intial costs of the network. As in "closing" on your home or car loan what this really means is that the money is in the bank and you can take possession of what you've been sold. In this case LUS (and the rest of us) is "buying" the use of the money. Now they can begin spending money.

Expect the pace of things to pick up.

The papers report that spending will begin on planning and on the early construction of items like the warehouse necessary to store construction equipment and the head-end building that will be the electronic heart of the new system.

Attentive readers may wonder what happened to the $125 million that the voters approved two years ago. Why only $110.4 million? The easy answer is that new cost projections are lower as a consequence of the delay are less so they are borrowing less. But while that is central there is a bit more to consider as the following from the Advocate indicates:

The $110.4 million in bonds are based on projections of what it would take to build a system if half the market signed up for LUS service.

The savings in technology and interest cost mean that should LUS exceed that 50 percent share of the market, it could make it easier to pay for further expansion with cash instead of another bond issue, Huval said.

The hope of LUS has always been to make LUS Fiber a utility, that is for LUS Fiber to be a ubiquitously available service run in the public interest. It is part of the history and community orientation of LUS to hope and believe that it will be the dominant provider of telecom services in Lafayette. While that level of subscription is not essential to the network's success as a business (that figure is in the lower 20% range) a subscription figure above 50% is clearly what LUS desires. Based on subscription rates to other locally-owned, advanced telecom systems that hope is not particularly grandiose. Bristol, Va.'s system has recently had to retool its network at a real additional cost to accommodate higher that expected "take rates." Consequently LUS has always taken seriously the potential for rapid subscriber growth—especially after having been endorsed by 68% of the voters. Heavy, early, buy-in from the community means a much higher initial cost to be paid for from the bonded money at a time before income really starts to roll in. The cost to run fiber from the street to the wall of your house, install the electronics box there, and connect up your home is a large, fixed cost that the business intends to pay off over time. (Huval estimated that cost at $6-700 recently.)

So part of what it means to ask for less money from bond market than you were authorized to take by the voters is that you believe that you can keep up with the hoped-for take rates at more cheaply as a consequence of lower interest rates and lower equipment and installation costs than you originally thought. This is good news.

The most dangerous moment for LUS might well be the moment of its biggest success. If LUS gets a huge initial subscription bulge that prevents it from showing a quick profit (as it pays off all those expensive but income-producing $6-700 dollar investments in new customers) AT&T, Cox and its agents are no doubt waiting to make use of the incumbent-written "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" to try and "prove" that LUS not making a profit (precisely because it is dominating the market) and use clauses in their their law ostensibly inserted to "protect the citizens" to shut down their local competition. LUS has apparently decided that this is not worth worrying about at the 125 million dollar level--only the 110.4 million dollar level. Having to worry about such nonsense at all adds cost to the build and is yet another reason why this special interest law should be repealed.


Oh, by the way...am I the only one to notice that LUS had the authority to take home $125 million dollars—authority directly from the people—but chose to only use $110 million of that authority? That its "excuse" was the best of all fiscally responsible reasons: that it wasn't going to cost that much so they didn't want to burden the people with the expense of what would amount to a safety cushion? Where are all the nutcase jobs who were sure that the project was going to be incompetently and corruptly handled? Are any of them rethinking or moderating their stand based on the evidence? (Thanks, I needed to get that off my chest.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Huval Honored (updated)

Terry Huval, the head of the Lafayette Utility System, is being honored by the American Public Power Association today. As the Advertiser (in a "People in Business" brief not carried online) notes he's getting the James D. Donovan award which "recognizes those who have made great contributions to the electric utility industry and public power." The award is named after the first president of the APPA.

Even more significantly, Huval will be installed as of the Chair of the APPA Board tomorrow. Being lauded for your past contributions is one sort of honor. Being put in charge of things by your peers is an honor of an entirely different order.

Congrats to Terry and to LUS....

(And I'm looking forward to Huval being the first president of American Public Communications Association in 2014...and having an award named after him in 2024. :-) )

Update: The Advertiser has a brief story online (not the one alluded to above) noting this award. There is a nice tidbit from the award citation included in the story:
Huval was recognized for guiding LUS “to the forefront of innovation and change in the electric utility industry.” The successful legal battle that enabled LUS’ proposed Fiber-to-the-Home initiative has earned national attention, and Huval’s leadership on the issue and creative inspiration has led to a groundswell of local and national support and called attention to the importance of public power’s ability and right to offer advanced telecommunications services, the association said.

"Fiber gives transplant desire to return home"

Buddy Guidry, a Lafayette native working out of New York, declares in a letter in today's Advertiser that Lafayette's fiber to the home network has led him to plan to move home and start a legal services business here.

I hope he, and many like him, do move home. While it's easy to notice big ticket, larger businesses like NuComm
the real value (as I've commented before) will come from small businesses that will be able to afford fast, efficient, high-tech communications services that are currently only available to large businesses. Sez Buddy:
...the one light I see at the end of the tunnel is the fiber-to-the-home initiative. This has given me a desire to move back home to Lafayette and start my own legal services business, which would be less likely to succeed without fiber optics.
How does a legal services firm benefit? I don't know for sure. But that doesn't matter since apparently Buddy Guidry does. And you can bet there his remarks are only a small indication of the value "the little guy" will find in the system once it comes online.

More immediately, Guidry is participating in the new, positive "buzz" about Lafayette...and that buzz is building.

Anecdotally: I was in Baton Rouge to celebrate a marriage recently and the crowd was mostly made up of mutual friends who'd graduated from some of the city's most demanding high schools in the late 80's and early 90's. Like many well-educated Louisianians they'd scattered all over the country. From the groom (living in Tucson) to those who'd stayed (and were doing things like being head of "GIS for the state") the topic of conversation went straight to how "progressive" they'd heard Lafayette was compared to the rest of the state and several said they'd considered moving to Lafayette based on their (vauge) sense that it was a great place to be. Fiber played in, of course, but they also talked about music, a laid-back attitude, food, and cool festivals. That sounded a whole like how my generation, some 15 years earlier had talked about Austin...

Something is going on here and Buddy Guidry's letter is only the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, June 25, 2007

VOE: "Cincinnati Bell Wireless launches Wi-Fi/cell service"

Voice of Experience Files:

From our new "Voice of Experience" files: Lafayette will want to note that wifi/cellular convergence is emerging at the edges of the cellular business.

LUS' unique fiber/wifi IP-based network will allow some pretty nifty voice services to emerge. Our utility will be able to put together an interesting Voice ecology that combines VOIP on fiber with its wifi network to allow your personal phone number to reach you in multiple ways, to enable on-the-fly conference calling (with video?), access back to data held online or in your base computer, combined chat/voice/video/SMS connectivity, digital recording, message forwarding to any IP address, and more...

Most LPF readers are, I suspect, care most about the internet and recognize the central role cable TV will play in paying off the system. Relative to those highlights, voice gets ignored. Maybe it shouldn't be—convergence is moving from talking to commercial products in the voice arena and Lafayette will be positioned to ride the wave as wifi mobile telephony emerges while our system is built over the next 18 months. (What we need is a partnership with a mobile carrier...on which more below.)

The immediate inspiration for those reflections? Margaret Reardon's blog entry on the launch of Cincinnati Bell's* new wifi/cell service. (Their local paper has a short article as well.)

