Monday, November 26, 2007

Broadband To Overtake TV

Interesting:
WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS, more than 16 million U.S. households with televisions will use their broadband service more than they use their TV sets today, says technology consulting firm In-Stat.

Up to 30% of viewers will drop subscription TV and use the Internet for watching TV, according to a recent survey by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat. More than 40% say they aren't getting enough international news and information from their current TV service, despite having hundreds of channels to choose from. (Use Of Broadband Service To Overtake TV Viewing)

Now that's much quicker than I would have thought...at least without real, reliable broadband. On the other hand: where there is real, reliable broadband.......;-)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

We're Already Cyborgs

Sunday Food For Thought Dept.

Take a gander at a recent Wired Magazine article for something to chew on intellectually. "Your Outboard Brain Knows All" takes off from a recent study that shows that younger (and presumably more techy) folk have poorer memories than older ones:
This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.
That last sentence pretty much sums up the story. But if you'd like the explicit version:

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I'm talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us. [emphasis mine]

The author, it seems to me, is right. We've woken up in the future and are already linked into the net in ways that aren't so visually dramatic as we might have seen in Star Trek (and yes, that's "Jean Luc Picard" as Locutus Of Borg at the head of the entry) but are every bit as real socially and personally.

Not only do I google items when I am on the phone, my daughter calls me on the phone in order to have me google stuff for her when she traveling with her cell but without direct access to her own "outboard brain."

Another striking bit:
What's more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I've been blogging for four years, which means I've poured out about a million words' worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don't even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I'd forgotten I knew — it's what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an "outboard brain."
It's a nice treat to find that occasionally a fiber topic I've searched for returns Lafayette Pro Fiber as the top hit. I am generally surprised at how much sense those guys make. ;-) I've learned to Google for my own work rather than make any effort at all to recall when and in what context I wrote something.

And it's not just the net. My laptop holds more of my life than I can easily recall existing--what was I doing in April 6 years ago? I don't know. But my iCal calendar program does. Ditto for birthdays or the last time I went to the doctor. When did I first run across a particular author? Well a content search of my laptop will reveal the date I first entered anything by him in email, an article, or my old hand-made HyperCard reference library. My email archive is a treasure trove of history about myself that I'd forgotten.

And I rely on all that "offloaded" memory on a regular basis. It's part of my life and a resource I count on. It's "my" memory every bit as much as something I "wrack" my brain to remember. And it is a good bit more reliable.

We are already cyborgs.

For my money, it's a good thing.

Of course not everyone is so sanguine—there is a real fear of, if not losing our humanity to the Borg, then at least becoming less capable people because of it. That's not a new fear. No less than Plato feared external memory (in the form, gasp!, of writing) would lead men to let their memory atrophy and lose the basis for true human wisdom.

Plato wasn't entirely wrong. Anyone with any pretension to learning in that day and age could recite long epic poems that very few in our day would bother to learn. Part of the art of rhetoric was memory practices. But the Greeks and Romans adapted. They decided that perhaps the ability to recite long poems wasn't what really made a man learned. Ironically, the ability to ask the right questions, for which Plato/Socrates was famed, became much more important in determining who was wise.

That same sort of thing has been at work in our own day. Until recently we thought that the ability to parse logic and perform calculations were the indisputable signs of high intelligence. Then computers got so easy to use and so ubiquitous that no one had to be able to do math in order to possess its power. Now being able to do long calculations in the head is merely a quaint skill, not quite on the level of reciting epic poetry, but clearly approaching it.

As terabytes of storage go on sale at Best Buy, as flash memory lets you store gigs of data in your pocket, as laptops that would have recently been classified as supercomputers too powerful to export legally show up at WalMart, as we locally share a 100 meg intranet and a truly capable and ubiquitous wifi net it is interesting to wonder what we'll come to think of as valuably and uniquely human.

People will have levels of memory, calculation, speed, and depth of access to facts that savants in earlier eras could not match. I don't imagine that making those abilities common will make our land as much better a place as the savants might have imagined.

But it should be interesting to see what we do with our new powers. And what we come to value in ourselves instead of those things.

Friday, November 23, 2007

AOC & LUS' Franchise

This morning's Advocate has a story focusing on one benefit from Tuesday's approval of the LUS' cable franchise: Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) will benefit to the tune of $50,000 dollars and a new capacity to offer on-demand programming.

As Blanchard points out, most of the franchise agreement is, for legal reasons relating to the (un)Fair Competition Act, a clone of Cox's 2000 agreement.

There are some differences, however, including the way the LUS agreement deals with the Acadiana Open Channel:

Each year, the Cox franchise agreement requires Cox to pay $50,000 to the open channel to run a public access channel, although that figure can go down if the city-parish doesn’t match funds up to a certain amount.

The LUS agreement calls for the open channel to get a flat $50,000 regardless of any conditions.

While there is a dark lining on this silver cloud, my guess is that Ed Bowie over at AOC's Lee Avenue offices regards this as a good thing. After all, the perennially cash-strapped organization is getting a new, solid, continuing funding source for the next 10 years. With new federal regulations threatening to further erode the principle of local control of cable media by telling localities that they can't demand much of anything other than cash for letting cable corporations rent their rights-of-way all public access groups are facing a bleak future. Likely LUS' commitment will make it politically difficult for Cox to back out of its commitments just because the Feds say they can renege. Cox appears to have a good relationship with AOC. The corporation recently extended AOC's reach into the surrounding communities recently (you can see AOC's programming throughout Cox's Acadiana footprint now) and provides AOC with net connection. (LUS should certainly match that.)

Even as AOC programming has solidified—it now really fills the two channel slots it has been allocated—and in part because of increased demand for its services AOC's staffing problems have increased. This is especially true in the critical technical area that will be its future and the additional shot of money will no doubt be helpful there.

But there is a downside to the LUS' unconditional gift to AOC. It's unconditional. That means that should the council decide it doesn't want to match LUS' contribution in the same way it matches Cox's then their decision to be chintzy doesn't let LUS off the hook. With the Cox money the local government has to continue to support AOC or let Cox walk away with money that could be returned to the community. The way LUS has set up its contribution the city is freed from that responsibility. Of course that doesn't free it from the moral obligation to help pay for valuable community resources. AOC is a magnet for creative types and AOC's broadcasting of public meetings is an essential public resource. The city-parish should do the right thing.

The LUS contribution will give AOC a nice boost on becoming a next-generation public access institution. The addition of a video-on-demand (VOD) capacity is a window into that new world and LUS will be smart to put lots of local programming into its VOD library. LUS wants—or should want—VOD to be become very popular. It is by far the easiest way to get long tail content and very local content onto any network. Satisfying the actual desires every ecclectic and very local taste rather than forcing them to watch lowest-common-denominator stuff that is popular in both Peoria and New York is the best way to satisfy video customers and build market share. Beyond actually serving your customers encoraging VOD use makes a lot of sense for LUS because, frankly, Cox is going to have trouble competing in that arena. It's current implementation is just plain klutzy and it stresses the network. At least at my house it is possible to try and log into that function and to have the network tell you that it is busy. Their network is already oversubscribed and they've not allocated the bandwidth to keep it flowing smoothly at times of peak demand. So to try and match LUS in encouraging a larger percentage of its subscribers to use VOD would mean investing more bandwidth in VOD--and without a system upgrade that means reducing profitable services elsewhere.

