Friday, August 31, 2007

Credit Where Credit's due: Cox & Privacy

Credit where credit is due: Cox Communications, according to an entry Wired's "Threat Level" blog, is doing as right by the public in regard to their protecting their privacy from illegal government intrusion as is permissible.

Kudos.

Currently in Lafayette, and much of Louisiana, the choice for telecommunications services is between Cox and AT&T. If protecting your privacy from illegal government surveillance is important to you it appears that you'd be well-served to switch to Cox. (AT&T has been nailed repeatedly for complying with illegal requests.)

The blog entry is pretty much a set of reporters notes on a story he wrote for Wired, "Point, Click, Wiretap: How the FBI's wiretap net operates." The main story documents a pervasive network of surveillance with the FBI constantly tied into private providers communications centers across the country using a network physically separated from the regular internet. That network, according to the illustration from Wired at right must run through Lafayette on its way from New Orleans to Beaumont either on I-10 fiber or up US 90 along the railroad..

The FBI has quietly built a sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device...

The surveillance system, called DCSNet, for Digital Collection System Network, connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It is far more intricately woven into the nation's telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.

It's a "comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS and push-to-talk systems," says Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor and longtime surveillance expert.

DCSNet is a suite of software that collects, sifts and stores phone numbers, phone calls and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping outposts around the country to a far-reaching private communications network.

The backstory is that during the Clinton administration federal law enforcement agencies complaining that digital communications made wiretapping increasing ineffective asked for a law that would force network providers to only install hardware and software that allowed for easy, centralized, information capture by all private network operators. That law, commonly labeled CALEA, passed and was augmented post 9-11 by the Bush administration. An FCC ruling this year extended CALEA compliance rules to all VOIP providers, facility based like AT&T or independent, like Vonage. That, in conjunction with elements of 911 compliance ensures that constant monitoring is possible. (You can, however, personally encrypt your communications though few do. Carrier-provided encryption must, by law, be trap-doored and that trap made available to governmental agencies that legally request them.)

What the story documents is just how the FBI has implemented this law and just how easily it can be and how extensively such monitoring is done.

It's not news that the large telecom corporations, intricately dependent upon federal regulation to protect their competitive positions, extensive subsidies, and spectrum "property" are pretty cravenly submissive to whatever the Feds ask of them. What is news, in a sort of man bites dog sort of way, is when one of the resists giving the administration anything they want. Qwest has earned kudos in the past and now it appears that Cox has also done "the right thing." From the blog:

Cox Communications lawyer Randy Cadenhead was also key to the story. Among the things that didn't make it into the final piece is that Cox is the only major telecom company to publicly publish its forms and fees for wiretaps. That documentation, which doesn't reveal any national secrets, should be on every telecom's website, in interests of transparency. Unfortunately, none of the largest wireless carriers do so, nor they, with the notable exception of AT&T, responded to requests for comments on the story.

Cadenhead also noted that Cox Communications did not participate in, or have any knowledge of, other wiretapping programs that have recently been in the news (read: warrantless wiretapping).

Now it should be noted that this leaves open the possibility that Cox simply was not asked to join the cabal. But as the third largest cable carrier and a VOIP leader in their field that seems unlikely. Nor does it mean that Cox hasn't complied fully with CALEA requirements. They surely have. Now it could be that once locked into an aggregation point on Cox's network they wouldn't have to ask Cox to do anything in order to "wiretap"—illegally or otherwise. In which case Cox's denial would be disingenuous. They'd have a warrant for legal wiretaps and wouldn't have, and thus wouldn't "know about," any illegal ones.

But that caveat aside it does appear that the reporter and the Cox representative believe that Cox is not cooperating with illegal wiretaps. And we know that AT&T is. One more reason to not hang up the phone when that annoying guy from Cox calls trying push VOIP during dinner.

(And, oddly, one more reason to be eager to see LUS enter the market. As a public agency LUS will be no less obligated to obey the law than any private corporation--but they are also, by law, will be unavoidably much more transparent than any private corporation. Public agencies can be required to submit records that make much of what they do visible (rightly so). But what that means to black hat operations like those we've seen recently is that those running them would be wise to avoid trying impose their illegalities on utilities like LUS which cannot hide their interactions from public scrutiny.)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

More on Lafayette's WIFi "Feature"

Blogging over at TheIND, Nathan Stubbs has announced Huval's "announcement" of a WiFi "feature" for Lafayette's fiber-optic network. As we covered here Huval's mention of wifi at Tuesday night's council meeting was pretty casual: he was responding to a question from Mouton touching on digital divide questions and worked the mention of wifi as a "useful addition" to the fiber-optic network for consumers. He also allowed that it might be useful as a lower-priced addition for some users.

Huval tells Stubbs that "marketing" is still to be worked out. Indeed—My guess is that LUS is adverse to marketing wifi as an alternative to its central, costly, vastly more capable network. His remarks are directed toward positioning wifi as an addition, a feature, of LUS' retail network. It is, Huval says, "a convenience." for customers. As such it would be offered at a minimal additional cost for users and postioned as an enticement to join the network. (And, not incidently, to block any attempt to outflank LUS by the incumbents.)

None of this is as a new as it might seem (I called it "the biggest story barely told" back in 05). As far back as October of 04 Lafayette official were talking about building a wifi network—"also." Hopefully this time it will penetrate the consciousness of the public and the reporters that inform them: we are going to get wifi too. This is going to be bells and whistles, gold-plated, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink public network. (That's not only a promise; it's also a threat: now we have to find good ways to use all that capacity.—Didn't you always feel just a little threatened when you got a good, really useful gift?)