The long and the short of it is that your phone will switch seamlessly between the cellular network and approved wifi networks. The service is an add-on 10 dollar a month charge on your wireless bill. Partially offsetting that monthly charge is the fact that any time you are on a wifi network your minutes are free. Really. And that "approved" means approved by you, not Cincinnati Bell. You can validate you personal or work or favorite coffee house wifi network as a connection point. Or you can use Cincinnati Bell's own wifi network of 300 points without any setup at all. Get near one and your phone call switches over to wifi automatically and your minutes are still free. (Incidentally, Cincinnati Bell offers free access to its wifi network as part of its wired high-speed internet package; I hope LUS will do something similar.)

T-Mobile is the national cell carrier who is widely rumored to be planning the nationwide launch of a similar service, Hotspot@Home, in a few days. (They've been trialling it in Washington state.) That makes T-Mobile the obvious candidate for cellular partnership with LUS. The trade-off would be simple: LUS gets a national cellphone partner whose phone will work across the country and who is actively developing new integrated services. (Nobody will buy a wifi service that only works in the city of Lafayette.) T-Mobile gets virtually guaranteed dominance in Lafayette and the environs. (If you do most of your calling from within the city you can easily go with the least expensive calling plan since those calls won't run up minutes. Who wouldn't go with cheap--and local?) It could be a great deal.

Voice is something to watch. And Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile are the actors to follow.


-------------------
*Cincinnati Bell is one of those "asterisk" companies -- part of the Bell system since 1878 but never owned by Ma Bell, it is probably the largest "independent, local" phone company in the nation. This first-in-the-country initiative is further evidence that local ownership of telecom networks is a good thing.

Geeky extra: Both Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile are using a "glue" technology called UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) which allows providers, and to a lesser extent users, to hook into multiple protocols and tools. Most crucially for the current discussion it facilitates seamless handoffs between cellular and wireless networks. But it goes much further than that. If you are masochistic enough to want to follow it out you can start at the rather thin and querulous wikipedia page.

WBS: "Lafayette pioneers a competitive muni-fiber project"

What's Being Said Dept.

Fiberevolution notices, apparently via the intercession of Dirk van der Woude, Lafyette's project and comments admiringly on the unique features we'll be getting. The take:
The level of service LUS (Lafayette Utilities Service) intends to provide is quite ambitious:
  • Symetric service, whatever the level of bandwidth subscribed. It may sound obvious since it's easy to do over fibre, but it's not the norm, so it makes sense.
  • Full-speed onnet capability - a very cool feature for community based services such as this one - regardless of teh level of bandwidth subscribed
  • Retail wifi capability, which could prove very popular with SoHos, shops, etc.
  • No hook-up fees and no contract duration. That's actually quite daring from LUS...
  • 20% savings on triple-play. That's a price positioning based on the incumbent's current offer, so it may be not as feasible in 18 months

Still, if my competitivie operator were to offer that, I'd sign this minute!

It's good to start getting attention for what our network will do instead of only for the battle we won...

Fiberevolution is a newish fiber blog based in France and focused on the business side of the story. It features an emphasis on European telecom. Lafayette's Cajun and Creole readers should find links to French language blogs refreshing.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Verizon's fiber-optic payoff | CNET News.com

Food for Thought, Learning from the Big Guys Division:

"Verizon's fiber-optic payoff;" The premise of this story is that Verizon did right by going with a Fiber To The Home plan...and AT&T/BellSouth messed up by trying to get by on the cheap. Verizon will have the bandwidth and the flexibility to compete more than adequately against the cable companies. But AT&T will not, on the basis of this author's analysis.

Lafayette can mine Verizon's experience for insight into how an all-fiber network can compete against the cablecos. Verizon will be several years ahead of LUS in the deployment of a new fiber system and its successes can be followed and its failures avoided. Verizon is, happily for Lafayette, not the incumbent locally. It's enormous numbers will allow suppliers and developers for its products to supply a place like Lafayette almost as an afterthought--and at reasonable prices since the big-ticket purchaser is the giant Verizon. Even better, the also-rans on giant Verizon contracts will be looking for a place to prove their ideas. If Lafayette's buyer's are wise we'll be able to cut some interesting deals on cutting-edge ideas that badly need a place to demonstrate that their ideas are viable before marketing it to the big fellow. A real danger has always been that LUS would be so far ahead of what the market in other places can provide that useful products would have to be untested and hand-crafted for us. That could be exciting...but expensive. Much better to have a big trailblazer proving basic concepts somewhere else. Then we only have to lay in a better implementation.

Apparently Verizon is succeeding. Thought its stock has taken a hit because of its heavy, long term investment in fiber has suppressed earnings its subscriber numbers are very healthy for the same reason. Its bet on a combination of old-style cable technology, fancy new IPTV for the extras, and fiber to the home capacity is allowing the company success in delivering both a high-quality, reliable TV experience, and fancy new IP services. AT&T, on the other hand, has high stock prices but low subscriber numbers for its new hybrid fiber/DSL that uses unstable IP for all its services. If I were looking at a long-term investment I know where my money would go.

The ticket for Verizon so far appears to be sticking to the absolutely reliable technology on the cash cow—cable TV—and using the capacity of fiber to deliver more channels; especially to deliver more bandwidth-hungry HDTV. In addition they are mounting an aggressive push into IP-based services. Verizon is clear about the need to migrate to a full IP system as soon as the technology is proven and it, and AT&T's committment, ensures that the kinks will be worked out of IPTV sooner rather than later. All in all Verizon's success validates the similar decisions made by the technical guys at LUS; the bottom line is that it's good news for LUS.

Is there a downside for Lafayette? Sure. LUS may not compete with Verizon but Cox does. And as Verizon proves that fiber means deadly competition Cox is more likely to feel the pressure to develop effective ways to expand its own bandwidth and competitive delivery of services. But that's not all bad of course--for the consumer. The catch for Cox is that Verizon is currently succeeding without competing much on price. LUS will and that and the local loyalty that LUS has gained (and Cox forfeited) makes LUS a much tougher target locally than Verizon is through most of its footprint.

The real loser? AT&T/BellSouth who will have the least capable system in the city and very little room to really compete on price.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Web site courses to be offered"

Sounds good. From the Advertiser:
Booksxyz.com and the Acadiana Educational Endowment are offering eight-week evening short courses in beginner and intermediate Web sites.

The beginner courses will cover basic Web site issues such as open source software and installation, HTML coding, graphics, file transfer and Web hosting. Intermediate courses will cover more programming-level aspects, including introduction to the PHP scripting language, introduction to the MySQL database, Apache server configuration and modules and a look at content management systems.

Something for everyone. Details on the Advertiser....

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Fiber bonds up for sale"

Here's an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is: The Advertiser reports that the fiber bonds have made their way to individual market and that Merrill Lynch and Morgan Keegan are selling them.

Local access:
  • Beau Miller, Smith Barney, 232-7160
  • Eric LeBlanc, Morgan Keegan, 289-5900

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Google, Intel, others oppose "No Competition" act

We've been following the contretemps on Wilson, NC where the local folks seem to have their act pretty well together. There is substantial local opposition to their states version of our "Fair Competition Act."

The local paper reports that they've been joined in their indignation by wireless giants Alcatel-Lucent and Tropos (who will be supplying Lafayette's wireless equipment). They joined Google and Intel in complaining about the ways that such state interference suppresses the growth of competition and private partnerships with companies like theirs.

"HB 1587 threatens to undermine the establishment of such partnerships, particularly in rural and high-cost urban areas of North Carolina in which the state's incumbent providers are either serving poorly or not at all," read the letter signed by Google's state policy counsel, John Burchett.

Intel's letter called erecting barriers to public-sector Internet networks a mistake.

The two companies were joined by Alcatel-Lucent, a networking company in Raleigh, and Tropos Networks, a California-based company that provides wireless networks to cities and towns including Philadelphia and Wrightsville Beach.

