Monday, October 29, 2007

Love and Chips...Really?

Without Further Comment.

From a commissioned Zogby Poll:
The Zogby/463 Internet Attitudes poll found that 24% of Americans said the Internet could serve as a replacement for a significant other. Not surprisingly, the percentage was highest among singles, of which 31% said it could be a substitute. There was no difference among males and females but there was a split based on political ideology. Thirty-one percent of those who called themselves “progressives” were open-minded to the Internet serving as a surrogate significant other while only 18% of those who consider themselves “very conservative” would consider it a substitute.

...11% of respondents said they be willing to safely implant a device that enabled them to use their mind to access the Internet. Interestingly, men were much more willing than women. Seventeen percent of men said they were up for it while only 7% of women wanted to access the Internet using their mind.

...While most Americans don’t want the Internet implanted in their brain, they are more willing to insert a chip into a child 13 or younger to help track them if they are lost, abducted, or just tend not to be where they are supposed to be. Nearly one in five Americans said they would do so to track a child’s whereabouts.
There's more =>

Shreveport considers WiFi...and Looks South

Two articles in The Shreveport Times (1, 2) review the potential for community WiFi in Shreveport. The articles are apparently a response to the formation of a task force on the issue manned in part by "the council's youngest and perhaps most tech-savvy members."

The articles author does a good job of reviewing the pluses and minuses, the successes and failures, of municipal WiFi. Cap'n Shreve's port is just thinking about it though. The story makes it clear that discussion in Shreveport is just begining so I wouldn't look for anything concrete for a while.

It is, however, interesting to notice that another of Louisiana's major cities is at least thinking about municipal broadband. And that has lead them to notice that we're doing it differently down south of I-10:
Yet other cities have taken a different approach.

In Lafayette, city officials put a bond issue before voters in 2006. The result: $120 million to extend fiber optics to each home and business in the city, according to Keith Thibodeaux, chief information officer for the city's Information Services and Technology Department.

The city estimates residents will be able to get services for about 20 percent less than the approximately $85 a month paid for bundled telephone, cable and Internet service, said Terry Huval, director of Lafayette Utilities System. "This system will completely pay for itself."

Huval later added, "Our motive is not to make a profit, but to provide a value to the community."
[Note: the author of the story got one part of that wrong: LUS has consistently said that it would offer a 20% discount off the triple play price current when the plan was announced -- about 85 dollars a month; not 20% off 85 dollars.]

The story then goes on to interview Keith Thibodeaux about Lafayette's WiFi network which is currently limited to police and utility functions.

Shreveport's committee almost immediately encountered the sad fact that Louisiana law makes any public broadband (including wifi) very difficult. One of the "tech savvy" council members says:
Aside from cost, which is a question mark at this point, Lester said legislators passed a law that essentially prohibits municipalities from being in direct competition with companies that provide high-speed Internet access. But it doesn't prevent municipalities from partnering with such companies.
Lester isn't quite right there--though he hedges his bet by saying that the law "essentially" prohibits such networks. That is the clear intent of the law, of course, but Lafayette's successful fiber fight makes it clear that a city can fight and win if it is determined enough. The council members might well be that he doesn't think that a referendum battle would work in his part of the state. Maybe--but it really ought to be considered. There are large advantages in owning that property yourself; networks are no different from real estate in that regard. The people of Shreveport ought to be given the chance to discuss that alternative. (They'd be smart to discuss a fiber build as well.)

Should Shreveport's people decide they want to do something for themselves they'd have supporters in Lafayette.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Chortle, Snort: AT&T's (in)Competence in St. Louis

Since I've already shared the basics of this story I thought I'd let you know how it ended up:

AT&T, the ponderous international conglomerate that had the temerity to tell Lafayette that we didn't really need a modern telecommunications infrastructure and we local yokels we were clearly unable to run one anyhoo, has finally reneged on its contract to build St. Louis a wifi network.

Because they can't find the plug...Honestly that's pretty much the story.

They forgot, when they strong-armed the mayor and the city council into awarding them the contract non-competitively, that WiFi isn't totally wireless: it needs power for its radios to work. And AT&T's engineers haven't been able to figure out how to do it yet. So they'll just do a pilot downtown. The gist:

AT&T had planned to build out the wireless network across the city over two years, under the plan announced in February. It would then provide free Internet service to everyone for 20 hours a month and charge for more time or higher download speeds.

The main problem was that AT&T engineers couldn't find a cheap way to power the network's transmitters, which carry the network signal and send it to people's computers. One estimate required 50 transmitters per square mile.

They initially planned to mount the transmitters on city streetlights, but some of those don't have power during the day...
Missed that did you? No power eh? Uh, ......Duh.

Ok, now I don't want to hear any more nonsense about how Lafayette's engineers couldn't possibly be competent to run a fiber-optic network. AT&T's engineers manage it and they literally can't find the plug in the dark. My guess is that LUS' engineers would have known they'd need power. And would not have assumed that light poles could be treated like simple light switches.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Follow Up: The 100 meg Intranet & Innovation

Thursday's press event announcing the hiring of Alcatel to provide electronics for the Lafayette Fiber To The Home network touched of some thoughts that didn't fit into yesterday's media review post... Here are a few on the 100 meg Intranet & Innovation

The Advocate quotes Durel as saying:

Having such a unique capability in Lafayette could help drive innovation, Durel said.