The newest thing in the blogpost is the way in which the wifi network is made subordinate to the fiber network. Huval has told Stubbs that it just isn't up to snuff as reliable network alternative:
Huval says that the difficulties associated with wireless almost always result in spotty coverage for city networks. Walls and even moist vegetation can block signals. “To sell a service for wireless without having some degree of assurance that customers can really enjoy, that is not something that at this point we would want to do,” Huval says.
I think he is right about that.
He adds that LUS’ city wifi will be more of a hotspot versus a mesh network. While there won’t be blanket coverage, the network – tied directly to fiber – will provide up to 1 megabyte download speeds in certain areas.
I'd take that hotspot metaphor with a grain of marketing salt. In order to serve his own people and the police and other public servants reliably the network will have to blanket the city and cover every street eventually. The economies that come from the investment in wifi for the city won't be there if that doesn't happen. The city will want to be able to cut itself loose from its expensive cellular and data connections and supply those services for itself at a considerable savings. And it will as soon as the system is up and running reliably.

What probably is true is that they know they don't want to mess with trying to push the wifi signal into houses or through a lot of vegetation away from the street. That's been the downfall of most city-wide wireless networks. What LUS is willing to commit to up front is wifi in public spaces, especially around the downtown core and they won't say it is "officially" available unless they are confident they can offer the gold-plated experience of about a meg of connectivity. That way nobody will get the impression LUS is offering a "junky" service. I'd hope they'd leave the rest of the network open but not officially supported —a sort of "no promises outside our approved zones" sort of approach. That would mean that you'd be able to connect pretty reliably on the streets, as reliably as the police and the LUS workers find necessary. That might not be the 1 meg of the official zones but considerably less bandwidht would be usable for email and light browsing on the front porch. If you want to download a movie quickly you go indoors and use your "real" fiber connection. Not too shabby.

A handle on the digital divide angle might be got by keeping the "add-on" price very low, say a 5 dollars addition, to ANY LUS bill (including water and electricity at the most extreme.) That'd make really, really cheap connectivity available easily to anyone in the city whose current economic straits didn't leave them homeless.

Should be interesting to watch all this marketing mature.

The trial network is up and in testing stage right now according to Stubb's interesting post. That, you will recall, was to be built based on a wireless RFP issued early this year. That RFP called for a limited number of test points to be built out, presumably along the route of the already-existing fiber ring. Anybody seen any of these Tropos access points in the wild?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Digital Divide at the Council

Item 14 on last night's City-Parish Council agenda was a "Digital Divide update." Put on the agenda by Chris Williams, the update had been scheduled for last month but was delayed to accommodate an out of town conference appearance by Huval.

Last night's short slide show reiterated the ideas of the digital divide committee's "Bridging the Digital Divide" document and recounted the (slow) progress toward fulfilling the commitments LUS, and LCG made when it was approved by the city-parish council. The presentation was broken up into three logical parts (we are dealing with engineers here): 1) the committments, 2) progress to date, 3) a timeline for completing planning.

The committees' report focused on suggesting ways to overcome barriers to adoption and ways to check our progress. Barriers were characterized as structural barriers, motivational & historical barriers, and barriers to full participation. In the category of structural barriers Huval reiterated LUS' commitment to universal service and 20% cheaper prices—making real broadband available to all for less. About the most contentious elements in that category—a refurbished or new computer program—little was said beyond emphasizing how quickly the area of lowcost computing hardware was changing and using the One Laptop Per Child program as an example of network capable laptop computers falling toward the $100 dollar mark. Many of the committee's other recommendations in the areas of motivating use and encourage full use of the new network were mentioned as areas in which planning was still needed. The one solid committment in these area was the reconfirmation that Lafayette's users would get full intranet speeds when communicating insystem with other users. No matter how much you are paying for your connection you will be able to connect to other users at the full bandwidth available on the system—and LUS is planning a minimum of a 100 meg system. The planning schedule for the larger digital divide project remains one of getting the plan in place and implementation begining by the time the first customer is served.

A few interesting points were raised in the presentation and the following brief discussion. Apparently the connections to the parish schools are still being finished up with 37 of 45 hookups completed and the rest scheduled to be done before the first of November. While that fits the original timetable of fall of 07 there had been some hope that they'd all be online for start of school this year but it appears that getting pole attachment agreements lined up delayed the project a bit.

In response to a question from Councilor Mouton Huval talked a bit about the wireless end of his system and said again that he saw it as a useful addition to the wired system for customers. He also glancingly mentioned that it might be a way to provide a yet more affordable alternative for some.

Dr. Williams closed the period by calling for plans to be carried forward in the 18 month time frame. He noted that Lafayette was receiving much favorable attention for its netowork and expressed the hope that we could be equally well-know for the way we handled the digital divide issue.

He's right in that hope.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Vint Cerf on Downloadable Video

Vint Cerf, aka the godfather of the net, predicts the end of TV as we know it, saying:
"85% of all video we watch is pre-recorded, so you can set your system to download it all the time," he said. "You're still going to need live television for certain things - like news, sporting events and emergencies - but increasingly it is going to be almost like the iPod, where you download content to look at later."
We've been saying that for a long time here at LPF but its nice to get somebody with a demonstrable track record for predicting the future to make the point.

All you need, Cerf says, is fast download speeds like those in Japan.

Coming soon to a Lafayette neighborhood near you.

