Monday, July 30, 2007

WBS: KillerApp: Take Four, The Lafayette Survey

What's Being Said Department

KillerApp's blog has posted a fourth in its series about Geoff Daily's visit to Lafayette. This one focuses on André Comeaux's efforts to get someone, anyone, to sponsor a survey of Lafayette's current broadband usage and needs. Daily lauds Comeaux saying:
In his mind, we can’t know where we’re going and/or how far we’ve gone without knowing where we came from, and in order to understand that we need to have a fuller understanding of how, and if, the Internet is being used today.

I think he’s spot on in his focus on this area, especially in a community like Lafayette that stands on the verge of making a major investment in its fiber infrastructure. I say this not only as a way to hopefully justify the cost of the fiber down the road, but also because of Andre’s savvy belief that if they can chart where they are today and then compare that to where they end up tomorrow, they’ll then have hard data that can be used to spur government officials into action, either through championing the successes that have been realized or stepping up to more fully support underachieving areas.

Andre’s not alone in understanding the need to get more information about how people are using the Internet today.

André is right, and Daily is right to cheer him on. André has done a tremendous amount of work and the entire package pretty much made up. He's secured the right to use the wording and the methodology of the USC Annenberg School's "The Digital Future Report." This prestigous national study has been done yearly since 2000 and basing our survey on it would both insure that we had 1) a good, credible baseline, 2) way to compare ourselves with the national norms, and 3) and a way to compare ourselves going forward. He also has a solid proposal in from the firm that does the survey for the Annenberg school to do ours. All that is lacking is the necessary institutional support and the money. And the money, quite likely, could be minimized if we could get some folks from ULL to kick in a little support.

André is following up on work done by the original Digital Divide Committee whose "Bridging the Digital Divide" document, as approved by the City-Parish Council, made such a survey a central part of the local commitment to bridging the digital divide. He picked up the cause as a member of Lafayette Coming Together after the fiber fight and pursued it vigorously, trying to bring in folks ranging from LEDA to UL to the Chamber of Commerce.

We need that survey pretty badly. Five years down the road the Lafayette Network will just be hitting its stride and I expect it to be doing well. But unless we have some way to track our achievements the perennial naysayers will always denigrate the system, saying that private companies could have done better (though they refused to do it all) or that the publicly owned network hasn't really made a difference (though they'll have no evidence they'll say it anyway and we'll have no solid way to disprove them). Even more critically, LUS and Lafayette will have no way to measure their accomplishments except by the same metrics that private for-profit companies use—subscribership and "profits"—and LUS is NOT trying to meet the same goals that private corporations are trying to meet. LUS will be run as a utility and its goals will be to lower prices (and hence profits) and to increase the utility and use of the service. Those are the sorts of metrics we should be using to judge our success and without a survey taken before the network starts up we will never have a good baseline against which to judge our success. I expect LUS' entry into the market to fundamentally change the market making it cheaper, faster, and hopefully more useful. More people will use the local network/s (public and private) and they will use it for different things. Without a way to track that change, and compare it to what is happening in other places it will be impossible to disprove unfair attacks like the ones we saw during the long fiber fight leading up to the referendum victory.

Thank are due André for his effort and thanks are due Geoff Daily for reminding us of what we have in such citizens. Here's to hoping someone besides André will step up to the plate.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Congressional Policy & Lafayette

Dick Durbin, Senator from Illinois, has been holding a nightly public forum on telecom policy issues online over the last three nights and tonights question is: "What do we need to to do to encourage investment in broadband infrastructure?" Lafayette's network is being featured as an example:
Tonight, I'd like to focus on other ways to provide incentives to build broadband networks. Public/private initiatives like Connect Kentucky have achieved success where the market alone has failed. Other projects like Lafayette, Louisiana's Fiber for the Future and Utah's UTOPIA project have also made significant steps.

Durbin also features Lafayette as an example on the video lead-in to the forum:


Louisiana is being mentioned in the same light as Connect Kentucky and the Utopia Projects—both state-wide efforts that have garnered a lot of positive comment in Washington and on the net. Each night has featured well-known national experts and advocates of broadband. Tonight's features Jim Baller, who aided LUS and Lafayette during the fiber fight, Paul Morris of Utopia, and Andrew McNeil of Connect Kentucky.

Lafayette's Partisan's might want to attend the forum at 6:00. Durbin is hoping to draft new law on broadband availability and this discussion is a chance to talk to a major policy maker directly. Federal legislation is one of the few forces that might get AT&T and Cox off LUS' back. The format is a "Live Blog" done in what I think of as "Drupal Style" --meaning that there is a long string of responses and responses to responses and anyone can pitch in with their remarks. The first three nights have been interesting and this last one, with its exploration of real, in-the-world alternatives, promises to be even more contentious and useful.

NOTE: the active forum has opened up at a new URL. Go to: http://openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=451

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tidbits: Fiber Budget News & Wireless Police

Two Tidbits from recent news accounts that focused on topics other than Lafayette's network but included interesting bits about it...

The Daily Advertiser coverage of the city-parish council meeting yielded this bit after news about the budget:
The proposed 2007-08 budget is not expected to include funding for the fiber-to-the-home network because bonds to build the project were issued after Lafayette Utilities System submitted its budget, LUS Director Terry Huval said Monday.

A special budget amendment will be considered by the council, probably at its Aug. 7 meeting, to address the capital needs of the project, Huval said.

A second budget amendment to address the operations and maintenance of fiber-to-the-home, will be submitted prior to adoption of the 2007-08 budget Sept. 27.
And, related:
LUS is accepting bids to temporarily lease warehouse space to house the material needed for the FTTH enterprise.

LUS soon will be taking bids on the warehouse and head-end building that will permanently house the FTTH equipment, Huval said. Construction is expected to begin before the end of 2007.
Everything is moving down the tracks.

A bit more on the wireless network LUS is anticipating building from the Advocate's news briefs "Around Acadiana." Note that it is framed in terms of using these cars "no matter where they are in the city."