Durel is right; it is hard to adequately imagine what could be done with 100 megs of intranet bandwidth.

A first stab at thinking about it suggests that
  • transferring HD video of soccer games and birthday parties to grandma's TV screen would be trivial. Given the plummeting cost of hard disk storage there's no reason that items of general interest couldn't be stored in an online archive.
  • A Second Life (a simulated world—described) outpost on the LUS intranet could be photo-realistic and stunningly intricate. A version could be drawn on top of the geography of Lafayette. A version for high school students might start in 1821 and student could draw lots to be founder Mouton...and slaves. A ULL design and planning class might want to launch a version that starts with the present real world as the starting state and games out the effects of various smart growth plans.
  • Suppose communication were easier, richer, and cheaper? What could you do that is hard, or expensive now? How 'bout interactive online boutiques? Not today's virtual warehouses—basically only catalogs, more or less attractively presented, of goods. Instead we could have stores where an actual, knowledgeable person could show off products, talk about the choices intelligently and interactively, helping people find solutions to the problems they have. This needn't be about high-end goods. The value of local hardware stores lies in the expertise of the floor staff. (Think Guidry's Hardware.) A lot of today's buying decisions are made without adequate help--from car stereos, to home networking to which flat screen to buy for which purpose, to finding a tailored suit for a family member's wedding. Full screen video and virtual displays coupled with competent help that is cognizant of the local context could make a big difference--and pretty cheaply once the network infrastructure is in place.
  • AOC's homegrown TV could take on an entirely new cast and develop in amazingly rich directons: imagine news shows where the "anchor" tosses icons of articles, online resources, interviews, additional, detailed video footage, links to older shows, and relevant speeches by public figures onto the screen as they present the 40 second version of the news story. Since the show is an IP data stream (like YouTube's) it can be paused by users interested in the more detailed story and those additional resources viewed or saved for later use. The technology to do that is available today and is little more complicated than the spinning logos you see between every TV news story to execute. What doesn't exist is the bandwidth to make them useful and a critical mass of IP-based viewers. Lafayette, as the largest fiber build will have the size and it will have that bandwidth in-system. The potential for innovative use is endless--what is out of reach in other place will be available here.
  • Your idea here: _______________. Or in the comments.
If we sell this right creatives in many fields will flock to Lafayette. There are things right now that can't be done without both big broadband and a large, varied population. Lafayette will be just about the only place in the US to try those things out. The temptation will be to go for the easy—and easily quantifiable—"big business" targets. Bringing one of those in validates an economic developer's job. But the real future lies in 400 small business and 500 artists of various strips along with their supporting web design and network support cadres. For that we need articles in Time magazine and articles on slashdot.....I hope someone is pursuing those.

And, while we are suggesting: LUS and LCG need to develop home-grown talent. They need to recognize that they are not only competing in an established market. More importantly, if they are to realize their own dreams of making the network a unifying tool for economic devlopment and hopes of vaulting Lafayette into the the tech forefront they need to understand that they build a new market. There is no existing market built on a 100 megs of bandwidth available to a whole community. We will have to invent it here. What the market or old, established habits and skills do in a stable economy won't be adequate here. LUS needs to be generous with and supportive of every Linux club, kids' webmaster group, home networking business, and AOC (especially AOC) that even threatens to build new, socially sustainable expertise. It's a bootstraping operation and in our situation the only institution with the "pull" to get those feet up off the ground is the network owner.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

LUS-Alcatel Deal in the News


Both the Advertiser and the Advocate cover yesterday's announcement that Alcatel will provide the electronics for Lafayette's FTTH network. (I attended the press event and wrote up a piece yesterday.)

From the Advertiser:
Alcatel-Lucent was chosen from among six companies to provide the equipment - from the box on your house to the box atop your television set - that will bring Lafayette Utilities System's fiber technology into area homes.

From the Advocate:

The system that the Paris-based company will install will be able to provide all the bells and whistles just coming onto the market — and be flexible enough to provide new applications in the future, LUS Director Terry Huval said.

“We will have the ability and capacity to do things in Lafayette that most of America won’t have for years,” City-Parish President Joey Durel said.

and

For customers, the system Alcatel-Lucent will provide will be able to provide both the most basic of services — such as traditional phone or cable services — as well as services “previously unimaginable in Lafayette,” according to a LUS news release.

Those services include Internet Protocol Television, or IPTV, which sends television signals in the same general manner Internet signals are sent.

IPTV allows for a number of customizable services for end users, Alcatel-Lucent’s Jennifer McCain said.

Users can create their own “home page,” on their television, customizing lists of their favorite channels, doing some limited Internet surfing, gaming, sharing photos or even, someday, shopping — all over their television, McCain said...

Because the box at a customer’s home that delivers IPTV is like a small computer, when new applications become available the computer can be reprogrammed, McCain said.

The potential of the set top box is all but unlimited--it is, as has been remarked on in these pages before (more), a media-ready computer that has been locked down to serve limited, revenue-generating purposes. The boxes are all much more powerful than they are allowed to be. The more we can unlock their potenial as a computer the better it will be for the people of Lafayette.

Finally, what I think will eventually prove the most "feature" part of the system—and a feature we are proud to have first promoted on Lafayette Pro Fiber: 100 megs of intranet bandwidth. The digital divide committee also made a strong pitch for this concept in their "Bridging the
Digital Divide
" document. The appearance of this on the feature among the RFP proposals that Alcatel and others had to respond to is evidence that LUS does listen. Terry Huval is calling this peer-to-peer bandwidth and that points to the crucial feature that it is only available between members of the network.