Wi-Fi in Chicago's Tri-Cities


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If you've followed Lafayette's fiber fight you know it was guided by lessons learned in Illinois' Tri-Cities region where a determined pro-fiber band was beaten down by an ugly and dishonest campaign by the incumbent providers Comcast and SBC (which became AT&T and then bought BellSouth). The lessons learned there convinced many that only a full-throated battle that inoculated the people against incumbent lies stood a chance of being successful. Lafayette proved that if both city officials and local community activists were willing to stand and fight without compromise the battle could be won. Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles showed the way. Their loss became our gain.

Now, the Geneva Daily Herald reports, Geneva and St. Charles will at least be getting a wifi network:

Computer users in Geneva could have access to free citywide wireless Internet access by the end of the year.

The city council Monday signed a deal with Meshlinx to let the Texas company put Wi-Fi transmitters on utility poles and public buildings throughout the city.

The company, which also signed a contract with St. Charles a few weeks ago, expects to begin surveying the two cities in a few weeks to determine how many radio-frequency emitting devices to install.

...Meshlinx approached the city. It is also in discussions with the city of Batavia.
Good, they've earned a break. And Geneva has negotiated a deal whereby the whole city will be served. No cherry-picking.

But Collins, Geneva's information technology manager, isn't completely satisfied what they're getting:

"This isn't as good as fiber to the home, but it is some competition," Collins said.

Even as Chicago gives up on its wifi hopes it is good to see that the stalwarts in the suburbs are getting some of what they've sought.

"Speed up, with fiber"

They're figuring it out in Minnesota....

"The focus has changed. It's really all about speed," Garrison said. "Wireless is the icing on the cake. It's not the cake itself."

Last year's must-have, municipal Wi-Fi - a relatively cheap and quick-to-install way for communities to get a broadband fix - is losing some allure.

Instead, this year more cities appear to be asking: Got fiber?

A 'FUTURE-PROOF' OPTION

Fiber is the undisputed future of telecommunications, experts say...

Broadband advocates nationwide are realizing that what's really need is fiber; something we've already acted on here in Lafayette. It's nice to be out front on something other than obesity and rates of imprisonment.

Read on at
"Speed up, with fiber" at the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Worth the click.

Clarksville Chronicles: 3 Points

I'm following the news on Clarksville (the Tennessee city whose fiber deployment rivals Lafayette's in size) since they're a bit ahead of us on their deployment schedule and their experience should help us anticipate our own. (LPF coverage) Today's chronicle of their progress includes the selection of their marketing director, a map of their progress, and a few thoughts about their newspaper—and ours.

A Marketing Director
Clarksville, according the The Leaf, has chosen a Marketing Director with an interesting history in the cable business and, most recently, as executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce. She talks about her new job:

As the telecommunications marketing manager, I will be responsible for providing the management, direction and planning of the marketing and promotion of CDE's services offered through the fiber to the home project.

This will include developing product strategy, product pricing, packaging, research and training of the products.

The biggest benefit for the consumer here is choice. CDE's new fiber-to-the-home technology will allow them to offer services such as video, Internet and telephone. CDE has invested in the most up-to-date technology for the delivery of these new services.

With her history, she'll likely also be the public face of the project. Given Huval's high profile that part of the job description may not apply here. But we should look forward to the appointment of a person to manage the marketing of Lafayette's system. The Lafayette system will have to be sold; this is a spot where LUS will be learning new skills. We may be thrilled to have a telecom company with the sensibility of a public utility (I'm looking forward to it!) but it will have to be sold vigorously and smartly—a skill that the wasn't necessary for the old municipal utilities. The selection of someone to fill the marketing director's job will be crucial.

A Contruction Map
They're already building and have a nifty-keano map of the current build. I'm looking forward to a similar one here in Lafayette and to seeing my area of town turn green.

Gannett Newspapers
The Leaf-Chronicle, like The Daily Advertiser, is a Gannett newspaper. That means that the two largest cities in the country with municipal FTTH builds are both "Gannett Towns." That opens up a pretty large opportunity for the media chain. The corporation is in a position to do itself a favor and come off like local heroes.

Its presence in these cities gives it a window onto a digital world that won't exist in most places in this country for 20 years. If Gannett were to put some real resources into developing not just a state-of-the-art web presence but a cutting edge, research-driven project in the two cities it could learn something about how to survive in the emerging new network-dominated news environment. And it could do it in a way that teams with the local community; helping with the research, sharing data, and building applications that drive usage and celebrate the new ultra high-speed intranet connections of the Lafayette network. Thats the sort of thing that is really "local."

Anyone who follows modern media at all knows that newspapers are seeing very troubled waters ahead and are floundering about how to survive, much less thrive in an environment where the news (and hence advertising dollars) flows outside their pages. No chain will ever get a better chance to learn in a relatively safe environment than Gannett.

In Lafayette and Clarksville Going Local means going high-tech on the local network...or going under.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lafayette's Age-based Digital Divide

Today's Advertiser runs two stories (1, 2) that are both interesting and informative on the gap in computer and internet usage between seniors and the rest of the community.

The gap between seniors and the rest of the population is one of the most marked divides in internet usage—and one remarked upon by Lafayette's own digital divide committee. Today's article documents the divide and notes the narrowing of the gap over the years:
In a study conducted for The Daily Advertiser this spring, 36 percent of those over 65 who responded said they had accessed the Internet in the past 30 days. That figure was 33 percent for a 7-day period in question. Those numbers are significantly lower than any other age group, but even that represents a marked increase over 2001 (8 percent) and 2005 (22 percent) for the 7-day response.
That clearly documents a divide--and an improvement over time. What's really great about this is that it is local data. (Something we very badly need.) Lafayette is unique enough that I've never been confident that the national stats applied very directly. National trendlines are easier to show confidence in but even that makes the old statistician in me a little uneasy—so it is very nice to get better data. The little bit of data given here documents a healthy change over time.