But VOD is only a hint of what is possible. Just on the other side of the closed system of downloading video from your cable company through your TV's settop box (which is what VOD is all about) lies the unconstrained land of real "Downloaded Video," DV (See "Die TV, Die!, Die!, Die!"). DV replaces the broadcast model based on limited bandwidth and the desire of broadcast networks and cable companies to profit off every minute you spend watching the boob tube with a system that allows you to download video you care about (instead of what some "average" American doesn't dislike too much) video you want (and only video you want) at any time (instead of on their schedule). Setting up a download server on the LUS intranet would be the next really big leap into the next era for Lafayette and AOC. From there you could download HD versions of the city-parish show (look at the grimace on your councilman's face in excruciating detail), or your kid's latest soccer match, or that Monday night political show or last Sunday's homily. Even better, download the version of the meeting your councilman commented and submitted. Or the edited version by your favorite local cynic. Or a compendium of Mr. Benjamin's funniest remarks updated with bits from that last meeting. Those outside the intranet would get the YouTube version. (Or they could move to Lafayette.)

In the long run DV is where video is going. Lafayette could be far ahead of the curve if we invest just a little bit in a fat connection for AOC and a minimal investment in a couple of fast servers and a dozen inexpensive terabytes of drive storage. The future is cheap and available at Best Buy. It's the vision that we've got find.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

LUS Cable Franchise Set

The LUS franchise agreement was approved yesterday evening in a quick, low-key Lafayette Public Utility Authority session before the main event. The LPUA, the five person subset of the city-parish council meeting that has legal authority over LUS, was down to three members all of whom voted to approve the measure. Williams and Benjamin, as has been their wont, did not choose to attend.

Huval gave a brief powerpoint presentation which focused on one main point: the franchise agreement is as near a copy as is possible of Cox's 2000 agreement. A chart of the ways in which the two contracts were the same was the central feature of the presentation. This parallelism was repeatedly presented as a direct consequence of Lousiana's "Fair Competition Act," a point we have made in these pages as well.

The point I found most interesting—and most promising in view of my disappointments with the franchise—is that at the begining of his presentation Huval was careful to emphasize that LUS intended to do considerably "more." That "more" was completely unspecified but leaves a lot of room for hope.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

LUS Franchise Goes to Council Vote

LUS' cable franchise agreement is on the agenda to be approved this evening during the 4:30 LPUA meeting before the regular council meeting.

Now this little story doesn't rate so much as a mention in local media since various tempest in a teapot issues are distracting us from this more fundamentally important issue. (The Redflex and the Settlers Trace Boulevard controversies will have been forgotten when the money rolling into consolidated government from this contract are a central portion of every year's budget.) I've earlier gone on at some length about why this is a big deal, and how state and federal shenanigens play into the unhappy need to write this franchise contract in a way that helps Cox and AT&T avoid full price competition. You can get the sad story in my November 3rd post.

If you poke around a bit and use Google you can actually find the text of the agreement on the council website. (The links in the agenda document do not work...a common problem, I have found. Someone needs to show the folks uploading them how to redirect the links.)

It makes for interesting reading. Well, ok, maybe not really interesting reading. But it makes interesting points. For instance here's my top ten (in no particular order):

1) No Censorship. LCG denies itself the right to censor any content that flows over the LUS system:
8.12 Selection of Programming.
During the term of this Franchise, and consistent with 47 U.S.C. § 533(e)(2)[Link], LCG shall neither prohibit LUS Communications from providing nor require LUS Communications to provide any program or otherwise censor communications over the Cable and Telecommunications System; except that, nothing in this section shall be read to authorize LUS Communications to engage in communications which are prohibited by law.
This writes into the local ordinance a reassuring portion of the Federal Code that forbids a local franchising authority from exercising any editorial control over programming. Good. This firmly eliminates any stupid attempt to tamper with programming that has a paying audience in order to satisfy the self-righteousness of those who would like to control the tastes of others. With the passage of this ordinance it would be against Federal law, local ordinance, and LUS' franchise contract with the city-parish to mess with programming. Endless pointless and silly debates in our city-parish council are thereby avoided. Kudos to the drafters of this ordinance.

2) Yearly Surveys. Consolidated government reserves the right to do yearly surveys of LUS' telecommunications.
B. LCG at its sole option and expense may undertake an annual survey of community views of cable operations in the City, including but not limited to technical quality, response to community needs, and customer service. LCG shall provide thirty (30) days advance written notice to LUS Communications of such a survey and shall, upon thirty (30) days written request, report the results of the survey to LUS Communications.
That's a good thing as well—and has ramifications well beyond asking the obvious question "Is LUS doing a good job." Lafayette is going to be way ahead of the curve with its fiber-optic network and some elements of the project will be unique, like the 100 meg intranet. We really should be tracking the sorts of changes that grow up in our community. It would be invaluable to other communities, essential to our finding grant funding for all sorts of nifty experiments, and crucial in justifying the expense when the project is inevitably challenged down the road. (If you think Cox and AT&T will quit badmouthing the project and trying to convince people it is worthless after it starts cutting into their market share you really ought to rethink.) We need a series of good broadband surveys. This has been suggested before...AndrĂ© Comeaux had made a project of this. The idea should be incorporated into a yearly survey. Done right we could get national groups that would like to get their hands on such unique data to help us pay for it. But with or without help we should get on the stick about this. A baseline survey done before LUS offers its first services is absolutely essential to being able to prove that the project has helped Lafayette.

3) In the Public Interest
1.9 Public Interest Promoted.
The provisions of this Franchise shall be liberally construed in favor of the promotion of the public interest.
Perfect. 'Nuff said.

4) Updating the Agreement
SECTION 6. AMENDMENTS TO FRANCHISE
LCG may amend this Franchise upon the application of LUS Communications to provide services in addition to those authorized by Section 8, subject to appropriate additional conditions to protect the public interest. LCG may also amend the Franchise upon the application of LUS Communications when necessary to enable LUS Communications to take advantage of technological advancements in Cable Services and/or Telecommunications Services that, in the opinion of LCG, will afford LUS Communications an opportunity to serve its customers more efficiently, effectively, and economically. Such amendments shall be subject to such conditions as LCG determines are appropriate to protect the public interest.
It's nice that someone is being proactive about anticipating technological changes that will drive new services. A clause like this will make it easier to work such changes into the services lineup.