The system will also be able to provide a special twist on Internet service that LUS has promised — nearly unlimited bandwidth inside the LUS network.

Internet customers, no matter which speed they sign up for to browse the Internet as a whole, will be given a full 100 Mbps when contacting another computer inside the LUS network.

Having such a unique capability in Lafayette could help drive innovation, Durel said.

Durel is right; it is hard to imagine what could be done with that sort of intranet bandwidth. But I'll try in a subsequent post. ;-)

The point here is that the train is leaving the station. Alcatel's techologies will shape the first iteration of the system and, at first glance, they and LUS' choices appear to be forward looking and leave a lot of room for growth in whatever direction the larger technological ecology takes. The inclusion of IPTV technology in the video category coupled with large internal bandwidth, and LUS' long-stated commitment to an open system ecology in the internet part of its offerings insure that Lafayette will have the tools, and more importantly, the open running room in which to create something truly different, ground-breaking, and valuable to the community.

Now all we have to do is our part: get down to work and invent the future. Have fun!

(As I wrote up this review I had to restrain myself from expanding too much on several points. Follow-up posts exploring some of the issues suggested by yesterday's press event and this morning's stories are slated to follow..)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Alcatel to provide LUS' Electronics

Alcatel-Lucent will provide the electronic guts for Lafayette's FTTH project. The deal was announced at a press conference this morning at City Hall. (Pic at right from left to right: Huval, Durel, and the Alcatel rep.)

Huval, Durel, and the man from Alcatel made short remarks and took questions from the press.

Durel's remarks touted the potential of the system. He emphasized that technologies that were not practically available just a few years ago are being integrated into the system. One element of that was the 100 meg intranet "peer to peer" network that all citizens, regardless of the amount they can afford to pay for their connection to the outside world, will share. As a consequence, Durel says, the network will be able to "spur the creativity" of Lafayette's people. Children in the poorest sections of town, paying the least amount of money, will have the same access within Lafayette itself, as those in the wealthiest parts of town will have. And both will have capacities that no one will have elsewhere. That's something to look forward to. He's clearly proud of the system saying that Lafayette will be the most connected town in the states--especially if the state can be convinced to tie in LONI and LITE.

Huval's comments were, as one might expect, more technical. He emphasized the peer to peer (intranet) bandwidth, the IPTV aspects, HD streams for every room in the house, "customized video," the ability of the box that hangs on your house to handle as much as 200 megs of service and the advanced (though unspecified) capacities that Alcatel brings to the table. In response to questions Huval said that the wireless network would follow the fiber and that doing it in that way would make the wireless portion of the network much more robust. Fiber, he said, is "the fundamental infrastructure to support wireless." Huval also emphasized a point that he's made repeatedly: the network will support both old style black rotary telephones and hypermodern VOIP phone integration. You'll be able to plug in that old black and white TV and use it for basic cable without a settop box. Or you'll be able to move yourself entirely to IPTV interaction and video downloads. This network will cover the entire range of possible products.

Digital Divide advocates will be interested to know that Durel made a glancing remark about being able to do things in that department that will be impossible elsewhere and with Councilman Chris Williams—who had made the question central to his support of the project— standing in the background I briefly thought things were gearing up for an announcement but none was immediately forthcoming. Hmmmn.

Excerpts from the press release:
City-Parish President Joey Durel and Lafayette Utilities System today announced the selection of Alcatel-Lucent to provide critical components for the Fiber-to-The-Home project now under way. The company was one of six vying for the LUS project. After reviewing the bids, a panel comprised of LUS officials and representatives from Atlantic Engineering Group, CCG Consulting and RW Beck decided that Alcatel-Lucent was best suited for the project. The deal is contingent upon final contract terms...

Alcatel-Lucent remains the uncontested market leader in broadband access with more than 142 million DSL lines shipped and a cumulative market share of 41 percent, more than three times that of its nearest competitor. More than 165 customers have adopted the ISAM product family – the industry’s first true high-end IP access platform that accommodates a wide range of network flavors and topologies. Alcatel-Lucent is engaged in more than 65 FTTx projects around the world, more than 35 of which are with GPON. “We have witnessed the capabilities of this company and have seen for ourselves the quality of their products and services,” added Joey Durel, Lafayette City-Parish President...

Alcatel-Lucent’s FTTH components will provide cable, phone, Internet and a broad range of features, from features like a standard cable connection for Advanced Basic and Basic services, to state-of-the-art Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) with flexible and advanced aspects previously unimaginable in Lafayette. The system will also be capable of 100 Mbps peer-to-peer communications in addition to several levels of Internet access, traditional phone services as well as the newer Voice over IP service. The system will be scalable to allow for future growth to accommodate advanced services as they are developed.
Besides the before-the-camera representatives of the project the event was also attended by the technical and support staff from LUS. At the end of the presentation there was a round of applause; applause, I'd like to think, that was for them. It's been a long slog for those doing the nitty-gritty work of getting this project underway.