Interestingly this summer, PEW's well-respected periodic surveys of internet usage documents a very similar number —32%—for seniors "using the internet at least occasionally." That sort of phrasing is likely to overestimate usage; the Advertiser's asking if a respondent has used it in the last week is a more reliable and tougher question—and it showed 33%. So while a completely parallel question would be ideal the Advertisers data is still a good indication that Lafayette's seniors do not lag the national average and most probably are using the internet in a bit higher numbers.

We're used to thinking of ourselves as behind the ball in Louisiana but apprently that isn't true of senior internet usage. At least not in Lafayette. Why not? Part of the answer might be visible in the subtitle of the first story: "Classes help some step into computer age." Folks at the university and at the public library have been making education available in a consistent and useful manner. Some organizations that appeal to the elderly, like genealogical ones, are also touting the advantages to interested seniors. All that has to add up.

Of course, as nice as education is, it still leaves more seniors offline than any other category. Arguably seniors with limited mobility, a larger interaction with the trappings of officialdom, and a more persistent need for good medical information would benefit more than the youngsters from internet connectivity. It would be nice to increase their utilization. The second story,
"Why getting grandma online matters," points to the more fundamental problem: showing people who've gotten along without the internet for the whole of a very fruitful life why they ought to want to bother. The story lists activities that make the value evident:
  • Sharing photos with family and friends.
  • Free medical information is available.
  • Shop without leaving home.
  • Apply for certain benefits.
  • You know, when you think about it those are the sorts of things we all find interest--that and staying in touch with friends and our community more generally.

    What would help seniors begin to take advantage of the resources are pretty much what would help us all. We ALL would benefit from being better connected to our communities. That's what the idea of a Lafayette Commons, an online place that makes useful local information easy to access is all about. Worth thinking on.

    AT&T in South Africa

    A reader sends a link to a South African article on AT&T's (nee SBC) behavior there. The gist is that AT&T's leadership saw an opportunity to secure a (limited life) monopoly as part of the reform in post-segregationist South Africa, took it, reaped monopoly profits, did not complete its build-out commitments, and exited when its monopoly period ran out with pots full of money.

    It's a rare moment when the monopolist mentality of our Telecom Overlords is clearly visible. From the article:
    ...recounts the manner in which the new democratic government's worthy intentions - to roll out telephone service to the previously disadvantaged and establish an independent regulator to oversee the reform - were thwarted by lack of trust in democratic structures outside of the ANC's immediate control and the ANC's inability to control powerful international players involved in privatisation. SBC, described as "congenitally litigious", is said to have played a major role in the failure of South Africa's telecoms policy to develop a competitive telephone service.

    Under SBC's control Telkom not only failed to meet its roll-out obligations but behaved "as a tax on industry and a drag on economic growth".
    One has to wonder if the US Telecoms aren't exporting behavior they learned in dealing with the US states where their successful attempts to use state legislation to prevent the introduction of new competition was most recently expressed by phone company-written laws that forbid or crippled municipalities' attempts to build competing networks. (See the endless coverage here on the (un)Fair Competition Act.) From further back, a summary of the problems pointed out in the "200 Billion Broadband Scandal" might be that the baby Bells hoodwinked state regulators and deceived state legislators to the tune of 200 billion dollars when they made bargins with the states build 45 meg (symmetrical!) fiber connections in return for the favorable treatment they sought and received. Needless to say those commitments weren't honored.

    As Mike is wont to say: "It's in their genes." —It's certainly and undeniable part of their corporate culture. You can't trust them...and you can't say you weren't warned.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007

    AT&T $10 DSL Vanishes (Again)

    AT&T continues to hide its $10 dollar DSL program. The plan, mandated by the FCC when it allowed AT&T to merge with BellSouth was intended as a sop thrown to consumers for the loss of potential "competition" between the two monopolies. As previously reported here it is hard to impossible to find a way to apply f0r the "deal."

    Now the Hear Us Now Blog (a project of Consumers Union--the one that doesn't accept advertising) has a story detailing the difficulty a consumer reporter/advocate in St. Louis had in getting access to the plan. Apparently AT&T told the reporter that they'd "fixed" the website to make it more accessible. But, if ever really implemented, the web site changes vanished again. According to Consumers Union one person did succeed...but more than 20 were unable to make it work.

    Sounds like lawsuit bait to me. The law is also supposed to apply to large corporations...even if they do curry favor with the administration by cooperating in illegal spying on the American people.

    The $10 deal is supposed to be available to any new broadband customer that has AT&T service. I'd be very interested in the experiences of any local folks who've tried to get the deal.

    Update 11:51:
    Tennessee's Regulatory Authority has some questions about it:

    Phone company officials also say they've made changes to make the $10 Internet easier to find on its Web site. Hicks explained the new six-step process of finding the offer online at Monday's TRA meeting.

    Jones, the TRA director, asked Hicks, "How will citizens who don't have Internet connections be able to take advantage of the offer if you don't advertise to them in some medium other than on the Internet?"

    "I think there's been a lot of media coverage about the $10 offer and they would have general knowledge of it,'' Hicks said.

    He said customers who don't have Internet access at home could "go to a friend or family member's computer or the public library computer."

    Cough, Cough...six steps? media coverage of an alternative you're hiding? the only way to buy internet is to already have access to it? AT&T doesn't pay hacks like Hicks enough; I'm certain. How much is your pride worth?