5) Privacy
7.2 Privacy.
B. LUS Communications shall not use the two-way communications capability of the Cable and Telecommunications System for unauthorized or illegal subscriber surveillance of any kind. For purposes of this subsection, tenants who occupy premises where LUS Communications provides Cable Service and/or Telecommunications Service shall be deemed to be subscribers, regardless of who actually pays for the service.
That's probably should be obvious. But given the loosey-goosey way that phone providers, including our dear AT&T have played loose with the wiretapping laws during this administration this clause clearly directs LUS to make sure that surveillance is legal. That is, to wait for a court to order it. Good.

6) Universal Service
1. Within Franchise Area. For requests from persons within 300 feet of an existing distribution line, LUS Communications shall provide service within seven (7) business days for no charge other than the then-prevailing normal installation charge, unless LUS Communications demonstrates to LCG’s satisfaction that extraordinary circumstances justify a waiver of this requirement or the customer requests that service commence at a later time.
The clauses for those outside the 300 feet area will apply to very few if any folks --since the current franchise area is the well-built-up city of Lafayette. But even there LUS is obligated to offer service at a reasonable cost. Universal service is assured.

7) Public Service
E. Requested School and Public Building Service Drops. LUS Communications shall provide upon request and without charge one cable television service outlet activated for Basic Cable Service to each police station, fire station, School, public library and LCG office building...
That's only basic, and there are some conditions on service more than 300 feet from a line, but its still pretty sweet. A public utility should provide public services.

8) PEG Channels (aka AOC)
8.9 Public Educational and Governmental Use.
A. PEG Access Channel Capacity. Within six (6) months of the date service begins under this Franchise, LUS CommunicatioLCG two (2) downstream channels solely for PEG access use.
Another 3 channels can be earned by the community if they an fill up the first two.

9) AOC support
G. Equipment and Facilities. Each year during the term of this Franchise, LUS Communications shall provide an annual grant for the PEG access equipment and facilities to LCG or, as directed by LCG, to the Access Corporation(s) designated by LCG, in an amount equal to $50,000. Beginning on the Effective Date, the payment shall be made monthly in an amount of $4,167. LUS Communications shall be permitted to recover all such payments in its monthly Basic Cable Service charges or as otherwise permitted by LCG.
This is support for AOC. I'd be happier if it went directly to the designee rather than passing through the fingers of the council but it cements support for the valuable local institution even in the face of looming federal rules that would put its existance in danger.

10) 21st Century Public Access
L. On-Demand PEG Access Programming. In addition to therequirements of this Section 8.9, LUS Communications may make PEG Access programming available to Subscribers on-demand, or may permit any designated Access Corporation(s) to make programming available on-demand. On-Demand PEG Access programming shall not be required to be carried on a Basic Cable Service tier.
This hints at the beginings of a 21st century vision for what AOC could become. Even niftier would be access to net bandwidth and support for high bandwidth, on-network storage. Maybe we can negotiate for that at a later date.


Parting Thoughts:
All in all not a bad document. Not the document of my dreams however. That one would have had glorious clauses pushing a real digital divide program, extended public obligations, funding for a commons portal and a 21st century version of AOC. Sigh. Still, I have to say not a bad document. Just not worthy of the full vision I think most of Lafayette shares.

Quickie: Bust Broome

A quick note:

Sharon Weston Broome, she of fiber fight infamy, wants to be Louisiana's Senate president pro tem.

She shouldn't be considered and no Acadiana region legislator should support her bid.

The fast rundown:
  1. Broome is the legislator that "authored"the infamous anti-Lafayette revision to the (un)Fair Competition Act. That bill, eventually passed in drastically ammended form, was submitted only 1 year after the "compromise" law was passed and was the incumbents' attempt to get additional advantage before the law was ever used the first time.
  2. That act was clearly written by and submitted at the behest of Cox Communications.
  3. It would have forced a second referendum on Lafayette
  4. It would have fined Lafayette $900,000 dollars if the voters approved building a fiber network of their own
  5. To add insult to injury the law would have given that nearly $1 million dollars to Cox!
Lafayette's people rose up in a campaign of letter writing and calling that led Broome to recant the more obvious mistakes in "her" bill, ask our representatives to tell the people of Lafayette that she was not a "vicious" person, and to say that she was not planning on returning to Lafayette until "it's safe."

Ms Broome has demonstrated her incompetence and her willingness to carry water for entrenched special interests to the detriment of the people she was elected to represent.

She has not earned any position of respect or honor.


PS: If that's not enough to convince you, you might need to be reminded that this is the same Sharon Weston Broome that embarrassed the state by seriously suggesting that the state of Louisiana pass a resolution saying that it was our understanding that Darwin's theory of evolution is racist.

Really. I couldn't make stuff like that up.

Let your reps know that Ms Broome shouldn't be an officer of our legislature.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cox Degrades and Blocks P2P

Broadband Reports tells us that Cox has joined Comcast in chocking P2P traffic. (Readers and netizens will recall the uproar over Comcast's public relations nightmare—blocking the Bible by using your control of the network to lie to both sides of the exchange about the state of the other is considered uncool.)

Like Comcast, Cox is using its control of the network servers to forge the identity of users on both sides of P2P (bittorent, etc.) connections and tell both users that their partner has asked for a reset of the connection. The consequence is a dramatically slower connection or, once one side of the software "gives up," yielding a blocked connection. By forging false information about both ends of the communication Cox denies users the ability to exchange the data they choose.

Why? After all, people buy bandwidth in order to communicate. And Cox has plenty of tools that already control how much bandwidth you're allowed to drink. Cox, like the other cablecos, sells you a speed-throttled product (1.5 megs, 7 megs, etc.) and they have an unpublicized monthly usage cap. So you can only use so much at a time and you can only use so much per month. That should be enough. Why do they feel the urge to tell users what kinds of connections you can make within those limits?

Well...because 1) Greed: supplying bandwidth costs money they'd rather keep and 2) Lying (or more generously, its cousin "advertising). Even though they've set out limits those limits are pretty much fakes that are used to sell product rather than rationally inform consumers. They are counting on very, very few people ever really using the capacity that they sold them. If any substantial number of users really starts to use anything like their monthly allotment everyone's shared speed would drop like a rock. Cox just don't have the capacity to give consumers the speeds they've sold them. At the root of this sort of behavior is that Cox (and the other major telecomms) oversubscribe their bandwidth...sort of like "overbooking" the seats on a plane. Only Cox et al do a lot more of it than than any airline ever dared. (See a recent fine discussion post on gigom for a clear elaboration of the business and network dynamics involved.)

When P2P begins to entice users to come somewhat closer to using the speeds and capacities they've bought that overbooking is revealed: the network slows down and the advertising is revealed too obviously for what it is: a commitment they can't keep. It doesn't help Cox stay calm that P2P also looms as a threat to cable's core business. (We do know what most torrents are used for don't we? Video, legal and otherwise.) Instead of announcing rational speeds and caps that would reflect their actual network capacity Cox follows Comcast in surreptitiously blocking the upstart P2P network in ways that are fundamentally deceptive.