I'll go dig around and see what I can see about the Alcatel family of equipment but today is a momentous day: The electronics define what will be available to us and with the letting of this contract that is all starting to shape. We should soon be able to figure out what our network will look like. (And yes, it would be nice if LUS would just tell us and be a little less cautious about talking about things...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

LUS FTTH Storefront Planned

LUS has announced a plan for a storefront that will likely prove the face of LUS Fiber. According to this morning's Advertiser:
Lafayette Utilities System is looking for retail space to set up a showroom for its fiber-to-the-home products.

"When customers come in and want to sign up, we're going to have a showcase where they can see some of the products in action," LUS Director Terry Huval said.

That sounds great--and it is the first concrete sign that LUS understands that it is entering a market in telecommunications services that requires a different sort of relationship with the public than that of a traditional utilities supplier. Putting out a technically advanced, low cost, reliable service (a fair characterization of LUS' other utilities) is not sufficient. LUS will need to sell fiber. Aggressively. It will need to tell the consumer why FTTH is better and show them how our local utility can do an excitingly superior job.

A storefront "showoff" location is a great idea and a great way to introduce the advantages of LUS Fiber to the people. The committment to such a store shows that LUS is coming to grips with the idea that being a credible competitor involves the perception as well as the actuality of quality.

Just to be blunt: Cox gets it. (AT&T doesn't, at least not locally) Since losing the fiber fight Cox has been pursuing a high-profile strategy of affiliating itself with local organizations and with ULL in an attempt to cut into LUS' perceived hometown advantage. It has aggressively--using both the public media and its background chatter to "influentials"--tried to sell the idea that it has a "fiber network" when what it really has is a perfectly standard cable-style hybrid fiber-coax network like any that you would see more honestly described elesewhere. That is an attempt to cut into LUS' perceived technology advantage. Cox has an uphill climb on both counts: LUS is owned by the people of Lafayette and Cox is a huge corporation run out of Atlanta and owned by a small family. LUS has an inescapable home field advantage. Cox's hybrid fiber-coax switches from fiber to copper coax at a node shared by somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 homes (or more--Cox is cagey). LUS fiber goes straight to each home. LUS will provide more for less in every category using that more capable and cheaper-to-maintain system. Again, actual advantage to LUS. What Cox "gets" is that it can blunt those actual advantages by pushing a strongly as it can the perception of something near to equality. LUS' task is to not let that go uncontested. The storefront will be a great forum for insistently demonstrating the local utility's advantages.

I have to hope LUS will model itself on Apple's storefronts. Slick, hightech, "cool" presentations of the best technology, coupled with a special cadre of "genuises" to answer technical questions and give reliable technology advice have made the Apple Store chain into an enormous win for Apple. Designed as much provide a reliable showcase for the company's advanced technology as to directly sell products the Apple Stores are now regularly cited as an important factor in Apple's increasing market share. It is easy to imagine an "LUS Fiber Store" (somebody needs to start the branding machine up!) that is filled with big HD flatscreens, computers, and phones all interlinked...the flatscreen serves as big display monitor, phone messages can be retrieved on the computers, caller ID that flashes on TV when the phone rings, linking in to address books on the 'puter or online to place VOIP phone calls. A few VOIP video phones for fun. Some WiFi phones for the adventurous mobile user. Demos that show how to integrate iPhones, Blackberrys, fancy PDAs into the system's hooks. Demos of cheap security cam integration. In-home wifi advice. Digital Video Recorders that you can program from work. ...I could go on here for a long time but you get the idea. These are all things that really have to be shown to be compelling. But once shown they are compelling. (I'll give up my TiVo DVR and home WiFi when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. :-) )

The storefront is a bit of a surprise to me. But I'm thrilled with the idea. I don't know that of any other muni fiber provider that is doing this (I'd be happy to be corrected) and it represents yet another way that LUS can push home its advantages.

Fun! I'd line up for the opening. ;-)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Comcast joins AT&T: Net Netrality Alert

Executive Summary: Nation's biggest cableco caught blocking the Bible. Methodology: using its control of network servers to tell users at both ends of the transaction lies about state of the connection. Point: to degrade the service of P2P technology users enough to keep them from using scarce bandwidth. Consequence: The case for public ownership—or at least structural separation—grows.

The ensuing stink is sure to rival AT&T's original Net Neutrality blunder.

-------------
Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, has joined AT&T, the largest phone company, in giving Net Neutrality advocates a hammer with which to drive home the point that the corporate duopolists want to be able to "shape" the internet to their financial benefit--and that "innovation," competition, and your freedom to communicate are not part of their plan.

While AT&T merely stated its intent to categorize traffic and relegate companies whose product didn't pay a special fee to the slow lane they, and other ISPs, have long claimed that this wouldn't really involve degrading anyone's service. But in this latest blowup Comcast has been caught doing what the national network providers have long denied: blocking or degrading services that pass over its network in order to make sure its own services run at full speed. That's the conclusion that the Associated Press came to after an investigating the communications stream. The fuller description of their investigation reveals that they offered a file of the King James version of the bible for upload over BitTorrent and found that when they connected in order to download it at the other end that Comcast blocked their link.

What Comcast is doing was sending "reset packets" to both ends of BitTorrent file exchanges that are forged to indicate that the message comes not from Comcast but from the user on the other end of the exchange--and that the connection has failed. This drops the connection or at least forces a restart. If the program receives too many of these packets it will refuse to deal with the errant node--a tactic which makes sense when the other end really is broken in some way but which is blatantly disruptive when someone standing in the middle is simply lying about a the state of a perfectly capable participant. There's a semi-formal term for this sort of deceptive practice: it is called a "man in the middle attack." For a man in the middle attacks to be successful there has to be a trusted intermediary passing the message who decides to lie--to pass false messages to each participant. The idea is to create a situation in which the traitor in the middle gets what he or she wants.