Not that local officials need much help in clarifying the purpose of the bill:

Andy Romanet, general counsel with the N.C. League of Municipalities, said ... "It would make it virtually impossible to do one of these projects," ... "I call it the 'No Competition' act."

Mark Chilton, mayor of Carrboro, one of the first towns in the nation with free wireless Internet, said the bill would hurt expansion of that system, and would prevent rural and poorer citizens from getting online.

"It's clear that this is just an industry ploy that everyone and everywhere should have to pay somebody on Wall Street to get on the Internet," Chilton said.

Its nice to know that there the historical suspicion that what is good for Wall Street's large corporations is not necessarily good for Main Street has not been entirely lost..at least not in North Carolina.


Lagniappe: Jim Baller, whose newsletter on breaking telecom news is indispensable, posts links to all the letters filed in opposition to the attempt to foist a "Fair Competition Act" on North Carolina on his municipal broadband reference page.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"Cheap wi-fi too slow"

"Cheap wi-fi too slow" so says :
Bill Tolpegin is vice-president of planning and development for the municipal networks unit of Earthlink, a US-based company that built municipal wi-fi networks for cities including New Orleans, Philadelphia and Anaheim and has been asked to devise plans for networks in San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta.
This is in line with Lafayette Pro Fiber's long-held position—wireless broadband as currently conceived is not a viable substitute for a wired network. But that's a pretty shocking comment coming from a major player in the muni wifi business who has been selling wifi as if it were a subsitute (not an addition) to a powerful wired system--What Tolpegin is saying is that his companies networks are too slow. Why? The answer is instructive for Lafayette:

He says the wireless mesh technology advanced as enabling wi-fi to quickly and cheaply cover wide areas can only do so at very slow speeds...

The mesh is slow because it relays data from access point to access point, he says. As traffic hops over these networks the available bandwidth is quickly consumed relaying data back onto a faster, wired network, greatly reducing the bandwidth available for each user.

The only way to get around this problem, Mr Tolpegin says, is to create "injection points" on mesh networks where data is transferred to a different network in order to relieve the wi-fi mesh of the need to carry all data, all of the time.

Translated: mesh networks need to consist of less mesh and a higher percentage of nodes that tie directly into the high-speed, wired, backbone. Mesh technologies, which promised a cheap infrastructure built on few--hence cheap--backbone connections isn't panning out in practice.

There's more:

Earthlink has struggled to find commercially viable ways to make the task easier. "Nobody has high-bandwidth, low-cost networks that deliver," he says. "They are not telling the truth, not even the WiMax vendors."

The answer, he says, is far denser deployment of wi-fi access points.

So Earthlink's hard-won experience tells people two things about building high-speed wireless networks:
  1. minimize the mesh, work as close to the wired backbone as is possible
  2. maximize the density of the nodes
Lafayette's unique situation—with the wifi provider running a massively capable fiber network down every street—allows us to take a slightly different perspective on these truths. Because we will make an extremely capable network available to every user at a very reasonable price there will be little pressure to make the wireless network in Lafayette struggle to provide "dsl" or "cable" equivalent capacities for fixed uses. We'll have fiber at our fingertips for in-home and business use. Should we want wireless inside our house we can easily provide it for ourselves. The wireless network can be "freed" to be the wireless, mobile extension of the full network—not a low-priced substitute for it.

With LUS both the fiber owner and the wifi provider, it relatively easy for Lafayette to follow Earthlink's advice about minimizing the mesh. Earthlink has to pay, every month for every drop off the hardwired network and for the bandwidth it consumes. Lafayette will only have to pay once for the hardware drop and the incremental cost of using that bandwidth will be very nearly zero to the extent that taffic remains within the LUS network . Earthlink and LUS will be in radically different fiscal postures and the advantage is all to LUS (and her customers). In fact, LUS already appears to be planning to minimize the mesh in its network—the intial order was for a 1:1 ratio between fiber fed nodes and "radio-only" nodes. (The story says that Earthlink is struggling toward a 2:1 ratio between backhaul feed nodes and radio-only ones.)

Earthlink's advice about node density is, no doubt, also a good one. I've no idea how densely LUS is planning to pack our network. But it is worth noting that what they are buying with denser placement is faster speeds--wifi speeds fall off dramatically as you move away from the node. Because Lafayette's wireless mobility system will not be burdened with being an adequate subtitute for a DSL or cable system—as it is when it is introduced as a cheap alternative to those products—we'll be able to consider a density that works best for wireless' unique mobility functions. Currently those applications center around data and voice and require less bandwidth than video. (Though video, albeit small video, appears to be coming.)

All in all Lafayette's decision to emphasize building a fiber network as the best choice for a community network seems more prescient every day. Wireless is not an ideal technology for your primary network; its best role is to be hung off an advanced wireline network to serve those mobile purposes fixed wireline connections cannot fill. And, as an additional, ironic benefit it turns out that the most economically sustainable way to get a cheap, truly high-bandwidth wifi network is to commit to building your own fiber to the home network first.

Lafayette is doing it right.

WBS: Delays Pay in Lafayette Fiber Project!

What's Being Said dept.

Friend of Lafayette David Isenberg comments on the latest in the Lafayette Fiber To The Home saga in the post: Delays Pay in Lafayette Fiber Project! In it he celebrates the silver lining of the dark cloud of incumbent delay:
The kicker is that the cost of the delay, including $1.1 million in legal fees, have been more than offset by technology improvements in the last three years that lower the cost and make the buildout faster.
He's got a point, I'll reluctantly grant.

More, it appears that we didn't pay a price in terms of the cost of the bonds over the years of the delay. Though the interest rate has steadily risen since the council voted the go-ahead in 04, the municipal bond market has not tracked that as I once mistakenly thought. The interest rates paid by municipal bonds were higher in 2004 than they are today. So, all things equal, we've saved money over the life of the bonds by the delay. On the other hand if we could have sold in 2006 we'd have got a better deal yet as municipal rates were lower then. (See munibondadvisor.com for revealing graphs.)

Isenberg does, however, correctly note the opportunity cost lost:
(Of course, we will never know the cost of not having the network in place three years earlier.)
But in terms of cash outlays, technology, and the speed of the build itself, the delays have not hurt Lafayette.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Lafayette's Bus Routes to be Tracked Live

Here's a little dream that you should see live by the end of the summer: A webpage that tracks the position of all the city buses in real time.

The Advertiser runs the story this morning. The gist:

"This allows us to give information to the public," Mitchell said.

"They can go online and see where their bus is in relation to their bus stop in real time."

Those who use the online service will be able to set an alarm at a specific point on the route, that will alert them when their bus reaches that point on the map in relation to the bus stop, Mitchell said.

Now that is nifty. There are all sorts of public safety, scheduling, and efficiency reasons to keep close track on the position of your buses. (The major package delivery corporations and many of the long-haul trucking firms and airlines already do this. —I recently was able to track a friends' flight from San Antonio to Lafayette in real time on the carrier's website. We left the house when the plane hit the parish line and met her coming off the breezeway.)

There's not much in the way of a hint as to how this info will be provided. It'd be great if it could be provided in a format that would allow anyone to use it...for instance to provide a feed that would be usable on a cell phone or as a module on a community commons site.

(Google is testing a format for such....Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Here's an example of how this works. The current iteration of the Google labs project doesn't include a real-time feed that uses GPS data. But it is pretty clear that the right programmer could add that relatively simply using the Google API and tools like Gadgets to overlay the updated GPS coordinates. See Austin's implementation. (Hah!!! See update below, the overlay's already been done.))