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 not Cox's responsibility; 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 it.

Here in Lafayette LUS users will avoid the worst of this because LUS won't sell you a product they can't supply. That's not the way that utility people think. It's not about marketing for them. Besides, they won't have any need for marketing deceptions. The sort of advertising that Cox is engaged in is intended to convince you that you are getting more than you actually are. LUS will have the bandwidth to give you exactly what you pay for. And LUS has been very direct in saying that they intend to do just that. I don't think many people have heard them; it sounds too obvious...but the engineers at LUS know that your local cable connection is horrifically oversubscribed and it hurts their engineer's sense of right order. They want you to know they won't do that. (This is similar to the no connection fees, no penalty-laden contracts promise LUS has made—not doing that marketing stuff is the utility way.)

Does that mean that LUS will never mess with P2P? I hope they won't. There is a lot of nervousness about uncontrolled usage among engineers and servers and P2P is at the center of that angst. I think such anxiety misplaced. But...My point is that LUS won't have to deceptively block services you want to use in order to keep up the facade that you've got plenty of speed. LUS will actually have plenty of bandwidth. And if you use a lot more bandwidth going out of our network (generating a cost we all share) than your fellows do there is no reason not to simply tell you that you are pushing costs onto your neighbors. And charge you for fairly for it if it gets too disproportionate.

Oddly enough I'm looking forward to having that sort of relationship with my net provider. A more honest approach would be a refreshing change.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Coming Soon: aL, La and the Magical Municipal Tour

As we head to the end of this year, the pace of progress on the LUS fiber project is increasing. The electronics vendor has been selected; property for the head-end has been purchased; a building for that is not far off.

Some of the specifics of the network offerings have become public, the most notable of which is the fact that every LUS fiber customer will have 100 megabits per second of in-system connectivity. What that means is that Lafayette will have an intranet that will rival any corporate or academic campus in the world.

This will create the opportunity fundamentally change life in Lafayette. With that much in-system bandwidth available, it will be possible for a new, asynchronous Lafayette to emerge — asynchronous Lafayette, Louisiana (aL, La).

Lafayette and The Network

The power of networks to drive change is well documented. There is Metcalfe's Law. There is the fabulous, thought-provoking 2002 book by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: The New Science of Networks, which explores the power of networks and what new, more powerful networks mean for science, business and everyday life. I'm sure you can find other examples and references.

Because of the design of the LUS network and the commitment to create an intranet for customers of that network, Lafayette is going to be a community where the impact of this meeting of network power and the various aspects of network connected life will be explored first. We will be pioneers on the great adventure that will not come to other communities in our country and the world for years — if not decades — to come.

All that bandwidth will mean that access to aspects of life Lafayette will no longer be tied to time. That is, large swaths of public life in Lafayette will migrate to a point where access to events will no longer depend on your ability to physically show up. Any public event in Lafayette will have the potential to be preserved for posterity.

The path to opportunity in Lafayette will run along the ability of government, companies, institutions, associations, clubs and individuals to push the transition from 'Lafayette in the now' to 'asynchronous Lafayette.'

The LUS fiber system and the intranet capability it will provide its customers will make it difficult to leave Lafayette. Life will be different from other places here. We will miss the amenities that the fat connection that the LUS network will afford us. But, if we work this right, we will not have to miss Lafayette in the sense that more of our civic and social life can and will be made available to us via the network in ways that will not require our physical presence at the event in order to observe it or, in some cases, participate in it.

We won't stop attending these events, but the LUS network will enable citizens here to experience more of Lafayette life because those events will be available to us at times that our hectic lives — family, work, and play — don't currently allow. For instance, I like good music, but I can't always find the time to say, go to a Louisiana Crossroads performance. Or, maybe I have to be out of town on the night that there's a PASA show that I'd otherwise like to catch.

In asynchronous Lafayette, those events could be captured, stored and be made accessible to folks who can't attend the live event — or who might want to experience the event from a different perspective.

This is one way that the network will set public life in Lafayette apart from life in other communities.

I think it's important that we focus on this opportunity in order to ensure that the changes resulting from our new distinctiveness enable Lafayette to capture and leverage those aspects of our community that make us unique; that we use our infrastructure to knock down the barriers between us, not to widen existing gaps.

Here are some ideas of how the LUS network might enable asynchronous Lafayette to emerge.

Government

This new infrastructure has the potential to improve the ability of citizens to participate in governmental processes with the result being that government becomes more responsive to them and their needs. In asynchronous Lafayette, public meetings will be recorded, stored and be able to be accessed by citizens who were not able to attend the meeting. Documents presented, discussed or distributed in the meeting will be available for viewing and downloading via the webcast (live and stored) of the session.

Those web-accessed meetings could also have links to allow citizen input on the process. It will mean a number of structural changes will need to take place. First, local government and agencies will need to put cameras and microphones in any room used for public meetings so that the sessions can be recorded. Second, they'll need to invest in the storage capacity to allow these meetings to be tagged and archived for later access. Third, they'll need to provided wider windows of opportunity for citizens to submit formal comment on proposals, issues and ordinances.

I'm not talking about the kind of Blog of the Banshees that the comment sections of The Daily Advertiser and other papers have become; but a formal channel for citizen comment and involvement that will become part of the permanent public record of the proceedings, even though the citizens might not have been present at the event when it actually occurred. Asynchronous access to government might actually lend itself to richer, more thoughtful citizen involvement by affording interested parties the opportunity to review the materials and sessions away from the heat of the moment.

Lafayette may need to come up with its own version of public meeting laws to ensure that our rich digital infrastructure is used to enhance citizen access to government and its decision-making processes.

Education

In asynchronous Lafayette, students will never miss another day of class. That is, classrooms could be equipped with cameras and microphones which would enable teachers to deliver their course content in a real-time session that could be available to students too ill to attend class that day. The course could be accessed from home either via a video stream or accessed later when the student was feeling better. When I made this case to my daughter a couple of years ago prior to the fiber election, I have to admit that she was not wild about this idea.

The network will also facilitate more collaborative learning, as students, teachers, even researchers will be able to interact in real time with voice, data and video on projects ranging from homework to science projects to specialized research projects.

Entertainment/Culture

We can use this infrastructure to improve and enrich Lafayette's cultural life and, in the process, bolster and sustain artists and the institutions that support them.

Asynchronous Lafayette will be a boon to businesses built around entertainment and culture. More specifically those places offering 'live' music are going to have a real opportunity to emerge as global purveyors of our musical culture. There's a hint of what is possible by what's transpired in Austin, Texas. Austin City Limits helped transform that city into a multi-media entertainment center, drawing musicians from around to world to a place that has no obvious other reason to attract them. The show now has its own music festival.

Big whoop.