That's pretty much the situation here. By forging false information about both ends of a BitTorrent exchange (or Gnutella or Lotus Notes (!)) Comast denies users who, in the AP case were exchanging the Bible, the ability to exchange data. Comcast got what it wanted, though: the links failed and Comcast had more bandwidth to use for its own purposes.

Notice please: exchanging data is exactly why customers buy an internet connection, the blocked technology is perfectly legal technology; the content presented for exchange is in no way copyrighted; and internet users that never, ever signed a contract with Comcast are having their access blocked.

It's profoundly wrong on multiple levels and no amount of handwaving about ensuring quality of service can obscure that.

Just for the record: This "man in the middle, using reset packets" is conceptually the same as one of the tactics that China used to build the infamous "Great Firewall of China." In that instance the Chinese government used their ownership of the network to forge reset packets that effectively blocked any link between a computer in China that received or sent suspect words or phrases indicating political or social dissent and the computer that sent or received those words. (If you're gonna be evil you might as well learn from the best, I suppose.)

-------------
A storm of response is building quickly that is sure to rival the ultimate size of the slow-building response to the AT&T gaff that defined the Net Neutrality battles of '05-'06 is building.

The reinstitution of regulation and a reinstitution of the principle of common carriage is the most obvious solution. —One that has been argued here recently.

But this is the sort of thing shakes peoples' trust in their provider and that moves people to recognize that, since even more subtle forms of blocking are possible, a better solution might well be structural: remove the incentive to be evil and only the truly twisted will persist in doing the wrong thing. The first structural suggestion is to enforce "structural separation" meaning that no network provider would be allowed to own any part of the content that flows over the wires. Their only interest then would be in developing a better, faster network. We now have well-respected (i.e. no "mere" blogger) players like Susan Crawford and David Isenberg suggesting that is the only solution. Others, like Bob Frankston, want the current networks given to the municipalities to run open municipal systems that mimic the road system.

These are all necessarily national-level suggestions. They require some measure of divestment being forced on the current providers and only the federal legislature could do that. They are not bad ideas. But they suggest a long battle with a doubtful outcome.

Few, yet, are making the structural case that simple municipal or cooperative ownership would also destroy the motivation for a network provider to shape the usage of local users in ways that are not in their interest. We should all own our own local networks. The principle is simple: owners have no motive to abuse themselves. We can, as we in Lafayette have, make the decision to build a network with a big enough pipe that scarce bandwidth is not an issue inside our system. We can decide to price external bandwidth--and the costs associated with P2P an other bandwidth-heavy applications like streaming video as we see fit. (Local caching of popular content would be an obvious first solution in any bandwidth-rich locale. Big files need only come into our community once.) Owning our own network won't free us from the Comcasts of this world who might still try and keep us from from freely communicating with their customers. But it would give us the control that ensures a network that serves our interests and not the interests of an corporate network provider who is willing to stand in the middle and lie to us and those we are communicating with in order to avoid dealing with the issue at hand honestly.

Right now only a minority wants to force divestiture or expropriation on the network providers. A few more, possibly a majority, already think that municipalities ought to be allowed to build their own networks. Comcast is changing those numbers -- and not in a way that it will like.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"U-Verse in BellSouth Territory?"

DSL reports asks whether U-Verse, AT&T's cable-like video service, is every going to be seen in former BellSouth territory.

AT&T says: Yes...soon...in Atlanta.

The question arises because U-Verse has so far only been seen in former SBC territories--where it has been taken up by 100,000 users--not in any of the areas that were BellSouth territory before the merger. Denizens of the deep south have felt somewhat neglected.

AT&T's offering is interesting chiefly because it is a pure IPTV play; it uses the language of the internet. Verizon, which is driving Fiber To The Home, is using what is really cable technology on its video side. AT&T had considerable trouble getting the technology off the ground but now appears to have a usable product.

The telephone company insists that its product will be competitive but considerable doubt (aired in the article linked to above) exists that this is true. The concern is bandwidth contrainst will keep it from competing adequately on the broadband side (where its speeds do not match even current cable offerings) or on the video end (where many doubt that it has the bandwidth to offer dual HDTV streams). The basic problem is its last mile twisted copper infrastructure. There's only so far you can push old copper--and the phone companies are much closer to the practical limit than are the cablecos.

What most folks seem to expect is that bably Bells will follow the same pattern in video that they have with broadband DSL: offer a slightly inferior product for less--and offer it in some places where cable does not go. Unless they launch a really aggressive attempt to win market share by offering a superior product (as Verizon appears poised to do) the cable companies immediate fiscal interests are served by keeping their higher prices while loosing a few marginal potential customers to a low end phone offering. --Such is the nature of duopoly markets; competing on price is avoided where ever possible. Market segmentation is more profitable for both.

That (basically humiliating) strategy might work in most places to keep AT&T and the other phone companies afloat but it won't work in Lafayette where AT&T will be a third-best, not second-best network. They'll be trying to stand against a competitor in LUS who is clearly determined to undercut the market price of the incumbents using more capable technology. LUS clearly wants to be a broad-based utility and not a player in a segemented semi-monopoly market. Its market plan to lower prices across the board by 20% leaves no room on the bottom for an also-ran. And, incidentally, that same plan leaves no rich pickings on the premium tiers for Cox to use as a consolation for letting the bottom go.