As fun as this is now imagine how useful it will be once the fiber-based wifi system is operational. Take your laptop, iphone, blackberry, cell or other net-connected device and track where your bus is now. No uncertainty, no trying to remember all the schedules for all the buses. You can be an occasional user. One of the differentiators for many people between large cities and small towns is how useful the public transit system is. Large cities like Chicago or San Francisco already use a version of this. Properly implemented this could go a long way toward making it practical -- and comfortable -- for people who do not have to use the transit system to do so. The folks downtown realize that:

Mitchell said the Web site combined with the GPS tracking is another method to make people aware of Lafayette's bus system and how it works.

"This is another way we can get people to ride the buses and make it more convenient for our riders," Mitchell said.

Good for the transit folks. Good for Lafayette. It will be a huge improvement over the current set of online pdf schedule maps which don't appear to have been updated recently.

Update!!!....in my poking about a bit more I found just what I want for Lafayette--Look at this google-based overlay of data piped through NextBus for San Francisco. It appears to update every 30 seconds or so. The google underpinning is free; all NextBus had to do was provide a java-based overlay of the current GPS reading for each bus. It works on my Mac, your PC, and any mobile device that can browse the web and play the java applet.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Creating a Lafayette Commons

Here's something that's worth the read on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It's an inspiring essay titled "Reclaiming the Commons" by David Bollier. He bitterly complains about the growing tendency to allow our common resources and heritage —from concrete public property like oil or grazing rights on public land, to more abstract rights to goods created by regulation like the electro-magnetitc spectrum, to truly abstract (but very real and increasingly valuable) rights to common ideas and intellectual resources— those common resources are being taken from us and handed over to the few.

The argument is that we are all poorer for it. And that society would be richer if those things remained in the public domain. He convincingly argues that undue private ownership of ideas stifles the invention of new variants and new ideas.

The point for Lafayette is that we are about to create a new common resource: the Lafayette fiber intranet, and we are creating it as a publicly-owned resource. If Bollier is right then we have a real responsibility to make sure that our common property serves the common good and that it not be "enclosed" by the few.

We here in Lafayette will be in the nearly unique position of commonly owning a completely up-to-date telecommunications infrastructure ranging from a fiber-all-the-way-to-the-home network, to a wifi network using the capacity of that fiber. A citizen who wants to will be able to get all of his telecommunications needs met using local resources, resources that are owned in common.

A lot of what is missing on the web is access to local resources-the church calendar, the schedule for the shrimp truck, what vegetables are available at the farmer's market, specials at the local restaurants, nearby childcare, adult ed resources, local jobs...and much more aren't available or are the next best thing to impossible to usefully gather in one place. We could, by acting together, fix that.

Creating a thriving network-based commons is the task that is set before us. Bollier gives us some insight into the magnitude of what is at stake. We can, by the way we participate and what we create, create a truly common and truly valuable resource.

Give the Bollier article a look. Then think a bit about what we can do to make ours a transparently valuable network--one that will encourage all to participate fully.

(Hey, we can be idealists if we want. :-))

Thursday, June 14, 2007

AT&T sez: "Your Network Are Belong To Us"

The "Lafayette did the right thing on July 16th 2005" department:

AT&T has reasserted its intention to dig through every packet you send over the internet to decide if it (not a court or a policeman) thinks that your content should be blocked. It boils downt to this: they think that, if on the balance, they would benefit financially from blocking your content they should be allowed to. And they are willing to say so straightforwardly.

Anyone who thinks the Net Neutrality wars are over has got another think coming. And, as before, AT&T (nee SBC & BS) is leading the way in demanding a newly privatized, corporatized internet. Connoisseurs of net history will recall that AT&T Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre kicked off the net neutrality wars by asserting the right to overthrown the common carriage rules that are in place and to establish fast, privileged lanes for special (read: large, wealthy, paying) purveyors of content. Their stuff would go to the head of the line. Your stuff would....wait. Last winters' net neutrality battle that raged over the internet and in Congress and which eventually killed what seemed at one time a sure-thing telecom "reform" bill was a direct result of Whitacres impolitic utterances. (If you think that Big Ed's recent retirement changes things you might want to read Mike's recent post on his successor: it's not Ed, is not his clone Stephenson, its not the senior VP whose interview kicks off this review--it's the corporate culture of AT&T.)

Here's the gist of the story from the LATimes:
In mid-March, executives at Viacom and the Motion Picture Assn. of America separately approached [AT&T senior vice president] Cicconi with the idea of a partnership. Content providers have long looked for a network solution to piracy, but no operator had been willing to join with them.
AT&T thought about it and:
The company's top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.
Leading to a summit of sorts:
Last week, about 20 technology executives from Viacom Inc., its Paramount movie studio and other Hollywood companies met at AT&T headquarters to start devising a technology that would stem piracy but not violate privacy laws or Internet freedoms espoused by the Federal Communications Commission.
Now that's a misleading "but." The current FCC's position is that everything the Telecoms want to do is hunky dory from refusing to investigate illegal wiretapping to allowing the reconstitution of the nation's largest telecom monopoly: AT&T. Really, the spectacle of AT&T getting pious over Hollywood's piracy laws is really smoke and mirrors. After all AT&T has been totally uninterested in helping prevent piracy when piracy was a profit center for them--when it helped them sell broadband. What has changed is that AT&T has decided it wants to be in the good graces of the Hollywood moguls who control the video content the company will have to buy in order to offer cable-like IPTV. To wit:
As AT&T has begun selling pay-television services, the company has realized that its interests are more closely aligned with Hollywood, Cicconi said in an interview Tuesday. The company's top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.
Now people DO notice when this sort of shuffling is going on. Gigi Sohn of Public knowledge remarks:
"AT&T is going to act like the copyright police, and that is going to make customers angry," she said. "The good news for AT&T is that there's so little competition that where else are the customers going to go?"
Just for the record, not every corporation is a craven as AT&T:
Verizon Communications Inc., which has fiercely guarded the privacy of its customers, has refused so far to offer a network anti-piracy tool. It defeated in court the recording industry's demands to reveal names of those allegedly involved in downloading pirated songs.
AT&T is wondering if they can't use Hollywood to get them permission to call the current internet broken and allow the the sort of deep packet inspection and content provder surcharges that they've been after recently. That argument failed last year in Congress because it failed so badly with the internet-using public. The potential new plan is all too transparent: Perhaps the "only" way to "secure" copyrighted works would be to make sure they are only downloaded from the owners' websites and to interdict all other copies. AT&T would deep packet inspect all of your little bits and bytes...and Google's...and anyone else who didn't pay the vigorish to get put on the "pre-approved" list. Their (paid for) downloads would be fast, yours and other's (unpaid) would get the slow inspection. Imagine waiting in line while some dim-witted mechanized inspector paws through your stuff and asks you if you really own your underwear...while a select few zip past "pre-approved" by virtue of having paid of the private security guards--legally, of course. (Does this sound utterly unlikely and too unnatural to be a real possibility? If you think so you've not been watching the parallel madness over "Goodmail" with whom our local "friend in the digital age" Cox recently joined. If you pay Goodmail, which pays Cox, you can bypass Cox's spam filters....this is presented as a "solution" to the spam problem!)

Such stuff should be illegal; it is an abuse of the ownership of a vital transport utility. In our history railroads, canals, and shipping lanes were not allowed to establish "favorites." That was the essence of common carriage. We shouldn't allow the current robber barons to change that.