Imagine asynchronous Lafayette, where we are capturing on video live performances at Grant Street Dancehall, the Blue Moon Saloon, Louisiana Crossroads, Festival International, Festival Acadiens, Downtown Alive, the Heymann Center, and other venues. We could establish our city as THE live music capital of the world by letting the world access all the great live music that we grow and bring here.

Put cameras in the venues, run a feed out of the sound boards and — voila! — shows could be streamed over the web and stored on servers here in Lafayette for later access. The webcast versions could be free or very inexpensive, serving to feed demand for the higher quality recordings of the sessions that could be produced from the archived digital files and sold at a premium.

I happened to catch T. Bone Burnett on The Charlie Rose show on LPB the other night. In that segment (he was on as the producer of the new Robert Plant and Allison Krause album Raising Sand), Burnett said that he believed the future of the music business would revolve around live performance. He added that he wanted to be involved with producing live shows and the recordings that resulted from them.

Asynchronous Lafayette will be ideally positioned to lead this transition by using our wired infrastructure to enable the capture of high-definition, high-quality recordings of all that great music that is some what wasted when it is only captured by the ears that are in the room.

It'll take some server capacity (hey, Google and Sun both offer 'Data Centers in a Box' that bring huge storage capacity in a modular unit that looks like a shipping container), but opportunities like this are going to abound in the arts in the new, wired, asynchronous Lafayette.

Business

The strictly business crowd (you know, the folks who buy Dell and HP computers) won't be shut out either. In fact, businesses in Lafayette are going to have a strategic advantage due to the bandwidth that the LUS intranet affords them. For starters, it will be possible for businesses in Lafayette to work in a more distributed way. That is, people here will really be able to telecommute (i.e., work from home) in ways that are just not possible now. Massive bandwidth will make information sharing easier so things like white board sharing over multiple locations will be able to take place seamlessly. This could be a key to our traffic problems since no one seems to want to pay for roads.

WebEx and similar services should be recruited to conduct pilots here because the kind of network capacity we have here is going to be a while in reaching the rest of the country. Imagine the possibilities that engineering firms located here will have to look at problems via a network, fashion solutions and get them to the fabrication floor in a much shorter cycle.

Healthcare and Public Health

Healthcare in Lafayette can be fundamentally different than it is in any other place in the country. Home monitoring of patients will be able to rival that currently available only in ICUs. Any kind of telemetry that can be captured from a patient in a hospital will soon be able to be captured from home via the network. This could reduce hospital stays and with that the cost of care — without adversely affecting the quality of care.

A few months ago, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals conducted a series of drills across the state to test preparedness for a potential flu pandemic. I happened to attend a meeting in a community where the results of one such drill were discussed. One aspect of the outbreak that the providers did not mention was the impact of an outbreak on the telecommunications system. In the event of an outbreak, there will likely be a good bit of what people near chemical plants know as "evacuation in place." That is, people will be advised to stay home in order to avoid exposure to the virus that would be causing the flu outbreak.

With the robust telecommunications infrastructure that will be in place in Lafayette, we can diminish the extent of the outbreak by ordering children to stay home from school (with a wired community, teachers could teach from home to students at home). Some companies could have their workers stay home, using the network to conduct their work from there. All of this could have the effect of limiting the extent of the outbreak and, perhaps equally important, limiting the disruption on community life that such an outbreak would otherwise inflict.

Sports

People in Lafayette love sports and they particularly love watching their kids play sports. In asynchronous Lafayette, soccer, baseball, basketball and football games could be recorded, as well as swim meets, track meets, and other events could be recorded and shared. Sports leagues could use the network to produce highlights of games/tournaments, post stats, show standings, schedules and other key information.

Again, what will be needed are cameras, servers and the people to operate them.

Religious, Social & Civic Organizations

Churches, community organizations, civic groups will be able to record their meetings and make the content available to those unable to attend the live event.

Scratching At The Surface

Beginning sometime in late 2008 or so, LUS will begin offering services. At that point, the transformation of Lafayette and the potential it offers will move from the dream state to reality. The possibilities mentioned above are a wholly inadequate and incomplete list that doesn't really even scratch the surface of the potential that awaits us.

Think about your current life in Lafayette. Think of how big bandwidth, affordable network technology can be used to enable you to to connect (or re-connect) to those aspects of life here that interest or intrigue you, but that your schedule will just not allow you to get to.

Thinking this way is how citizens are going to be able to transform life here. It will be a bottom-up process that will be built on the foundation of the Lafayette intranet afforded to us by the LUS fiber network. Digital technology has unleashed revolutions in video, audio, and communications in general. With the bandwidth available to each of us and the institutions we align ourselves with, we can — and will — define new ways of joining, belonging to and participating in these institutions and, through this process, change Lafayette.

This will be an opportunity unique to Lafayette in North America because we will be the largest, most diverse community with access to the fattest network pipes. We can pioneer new and unique approaches to civic, social, cultural and community life using the network, just as our geography shaped those aspects of our life here in the centuries leading up to this point.

As the network builds out and as we begin to capture the potential that our fiber infrastructure will offer us, asynchronous Lafayette can come to embody the notion that you never really have to miss Lafayette at all — at least, not any public event.

The time to think about how to turn that potential into reality is now, just as the LUS network itself is moving from the engineering tables to the streets.

This great adventure of asynchronous Lafayette is coming sooner than you think right down your street. The time has come to start preparing to take advantage of the opportunities that will abound. You're only limit will be your imagination.

Step right this way!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Construction Costs in Lafayette

This week's Ind carries a story on the shockingly high bids that came in for the Acadiana Center for the Arts building--and mentioned the Fiber project headend building, the Lafayette Public Library's South Branch, and high-priced roads, in supporting roles. All of the bids on these projects came in way over-budget and the public bodies are scrambling to make ends meet.

As the Independent tells the story what is going on is a combination of Rita/Katrina demand soaking up contractor time, a dislike among contractors for working with government (and especially with Lafayette's government), and skyrocketing global demand for steel and copper. (I'm confident that ridiculous overpricing on Federal projects — many on a cost-plus basis — has also distorted the local market, especially among contractors specializing in governmental projects.)

Readers of this blog will likely be most interested in the tidbits about our fiber project:

Lafayette Utilities System Director Terry Huval experienced similar sticker shock when LUS went to bid the headend facility of its new fiber-to-the-home telecommunications business. “We were very surprised,” Huval says. “Our instructions to our architect were that we had a $1.4 million budget for this facility and that we needed to stay within that budget. We relied on the architect’s best advice during the design process and we were all surprised with the high bids.” Huval says cost-estimating was done by LUS’ fiber consultant, CCG Consulting out of Georgia. He says the firm based its estimate on costs it experienced in other places and escalated those by 30 percent to account for the high construction costs in post-Katrina south Louisiana. They were still off by 93 percent.
That makes sense, LUS relied on their hired construction experts, like any business would, and the local situation just didn't match their experts' expectations. Huval presents a rationally balanced analysis that discretely points out that the onus isn't all on government. Sometimes what is at the core of contractor dislike is that such bids are transparently competitive:

LUS’ Huval says that while he has heard several contractors comment on the city not being a preferred client, he doesn’t believe that is necessarily attributable to any city policy that is not required by law. “I think the reason we are receiving less bids for government work,” he says, “is the contractors are simply making more money in the private sector as opposed to competing on the strict governmental lowest qualified bid requirement. Any time the contractor supply-to-project demand curve shifts to the advantage of the contractors, governmental projects awarded based on the lowest qualified bid will be less attractive to contractors.”