    Friday, August 24, 2007

    Eatel Plays Telco Game

    I've lauded EATel repeatedly, both for its locally-owned fiber to the home project and for its (lost, lamented) inexpensive phone service.

    But fair is fair. EATel has apparently decided that its role as a rural incumbent phone company should allow it to act like the big boys. Like AT&T everywhere little EATel is balking at cutting the same "serve the whole community if you want to use our rights-of-way" deal with the village of Sorrento that any other cable company would have to cut. From the Advocate story:

    Town Attorney Greg Lambert told the council at its meeting Tuesday that Cox Communications, currently the only provider in the area, asked that Eatel be held to the same agreement provisions as Cox.

    Lambert said Eatel has agreed to all of the same provisions except the density requirement, which requires Cox to provide service to any house within 300 feet of a distribution system, and any area that has 50 residences within one cable mile or 10 residences within a quarter of a cable mile.

    Sharon Kleinpeter, a vice president at Cox Communications, told the council that Eatel and Cox should operate under the same standards.

    A broken clock is right twice a day and Kleinpeter and Cox are right about this. And I was wrong to think EATel too local and loyal to try and run such a scam — though I was right to think that the Sorrento Council would resist. [It should be noted that there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about Cox's objections: Cox's late endorsement of the state-wide video franchise that BellSouth/AT&T proposed came about when they were included in the list of companies that could ignore a local community's demand of service for all citizens in return for the use of those citizen's property. Cox would have been wiser not to encourage the competion to cherry-pick then; they'd be more credible now.]

    EATel already has to run its copper into every home and has been profiting off the people of Sorrento for generations...it is resisting upgrading a few people who have been loyal customers to marginally increase their overall profit in a new market.

    Emulating AT&T is not the way to go for a progressive local firm whose greatest asset is the belief that it is more likely to care about the local community than outside monopolies. Stuff like this squanders their core advantage and is lousy business even if it weren't unethical.

    For shame.

    Let's hope the Sorrento Council holds firm and returns EATel to its better self.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    VOE: Fixing What is Wrong with Muni WiFi

    Voice of Experience Department.

    [Lafayette's decision two years ago in voting to build a Fiber To The Home system rather than a cheaper, less capable wireless system is being validated by current events and the emerging pattern suggests that local citizens might end up owning the nation's most impressive model of a real, inexpensive, municipal network with modern bandwidth and workable mobility. Read on...]

    Business Week picks up on current net buzz on the difficulties encountered by municipal wifi networks and the story does a good job in laying out the current unhappy state of such projects. It's a sad story for a lot of people in a lot of places.

    The static crackling around municipal wireless networks is getting worse.

    San Francisco Wi-Fi, perhaps the highest-profile project among the hundreds announced over the past few years, is in limbo. Milwaukee is delaying its plan to offer citywide wireless Internet access. The network build-out in Philadelphia, the trailblazer among major cities embracing wireless as a vital new form of municipal infrastructure, is progressing slower than expected.

    My friends in Philly say the network is pretty near useless where it is up—service is beyond spotty and it comes and goes unpredictably. The boards tell a similar story in Corpus Christi where Earthlink, a private provider, had bought the municipal network with a promise of upgrades. Google's hometown Mountain View network isn't anything to brag on either. The problem isn't with public networks; difficulties seems to be hitting private and public muni wifi WANs (Wide Area Networks) pretty much equally.

    There has been a lot of doom and gloom about the problems muni wifi networks are encountering (the Business Week article among them) and there has been the inevitable reaction to that on the part of advocates pointing out the immaturity—and naivete—of the original business plans. Business Week does, at the end of the story, note that a more mature business plan relies on the local city government being involved:
    To make the business more profitable, Wi-Fi service providers are trying to pass more of the cost to the cities. "There's no one that I am aware of right now who'd build a network without the city as a paying customer," says Lou Pelosi, vice-president for marketing at MetroFi, which six months ago stopped bidding for projects unless the city agreed to become the network's anchor tenant.
    Advocates imply that a naive business plan is all that is wrong with the current crop of wide area wifi networks. Would that it were so.

    The doom and gloom is overstated. But the truth is the version of muni wireless that emphasized cheap (or free) residential service using a wireless mesh to minimize costs was always a castle built on shaky technical grounds. From the beginning the fundamental concept was that you'd take a single expensive connection to the net and divide it up like the loaves and fishes between many users and still end up with sufficient connectivity to feed the masses. Thinking that way was hoping for the sort of miracle that doesn't occur in our daily world. An analogy might be taking your home connection and "sharing" it with most of your neighborhood. That might work at times. But service could never be very fast or reliable. (Yes, it's more complicated; I know--but that's a fair analogy.) Additional problems having to do with the nature of the spectrum allocated to wifi (short range power and a frequency that has trouble cutting through vegetation or walls) added the limitations of physics to the questionable network design decisions.

    Those problems can be overcome. It's not even a twelve step program. Two will do

    Step One is to abandon the idea that a wifi network will ever work well as a person's primary, reliable, home connection to the full richness of the network.

    Rock solid reliability is not in the cards for wifi--and affordable access to a reliable always-on connection is a prerequisite for full participation in the emerging digital culture.

    You will need a hardwired, preferably Fiber To The Home connection if you plan to make full, reliable, consistent use of downloadable video, cable TV, Voice over IP, security alarms, medical monitoring and the like. With a fiber connection every individual can easily and cheaply provision their own in-home wifi network if wireless suits their style.