Each of the units is also fully equipped with wireless equipment. Since the city is expanding its citywide wireless network for public safety workers, it won’t be long before police units will have wireless capabilities no matter where they are in the city.

I'm looking forward to universal coverage.

Local Government Fair Competition Act Dead...in North Carolina

Following a state-wide outcry North Carolina's version of the lobbyist-written "Local Government Fair Competition Act" died today according to a local report. (Previous LPF coverage: 1, 2, 3)

Opposition from the likes of North Carolina's Leauge of Municipalities, Google, Educause, Intel, Tropos, and user groups finally killed the embarrassing telecom-sponsored bill in the state that prides itself on having successfully courted high-tech in its widely admired "research triangle." The victory didin't come easy and the incumbent corporations enjoyed several successes before being derailed in the House finance committee. Louisiana's legislature, regular readers will recall, passed such a law and it has proved the bane of Lafayette's effort to build the network the citizens voted for every since by spawning seemingly endless lawsuits. In North Carolina legislators were helped to see the light by the disaster produced by the previous year's telecom -sponsored–a state-wide video franchise law. That made it a little harder to treat the earnest entreties of the incumbents as credible. (In Louisiana the ongoing mess produced by the Lousisiana Local Government Fair Competition Act was no doubt instrumental in inducing our governor to veto our state-wide video law when that giveaway was proposed here. You can fool some of the people...)

Congratulations are due to an aroused North Carolina citizenry. Only one thing trumps the money the incumbent corporations have to spread around at election time: the votes they had hoped to buy with it.

Louisiana needs to repeal it's own version of this odious (un)Fair Competition law. It puts stunningly unfair restraints on competition, restricts the people's rights to act in their own behalf, and has the now demonstrable effect of leaving local governments mired in legal battles that serve only to delay the expressed will of the people. It robbed the citizens of New Orleans of their municipal wifi system after the storm and came close to derailing Lafayette's project. It is not likely that any other municipality in the state will have the resources or the will to pursue serving their citizenry in this way until this law is repealed.

North Carolina shows the way.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

WBS: "Eyes on Lafayette Fiber"

What's Being Said Department

From Broadband Reports comes an interesting piece of speculation: that Lafayette's fiber may become more of a bellwether for the advocates of municipal networks now that the bloom is off the rose of muni wi-fi:
Lafayette, as you might recall, had to fight incumbent broadband providers Cox and BellSouth tooth and nail in order to deploy the project. On the heels of the very sudden press realization that citywide Wi-Fi isn't magic pixie dust, we'll expect that municipal FTTH will see greater attention, with Lafayette's $110 million dollar project a major litmus test.
Here's an even more speculative thought: that LUS will be in a position to salvage what can be salvaged of the muni wi-fi movement by deploying a wireless system that actually works as advertised. As we've tirelessly repeated here the root of the difficulty with most WAN (Wide Area Network) wifi systems, muni or not, is that they are undersupplied with bandwidth and very "gappy." Both issues arise not from technology but from economics: suppliers are motivated to minimize costs and the number of connections to a full-strength backbone is a direct determinant of cost—and available bandwidth. LUS, because it owns a full-throttle fiber backbone, will much less motivation to minimize the number of those connections. Doing it right is an upfront cost, not a continuing expense.

Users will find Lafayette's fiber network 10 to 100 times faster than what they've been experiencing. There's no reason why the wifi network shouldn't be that much more powerful than the typical WAN.

All eyes on Lafayette.

Monday, July 23, 2007

WBS: KillerApp: Take Three

What's Being Said Department

Geoff Daily's third installment in his series on Lafayette came out today in the AppRising blog at KillerApp.com. This one focuses on his tour of the LITE center and examines that unique facility. (Not quite so unique as LEDA says, however. It's not "the world's first six-sided digital virtual reality cube" even if it is one of the very few that are publicly available.)

Geoff's pretty clearly wowed by the experience. I took the tour recently and know how he feels. It's pretty cool to draw in 3D—not draw a 3D representation on a 2D device but actually draw in 3D. It is also cool to walk around in 3D immersive environment, as you might well imagine.

Geoff Daily does us the courtesy of providing his video of the tour online as an aid to your imagination. But you should really go yourself. It's fun; it's free; and it's pretty much only available in Lafayette. (Well you could go to Sweden or Germany but wouldn't you rather make an appointment down at the egg?)



LITE will also be opening its doors to the public every first Wednesday of the month for 30-minute tours. For information or reservations, call (337) 735-LITE (5483).

YES! Poles Being Surveyed for Fiber

There are two guys outside my house right now surveying the pole across the street to make sure that there is enough room to run the fiber down the street.

YES!

They're in nifty white trucks that say "Atlantic Engineering" on the door with a magnetic stick-on sign that proclaims they are "contracted by LUS." They're walking down the street with a monstrous big yellow extension measuring stick and a clipboard marking the distance between the ground and each wire. One of 'em has a neat little yellow sighting device that marks the distance between poles.

I went over and talked to 'em briefly (didn't want to be the cause of any delay!) and they confirmed that they were surveying for the fiber that LUS was going install—"the fiber that the people in the city voted for a while back." One fellow talked briefly about making sure it wasn't too close to a power line in a comfortingly familiar Cajun accent. I smiled big, thanked 'em and scuttled out of the way.

Now I live off a major thoroughfare and they didn't survey all the poles on my side street so my guess is that this is sort of sort of a spot check for laying out a major trunk. (Meaning I'm not getting my hopes up. :-) )

Men working. Boots on the ground, it's amazing how reassuring that is.

Made my day.

Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong....Lafayette?

Google, the US' premier internet company, is testing new designs for its search page and its igoogle homepage...bu only in places where big bandwidth is available. According to a PC World article Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of technology, said:
"We're actually now experimenting with trying new kinds of homepages, for example in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, that are a completely different type than we've tried before on our U.S. site...