AT&T makes no bones about the fact that it is NOT planning to deploy even the modest U-Verse to all its customers. Its plans work out to serving only about 50% of its customer base even if it mets its buildout goals. And the customers it will not be serving are its "low-value" ones....you and I can both guess how Louisiana shows up on such a ranking.

So the real question is whether AT&T will ever show up to play in the Lafayette market. Louisiana markets, like Southern ones more generally, are markets with lower per capita incomes and hence are marginal anyway under the AT&T game plan. The added challenge of coming up against a local, fiber-optic utility which starts out with prices low enough to destroy your margin may convince them to simply stay away when contemplating the extra costs of upgrading their local net to support U-Verse.

Cox has made its determination to compete plain. But in Lafayette Cox will play the unfamiliar role of the second-best network against LUS' fiber. And LUS won't be interested in taking up Cox's place in a duopoly market...it will compete for the lower-end customer as determinedly as it is allowed to by Louisiana's regulatory agency. (Only in Louisiana would a law be enacted that mandates only regulations that limit the cheapest price a utility can charge the consumer—erecting rules that prevent it from ever charging less—without hinting at limits on the most a utility could charge...unhappily that is precisely what the Cox/BellSouth-sponsored (un)Fair Competition Act does. Go figure. (Go figure that the incumbents understand their difficulty well))

LUS, in this one smallish city, is about to break open a cozy market duopoly that elsewhere in this country will surely solidify further as cable and phone networks seek to secure the best return possible out of their differing network capacities and costs.

I do hope the rest of the country posts a quiet watch on Lafayette. What emerges here will be a lesson in what, in a better world, competition in the telecommunications market could look like.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sorrento emulates the FCC

Earlier I complained that EATel is turning into a wanna-be AT&T. Today my complaint is that the town of Sorrento is emulating the FCC.

Come on folks, in this day and age Federal regulatory practices are no more worthy of being copied than are the corporate practices of national monopolies.

The Advocate briefly reports that Sorrento Town Council has followed it decision to allow EATel to serve only the easiest to get to and most profitable of its citizens with a "fair" decision to allow Cox to do the same.

Fair to whom? Certainly not to the citizens who, you would think, would be the primary concern of Council members.

The reason that Sorrento has any say is that both Cox and EATel need to use the town's rights-of-way property to run the cables that are necessary for their private, for-profit business. So they sign a contract (the "franchise" agreement) with the town which trades use of Sorrento's property rights for a share of the income generated and other conditions favorable to the citizen's who own that property in common.

Historically the most noticeable pro-consumer condition put on a private provider seeking to use community property is that they agree to serve all citizens-not just the most profitable few. Businesses were require to serve the bottoms as well as the hills. Sorrento is abandoning that tradition.

Cox, it must be said in their favor, has already met the more consumer-friendly requirements and is unlikely to abandon already-paid-for infrastructure. So it will be "stuck" with the least-profitable segments anyway. The benefit to them lies largely in the future, in establishing the principle of fair play, and in feeling a little less abused.

The idea of encouraging "competition" by granting one competitor an anti-consumer advantage and then, in the interests of "fairness" allowing the same advantage a few months later to the well-established incumbent was pioneered by the geniuses at the Federal Communication Commission. It's a cute little game in which both sides of the supposed opponents get to cut back on their responsibilities to the consumer while the FCC gets to pretend that it 1) has actually encouraged competition, and 2) has been fair when the net effect boils down to it having abdicating its primary responsibility to protect the citizens of the country. We saw this on the federal level as cable companies entered the phone business and it is being repeated as phone companies move into video.

It's a malign pattern.

And there is no reason for local governments to play that game.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Other YouTube

ToDo & Sunday Thought Departments
Small Print Warning: some curriculum theory from a previous life—cleverly obscured—lies ahead. Please ignore. :-)

Ok, we all know about YouTube--it is that silly-fascinating site where dogs ride skateboards and people spend a lot of time crying for a fascinated public.

Pure entertainment--in the bad sense of fascinatingly mindless distracting pablum.

But there is the other YouTube.

That YouTube that has created a brand new bottom-up educational format: the short video instruction. It's fun, it's popular, it works and it's what entertainment can be in its best sense: a fascinatingly engaging way to learn. Most educational video shorts—let's call them "instructables" so we have a less akward handle—are somewhere between two and six minutes long. They focus on some small bit of "doing" like making a nifty techno-toy, or showing a dance move, or throwing a pot on the wheel. The producers are most often advanced users and the consumers anyone who wants to learn "how."