    Any community that takes that stand abandons at one blow all the unrealistic demands that wifi technology simply cannot fulfill. Concentrate on ubiquitous local coverage, emphasize mobility and help people understand that cell phone levels of reliability is the best that can be hoped for. (That level of service would be a huge boon even without the unrealistic expectation, with ubiquitous coverage I could get a connection anywhere while on the go. I might not be able to do everything with it I could do at home--but I could do almost anything I can imagine that I would want to do on the run. Including in the best case, which I'll get to below, mobile, albeit cell quality, VOIP.)

    I do understand, and deeply sympathize with, the hope that cheap wifi could help close the digital divide. There still may be a role for it there if the bandwidth issues can be overcome (again see below). —But the reliability issues, arguably, are fundamental and the hacked-up solutions necessary unstable and too technically exacting to expect large populations to manage on their own. Pretending that wireless connectivity is the same as wired connectivity is profoundly misleading—and is a recipe for creating a second-class version of net usage where poorer users simply can't rely on the net being there and so aren't able to trust it fully enough to make it as central as their better-off brethren. Imagine what would have happened to telephone usage in our culture if the well-off got good, reliable, always on wired phone service. But "other people" got cheap, spotty, poor "radio" service on "garbage" bandwidth that might or might not work on any given day or location. That is the sort of divided service model was avoided in our phone history and if we try it today it will cause trouble downstream that I, for one, would rather avoid. The real solution to too expensive wired network connections is cheap wired network connections. And that is the solution that any conscientious community should seek. [I am grateful that that is the solution Lafayette has sought—LUS proposes to narrow the digital divide by making service significantly cheaper.]

    With cheap, wired, reliable, big broadband available in every home the threshold moves to making some form of connection available on every corner (ubiquity) and making it available while you are on the move (mobility). That's what wireless networks are good for—and why cell phones, as unreliable as they are, remain useful and hence popular.

    Step Two is to abandon the the belief that wireless mesh networks can be used to turn an expensive wired connection into many cheap wireless ones.

    It can't; only Christ could manage the miracle of the Sermon on the Mount.

    Build, instead, on the real virtues of wireless networks: ubiquity and mobility. Do your absolute best to minimize its weaknesses by making it as fast and reliable as possible within the confines set by physics and federal regulation.

    Abandoning the idea that one connection the wired broadband internet can serve many users over a broad area well is the key to succeeding. Instead of designing the wireless network so that each wired connection feeds five, six, or more wifi access points, limit the ratio of access points to internet connections to 1:1. This makes for much less sharing of limited bandwidth among users, greater reliability, and dramatically reduced "latency" (the lag caused by mulitple jumps that makes VOIP phones impractical on most muni networks).

    Better yet, attach your wifi network directly to a full throttle fiber network. Fund the entire capacity of wireless protocols. (Outside of a few University or corporate campuses very few of us have ever used a wireless network that worked the internet as fast as they could. The usual limiting factor is the wired network that supplies bandwidth to the wifi. If Cox or AT&T only gives me 5 megs of wired bandwidth to my access point then the theoretical 54 Mbit/s that is theoretically possible is limited to at most 5 Mbit/s. You'll never see the other 49 Mbit/s no matter what it says on the side of the box.) A fiber network can easily supply a minimum of 100 Mbit/s supplied to the wifi access point; split that 100 once to a second wifi access point and something close to the full 50 megs of bandwidth that wifi is capable of could actually be seen on the street. Even split among a sizeable group of users on two nodes that would be plenty fast enough to support excellent quality VOIP with no discernable lag, great data connections, and many, many extras. Even if turned out to be less reliable and a bit slower in use than its wired counterparts the virtues of ubiquity and mobility would be there and our willingness to use cell phones proves that we find this trade-off acceptable.

    A wifi network built this way would be as much superior to its wireless competitors as the fiber network would be to its wireline competitors.

    But getting to that dream requires abandoning unrealistic expectations...and starting with a fiber network running down every street.

    Lafayette is positioned to realize the ultimate dream: a cheap, blindingly fast, reliable, fiber-optic connection made available to every home and, based on that, a solidly architected, cheap, uniquely fast municipal wireless network that is demonstrably better than any muni wifi network in the nation.

    Living large in Lafayette.

    (Thanks go out to reader Scott who forwarded the story.)

    Monday, August 13, 2007

    A Little Panicky in Seattle

    There's an odor of panic out the world of American broadband advocates and it even extends even to places like Seattle (home of Microsoft)--where a broadband panel has been making achingly slow progress toward creating a fiber plan.

    An impatient Seattle Times columnist, Brier Dudley, announces that he's changing his tune on municipal broadband. He had held out for the city to build a fiber network itself. But he's getting a little panicky. He's worried about two things: weak-kneed politicians and malevolent incumbents. A fatal combination.

    Dudley worries that the politicians haven't been able to pass a net neutrality bill and they don't even seem to realize that universal service ought to be national policy—as is universal phone service. And he's noticed that incumbent AT&T (yes, our AT&T) recently decided to censor a Lollapalooza web broadcast containing lyrics that attacked George Bush's political policies by Seattle homeboys Pearl Jam. (Didn't hear about that? Still thinking that maybe the "broadband monopolists" wouldn't dare censor the internet? Let MTV disabuse you.) But the offense that pushed Dudley over the line was having a friend that used too much bandwidth and had his Comcast broadband terminated. Apparently cable company Comcast didn't like the number of movies he was downloading. But it wasn't willing to tell him, or the reporter, how much was too much.

    So, apparently people are starting to get a little panicky about the state of US broadband, even—or especially—in tech meccas like Seattle. And they are beginning to be willing to do previously unpalatable things to get out from under a regime that does little to rein in monopoly power and a set of monopolists constitutionally unable to stop abusing their position.