"We think [the new design] will be more appropriate for the local cultures, and their context, and their broadband connections, which, for example in Korea, are extraordinarily fast," Brin said, adding that response to the new site designs had been "quite positive."
Google has been famous for NOT crowding its basic search page with extraneous (and self-serving) ads or cross-promotions. As a consequence their search page has a reputation for loading quickly and cleanly. Apparently, having gobs of extra bandwidth encourages Google to experiment with changes that include animated icons though the additions are still modest by anyone else's standards. (Check out the Korean search page.)

Google's user homepage system, iGoogle, gets an upgrade in faster places as well. Tabbed "gadget boxes" are a staple of the new design in fiber-rich locales and small animated graphics are featured as well. (Taiwan's)

iGoogle has fascinated me for awhile now. It is similar to a system envisioned nearly 3 years ago by Lafayette's Digital Divide Committee as a way to make localized information available and to allow users to customize the page by choosing the modules they were interested in. In that vision you could get the feed from your church, or the sports feed, or find local computer repair or babysitters... The hope was encourage more extensive use of modern networks by making the net more useful for local tasks. Back then it was pretty much a pipe dream. Each box on the page (what Google calls a gadget) would have been pretty much handbuilt and the whole system would have to have been backed up with a locally created and maintained server and programming team. Changing the box's placement on the page columns would have to have been mediated by an awkward panel. It's amazing how fast the future comes in some areas: with the maturation of RSS feeds and the arrival of easy to use tools like Yahoo Pipes and Google Gadgets that project is now conceivable as something a single competent programmer (or a determined neophyte) could tinker together using those tools and end up with a very sophisticated face that would include drag and drop rearrangement of the page and multiple personal pages for different purposes—you could have a separate local tabs for "local news," "kids stuff," "my sports," and "business stuff."

Lafayette could use the nifty extra features iGoogle uses in Asia for a sporty new local website. And with the coming bandwidth from LUS it could easily match the speeds available there.

Maybe someone could ask Google if they need an US testbed?


(Thanks to Mike who suggested the link—and the title. :-))

Sunday, July 22, 2007

PhotoSynth & Web 2.0—Worth Thinking About

Sunday Thought Dept.

Warning: this is seriously different from the usual fare here but fits roughly into my occasional "Sunday Thought" posts. I've been thinking hard about how to make the web more compelling for users and especially how to integrate the local interests that seem so weakly represented on the internet. As part of that exploration I ran across a research program labeled "PhotoSynth." It offers a way to integrate "place" into the abstract digital world of the web in a pretty compelling way if your interest is in localism: it automatically recreates a 3 dimensional world from any random set of photographs of a scene and allows tags and links to be embedded in them. Once anyone has tagged a local feature (say the fireman's statue on Vermillion St. or a associated a review with a picture of Don's Seafood downtown.) everyone else's images are, in effect, enriched by their ability to "inherit" that information.

But it seems that it is a lot more than just the best thing to happen to advocates of web localism in a long time. It's very fundamental stuff, I think, with implications far beyond building a better local web portal.... Read On...

----------------------------
Photosynth aka "Photo Tourism" encapsulates a couple of ideas that are well worth thinking hard about. Potentially this technical tour de force provides a new, automated, and actually valuable way of building representations of the world we live in.

This is a big deal.


Before I get all abstract on you (as I am determined to do) let me strongly encourage you to first take a look at the most basic technical ideas behind what I'm talking about. Please take the time to absorb a five and a half minute video illustrating the technology. If you're more a textural learner you can take a quick look at the text-based, photo-illustrated overview from the Washington State/MS lab. But I recommend trying the video first.



You did that? Good; thanks....otherwise the rest will be pretty opaque—more difficult to understand than it needs to be.

One way to look at what the technology does is that it recreates a digitized 3D world from a 2D one. It builds a fully digital 3D model of the world from multiple 2D photos. Many users contribute their "bits" of imagery and, together, they are automatically interlinked to yield, out of multiple points of view, a "rounded" representation of the scene. The linkages between images are established on the basis of data inside the image--on the basis of their partial overlap—and ultimately on the basis of their actually existing next to each other—and this is done without the considered decisions of engaged humans.

Why is that a big deal?

Because its not all handmade. Today's web is stunningly valuable but it is also almost completely hand-made. Each image or word is purpose-chosen for its small niche on a web page or in its fragment of context. The links that connect the web's parts are (for the most part) hand-crafted as well and represent someone's thoughtful decision. Attempts to automate the construction of the web, to automatically create useful links, have failed miserably—largely because connections need to be meaningful in terms of the user's purpose and algorithms don't grok meaning or purpose.

The web has been limited by its hand-crafted nature. There is information (of all sorts, from videos of pottery being thrown, to bird calls, to statistical tables) out there we can't get to—or even get an indication that we ought to want to get to. We rely mostly on links to find as much as we do and those rely on people making the decision to hand-craft them. But we don't have the time, or the inclination, to make explicit and machine-readable all the useful associations that lend meaning to what encounter in our lives. So the web remains oddly thin—it consists of the few things that are both easy enough and inordinately important enough to a few of our fellows to get represented on the net. It is their overwhelming number and the fact that we are all competent in our own special domains that makes the web so varied and fascinating.

You might think that web search, most notably the big success story of the current web, Google's, serves as a ready substitute for consciously crafted links. We think Google links us to appropriate pages without human intervention. But we're not quite right—Google's underlying set of algorithms, collectively known as "PageRank," mostly just ranks pages by reference to how many other pages link to those pages and weights those by the links form other sites that those pages receive...and so on. To the extent that web search works it relies on making use of handmade links. The little fleas algorithm.™ It's handmade links all the way down.

Google was merely the first to effectively repackage human judgment. You've heard of web 2.0? (More) The idea that underpins that widely hyped craze is that you can go to your users to supply the content, the meaning, the links. That too is symptomatic of what I'm trying to point to here: the model that relies solely on the web being built by "developers" who are guessing their users needs has reached its limits.

That's why Web 2.0 is a big deal: The folks designing the web are groping toward a realization of their limits, how to deal with them, and keep the utility of the web growing.