You might have watched some of these but didn't have a category to put them in. Here is a nice little example for someone for whom the description doesn't strike a cord:



That "instructable" is an example of "throwing off the hump." Potters do that when they want to make a series of similar small items. It's not an easy thing to describe--books, blackboards, and lecture-halls are not good mediums to convey that variety of learning. It's the sort of thing that is more usefully "shown." There is a whole class of things that we'd like to teach which are better shown than described; things that are better experienced than conventionally taught. Video isn't perfect but these extremely short pieces of "conveyed experience" are very, very useful to the learner. The learner can see multiple examples (e.g.: another throwing off the hump). They are repeatable and they are deep. —Repeatable: if you didn't see how he finished off the rim, watch it again. They are deep in the sense that by watching it a learner who has had his or her hands in clay can "feel" how thin those walls must be and get a sense for how much "wobble" is tolerated and how many times to "pull" up walls and what to do toward the final curve with each pull. All these things are (inadequately) discussed (at interminable length) in conventional classroom settings as preparation. But advisory rules about wall thickness and pulls are rather direct abstractions from experience whose utility lies in allowing the student to move more quickly and effectively to new experience. They are much better taught after as student has learned to throw a few forms as a way to move toward independent explorations.

(If you can't get into potting, try the Zydeco demo, or the instructions for making cool LED "throwies" and re-read the above paragraph with your example in mind. You could find similar instructables for welding, making lures, cooking creole, or applying makeup. There is a whole DIY section for you to browse. Let your passions rule)

We don't teach by example in schools because we don't have the time. There are too many students in our classes for many of the most effective kinds of instruction to be possible. Instructables approach the one-on-one experience of tutorials. You watch at your own pace, you notice what is meaningful to you, and you can get repeated examples until you "get" the right approach. A real tutorial with the added dimensions of individualized feedback and things like force feedback (holding the students hands against the clay to give the "feel" of the appropriate pressure) would be even more valuable. Even so, instructables are new and valuable form.

This is one of the reasons you should want big bandwidth. To really see some of the details on the potting example you'd want HD-quality videos. I can imagine getting more personalized instruction from afar--if we had the bandwidth. A skilled potter (or master welder) in Lafayette could set up a nice shop and market personalized instruction over the net—if both ends had really big bandwith.

Just for the record: the usefulness of this technique is not, in my judgment, limited to vocational topics or hobbies. Showing and having the student find ways of solving a problem is central to good mathematics instruction. Learning to read is something that has to be shown; letter sounds can pretty much only be "labled" correctly after a student has learned sound out letters by example... Much conventional instruction could be replaced or aided by providing multiple, repeatable, deep examples.

So...something ToDo on this Sunday when you really ought to be at Festivals Acadiens if you are an Acadiana denizen. And something to think about.


PS: Yes, yes...we just got a wheel. What of it? :-)

Update: 7:28: ooops. I just looked at Boing Boing for the first time in weeks and down the list I spoted a nifty link to how to make clear ice cubes. So naturally I followed it (well, naturally for me). The link goes to a site called "instructables!" I thought I had made up that term--but now it seems more likely that I've seen a reference to this site. Which is pretty neat place to visit. (The ice cube link? Right here.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Boosting Lafayette's WiFi

Worth Thinking About Dept.

Executive Summary: Wireless provider FON's recent successes provide an intriguing example for those interested in LUS' still-unformed wi-fi network.

Recently BT (Britain's dominant broadband provider) and Time-Warner cut deals with the Spanish wireless outfit FON. FON's goal is to foster wi-fi bandwidth sharing among its membership, "foneros." These recent deals are considered breakthroughs because they explicitly encourage users to share their bandwidth, something that network companies have previously forbidden.

The FON Idea:
Any foneros that freely shares their access can get on to any FON access point in the world for free. The company's ground-up, user-built approach to building a hotspot network contrasts pretty dramatically with the top-down methods by major wireless and phone service providers who build, maintain and charge a healthy fee to access their hotspot network.

Credibility:
While the FON plan sounded impractical to some it gained a prestigous group of backers even before the major partnership announcements in Europe, Britian, and the US; investors include: Google, Skype, Index Ventures, and Sequoia Capital. The latest round of investment brought in major Japanese players and BT invested in the company as part of its deal.

The deals cut with network providers BT (#1 in Britain), Neuf (#2 in France) and Time-Warner (#2 cable internet provider in the US) provide instant credibility for FON's idea. All those networks' members (Time-Warner has 6.6 million users) are now "foneros" and wi-fi routers supplied by the company have been flashed with Fon's software. Future broadband subscribers will be encouraged to buy FON routers and share their connections. In Britain, as a result of BT's dominant position and high adoption rates, speculation holds that dense urban areas will be nearly completely covered by the FON/BT network.

How it Works:
The new FON member attaches the FON-enabled wi-fi access point to the wired network connection they've paid for. FON wi-fi access points are cheap (occasionally free) and are software-configured to provide a public channel and a private, seperately encrypted, channel. The owner of the access point uses the private channel for their own, interior, at-home wi-fi network. The public channel's bandwidth is controlled by the owner; who limits the bandwidth that is shared with fellow foneros to a portion that doesn't degrade his or her experience. (Note: there is an alternative make some money off your access if a non-fonero member decides to pay for access through your node.)

Win-Win-Win:
The users get free wi-fi access across the world in exchange for giving up a little bandwidth that they feel they don't need. FON makes deals with the big providers. The big network providers get instant, user paid-for and user-maintained wi-fi networks to brag on and sell to consumers.

There are advantages besides the obvious laptop uses you see at any coffee house in the city. Having a widely-available wi-fi network means that users of wi-fi enabled phones and devices (think certain PDAs, Nokia phones, and the iPhone) could effectively make phone calls for free from FON hotspots in addition to surfing the web, using email, and working other data-based interactions over the net. There would be no additional connection cost over what they'd already paid for their home network for the connections made away from home.