The solution for individuals is to move your personal accounts to a small, reasonably priced provider who is more beholden to you than to large corporate accounts. I recently moved my and my wife's email domains to a provider who allows me to turn off and on their spam filtering after overly aggressive filtering bounced legitimate emails sent from both regional Cox and BellSouth servers as spam. With my new provider people no longer complain that my server is bouncing their legitimate mail back to them. My new provider gives me complete control. Frankly, most folks don't want to have to go that far to protect themselves; they'd rather they had a provider they could trust. Unfortunately, in most communities as in Lafayette, the incumbents have demonstrated that they are not worthy of that trust.

The solution for communities is to own your own last mile. It's not just that you'll get a better price. (Though you will.) It's not just that you'll get better tech. (Though you will.) It's that you'll get a system owner that you can trust, one that owes its first allegiance to you and not to the cash flow your subscription offers distant, self-interested owners.

That is why Lafayette made the right decision on July 16th two years ago when it voted to build and operate its own fiber-optic network.

"All our networks are belong to us."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fiber Bonds Authorized

I attended last night's "special and historic joint meeting" of the Lafayette Parish Utility Authority and the City-Prish Council and can report with considerable satisfaction that Lafayette's fiber to the home project is now a done deal. With the now-ritual dual votes--first the LPUA votes and then the whole council votes on the same proposal--the official stamp of approval was put on the sale of bonds that was all but completed as the councilmen voted. That vote, as pro forma as it was, removed the last potential legal impediment to the construction of our FTTH network.

Both Blanchard of the Advocate and Taylor of the Advertiser have published accounts of the story they've covered since April of '04. They're both worth your read.

The executive summary on the story: only 110.5 million of 125 million authorized by the people was offered for sale and all but 20% of them were sold as of last night. They went for 4.9%--considerably under the 5.5% anticipated by the business plan. A successful sale...

From the Advertiser:
"Certainly this is a day we've all been waiting for," said LUS Director Terry Huval...

The City-Parish Council and Lafayette Public Utilities Authority authorized the sale of $110.4 million in revenue bonds to build the much-anticipated, controversial fiber-to-the-home project.

Lafayette Utilities System received a favorable bond rating of A2 from Moody's and A-minus from Standard and Poors, said Jerry Osborne, bonding attorney for LUS. The 4.9 percent interest rate is better than what was available two years ago but not as good as a few months ago, he said.

From the Advocate:
Low interest rates are the sincerest form of flattery,” Osborne said.

Three years ago, LUS presented a business plan as part of a required feasibility study that showed the project would be successful with 50 percent of the market, borrowing the money at a 5.5 percent interest rate.

The actual 4.9 percent interest rate is lower, meaning it will cost less for LUS to borrow money.

Additionally, in the three years since the project was first proposed, the cost of technology has fallen, LUS Director Terry Huval said. That will all make it easier for LUS to meet its goal to provide its bundled services at 20 percent below what its competitors charge, Huval said.

The Advertiser:

Officials expect to close on the sale of the bonds June 28. Within 18 months, the first LUS customer should be receiving high-speed Internet, telephone and television service through the fiber optic network. Two years later, all LUS customers who want the fiber service should be receiving it, Huval said.

Customers may be connected faster than that since the technology for installing fiber and connecting homes has advanced in the years that the project was delayed by lawsuits, he said.

And:
"This has been a long struggle, a very difficult journey," [Bond Attorney] Osborne said...

"I think the next four years is going to be something to see around here," Council Chairman Rob Stevenson said
Amen to those sentiments.

Update 6/13/07: My wife and I just put in an order for our very own "Communications System Revenue Bonds, Series 2007, City of Lafayette, State of Louisiana" fiber optic bonds. Call your agent and you too can own a piece of the future.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The INDsider: LUS sells fiber bonds

AllRight!!!!!

The bonds to build Lafayette's Fiber network are being sold as we speak. LUS is moving ahead aggressively to get their money and to get going.

The scoop from the Independent Blog:

LUS’ long-awaited bond sale for its fiber-to-the-home project should be nearly wrapped up by the end of the day. The bonds were priced and put on the market yesterday and today.
On bond rating and pricing:
..Standard and Poor’s gave the project an A- rating and Moody’s awarded an A2. Both ratings are only one step below LUS’ regular bond rating of A and A1. But with bond insurance, purchased through XL Capital, LUS still receives a AAA rating with investors. This all translates into an interest rate slightly under 5 percent for the $110.45 million in bonds LUS is selling for the project. In its original feasibility study, LUS had projected having an interest rate of 5 1/2 percent.

“We were very pleased with those results,” Huval says. “We’ve got the best rating we could have hoped to have gotten out of this.” He adds that the bond agencies spoke highly of both LUS’ ability to handle large projects, such as the two new generating plants that were built on time and on budget, as well as the merits of the fiber initiative.
Those are great ratings and the interest rates are within the plan's guidelines. Messing up the bond issue was the last, best hope of the incumbent opposition to inflict a little more pain on Lafayette before the build begins. That attempt failed. (But we should be mindful that the delay has and will cost the people of Lafayette real money in addition to the original offense of standing in our way. Holding a grudge, for at least awhile, is appropriate.)

—The train is picking up speed as it leaves the station. Alllll Aboard!

Celebrate!!

Update 6/13/07: This week's issue of the Independent is out today and contains a longer version of this story.

Huval Reveals Plans @ the Martin Luther King Center

Terry Huval set down in front of a group of citizens at the Martin Luther King center last night, took a deep breath and issued a soliloquy on the Fiber To The Home (FTTH) project.

Councilman Chris Williams holds a monthly "Real Talk" meeting at the center on Cora that features local issues and worthies and the worthy last night was Huval and the topic: "Update on the Fiber to the Home and Utility Issues." Much of it we've heard before but to get it all in one place and directly from the horse's mouth was a treat that revealed how the head of the system is thinking about the project. But there was some pretty significant "new" news and a set of equally significant reaffirmations.

New News:
  1. Parallel deployment of a WiFi network. Previously I'd understood a "soon-after" deployment schedule. This will no doubt still depend on the initial testing working out well but this is now the plan. And it is MOST welcome news. Once it spreads into the national media we'll get a lot of interested and envious comment. (I think this is the smart way to deploy wireless.)
  2. LUS will roll out fiber more quickly than originally planned: the schedule we've heard involved an 18 month wait from the bond sale to serving the first customer, that is, somewhere around the first of the year in 2009. (Someone is gonna get a nice Christmas present.) It was to take three years to complete the buildout city-wide. Huval is now saying that advances in deployment technology will allow him to cut that time by a third to two years making Lafayette a fully-fibered city by the dawn of 2011...
  3. "Our slowest speed will be faster than their fastest speed;" and you will get what you pay for. The internet portion of the services LUS will offer will be faster than the incumbents' current fastest speed which, when I checked the web, is Cox's 12 meg "Premier" speed. That's a bit of a surprise even to me--I'd previously heard that the lowest internet tier would be 10 megs and was plenty impressed by that. Huval also emphasized that LUS would make sure that you get the advertised speed. If LUS sells you 10 megs you'll get 10 megs if you check a speedtest like the one at the Communications Workers of America site. —I just checked and I got about 3 megs download and 555 k upload on Cox's 7 meg package using the CWA speedtest (@9:30 AM). I'd be interested in hearing your mileage in the comments. That is pretty respectable vis-a-vis the nation but it isn't half of my package speed.
  4. 50-70 channels on the basic cable package. Contrast with 22 for Cox. This may not be new but I don't seem to recall it from before.
Significant Reaffirmations:
  1. Intranet speeds, aka peer to peer speed, aka full insystem bandwidth, aka cool. Too new to have a settled name this is the greatest, least understood feature of the new network. It embodies Internet equity: Every Lafayette internet subscriber will, regardless of how much they pay for their connection, be able to communicate with anyone else on the network at the full speed available at that moment. Citizen-subscribers are equals on the Lafayette network. This policy underlines the difference between a community-owned resource and a for-profit company. With it Lafayette becomes the ultimate testbed for new big-bandwidth services like video telephony and sophisticated conferencing setups that require large numbers of diverse users with ultra-highspeed, symmetrical bandwidth for a honest field test. This will allow our citizens's tastes to help shape the future of the net. And it will shape our own future as a democratic community as we move forward together into an age where digitial communications shape our interactions.
  2. Retail WiFi. We will get a chance to add city-wide WiFi to our LUS telecom package. Can you say "Quadruple Play?" I've long hoped for this. Yay! Now what we need is a contract with a major cellphone carrier that will let us use WiFi phones in-city and their cell network outside.
  3. No hookup fees; no contracts. Go with LUS and you'll never feel "trapped" in your contract because there will be no contract. The no hookup fee is a significant concession considering that Huval mentioned that he thought the cost would be 6-700 dollars per home to pull service from the street.
  4. 20% savings on the triple play. That's still in place; I'd worried that in the years of incumbent-caused delay a lot has changed and that keeping that committment might be harder—but the promise is still in place.
  5. Symmetric Bandwidth. You buy a 12 meg package and you'll get 12 megs of upload and download. Contrast that with my current Cox package: 7 megs down and 512 k up. Thats about a 14:1 ratio. LUS will charge me less, give me more speed down and much, much more speed up. I'm in. (I wonder if now is the time to start lobbying for static IP addresses?)
It's coming folks. It's coming.