It is against that backdrop that PhotoSynth appears. It represents another path toward a richer web. The technologies it uses have been combined to contextually indexes images based on their location in the real, physical world. The physical world becomes its own index—one that exist independently of hand-crafted links. Both Google and Yahoo have been looking for a way to harness "localism," recognizing that they are missing a lot of what is important to users by not being able to locate places, events, and things that are close to the user's physical location.

The new "physical index" would quickly become intertwined with the meaning-based web we have developed. Every photo that you own would, once correlated with the PhotoSynth image, "inherit" all the tags and links embedded in all the other imagery there or nearby. More and more photos are tagged with meta-data and sites like flicker allow you to annotate elements of the photograph (as does PhotoSynth). The tags and links represented tie back into the already established web of hand-crafted links and knit them together in new ways. And it potentially goes further: Image formats typically already support time stamps and often a time stamp is registered in a digital photograph's metadata even when the user is unaware of it. Though I've not seen any sign thatPhotoSynth makes use of time data it would be clearly be almost trivial to add that functionality. And that would add an automatic "time index" to the mix. So if you wanted to see pictures of the Vatican in every season you could...or view images stretching back to antiquity.

It's easy to fantasize about how place, time, and meaning-based linking might work together. Let's suppose you stumble across a nifty picture of an African Dance troupe. Metadata links that to a date and location—Lafayette in April of 2005. A user tag associated with the picture is "Festival International." From there you get to the Festival International de Louisiane website. You pull up—effectively create—a 3-D image of the Downtown venue recreated from photos centered on the stage 50 feet from where the metadata says the picture was taken. A bit of exploration in the area finds Don's Seafood, the Louisiana Crafts Guild, a nifty fireman's statue, a fountain (with an amazing number of available photos) and another stage. That stage has a lot of associations with "Zydeco" and "Cajun" and "Creole." You find yourself virtually at the old "El Sido's," get a look at the neighborhood and begin to wonder about the connections between place, poverty, culture, and music....

The technologies used in SynthPhoto are not new or unique. Putting them all together is...and potentially points the way toward a very powerful way to enhance the web and make it more powerfully local.

Worth thinking about on a quiet Sunday afternoon.


Lots o' Langiappe:

TED talk Video — uses a Flickr data set to illustrate how the program can scoop up any imagry. This was the first reference I fell across.

Photo Tourism Video — Explains the basics, using the photo tourism interface. Shows the annotation feature of the program...

Roots of PhotoSynth Research Video—an interesting background bit...seadragon, stitching & virtual tourist, 3D extraction....

PhotoSynth on the Web Video: a version of the program is shown running in a web browser; only available to late version Microsoft users. (Web Site)

Microsoft Interactive Visual Media Group Site. Several of these projects look very interesting—and you can see how some of the technologies deployed in PhotoSynth have been used in other contexts.

Microsoft PhotoSynth Homepage

Saturday, July 21, 2007

ToDo: Yahoo Pipes

Today's "ToDo:" Yahoo Pipes. Nifty, cool, efficient.

If we're all gonna love having big pipes here in Lafayette and find ourselves living on the web as a consequence (like I think we will when we're not dancing or eating crawfish or boudin) then we're gonna have to learn to deal with the dreaded "information overload."

The problem is an embarrassment of riches: the net makes so much information effortlessly available that it is all too easy to while away the hours when you could be doing something useful like playing with your grandchildren or searching out the best boudin place doing something merely mundane like keeping up with the news on LUS' fiber system.

Not Good.

Don't let it happen to you.

Play a bit with Yahoo pipes and you'll discover that for a small upfront investment in time spent building a pipe you can eliminate a host of tedious clicks from you regular routine. Yahoo pipes lets you concatenate RSS feeds into one giant feed and search that feed for items of interest, filtering out all the gradu that you wouldn't bother to read anyway.

The simplest pipes (see an example below) just search a set of feeds for all mentions of your favorite thing. You could, for instance, search all Lafayette media mention of your favorite topic. I put together a pipe which will search most of South Louisiana's major media. You can travel to a "pipe" which searches on "Blanco" and today returns mostly the comments on her recent set of vetos. (Be paitient—Yahoo is searching 1278 items and winnowing it down to the 20 or so articles you'll see. And it will do it a LOT faster than you would—so quit your whining.) Another pipe, searching "Vitter" lets you feast on the latest local coverage of the scandal.

It's all very easy really and Yahoo has done its best to make it as easy as possible. In an earlier ToDo article I recommended an animation programming environment called "Scratch" in part for its super easy introduction to visual programming for kids. Yahoo pipes works off the same idea. You are presented with a palette of tools (like sources, user input, operators, and various bits to manipulate your data). You pick up a tool and drop it onto a working canvas, paste source links into the "source" tool, drop a search "operator" onto the canvas, type in your search term, then simply "pull" links to indicate that you want to search your source based on the search terms you typed. Link that to an output device and save. You're done. All very intuitive and fun to play with since you can mess with your connections, sources, and operators to see what they do and how they change what you get.

That sort of quick check is not all you can do—but that should be enough to get you started. Here's a version of the "South Louisiana News Search" that is a redevelopment of one I've put together for my own use that contains more bells and whistles and a rudimentary user interface. (It's a model for some tools I've been thinking about for the Lafayette Commons I'd like to see our community have. (more)) The "South Louisiana News Search" pipe is embedded on a web page and lets you enter your own search term. The return comes back tagged with the website from which it was pulled and is (poorly) time-sorted from most recent to oldest. Now imagine what you could do with geotagging and calendar feeds in addition to the RSS type feeds I've played with here. Then contemplate using Google Gears to pull in database material, give it all a real user interface, and allow you to go offline with the data and the means to do something with it.

This sort of fun and simple tool is only the beginning.

Lagniappe: Your favorite info source hasn't gotten on the RSS bandwagon yet? Try Feedity.com. It will let you convert that page to an (undated) feed that Pipes can use.