I'd add that the good-buddy system of duck blinds and favors doesn't work with governmental contracts and that some of the complaints of contractors about insuring their work and getting paid out before the work is complete is just responsible business practice that the good ole boy system works around.

Still, extremely high bids have consequences:
Because costs came in so high, LUS has now scaled down to a pre-fabricated building, 1,500 square feet smaller than what it originally planned to build. “The pre-fab building will have all the critical elements we need for the first several years of the fiber-to-the-home business,” Huval says. “We can always expand the building at the time we need to do so. The customized building would have served us for more years without an expansion.”

That may be penny-wise and pound-foolish. I'm not at all sure that it wouldn't be wiser to bite the bullet on the front end and get a building that didn't require you to add on new expenses in that dimension when you want to expand your network to cover new areas. Of course, no one is talking about expanding LUS' footprint except in the above very indirect ways. Yet. But I'd hate see a new headend expense counted against an expansion to Broussard or supplying New Orleans with VOIP services.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

$200 PC Available in Lafayette

A Wired blog sez that a $200 Ubuntu Linux PC, sans monitor is now available in Lafayette.

Cool. And it's especially great for Lafayette.

Why great for Lafayette?

This computer and its software packages come very close to being exactly the computer that the Lafayette Digital Divide Committee recommended in the "Bridging the Digital Divide" document.

That study, which became official policy when it was made an ordinance by the city-parish council, recommended a mix of low cost computers, free open source software, and a local portal/server that leveraged the intranet bandwidth the committee recommended LUS make available to its customers. Let's take a look at how that has played out:

The key, and hardest, part of that equation was securing the use of full intranet bandwidth—when the committee first recommended Lafayette adopt that policy there was real doubt that it was technically feasible. In short order such doubt was dispelled. Since that time LUS and the city-parish has fully committed to providing at least 100 megs of intranet bandwidth to every user regardless of how much they spend for internet connectivity. Huval and LUS call this "peer to peer bandwidth." With 100 megs locally available to all users a rich local portal and aggressive use of server-based applications becomes possible. Since much of the computing and handling of large quantities of data can be handled on the network rather than in the users personal computer much less powerful—and hence less expensive—computers can be used.

That brings us back to the subject of todays post: Everex's TC2502 gPC computer. This 'puter is available through WalMart for $200 dollars and Wired's blog carries of list of locations that will stock it that include Lafayette. It is also available over the net from WalMart's online store. It is sold without a monitor but includes mouse, keyboard and a set of speakers. The desktop computer runs a variant of the free Ubuntu Linux operating system called gOS. Also free is a list of installed open source software including OpenOffice, Firefox web browser, Meebo IM, and Skype, GIMP photo software, the Xing DVD and video player, and Rhythmbox music management software. Even more interesting for local digital divide promoters is that it includes icons linking to Google applications like Mail, Documents, Spreadsheets, Calendar, News, and Maps.

Between LUS' solid commitment to lower prices for connectivity (which is now more important than computer cost as a barrier to adoption) Google's online apps, and the emergence of commercially available, low-cost, open source computers like this Everex, the pieces are falling in place for Lafayette to have a digital divide program that will be as unique as the system itself.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Disturbing Representative Remarks

Last nights League of Women Voters Forum for the Lafayette Representative races yielded some disturbing remarks according to an article in the Advertiser. In toto:

Asked if they would support or oppose legislation that would repeal or dilute a 2004 law allowing the Lafayette Utilities System fiber-to-the-home project, all three candidates said they would not support changing the legislation.

Cox Communications, BellSouth and others worked with LUS and legislators to draft the legislation so that it would be fair, Williams said.

All three said the competition will be good for consumers, lowering rates.

Well, the last remark is true and encouraging competition is a good reason to support Lafayette's network after they leave for Baton Rouge. Competition will be good for consumers. But that wasn't the question. The question asked was:
"Lafayette's Fiber To The Home project--approved by the voters in July of 20O6—was delayed by a series lawsuits based on an 2004 Louisiana law, the "Local Government Fair Competition Act." Some Lafayette Parish Representatives introduced or supported bills to modify or repeal it in the spring of 2006.

Would you favor or oppose repeal of this law? Why or why not?"
If the concern is to promote competition in order to save their constituents some cash then the right answer would be: "Yes, I'd consider changing the law in ways that make it easier for LUS to give our citizens a break." I'm disappointed that our representative hopefuls seemed unfamiliar with the fact that the law actually operates to restrain competition. (As discussed at length on this site (e.g. 1, 2), the law does nothing to control prices—as far as consumer prices are concerned the "fair" competition act ONLY puts a floor under what LUS (and only LUS) can charge. It limits the price breaks the utility we own can give us.) Certainly the delaying lawsuits that were enabled by the law were big news--everyone should know that this incumbent-sponsored bill cost the taxpayers a bundle of money but some may be less familiar with the way that it works to force LUS to charge us more. Badon and Hardy could take the position that they really weren't too familiar with the story and that "of course they'd love to save the public some money if getting that law out of the way would help" but Williams was at the heart of the fight the whole time as a city councilman and can't credibly plead ignorance. His naive take is very disappointing. He should understand this stuff by now.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

LUS Franchise Agreement

Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate reports that a franchise agreement between LUS and the Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) will be introduced at this Tuesday's City-Parish Council meeting.

While it is 1) technical, 2) presented as an uninteresting "me too" copy of Cox's, and 3) no doubt a terminally boring read this will be extremely important to Lafayette consumers and citizens—try not to let this slide by you. To understand why the franchise agreement is big deal and what shapes it I'll have to provide some background from both the state and federal levels. Stick with it: It will have a lot to do with how much you pay for cable and internet—and it will have a huge effect on City-Parish revenues with an indirect effect on how much tax you have to pay for basic local government services. (This document should every bit as important to you as a sales or property tax ordinance--and will probably have a bigger effect on Lafayette's future than any single tax ordinance ever has.)

As Blanchard points out, the oddity in this agreement is that it will require LUS to pay itself (for attaching to its own poles) and to pay its parent organization (LCG) a fee to access its own customers over the rights of way LCG owns.

That does sound a bit strange doesn't it? Why bother? Doesn't this just introduce odd inefficiencies and distort costs?

Yes, it does — and it is intended to. On to the story behind the story.