Council to Approve Fiber Bond Ordinance

It took three years to get here, but the Lafayette City-Parish Council is expected today to take a big step toward making the fiber-to-the-home project a reality.

The council and Lafayette Public Utilities Authority are scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. today to adopt an ordinance authorizing the sale of bonds to build the fiber project. The meeting is at City Hall, 705 W. University Ave.
That the news as the Advertiser represents it. If things go true to form both the LPUA and the council itself will vote to approve sale. The LPUA, a subset of the council made up of city-of-Lafayette members, is the official governing body of LUS and hence the new telecom utility division but the approval of both bodies has been sought in the past, "just to make sure."

It will be an historic vote that will clear the way for the bond sale. After tomorrow all that will be left is proceeding to the actual sale...and building the system.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

ToDo: LibraryThing

Today's ToDo: Go to LibraryThing and poke around. If you want to know what the web will be good for in its next cycle this is a place to visit and reflect upon.

If you're a book geek you'll have found a new home. If you're social networking type, a natural extrovert, take a look--you can hang out with the sorts of folks who read Socrates....or Rowling (or, hey, join both groups). If you're a web entrepreneur this is an absolutely grand place to take a close look at how to leverage user input into a real, paying business. It's web 2.o in all its senses. For a site whose major hook is the utterly banal one that it will help you build a catalog of your books this is a wide range of appeals. But we all have our interests and LibraryThing manages to be attractive to a wide range of those interests. But don't take my word for it, go and poke around. (The quickstart page would be a good place to go early.)

Book Geeks
I am a book geek. Even online I go for the printed word. I've got books on my walls. I've got (many) more books in boxes. I've got book boxes I haven't unpacked in more than a decade. If I don't have at least one book "going" I get uneasy. I have a pile that are as yet unread. I have a mental list in several topics of books I'd like to order when I clear out my current pile. I like books....It's not all my fault. My mother was a librarian. I blame it on her. (She is also the reason I still have trouble writing in books.)

It is also my mother's fault that I like catalogs of books and actually have a preference in cataloging systems. (Dewey Decimal just makes more sense--to me.) So naturally I like the LibraryThing. It makes it easy to keep track of my books. All it takes is the ISBN number. (If you don't know what that is you are not a book geek; you are, at most, merely a lover of books.) The International Standard Book Number is a book's unique identifier. Every edition has its own number. Give LibraryThing that number and it will go out onto the net and patiently build up a complete standard reference--and more. For instance, for most books, you can get an image of the cover of your edition. This is a verry nice thing for me since for a big chunk of my live while I was a grad student and professor I had a personal book and article database that included the ISBN of books. Built in HyperCard, it fit me perfectly...but it no longer runs on my latest machine. I keep it on an older 'puter that I use as a server and kids machine but....the end is in sight. Presto! Export the ISBN numbers and upload them to LibraryThing and the basic reference data is preserved. I can then export them to various flavors of basic database files and I'll have a nice, clean, vetted set of personalized references.

And yes, this
is a good thing.

As lagniappe, it will use Amazon-style algorithms to suggest new books I might like based on my current library. It goes in and looks for similar patterns in other users' libraries and recommends "missing" ones to me. Even with the random 35 ISBN's I uploaded to test the system it was frightening just how accurate these recommendations were. I owned a majority of the top 10 and was familiar with all but one. (And I really ought to look into that one. It sounds very interesting. (Oh, of course, the recommendations link to reviews and all that...)) It will even toss your recommendations or library up on your net-enabled mobile phone for you to puruse at Barnes and Noble. Nice. Actually useful.

(You say you find typing in ISBN numbers tiresome? and can't imagine typing in those arcane numbers for boxes and boxes of books?...you can scan in your ISBNs using a 15 dollar barcode scanner you plug into your computer. Zip, Zap, upload. Really. There's a page on it.)

Social Networkers
It's got all the social networking goodies. Groups for every genre, subgenre, author, and whatever category you'd like to start up a discussion around. You can publish your library, or not. You can tag your books and share those tags. Review books...argue with reviews. A real community of interest would be the basis for any communication you might have. You can find other users whose libraries have the most overlap with yours. (So, you are into Education, Social Cognition, Connectionism, and hard Science Fiction? There's probably somebody out there whose interests overlap with your oddest obsessions. Write 'em.

Web Entrepreneurs
One of the most intriguing things about LibraryThing is the pretty clear monetary value the data you gather would have. It's web 2.0 to the nth. ALL you ask your users for in exchange for the site and all its goodies is a list of their ISBN numbers. Given a large enough database you can predict users' future book purchases. That is the most commercially valuable bit of information in the book (or any) trade. I am utterly confident, given how accurate they seemed to be for me, especially given th tiny set of titles and the oddities of my tastes, that other users will find their recommendations on target. Since you can click through to Amazon and buy the book every purchase originating from an accurate prediction of their users' interests will feed this site a little money. There's real gold in those finders fees. But it goes beyond that -- Random House, one of the biggest publishers around, has made a deal with the site to offer free books for review to users whose library indicates the kind of interest in the topic of the new book they want reviewed. That kind of early feedback from potential buyers (not professional reviewers) could tell you how to best market that book to multiple audiences--and which audiences not to bother with. If the publishers of LibraryThing are not charging a healthy fee to put the publishers and their certified potential audiences together the ought to be. It's a win-win all around.

Oh, they're marketing their engine, the user review framework, data, and software to real, physical, libraries as well. They hope users will find it a more interesting and useful card catalog. Sure. But I bet there real money lies in having a handle on their users' future purchases.

All in all a neat place. Useful, easy to use, powerful, and interesting. It hs something for everyone--including its originators.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Meet the new boss . . . Same as the old boss

Common Cause does its best to disabuse anyone of the idea that Ed Whitacre's retirement as head of AT&T will bring a change in the company's approach to network neutrality and the Internet.