    Dudley hopes that:
    If Seattle isn't led astray by its broadband partners, it could build an island of neutrality that would attract Internet companies and set a precedent for universal service.
    That's a big "IF." Dudley needs to not give up on public provision and purely local ownership. Making the broadband provider directly responsible to the public is the only reliable path toward freedom... and reasonable, powerful, service...in US broadband.

    Seattle needs to follow Lafayette's precedent. The "Lafayette solution" is the last, best, hope for a free internet in the US.

    Thursday, August 09, 2007

    Fiber Brief: Council Approves Fiber Funding

    KLFY briefly covers Tuesday's council meeting approval of the funding plans for the fiber build in print saying that:

    The plans include covering the estimated expenses of the 110 million dollars project for the next five years.

    That includes about 85 million for most of the large construction needs to get the fiber optics network in place.

    It also includes 20 million for equipment and construction at the main control center and other hubs throughout the system.

    Other spending in the five year plan deals with the running of fiber lines and maintenance costs.

    The system is expected to be up by early 2009.

    Not news exactly, but a comforting confirmation that things are happening as they ought.


    (There is video on the site--or so they claim--but the antiquated system they use to hide serve their online video makes it impossible for me--and other mac users I've asked--to access the video story. And before you ask: yes, I am technically proficient, have the MS software they require and it works perfectly everywhere else that I need to access windows media. When I can puzzle out the URL, as I have at times, the actual video plays fine. It's the creaky system that refused to let me get the video that is at fault. Our two local stations need to find someone competent to provide this service that doesn't eliminate the going on 10% of the online market represented by Mac users. And that's without worrying about Linux users whom, I suspect, also face difficulties visited on them by broken proprietary systems.)

    "Sorrento might OK Eatel fiber"

    Sorrento is about to get a locally-owned fiber-optic network. Rural telephone provider Eatel, who Lafayette readers may remember fondly as one of the businesses that used to offer cheap phone service here, is now bidding to extend its fiber-optic network to the town.

    EATel, no longer known as East Ascension TELephone, is based in the parish of the same name and is bidding to extend cable and high-speed internet service to this town in its already-existing footprint.

    From the Advocate story:
    The Town Council has agreed to consider a proposed ordinance that, if adopted, would provide residents with a choice of cable television providers.

    “Basically, it will allow Eatel to run fiber-optic lines to provide cable services. Eatel will provide a competing service to Cox (Communications),” town attorney Greg Lambert said.

    That's good news for local consumers. Sorrento is lucky that its phone provider is Eatel and not AT&T.

    Eatel is doing what AT&T refuses to do—actually competing against the cable company in small rural towns. And Eatel is doing so on a level playing field, paying the town of Sorrento franchise fees to use its property equal to those Cox pays. One assumes that there is no question but that Eatel will serve the whole town; the phone company network is everywhere and city council in a small town like that would get hung if it signed anything that allowed partial service. BellSouth/AT&T realizes that local representatives feel that way—and since they would rather serve the rich guys they went to the Louisiana legislature to get a law passed that would have forbidden a town like Sorrento from demanding that a franchisee that wanted to use the public rights-of-way would have to serve both sides of the track. (Blanco vetoed the bill.)

    Good for Eatel. Good for Sorrento.

    Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    Slovenia Surges

    Slovenia, the subject of sardonic commentary here back in early '06 (US poised to drop out of top 20, Slovenia surges) has vindicated my faith in Eastern European get up and go. Their incumbent telephone company, Telekom Slovenije, isn't playing any silly fiber to the (rich) nodes games. From the Light Reading article that occasioned these musings:
    European incumbent operator Telekom Slovenije plans to spend up to €450 million (US$620 million) between now and 2015 on a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) rollout in an effort to deliver high-speed access capabilities to 70 percent of households in the small Eastern European country of Slovenia.
    Now why can't our incumbent telephone company do the same? (You might recall: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone! Talk about a first-mover advantage.)

    Pitiful. Whupped by a country that didn't exist a dozen years ago.....

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Durel and Sticking Up for La. Cities

    Joey Durel, as the newly elected president of the Louisiana Conference of Mayors, has declared the theme of his tenure in that position:
    Durel said he intends on focusing on “working with the Legislature to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress."
    That's pulled from this morning's "Around Acadiana" feature in the Advocate. Now what "roadblocks" could he mean?

    The fact of Durel's election and that statement require some unpacking.

    It's got to be somewhat unusual for a mayor in his first term to elected to the presidency of that organization. It also unusual for a large city mayor to seek the position. It appears that big city mayors are, for the first time in memory, occupying leadership roles in the organization with the presidency, the vice presidency, and the secretary's positions being held by Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria respectively. (Past presidents came from Rayne, Gretna, Bastrop, Woodworth, Ball, and Gonzales.)

    What's afoot? One conclusion is that more active days are ahead for the organization. Folks have complained that the LMA is that its not been very vigorous in pursuit of its members interests — and that when the Baton Rouge staff (headed by former Baton Rouge Mayor Tom Ed McHugh) does decide to go after an issue that the elected officers tend to hold them back. That's what happened during the state-wide video franchise battle. The staff grew impassioned about the threat to municipal income and local control of municipal property. But at the crucial final moment, the elected officials, mostly from villages, allowed the incumbent telecom providers to scare them into reigning in their Baton Rouge operatives. A week's fast "education" by the staff about what was at stake brought them back into the fold to (successfully) urge a Blanco veto but embarrassingly the LMA was nowhere to be found during the final vote. If the big guys are taking up leadership roles on the elected side we can expect that there will be smaller gaps between the "big city" professional staff and the League's leadership and fewer such gaffes.