Some State of Louisiana Background:
Loyal readers will recall (1,2,3) that BellSouth (now AT&T) and Cox pushed a law through the Louisiana legislature back in '04 shortly after LUS announced its intentions to build a fiber-optic network. That law was intended to stop Lafayette from building a network at all. That story is a long and ugly tale of corporate lobbying and legislative foolishness that LPF covered extensively. Luckily Governor Blanco forced a compromise on the legislature that let Lafayette go forward — but the rewritten-by-committee bill left Lafayette open to legal challenges and imposed a minefield of restrictions and regulations that apply only to municipal telecom utilities. Regulations, that is, that apply only to Lafayette.

Flying the flag of "free enterprise" the two enormously powerful wireline cable and phone monopoly enterprises played the poor-me role of disadvantaged competitors who needed protection from the competition threatened by the city of Lafayette's local electrical, water, and sewer utility. Lousisiana's legislature rushed to protect them from this threat. Prior to this law LUS and Lafayette could have simply started up a utility in this area--as it can in electricity or sewerage or natural gas--without any heavy-handed restriction by the state. There would have been no legal basis for a lawsuit to try and prevent it and no way to impose special costs or regulation only on a utility owned by the people of Lafayette. The Louisiana "Fair" Competition Act changed that.

The law provides for a way to drive up the "paper" costs and a regulatory mechanism for ensuring that those higher costs are actually paid by the customers of LUS' Fiber division. LUS is required to, for instance, pay itself a fee for the use of its own poles and the rights of way that the community owns that is the same as it or the city would charge private companies. (Note that LUS already bears the real cost of building, maintaining, and replacing that property and that those costs are not subtracted from these state-imposed fees. We, and only we, pay twice.) These pay-it-to-yourself "costs" would merely be the silly imposition of a paper shuffle if the state had not required that those costs be passed on to the customer. But that is what the law does.

What is interesting is that the state constitution specifically outlaws using the Public Service Commission (PSC) to regulate publicly owned utilities. (Based on the presumption, I assume, that we as both owners and voters can do that for ourselves.) Since using the PSC to regulate public bodies is illegal, the tortured solution was to place the supposed responsibility in the hands of the state legislative auditor, who has neither the expertise nor the staff to do the job. Recognizing that "problem," the (un)Fair Competition law directs the PSC to both suggest rules to the auditor and to then enforce those rules. This is pretty transparently an evasion of the state's basic law but, hey, they write the laws, right?

Even more interesting, the regulations that the PSC are required to enforce are designed to raise the costs to the consumer. If that seems to you like a funny role to ask a PUBLIC Service Commission to play, I'd have to say it seems odd to me too. I had thought the role of the PSC was to protect the public from being overcharged or taken advantage of in other ways. I was not under the impression that it existed to protect large corporations from competition. Silly me. My guess is that the folks over at the PSC aren't all that happy about it either. It is not the job they signed up for.

The central mechanism that these PSC/Legislative Auditor regulations use to raise your rates is to tote up all the costs to LUS from equipment costs, to billing costs, to interconnection fees, to salaries, to taxes, to pole attachment fees, to franchise fees (the latter two are the elements being considered by the Council Tuesday). The will use a baseline industry cost based in part on what the incumbents say their costs are to establish a "fair price" that must, by law, include the costs to "rent" property they own and fees to use poles that they have already paid to install and maintain. They will then set a minimum price that LUS must charge. Slow down and read that again: they set a minimum price. They will NOT allow LUS to charge you the least that it could...they will force Lafayette's utility to charge more than it would have to without a set of regulations that force false costs on it.

This is all transparently designed, not to force "a level playing field" or "protect the public" as the incumbent providers claimed in the legislature; it is designed to limit the price competition that LUS will provide AT&T and Cox in Lafayette. Cox and AT&T don't want to be forced to lower their prices to compete in Lafayette. They most especially don't want to be forced to lower their prices to compete ONLY in Lafayette. That would make it all too obvious that public utilities like LUS could be a success and provide real value to its citizen-owners. LUS would be a "bad" example for other communities; one that might encourage them to do for themselves what Lafayette has done.

And that would never do.

The Federal Regulatory Issue at hand:
Now all this messy state law and regulation might be preempted by Federal regulation -- without the benefit of an enabling law. (I know this is getting convoluted. Stay with me for a while longer; it's important. :-) )

The FCC just this past Wednesday gave "relief" to cable companies on the issue of franchising in a partisan 3-2 vote. This ruling is yet another extension of the FCC's decision to insert itself into the national franchising issue. The ultimate outcome is pretty disturbing in that the ruling will pretty much will allow a cable company to quit honoring any part of its franchise contract it doesn't like beyond the monetary fee. Look for support for AOC and governmental networks to vanish. Whether it allows any cable company to immediately quit honoring its contract is in dispute. (Didn't know the FCC could abrogate contracts? Me neither.) Earlier remarks by the FCC chair had indicated that it wouldn't void current contracts.

The History:
State and federal franchise issues are also topics that have been covered on these pages, but in synopsis: The incumbent phone companies, lead by AT&T, are determined to get into the cable business. It is easy to see why since estimates I've seen show the profit margin at somewhere between 40 and 60% and their own year-to-year reports show that their core business, landline phone service, is declining every year even with margins cut to the bone. But the old Bell phone companies don't want to have to follow the same rules that cable did in developing this lucrative market: they don't want to have to go to the public bodies who own the land and negotiate a franchise contract to use the public rights of way. Their first tactic was to go to state governments and get them to take over the localities property rights and establish a state-wide franchise that allowed the state to control the money and disburse it to the localities. Not surprisingly state legislators found shifting this power into their hands an attractive "pro-business," "pro-competition" policy. This state-level tactic worked in the early rounds but then the municipalities began to unite in opposition and the laws were more and more often either vetoed (as Blanco did here in Louisiana) or defeated in the legislature.

With the preferred state-level alternative failing the phone companies turned to the federal government. They first asked the FCC to establish a federal-level franchising regime. (This is essentially what they have for phone service--the feds reached down and simply "took" state and local rights of way and allowed the phone monopoly to use them for free. This was in an earlier, less ideological, time and for the "good" cause of universal phone service and no one much objected.) The FCC demurred as the Congress was in the midst of gearing up for a major rewrite of telecommunications law. At that point in time no one had any trouble believing that the incumbent providers would mostly get what they wanted. But then AT&T's CEO went and started the big war over Net Neutrality and the whole bill went down in flames. (Comcast has recently restarted the controversy.) Congress considered but was unable to pass a law that would have redefined franchising.