According to Common Cause, Whitacre's successor Randall Stephenson is (if anything) just as bent on laying a proprietary claim to be able to control and price what travels over AT&T's network. With the former BellSouth now included in AT&T's service footprint, the company now is the primary telecom provider in about 22 states. It also owns the 'old' AT&T's national data network and the former Cingular wireless network. The company is the largest communications company in the United States and, any way you cut it, a force to be reckoned with.

So, who leads the company has a material impact on the lives of a large number of businesses and consumers starting with AT&T's customers.

Americans generally distrust large institutions, ranging from government to corporations. AT&T and its new leader are apparently bent on ensuring that the fires for that distrust remain stoked.

For starters, Mr. Stephenson opposes the idea that if an AT&T (i.e., BellSouth/Cingular) customer that you can access video from non-AT&T sources via the Internet. Common Cause provides this bit of evidence:
In 2005, Stephenson was asked whether his DSL customers would be able to watch live video from any website. "Oh no," Stephenson declared. "We're going to control the video on our network. The content guys will have to make a deal with us." That could leave all the other "content guys" who can't afford to make a deal with AT&T - independent musicians and artists, nonprofits and charities, small businesses and entrepreneurs - locked out from reaching Internet users who use AT&T to access the 'Net.
Think about that for a minute.

Left to the preferences of Whitacre/Stephenson, there would be no Google, no eBay, no iTunes. Why? Because AT&T would, first, require these services to be customers of the company and, second, then charge them a premium in order to ensure that their packets (all of these operations run over Internet Protocol networks) get express treatment. Oh, consumers would still pay their bandwidth fees as well, meaning that AT&T intends to milk providers, consumers and (inevitably) take a slice of the revenue stream for content as it tightens its grip on network infrastructure.

Did you know you can now pay bills using your cell phone (NYT archived $)? Here are some key paragraphs from that NYT story:
AT&T and several banks, including BancorpSouth, SunTrust and Wachovia, are working on a common banking application that can also be downloaded or preinstalled on cellphones. The company creating the software is Firethorn, which is based in Atlanta and works with banks and cellular companies to create a common interface. The idea is that customers will have a standard way of banking on their phones — leading to less confusion — and carriers like AT&T won’t have to design individual applications to accommodate each of the hundreds of different banks around the country.

I tried BancorpSouth’s service using Firethorn’s software on an LG CU500v flip phone. The experience was similar to that of Citi Mobile; it allowed me to view account information or make transactions, including last-minute bill payments. There were delays of 4 to 5 seconds in switching between accounts, but in many ways it was simpler and easier to master than online Web banking on a PC. The only drawback is that you have to be an AT&T/Cingular subscriber.
So, phones will be mobile ATMs. Do the words "transaction fee" come to mind?

So, Stephenson views AT&T's network as an opportunity for the company to operate a toll booth on traffic and skim a percentage or charge an outright fee on commerce that happens to flow over the network.

As Common Cause correctly points out, AT&T will have most customers over a barrel:
To make matters worse, most Americans don't have much choice when it comes to high speed Internet providers, so they won't be able to switch to another company if their Internet provider starts blocking or slowing down certain websites. Usually the only options are the telephone company (high early termination fees if you cancel your service) or the cable company (often prohibitively more expensive).
Of course, we will have more choice here in Lafayette than most places thanks to the LUS fiber system which will undercut the sometimes cozy duopoly relationship that phone and cable companies frequently develop in markets they share.

But, what I find most disturbing about Stephenson is his membership on something called the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. Common Cause describe it this way:
The NSTAC is a secretive panel made up of industry executives who provide advice to the President on national security, emergency preparedness and other communications policy. Its meetings are almost always closed to the public for national security reasons. And its website claims that documents and records produced by NSTAC are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act because it is not technically a federal "agency."
What immediately comes to mind here is the Bush administration's illegal warrant less wiretapping program. AT&T has been sued over its cooperation in that program. Stephenson, as a member of the NSTAC board and as a member of AT&T's leadership team was, no doubt, aware of the program and probably encouraged AT&T to cooperate with it.

What is known is pretty grim, from a Constitutional stand point but the program and AT&T's cooperation may well have been much more extensive than what is currently known by the public. The hints came in the dramatic Senate testimony of former Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey about the race to beat Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to the hospital bed of then-ill Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The reason for the race was that Comey and apparently the head of the FBI Robert Muller and even Ashcroft threatened to resign if the wiretap program that they believed was illegal.

What was that program? And, how was AT&T enabling it to operate?

So, to sum up: AT&T is now headed by a man who believes network ownership is an excuse to tax anything that moves over it; that if you're in business and your data crosses the AT&T network AT&T is entitled to a cut; and that this right of ownership also gives the company the right to engage in any kind of activity the president's attorney says is legal.

Looks like Big Brother has got a friend at the head of Big Mama.

AT&T Wireless Call Center Helps Out

Here's a good thing: the AT&T call center (the call center formerly known as Cingular) is helping a local church develop a community center by donating 13 computers and encouraging its employees to volunteer there. From the Advertiser article:
The new computer lab, donated by the AT&T Call Center of Lafayette, will help empower at-risk teens, ex-offenders and undereducated or unemployed adults.

"After you get their minds together, then you want to get them the skills," said Phylissa Driver, area manager for AT&T. "There's a real shortage of hirable people here for employers. We'll take those who aren't hirable and make them hirable."

Free computer access is there for people to develop job-search skills, résumés and career goals. Driver will teach free classes about interviewing, dress and mapping out career goals. Other AT&T Call Center staff also will teach on their own time, Driver said.

This is just the sort of thing that demonstrates some real concern for a company's neighbors just down the road. Hats off to the AT&T call center.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cox Talks to the Trade Press

Back in February, in a story I missed then, Cox's Baton Rouge unit was treated to a profile story in Multichannel News, a leading industry trade magazine. (Baton Rouge Beefs Up To Meet Demand Surge). It's a very interesting story in which Cox Baton Rouge--then recently merged with Lafayette's Acadiana unit to form the new "Greater Louisiana" marketing unit--tells its own story to its colleagues in a sympathetic forum. It is revealing of how Cox wants its knowledgeable industry friends to regard it.

One thing that leaps out is that it doesn't try to blow as much smoke about its network and discusses network upgrades fairly frankly. For instance, it notes that the local unit was participating in the Cox-wide program of expanding bandwidth from 750 Megaherz to 860 Mhz. Hopefully that will improve its Video On Demand capacity in my neighborhood. (1, 2) But the story also reveals that Cox has not, contrary to its vauge assertions and local rebranding efforts, been not building out fiber in Lafayette, apparently not even in its fiber backbone--but has in Baton Rouge. According to the story in the last year:

In response to the market’s growth, the system last year added about 130 miles of new coaxial cable and 65 miles of fiber in Baton Rouge, and 61 miles of coaxial cable in the Lafayette cluster.

Even sixty one miles of new copper is nothing to sneeze at but the copper coax portion of a hybrid fiber coax (HFC) architecture is mostly in the last mile--and one is lead to presume that this new coax is predominantly in new subdivisions in our "cluster." But this does confirm that the local rebranding of Cox's network as a "fiber" network is truly misleading...nothing is altering Cox's committment to HFC and its disavowal of FTTH. (I'd be happy to be shown otherwise.)

However the article chiefly focuses on Katrina's consequences and the merger of the Baton Rouge and Lafayette markets. Both lead to a much larger market with Cox adding more than 5000 customers post-Katrina. That brings its combined total to 291,551. A very respectable combined market. The story also makes it clear that the Acadiana unit was absorbed into the Baton Rouge one and not simply combined. (That was certainly the experience here where the distinctive local elements like lower pricing, and a French and weather channel on basic cable were "aligned" to the Baton Rouge pattern.)