Whoa! But there ARE problems:
But eager investors and growing user-base based on huge, established ISPs does not mean that all is rosy in Fonero Land. FON is faced with a perverse inverted reflection of the problems of wi-fi based muni broadband efforts.

I've discussed the problems of muni wi-fi at some length on these pages. Some of it boils down to the fact that mesh-based muni networks find it hard to provide adequate backhaul unless they have a dense fiber network to hang it off. (We've got that one licked here in Lafayette.) But the second part of the problem is that the constraints placed on wi-fi restrict it to low power and its spectrum allocation is such that wi-fi signals find it hard to penetrate dense vegetation and, especially, houses. Most people compute indoors. A public wi-fi network that has a hard time reliably getting inside homes and that makes for a very hard sell as a primary network. (LUS has tentatively solved this by selling fiber as the primary interior connection and making city-wide wi-fi an appropriately cheap add-on that will not be sold as suitable for in-home use.)

If muni wi-fi's acess-point-on-a-street-pole can't get in to homes, by the same token FON's bottom-up in-home network is going to find it hard to get out to the public areas of the neighborhood.

What's needed is a wireless system with the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither...

You see it coming, right?
LUS should either partner up with FON or do something similar themselves. (FON's software is not unique; other, open source software could emulate the basic capacities of the FON wi-fi router.)

LUS will be in a nearly unique position: it will have a FTTH network and a wireless one. The question, as always, is: How to best make use of the unique resources we are building in Lafayette. So far, in my humble opinion, LUS has mostly been making the smart moves. Fiber First is smart--the smartest basic move possible. That makes a strong wireless network possible. Given that starting point, it is smart to go ahead and build wireless mobile capacity as LUS is planning to do. It's smart to not pretend that wi-fi can be an adequate substitute for a reliable, wired network. LUS isn't doing that; instead LUS' wi-fi will be positioned, as it should be, as a low-cost mobility addition. What is ironic is that Lafayette's wireless network, while relegated to secondary status locally, will be faster and more reliable than any public wi-fi network in the nation; its dense fiber connectivity and the design decision to avoid more than rudimentary use of mesh re-routing assures that.

But, as smart as all that is, LUS' muscular wi-fi network will still have trouble getting into the home. Coverage will still be spotty and shifting--like cell phone coverage is, only more so. All that is a matter of physics and federal regulation — no amount of smart network design can completely eliminate the issue.

The smart way to minimize coverage problems is to provide both the muni solution for outside, public space and a FON-style solution for interiors. And because LUS will control both sides we can do what nobody else can: integrate the two. LUS would provide coverage on the streets and in public spaces. Subscribers, using FON equipment or similar router software cover their own interiors and their yard away from the street to exactly the degree they find useful for their own private, locked-down wi-fi channel. Piggybacked onto that would be a second, public, channel that would be available to all LUS subscribers. It'd be used by meter readers, police, friends, and folks visiting town who've bought the the three-day pass—and Foneros if we go that route. (If we join FON local subscribers could roam on FON points anywhere.) As long as you were visiting locales that used LUS fiber you'd never have to log into a private network. As a mobile user moved down streets, into offices, and visited friends they could, potentially, remain on the public network the entire time and never have to log into anyone's private network or use any resources that weren't public.

Near-ubiquity of coverage would allow VOIP phones could become truly useful in the city, making truly mobile wi-fi telephony a reality. WiFi-enabled handhelds, from iPhones, to Blackberries, to Nokia phones, to Skype phones, to various "smart" PDA hybrids would become reliably useful without having to buy into expensive packages from cellular providers, enabling a whole new class of network devices to become cheaply available to everyday Lafayette users.

The Bottom Line:
LUS could sweeten the pot for its subscribers by providing each broadband customers that agrees to share using the LUS-approved equipment and software with an extra meg of "langiappe" bandwidth so that sharing actually provides a small boost in capacity for the subscriber who bought their own router and occasionally shared their extra capacity. Recall also that LUS will (again almost uniquely) be providing every user unthrottled in-system bandwidth. Wi-fi routed packets that stayed inside our system would be under that local use umbrella. The relatively small bandwidth diverted to wifi sharing will be a mere drop in the bucket for the LUS user in that instance.

Lafayette's resulting wi-fi service would be as nearly flawless as is humanly possible both inside and outside. Segregating public and private networks would increase the security of the subscribers' personal networks; making wifi networks more secure for regular users than they are today. Subscribers would understand that coverage inside their homes was their responsibility while at the same time gaining access to the public network everywhere. As users found holes in coverage in places where they needed it they could simply move their wi-fi point or add a cheap repeater.

The net effect for LUS would be that the users would plug many of the holes in the city's cloud themselves--at their own expense--when they felt they needed coverage and only when they did. The resulting network with public channels available both inside and outside participants' buildings would be more dynamic and more nearly ubiquitous than any in the country. And ubiquity is the major selling point of any wireless mobility network.

The net effect for users would be a robust public network that was available both inside and outside wherever the people that lived or worked there thought it would be useful. That's simply unavailable anywhere else. A user's laptop would be more useful than ever. And mobile devices of all kinds would bloom in Lafayette as the price premium for service vanished.

It would be a very profitable collaboration between the community's telecom utility and its citizen-owners; a collaboration available to almost no one else.

Worth thinking about, don't you think?


(And a thanks to reader Jon who first pointed me at the BT story....)