Lagniappe2: Don't like my feed? Wish it had Alexandria? Can't fathom why I left off the sports feeds? Wish it included your home town newspaper? Just go to Yahoo, register (free), login, and "clone" that feed. (I've made it publicly available.) Tweak, alter, add, subtract, and improve to your heart's content.

WBS: KillerApp: Take Two

What's Being Said Department:

Geoff Daily over at the AppsRising blog registers the first of two promised pieces about his trip to Lafayette. This one focuses mostly on his discussions with local business folks...Abigail Ransonet, Ray Abshire, Joe Abraham, Casey Deshotels, Howard Chaney are all mentioned and he talks to Logan McDaniel, the CIO of Layette Parish School District, as well.

Interesting stuff.

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Lafayette Parish libraries go wireless"

Good stuff...

Lafayette's public libraries all now have public, free wireless networks. Both the Advertiser and the Independent ran short pieces announcing the completion of the project. So if you absolutely have to check your email right now here's a map to some additional places you can do so: The Lafayette Public Libraries.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

WBS: "Back from Lafayette and Pondering..."

What's Being Said Department:

Geoff Daily, the fella I wrote about yesterday, is back home and promising a two day series on Lafayette sojourn in his AppRising blog. From the setup entry yesterday:
After a long weekend in Lafayette, LA, I’m back in the saddle and ready to share stories from my first immersion in this Cajun community that’s on the verge of deploying a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network.

...you can look forward to posts tomorrow and Friday that highlight some of the innovation and applications I discovered during my travels in and around Lafayette.
He takes the opportunity to state his own position on municipal broadband in this post before launching into a more specific analysis. The executive summary? In a nutshell: he's fretful but hopeful.

Geoff struck me as thoughtful and willing to deal with the realities of broadband in the US. I'll be following his short series here and would recommend it to those who have hopes for our network. An outsider's eye is always useful.

AT&T's 10 dollar deal: Is it real?

I recently covered a $10 dollar DSL deal and a promise of a $20 dollar "naked DSL plan from AT&T that ought to be available locally. (It's got some preconditions, see my post.) David Isenberg dug a little harder and made the case that these plans weren't actually being "offered" in any real sense of the term. Now he (and I!) would like to know if anyone out there is actually getting this deal.

Background: AT&T agreed, as a condition of its merger with BellSouth, to offer these deals. As we in Lafayette know, the phone company doesn't necessarily keep its word and this appears to be a case where the company is skirting pretty close to simply breaking the law. I dug around a bit for this post and discovered yet another very real obligation on Ars Technica: AT&T is supposed to make broadband available to EVERYONE in its footprint; it promised to provide at least 85% of its customers with DSL and would tie the last 15% in with satellite or WiMax. So if they tell you they can't provision you — ask again.!

The question of AT&T keeping its word comes up following a small internet furor over a story popularized on engadget about a fellow that had a real hassle getting the $10 dollar deal from AT&T. I had similar issues when I tried to see how real the offer was locally.

Has anyone out there tried? What's your story? Were you successful? Did you eventually give up trying and go for the "good" (but more expensive) "deal" that was easier to get?

I'd love to hear from you in the comments here or via email at John2_AT_lafayetteprofiber_DOT_com

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thoughts on Killer Apps and Community

I've been chewing over an informal speech/meeting with Geoff Daily of KillerApp Monday evening from which I came away pretty impressed. He was speaking on what drives broadband usage—especially usage of high-capacity fiber networks. Daily actually gets it—he's not so distracted by the technology itself that he doesn't see that something more is necessary to create real change.

Daily was in town at the behest of Abigail Ransonet (aka fiberina and mistress of Abacus Marketing) who is hosting him here. Geoff, who is "on tour" of communities which have significant fiber to the home networks, is visiting Lafayette with the dual purpose of seeing what we are doing (or planning to do) with our fiber and informing us about what others have done.

What impressed me was that Geoff didn't succumb to the implications of the name of the business for which he works—nor the mindset that is so popular that the name was an obvious choice for a business focused on broadband. He doesn't think there is going to be a "KillerApp" that drives full utilization of fiber networks and leads to broadband utopia.

What Daily pointed out Monday was that most of the applications that people expect will drive broadband usage already exist. Some of them don't really require big broadband if only a few people are using them—and only a few people are. Those that do require a big pipe don't appear to be widely adopted where the bandwidth is available. The missing element is adoption. Waiting for "the killer app" is just a way of putting off the real works: preparing the community to make use of the many advantages which fiber's big bandwidth makes available.

Without community education—and providing a way for that education to occur—networks may be fiscally successful. But they will not realize the dreams of their advocates to provide a foundation for accelerated growth, equity, and a markedly better quality of life for citizens.

The "build it and they will come" assumption is insufficient to those goals. Building a community-owned fiber network is, I believe, a necessary precondition realize such dreams. Privately-owned networks will never be motivated to serve the needs of the community except indirectly. If any community hopes to get ahead of the curve or to simply control its own destiny it must own its own tools. That's true for carpenters and that's true for cities. Lafayette did the right thing in building its own network. But Geoff Daily reminds us that this is only the beginning. (Check out his blog at KillerApp for relevant ideas.)

Daily pointed to the Utopia project in Utah as one that appeared to him to be built on "build it and they will come" assumption. In truth, as Daily probably realizes, this attitude was pretty much forced on them by their statehouse: the state of Utah would only allow local communities to build the networks the private providers refused to build if they leased them out to private service providers. In consequence the Utopia project is not, and cannot be, "utopian" in any real sense. The citizens who own and will have taken the risk in providing the network will find themselves with services that are typical of services offered by any private network since what motivates their providers will be no different from what motivates anyone else's.

That is better than not having such services at all, I'll grant, but that is not what Lafayette voted for—we voted for the dream.

One point was unmistakable: Geoff Daily wants that dream too. He wants to see the technology lead to better things for communities and their residents. That leads him to think that we need a visionary success in at least one community to kickstart nation-wide usage. The country needs to see a place where an advanced network kicks off accelerates growth, decreases inequality, and results in a markedly better quality of life for all its citizens.