    What's important enough to draw the league out of its lethargy and get the membership more involved? What do Durel and the new cohort want to accomplish? Surely they'd like to avoid the state taking away their control over locally-owned rights-of-way and the revenue they produce; since the legislature made clear during the video franchise battle that they couldn't be counted on to protect local interests if so much as one out-of-state monopoly wants a new law that wreaks havoc on local control and local revenue.

    For Durel's part he says that he wants to convince the legislature to give local communities more self-control. Municipalities are legally the creatures of the state and only get the freedom to run their own affairs that the state allows. Most states have "Home Rule" laws and Louisiana's is written into the constitution. Home Rule guarantees give municipalities some protection from a meddling, know-it-all big brother in the state capital. The '74 constitution weakened this protection and post-74 home rule cities (like Lafayette) have less defense. Lafayette, for instance, would have been subject to the video franchise law while Baton Rouge and New Orleans would not. Most municipalities have no protection at all from state meddling.

    The cities should have considerable political power. If all the municipalities and police juries would hang together and put real public pressure on any legislator that crossed them they could move mountains. But for the most part muni power lies unused. And power unused is power that no one takes seriously. And the local governments do not hang together. Just in the telecommunicatios arena that is the focus of this blog that has been obvious. When BellSouth and Cox aimed an arrow at the heart of Lafayette's fiber project with the "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" no rallying of the cities was visible. The New Orleans delegation largely supported the bill with some saying that they wanted to make sure their city could never try such a thing! Lafayette had to rely on the veto threat of her daughter in the Governor's chair to wring even the lousy compromise law they eventually accepted out of the legislature. (Blanco insisted on a compromise. Apparently an outright veto of any law--which was what was really needed--wasn't an option she offered.) Lafayette, sadly, returned the favor after Katrina when New Orleans, whose free post-storm wifi network was in violation of the new law. Lafayette did not support their (admittedly selfish) bid to make an exception for themselves (New Orleans turned down overtures to collaborate on a broader bill also useful to Lafayette and the rest of the state.) Finally Lafayette introduced bills that would have ameliorated the law for all (and one version that would have repealed it). But then Lafayette withdrew those bills in a bargain with BellSouth where they killed their ameliorative bills in return for BellSouth's promise to drop all the lawsuits against the fiber project. (We know how poorly that worked out--the Naquin-Eastin suit, clearly based on BellSouth's logic and framework -- and, many still suspect, money-- went forward regardless. Lafayette got nothing but a trip to the State Supreme Court.) New Orleans had to give up its wifi system. And the rest of the state had to live with the law. I've already mentioned the mess that ensued when the LMA's opposition the state video franchise law collapsed due to internal discord just before the final vote. Only Blanco's veto following a belated unifed delegation saved the cities.

    And that's just telecom...the localities also had a lot at stake when they tried to get the state to leave more of the road/car tax monies in local coffers. That too went nowhere.

    So a movement to unify the state's municipalities and police juries makes good sense. In the words of Ben Franklin: "We must indeed all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately."

    And I'm personally hoping that the phrase “working with the Legislature to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress" is aimed directly at the "Local Government Fair Competition Act." It would go a long way toward repeal if just the cities that are on the new officer list, Lafayette, Alexandria, and Baton Rouge, could hang together on the topic. If, in addition, New Orleans has learned anything by losing its wifi system to corporate greed and also supports repeal of the law the most obvious roadblock "in the way of our progress" could be eliminated.

    Here's to hoping that they've all learned their lesson and will make up for prior bad behavior.

    Monday, August 06, 2007

    Follow Up: St. Charles Parish & Cox

    The Times-Picayune reports on the latest St. Charles parish expression of discontent with Cox Communications. The parish council is asking citizens to show up at their meeting and let them know what they think of Cox. (Cox's contract ends on December 31st.)

    From the story:
    The council, spurred by citizens' complaints about the company, passed a resolution in February saying they want another cable company to apply for a cable TV franchise.
    If Lafayette's experience is any guide the council should expect the room to be packed with uniformed Cox employees who arrive in company trucks.

    What the NOLA story does not mention is that back when this all blew up two of the council members were advocating municipal competition a la Lafayette and had met with represetatives from the city across the basin.

    It should be interesting to see what comes of all this.

    Friday, August 03, 2007

    $10 DSL Revisted

    New AT&T CEO Randall talks to the Atlanta Journal Constituion about, among other things, the "hidden" $10 DSL program that I've noted recently. The FCC required that AT&T offer this discount program—and an accompanying "naked DSL" program for a bit more—as a condition of it allowing BellSouth and AT&T to merge. As it turns out, in my experience and the experience of others, it is inordinately hard to find and order. Not a few people think AT&T is avoiding keeping its word.

    Randall says that you don't really want it. Is that true? If you've tried to get it I'd like to hear your experiences. (John2 "at" LafayetteProFiber "dot" com)

    In his own words:
    Q: Of all the things the AJC has written about AT&T lately, none has caused more reader irritation than AT&T's $10 a month DSL offer, which was required by the Federal Communications Commission when you bought BellSouth. A lot of folks said they couldn't find it. It was hard to find on your site. Why?

    A: We haven't made it difficult to find. To be honest with you, that's not a product that our customers have clamored for. We still have $15 offers out there in the marketplace, even $20 offers, for 1.5 megabit speeds. Those are really kind of the minimum speeds that give a good user experience. So I don't want to necessarily offer up a product where the user experience is not what I would consider really state of the art. That $10 product is kind of in that mode."