The integration of the Lafayette system, which is about 50 miles southwest of Baton Rouge, has involved a number of initiatives. For example, Cox Greater Louisiana has aligned the channel lineups — and retail pricing — across the Baton Rouge and the Lafayette clusters.

More broadly, Cox has tried to more fully absorb and acculturate the Lafayette cluster, so that it conforms to the company’s corporate strategy: That its cable systems offer state-of-the-art technology, be perceived as doing so and be very involved in their communities.

The bit about being "very involved" with their communities was directly tied to LUS--presented as simply a "municipal overbuilder:"

There was a need to forge closer ties with the community in Lafayette, where Cox faces competition from a municipal overbuilder, Lafayette Utilities System, Vines said.

The overbuilder “was pushing that it was bringing fiber to the home, but there was really not a sense that Cox was doing that as well,” Vines said.

“Louisiana is very parochial,” she said. “It’s a very relationship-oriented state. So as we were integrating the Lafayette system we had to introduce ourselves, reintroduce Cox Communications … to make sure [customers] understood we had fiber and they didn’t necessarily have to go with our competitor.”

No mention, of course, that Cox fought a bitter, losing battle, much of it covered in the magazine, to prevent this "overbuilder" from building a competitive network. In truth, most of the need to repair its relationship in Lafayette was NOT due to our "parochial" nature but to Cox's many blunders during the fiber fight—the first and most serious of those blunders being to oppose the clearly stated desires of the community for a fiber network. Vines is blowing a bit of smoke in implying to her fellows that their fiber was similar to LUS'. It isn't of course; fiber "in" the network is universal--both AT&T and Cox have fiber cores--and so will LUS. What makes a network a fiber network in the usual usage is that it takes fiber all the way to the home. That is what Lafayette fought for and the people here understand (correctly) that that is what "fiber network" means. Changing the description of your network from HFC to "fiber" in order to pretend that it is the same as what LUS will be offering is a continuation of the deceptive tactics Cox used during the fiber fight. If Cox really wants to repair its relationship with Lafayette ceasing its attempts to mislead us would make a better start than helping pay for Chamber diners or being a sponsor of Festival Internationale.

There are other interesting bits of insight scattered through the article. Take a look for yourself if you are a connoisseur of all things telecom in Lafayette.

One final bit of fun: The story reveals that Jaqui Vines, the new head of the "Greater Louisiana" section is a Ray Nagin protege. Yes, the same Ray Nagin that is mayor of New Orleans and was General Manager of Cox New Orleans. He hired her away from Time-Warner during his tenure in the New Orleans' Cox system. It's a small world down here. Sometimes it is a bit "parochial" down here in the sense that personal relationships do count...at least who Jaqui Vines knew proved helpful.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Thinking in Tucson, AZ: Getting it Right

Muniwireless points to a study, meant to inform about how to write up a request for proposals for Tucson's prospective wireless RFP that caught my attention. First, the extent of the research and the detail in the study far exceeds that which goes into most full proposals, much less the RFP. A large amount of information about broadband usage, digital divide issues, and market questions is in this study—enough to provide plenty of well-researched data to support both public purposes (like economic expansion and bridging the digital divide) and to support a strong marketing plan (it includes current costs of broadband and geographical usage patterns).

Lafayette needs such a public document. Without the baseline it provides it will be difficult to demonstrate the success of the fiber project. You need such a baseline to demonstrate the economic benefits and to document the effects of lower cost broadband on bringing new faces into the broadband world.

But if possible, even more impressive than the original survey research was the quality of thought exhibited. Doing a study like this is a job--and most folks are tempted to do the job to specs even if that is not what is called for by the reality of the situation. CTC, the consultants doing this study didn't succumb to that temptation. The job specs, it is clear, were to tell the city how to write an RFP that get private agencies to provide city-wide wifi without municipal investment. Universal coverage, closing the digital divide and economic development were apparently important parameters given the consultants.

Trouble is, it's become clear that the private sector simply won't, and perhaps can't, fill that wishlist. And CTC, instead of just laying out what would give such an RFP the best chance, more or less told the city it couldn't have all that without at least committing as the major anchor tenet. That was responsible, if unlikely to make the clients happy. And on at least two other points (Digital Divide issues and Fiber) they pushed their clients hard.

1) Digital Divide issues:
The interviews indicated that as computers become more affordable, the digital inclusion challenge that needs to be addressed is not as much equipment-based but rather how to overcome the monthly Internet access charge. (p. 18)

Concentrate WiFi provider efforts on low-cost or free access – not the other elements of the digital divide. (p. 17)
Entering the digital community is no longer about hardware; it's about connectivity. The hardware is a one-time expense that is getting smaller and smaller with each day. Owning a computer is no longer the issue it once was. Keeping it connected is the real fiscal barrier these days. As their survey work shows, the people most effected know this themselves.

A CTC review of Lafayette's project would note we're doing several things they say most cities neglect to do: 1) LUS has consistently pushed lower prices as it major contribution to closing the digital divide—(and we must make sure that there is an extremely affordable lower tier available on both the FTTH and the WiFi components). 2) Ubiquitous coverage is a forgone conclusion; LUS will serve all--something no incumbent will promise (and something they have fought to prevent localities from requiring). 3) Avoiding means-testing. Lafayette's planned solutions are all available to all...but most valuable and attractive to those with the least. Means-testing works (and is intended to work) to reduce the number of people taking advantage of the means-tested program. If closing the digital divide is the purpose means-testing is counterproductive.

About hardware, yes, working to systematically lower the costs and accessibility of hardware through wise selection, quantity purchase, and allowing people to pay off an inexpensive computer with a small amount each month on their telecom bill makes a lot of sense and should be pursued. But the prize is universal service and lowering the price of connectivity. Eyes, as is said, on the prize.

CTC additionally recommends against allowing extremely low speeds for the inclusion tier and for a built-in process for increasing that speed as the network proves itself. It also rejects the walled-garden approach, an approach which they discreetly don't say out loud, turns the inclusion tier into a private reserve that will inevitably be run for the profit of the provider.

Good thinking...

2) The Necessity of Fiber

CTC also boldly emphasized fiber, not wireless, as the most desirable endpoint for Tucson.
We strongly recommend that the City of Tucson view the WiFi effort as a necessary first step, then look at ways to embrace and encourage incremental steps toward fiber deployment to large business and institutions, then smaller business, and eventually to all households. (p. 19)

Although wireless technologies will continue to evolve at a rapid pace, wireless will not replace fiber for delivering high-capacity circuits to fixed locations. In addition, fiber will always be a necessary component of any wireless network because it boosts capacity and speed. (p. 20)
The report explicitly rejects the theory that wireless will ever become the chief method for providing broadband service to fixed locations like businesses or homes. Few in the business of consulting on municipal wireless networking are so forthright in discussing the limitations of wireless technologies and the role of fiber in creating a successful wireless network that is focused on what wireless does best: mobile computing.

Again, good thinking.


Communities would do well to think clearly about what they want, what is possible, and the roles of fiber and wireless technologies can play in their communities' futures. CTC has done a real service to the people of Tuscon. Too much unsupported and insupportable hype has driven muni wireless projects. That unrealistic start will come back to haunt municipal broadband efforts nationally as the failed assumptions show up in the form of failed projects. But those mistakes were not inevitable. The people of Lafayette should take some comfort in the fact that we haven't made the sorts of mistakes that Tuscon's consultants warn against and are planning on implementing its most crucial recommendations.