I nominate Lafayette.

But, as Geoff's presentation and the following discussion made clear, it won't happen by itself. The the only way that will happen is if LCG, LUS, and the community decide to make it happen.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Happy July 16th....

Late getting to it...but congratulations on the second anniversary of the fiber referendum. A quiet nod to those who worked hard to help make the dream real.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"Budget ready for LUS project"

Blanchard over at the Advocate runs a story on the budget for LUS' new telecommunications division—the division that will be responsible for the LUS Fiber project. The budget ordinance will be introduced this coming Tuesday and, if the usual pattern holds true, voted on at the following meeting.

The budget anticipates committing 80 million of the 110.4 million of the money yielded by the bond sales. Because contracts arranged this year will go on this years budget the major part of the money will be committed even though it might not be actually "spent" for several years. Among the interesting details from the story:
It includes more than $20 million for the buildings, electronic equipment, computers and software that will be required at the “head-end,” that will serve as the technical operations center for the new network...

The budget also includes $2.9 million for set top boxes that will be in customers’ homes and $12 million for the boxes that will be placed on the outside of customers’ buildings.
Those are numbers to tuck away—they represent the major technological committments of the system, not just the major capital outlays. The money spent on headend equipment will determine the capacity of the system while the money spent at your house will determine how much of that capacity each citizen can utilize. The specs on all that will make for interesting reading. (Ok, maybe "interesting" is strong. But they will be important.)

But beyond that the story notes an interesting apparent discrepancy in the numbers: LUS has said that we can expect the first segment to be lit up about January of 09. But $5.5 million is allocated for hooking up customers in the 07-08 fiscal year, which begins in November for LUS. That's earlier than anticipated. On the other hand no money is allocated for dealing with "customer accounts" until the the o8-o9 budget. That is not early and jibes with previous estimates.

What's the deal? I don't know but based on previous estimates of the hook-up costs per household 5.5 million will hook up 8000 to 9000 customers. One explanation would be that LUS hopes to light up its first segment in January of 09—perhaps as a New Years gift to the city—and will be completing hookups as the fiber is rolls into the neighborhood and people order service. So if fiber gets to you in, say, September of 08 then they'd hook you up (and charge that year's budget) and you'd get to wait until Jan 09 to get service. (There is three months of agonizing anticipation!)

However that explanation seems a bit of simple. Hooking up 8-9000 homes by November, at least 2 months in advance of the lighting date, means that you'd have even more homes available when the segment came online. 10,000? 12? That's better than 1/5 of the total households available in the city. And since the announced plan was to segment the city into 5 zones and build each zone out sequentially that would mean that LUS was planning on pre-subscribing 100% of one segment. That's not going to happen and I don't believe that LUS thinks it will. Hooking up that many homes that early suggests that LUS will be tackling more than one segment at a time. Two? Three? All? And if they are going to work on more than 1/5 of the city at once that in turn suggests that they will be pushing hard to complete the network in less than the three and half years previously discussed.

So I'm hoping for an announcement that the construction plan has changed—and that a highly segmented build has been abandoned. That'd be a good thing in my estimation.

Caveat: My line of reasoning on this makes a certain amount of sense but I might not fully understand a document I've not seen. Or I might not understand adequately the process of network construction or how costs are distributed. But I find the numbers very suggestive of a faster build with more subscribers brought online early than we've previously been led to believe.

Video Franchise Disaster in North Carolina

A weekly newspaper in North Carolina's Research Triangle, The Independent, has one of those rare, acerbic, factually rich explorations of a significant topic that you only seem to find in alternative weeklies.

The reason you're seeing it here is that the column's point of departure is North Carolina's "Video Service Competition Act"—a phone company sponsored bill that moved control of cable franchise to the state level and thereby removing local control over fees, PEG channel support, and consumer protection. North Carolina's legislature passed it last year, just as Louisiana's did, in the name of encouraging competition. But North Carolina's governor signed the bill while Blanco, citing concerns over local control and damaging municipalities' income, vetoed the bill.

On the basis of North Carolina's evidence, Blanco was right.

The History:
Though the legislation promised competition and new investment, in fact no new competition has emerged. Neither Verizon nor AT&T have actually launched any new services in North Carolina and they don't have any firm plans to do so. No new technology has appeared. Prices have not fallen. Hmmn.

Though they assured municipalities that they'd see no drop in income in fact the state has collected only 62% of what the municipalities had been taking in. Ooops.

Though local PEG channels, like our AOC, were promised a secure share from the state it turns out that the state only budgeted for 80 channels—and 300 applied. Ooops.

The Kicker:
North Carolina is now being asked by the telecomm companies to pass the "Local Government Fair Competition Act." It's a law like Louisiana's law that imposes unfair constraints on local governments and makes it virtually impossible for a small community to make the decision to do so. The author of this piece suggests, on the basis of the outcome of last year's disaster, that they not do so. So has Lafayette Pro Fiber. Emphatically.

Give the story a read; there are some "rich" details.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Film Studio News

KLFY runs with a news story based on the "River Studio and Filmport" news coming to Baton Rouge. A recent Advocate story mentioned that the new studio, slated for West Baton Rouge, would sport a "satellite facility for animation and special effects along the Interstate 10 corridor in Lafayette and a satellite soundstage in the Minden area." But that was the extent of the mention.

KLFY talked to Durel about it and a good bit more came out. From the broadcast interview:
You have to remember that, what we're going to have, in Lafayette, in two years, is not going to exist in 95% of America twenty years from now.
Durel was, of course, referring to the the LUS Fiber network that is planning on serving its first customers in less than two years. He noted all of Lafayette's bragging points say that the decision to come to Lafayette was
...all tied around the technology between the University, the LITE Center, and Fiber To The Home.
UL and the LITE Center are crucial to this since the animation and digitization technologies that movie makers are interested in will be available there. Being able to access those technologies from anywhere in town will be a major plus for the city.