The FCC then stepped in, and in the face of a obvious lack of Congressional support for the idea, decided to do for the phone companies what they had previously directed the Bells to ask Congress for: they instituted a regime that removed much of the control of rights of way from their local, municipal owners. As you might imagine, lawsuits are underway that argue that the FCC has overstepped its boundaries and is attempting to legislate by regulation. The FCC ruling forbade local governments from requiring cable franchisees to serve the whole community ("buildout" requirements); and basically it forbade municipalities from asking for asking for much of anything beyond money—which was already strictly limited by federal law. As a consequence all sorts of contracts between local governments that cut deals for schools or police or government office, and deals that supported local media like AOC with funds and channel space to provide coverage of city-council events and locally produced programming are all now on the chopping block. Those contracts, by federal fiat, don't have to be honored. And the city cannot try very hard to negotiate a better deal (not that much is left to "negogitate") since the FCC imposed a "shot clock:" if the city and the corporation cannot reach an agreement within 90 days the corporation can simply go ahead and provide services without finalizing a contract. (The room for abuse ought to be obvious--localities will have no leverage whatsoever and could easily be reduced to agreeing to whatever the company decided to hand out. Remember, generosity is not a trait of these fellas.) It goes without saying that without any real leverage the local clauses that insure that providers meet service requirements to customers goes out the door.

So does that mean that LUS could decide not to honor its contract too? No, there is no practical way that LUS is not going to meet the obligations it makes with the people of Lafayette...it is a public body and it will not desire to and will not be allowed to simply stiff the city-parish. But Cox, who you will recall, suggested the legislature fine the citizens of Lafayette $900,000 if they had the nerve to vote for fiber, is surely resentful enough to pull back from any contribution to our city that does not look good on a sponsorship form.

Conclusion:
So that, as Paul Harvey might say, is "the rest of the story."

LUS is going into the Council on Tuesday to discuss a franchise agreement for its fiber-optic based cable system that will be shaped by the requirements of a state law that was initially designed to kill the project. Instead of being a document that we could proudly point to as a one which sets out the unique and forward-looking obligations of LUS to the community and its customer-owners we will likely get a defensive document that promises no more than what the city fathers could extract from Cox in the last contract round. The strange franchise and pole attachment agreements that LUS will sign with itself are by-products of the (un)Fair Competition Act and its resulting, anti-consumer regulations that are designed to drive up the price of LUS's services and so minimize the competition it can offer its citizens. To add insult to injury, federal intervention may well result in Cox deciding to abandon most of the very franchise agreement that LUS will be imitating while LUS will, regardless of federal "relief," will be obliged by its ownership and the aforementioned law to fulfill its contractual obligations regardless of the competitive disadvantage at which it is put.

I think that's all pretty sad and more than a little sick. I hope you do too. We've earned better than a me-too franchise with our local communications utility.

Welcome to topsy-turvy world of American Broadband Policy as it plays out in real local communities.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Community Broadband Act moves to the U.S. Senate

Following up on an old story made new again...

The latest Community Broadband bill has been reported favorably out of its Senate Committee and will face a vote on the floor of the Senate. Partisans of Lafayette's fiber optic network ought to drop a line to Mary Landrieu and David Vitter insisting that they vote to make the bill federal law.

From the MuniWireless short:
It should never have required a proverbial “act of Congress” to insure that local government could make decisions aimed at lowering access rates and promoting economic development in their local communities. And yet, it did.
Or, rather, so it will. This story began back in 05 when Senators Lautenberg (D) and McCain (R) promoted a bipartisan bill that would have guaranteed that no state could forbid local authorities to provide telecommunications services. At that time Lafayette's high-profile fiber fight was underway and it was said that the behavior of the incumbents helped the bill gain traction. But not enough traction. It was eventually folded into the 06 effort to pass an omnibus telecommunications bill--the bill that went down in flames in the aftermath of AT&T's net neutrality faux pas. This year it is back as an independent bill.

Over the years it has gathered an influential bevy of seven co-sponsors ranging from McCain and Kerry to Inouye and Stevens (he of "the internet is a series of tubes" fame).

So write to Landrieu and Vitter and suggest that they support the cause.

You might even want to urge them to suggest a simple ammendment prohibiting the cruel and unusal punishment of local communities: add language prohibiting the state from imposing special disabilities not applied to other public projects or private businesses only on public telecom projects. The bill as it stands only forbids a law that bans or has the effect of banning local government participation. That leaves a huge amount of room for mischief of exactly the sort that BellSouth/AT&T and Cox engaged in with the Louisiana (un)Fair Competition Act. That law in its original form would have had the effect of forbidding municipal participation. But th e law that passed "merely" imposes enormous disabilities that on our public utility that would outrage BS/AT&T should anyone even consider imposing such on them ranging from special requirements for public planning to forbidding the use of the system's financial resources, to shutting down the business automatically if it should have a bad stretch, to a completely unique and possibly unconstitutional regulatory apparatus. I don't think there is another city in the state that has the cojones for this fight--in effect it is and was intended to be prohibitive. Only Lafayette's unusual courage and determination allowed it to get this far--and it will continue to be restricted in damaging ways.

But the sad truth it that by perservering against all the odds Lafayette has proven that it can be done. And so the law will not be viewed as prohibitive and will likely become a perverse template for use in other states.

The suggested new language prohibiting "cruel and unusual" punishment of local communities would help us--and would help a lot of communities that might face a law like Louisiana's.

Go ahead, drop David and Mary a note suggesting that they help ban the cruel and unusual punishment of their local communities by supporting a strengthened Community Broadband Act.

"The FCC's Rose-Colored Broadband Glasses"

Broadband Reports has a "worth-your-read" overview article of the sad state of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is that little-known but uber-important federal regulatory body that was chartered to prevent corporate abuse in the monopoly-prone national communications market. It has been so thoroughly captured by the corporations that it is supposed to regulate that it defines broadband as a mere 200 kbps, doesn't collect anything resembling adequate data on the market it is supposed to regulate, and hides what little data it does collect from the consuming public.

Broadband reports gives a good rundown on the current state of this body's data collection processes and the forces which might force some change.

Tidbits:
It's that time of year again; time for the FCC to release U.S. broadband data that's about as reliable as a heroin addict in charge of your retirement funds. Despite years of criticism from everyone from consumer advocates to the GAO, the FCC continues to insist that if one home in a zip-code has broadband, that broadband is wired for service...

One interesting note: FCC data shows that broadband over powerline (BPL), which the agency once called the "great broadband hope," actually had fewer total subscribers at the end of December than when the year started. The FCC has consistently lauded BPL as a third competitive pipe that would bring competition to the market, and has used its "success" as justification for deregulation...
The FCC's rulings will have an enormous effect on LUS' ability to compete. Ironically for us as consumers hoping for relief via LUS competion the FCC's pro-corporate rulings might actually rebound to our benefit since federal rules meant to "deregulate" override state laws and local contracts that emphasize local sovereignty, consumer protection, and municipal property rights. LUS, as a newly minted telecom corp. benefits. Luckily it belongs to us....and presumably won't be tempted to abuse its new freedoms. (Of course we ought to watch it...:-))


The FCC's Rose-Colored Broadband Glasses - It's that time of year again.... - dslreports.com