The new facility in Baton Rouge appears to be a very large one intended for major films, meaning it will spawn a raft of jobs ranging from carpentry and electrical to acting, to costuming and digitalization enterprises—and developing that wealth of infrastructure is what makes the new project so exciting. Film industry interest in Louisiana has been growing and once the basics are readily available it will be much easier to attract new business. An earlier story in the Advocate had already talked about several film stages being planned in and around the River City. But Baton Rouge is not alone—Lafayette has already found some film love in the form of Emerald Bayous. Emerald Bayous, with a film stage in New Roads, was also attracted to the high tech infrastructure Lafayette has and has taken up residence in the LITE Center.

The payoff for a lot of hard work and dreaming on the part of some of Lafayette's resident visionaries is starting to pay off. They should be feeling a little warm glow of satisfaction.


------For Mac & Linux & Windows users with unconventional systems, a repeat complaint-------
The KLFY page has a link to a video. If you are a Mac or Linux user the weird, broken, javascript prevents you from viewing it. Unwrapping the stuff it calls reveals the real URL http://www.klfy.com/Global/Video/WorldnowASX.asp?os=mac&vt=v&clipid=1574491 Pasting that URL directly into Windows Media Player works fine. So it's not your system. (The tech guys at KLFY really ought to be embarrassed. Fixes for difficulties like this are as simple as giving the users you refuse to adequately serve a direct link.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Clarksville is Building its Fiber

Via the good offices of Hank Ballew at Clarksvillefiberoptic.com I discovered that Clarksville, TN has begun its fiber-optic build. The trucks started rolling on June 13th.

Congratulations!

Clarksville is interesting to Lafayette citizens because its situation is remarkably similar to our own. Most noticeably Clarksville and Lafayette are aproximately the same size with Lafayette showing 7,000 more people during the 2000 census but Clarksville boasting a few hundred more in the 2005 estimate. Similarly Clarksville serves 54,000 customers while LUS sells electricity to 58,000. The two cities construction schedules will substantially overlap with, it seems, Lafayette running about 6 months behind Clarksville at the beginning but finishing at about the same time. Atlantic Engineering is Lafayette's network's designer and will oversee the build while it is both designing and constructing Clarksville's. So watching should be a little like looking into a mirror—the similarities and differences that emerge ought to be interesting.

One of the differences, as I've noted previously, is that Clarksville did not have to fight for its network in the same way that Lafayette did. It'll be interesting to see if that makes any difference in the way citizens regard the service and therefore in the utility's subscription rates.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Without Further Comment

Korea:
Broadband Subscriptions: 90%;
Average Speed: 45.6 megs;
Price Per Month Per Meg: 45 cents

United States:
Broadband Subscriptions: 50%;
Average Speed: 4.8 megs;
Price Per Month Per Meg: 3 dollars 33 cents

Saturday, July 07, 2007

AT&T's $10.00 DSL Not "Offered"

David Isenberg at his exemplary Isenblog points out that AT&T is not really living up to the agreements it made to get the BellSouth merger approved. He uses a LPF post as a point of departure, noting that while it is possible to find the $10.00 DSL offer I referred readers to it is not easy to locate and, even more significantly, you cannot get to the offer from even the difficult-to-locate page I found. I had not realized that but, upon digging further, found it to be absolutely true. Mea Culpa! Following the link on the BellSouth page leads you to the general AT&T DSL page and after giving them your local phone number as part of the "order" process for the cheapest visible alternative they still don't give the customer (you and me) any sense that there might be a legally mandated, still cheaper offer available. To go any further you have to complete the order and await contact by email....since I've no intention to order DSL service I stopped there. But the fact is clear: You cannot get to the $10.00 offer unless you already know it is there and are willing to interrupt the normal ordering process to demand it.

Isenberg correctly notes that this is not "offering" the service in the sense that the FCC required. Posting the offer on your website in such a way that only Google can find it and then adding insult to injury by funneling a person who has laboriously located the "good deal" for "Fast DSL Lite" to a page where a $10.00 offer isn't visible but a "New Lower Price Fast DSL Lite" at $19.95 is, cannot be called anything but deceptive.

Isenberg goes on to note that this isn't the only evasion of its merger "deal" with the feds that AT&T seems to be ignoring:
It agreed to offer "naked DSL" within six months of the merger agreement -- that would be June 30, 2007, and there's no naked DSL offer from AT&T I can find today, July 6, 2007, either. The FAQ still says, "To enjoy FastAccess DSL [FastAccess is what AT&T calls all its DSL services], you'll need to have local phone service with BellSouth."

AT&T also pledged to make wireline DSL available to 85% of the households in its territory by the end of 2007. Will it, or is this yet another Kushnick?* (A Kushnick is what a Bell does when it gets a Quid for a future Pro Quo, which it doesn't ever deliver.)

AT&T has already announced that it will be developing technology to violate its pledge of Network Neutrality;
I've long since gotten to the cynical spot where I automatically assume that any obligation that BS/AT&T or Cox make that can be evaded will be evaded. They simply don't act in good faith. I'm so inured to such behavior that I barely notice it and simply assume that if you want a fair shake you'll have to fight for it. But Isenberg is right. You shouldn't have to.

AT&T should simply honor its word. That it casually declines to do so when it is not to its immediate fiscal advantage is the best possible reason for not doing business with them.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

WiFi Hotspots...

Well, the Advertiser this morning has a picture of the principals of this site splashed across the B section. That's not our fault. We were just innocently plotting the creation of a Lafayette Commons, the downfall of Western Civilization as We Know It and minding our own business when an earnest young reporter asked us if we liked the wifi there. We told him we liked the coffee and the conversation evolved from there...

The story is about wifi hotspots, not usually major topic here, but it is interesting and revealed a few places I didn't know had wifi.

Otherwise the only remarkable note in the piece is a quote from Huval:
"As we deploy the fiber system, we may incorporate a wireless component as part of that (for consumers)..."
That "may" is strange. Huval has twice publicly said that there would be wireless network for residents (@ Fiber Forum, @ Martin Luther King) and isn't hesitant to say so in person so I don't know why he'd pull his punches with the Advertiser. Durel too has repeatedly revealed his plans for WiFi--an old post about the value of wifi in a fiber-based ecology has a discussion on that. I'd hoped that we were through with coy, cautious language now that the bonds are sold...but old habits apparently die hard.

The Daily Advertiser - www.theadvertiser.com - Lafayette, LA

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Baton Rouge's Downtown Wi-Fi Shuts down

JoVoGo, formerly Verge Wireless, is shutting down the wireless network in downtown Baton Rouge. Again. The Verge network was purchased by US Wireless two years ago collapsed in less than a year as a month-long outage destroyed whatever customer loyalty the network had and was subsequently bought out by JoVoGo a year ago. JoVoGo returned Carlo McDonald, the head of the original network, to the helm but with a pair of well-connected locals to grease the path as we reported last year. The original PR release proudly touted the ownership of the influentials:
Don Powers served as the Executive Vice President of the Chamber of Greater Baton Rouge where he was employed for 18 years. Most recently he was associated with Congressman Richard Baker of Louisiana where he served as Public Information Officer following Hurricane Katrina. He also assisted Spire Capital Group, LLC out of New York in analyzing the Louisiana capital area for potential Venture Capital investment. Prior to serving at the chamber, Mr. Powers was with HNTB Corporation, a national architectural engineering firm. Jim Brewer recently retired as Assistant Chief Administrative Officer from the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBRP) Mayor-President’s office where he served for the past 27 years. As Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Jim served as a senior advisor to the Mayor on all matters of public affairs, communications, and outreach to the general public and national community.
The current article in the Advocate says the system will be shutting down Sunday "for at least a few months." and mentions the discouraging earlier history of failure and McDonald's involvement. That becomes significant when McDonald talks about his (new) company acquiring a network "last year" whose equipment was "nearly obsolete." That should have been no surprise since it seems very likely that was equipment McDonald originally installed. Shutting down the network seems nearly an afterthought as McDonald described the decision to take it down immediately as a consequence of the fact that service had become so "spotty." Why hadn't the network been upgraded as the PR release a year ago anticipated? But even more puzzling McDonald is now talking as if the connections that the JoVoGo venture were founded on were never pursued:
MacDonald admitted that he never specifically asked for a financial investment from the city. But he claims to have discussed the potential of a partnership several times over the years with members of Holden’s staff and other city-parish agency officials who seemed interested.
That makes it sound as if the former head of the local chamber with federal connections and a long-time administrative officer for the city-parish not only didn't produce but didn't even try. In the words of the ad: Wassup?!

My guess is that the Baton Rouge wifi net is dead and won't be coming back from this second burial.

It ought to be clearly noted that this is a simple business failure: the private groups that ran this network couldn't get it running well enough to attract retail subscribers and failed to find other institutional and public supporters to help fund it. It failed even after two business collapses surely reduced the capital cost to pennies on the dollar compared to the original investment. If it does resurrect itself again it will be on the basis of public support, not private financing.

Community support—and even community ownership—is essential to the survival of community resources like a publicly-available telecommunications network. Pretending that it can be done on a purely private basis (even by the well-healed and well-connected) has proven a questionable model, and not only in Baton Rouge. It would be far more sensible at this point for Baton Rouge to buy up the existing, installed base a fire-sale prices, use it for (entirely legitimate) public safety purposes and gradually build out a competitive wireless network to invigorate its still struggling riverfront downtown area.

Except, of course, that AT&T and Cox wouldn't like it — and that their 2004 "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" makes it nearly impossible to do anything so sensible without engaging in a major knockdown-dragout fight with deep-pocketed and influential opponents.

So, likely, nothing will be done. And Baton Rouge and cities like her will have to do without a valuable resource.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Good Deals From AT&T

(Just don't let them rope you into anything more than an 18 month contract if you live in Lafayette. :-) )

AT&T recently announced two possible price savers for those of us in its footprint. One is a $10.00 (cheap!) low speed DSL plan and the other is free wifi for those with expensive DSL plans.

$10.00 DSL
The cheap DSL is being offered in fulfillment of obligations that the Feds laid on AT&T as a condition of the BellSouth/AT&T merger. The plan is being very quietly offered, this is not being advertised and is not easily found on the website. (But hey, I dug up the AT&T link for you.) The AP story notes:
The $10 offer is available to customers in the 22-state AT&T service region, which includes former BellSouth areas, who have never had AT&T or BellSouth broadband, spokesman Michael Coe confirmed Monday. Local phone service and a one-year contract are required. The modem is free.
If you have already cut your umbilicus to the phone company and so aren't eligible don't despair, your day is coming:

Another concession to the FCC is yet to come: a plan for DSL that doesn't require local phone service. AT&T has another six months to introduce that option, which should cost at most $19.95 per month.

However, if you are having a little fantasy of using your new DSL to replace your landline phone you probably should reconsider: the service only offers "download speeds of up to 768 kilobits per second and upload speeds of up to 128 kbps," probably not enough for reliable VOIP. That's too painfully slow to get you to move off cable if you already have it. But if you are still on on dialup, haven't tried DSL before, don't have access to cable, and are close enough to a phone aggregation point to get DSL (admittedly a small group of people) then this might be a good deal for you.

Free WiFi:
At the other end of the financial scale—if you've got one of those nifty iPhones (like some lucky locals do) and are unhappy, as many are, with AT&T's slow network then you'll be interested in the potential for hooking up with AT&T's WiFi network for free. It's available in McDonalds and Starbucks and WiFi apparently makes the iphone user experience an ecstatic one. The possible dealbreaker here is that you have to pay up for one of the higher speed DSL packages (meaning such has to be available to you) and AT&T's network, while extensive, is not nearly as widespread as others--nor, like T-mobile's, is the VOIP WiFi integrated into the cellular plan.