Friday, June 13, 2008

Making the Most of LUSFiber's Advantages

(Warning: Long...but thoughtful, I hope.)

LUS Fiber is going to have a lot of advantages going into the fray with Cox and AT&T. Capacity, technical sophistication, home-town appeal, and the fact that we fought a winning battle against the incumbents to get our network up all work to the advantage of the local utility.

But, unfortunately, a "build it and they will come" strategy is mighty risky. A more solid strategy can be built by taking your advantages and making them essential to your customers. LUS will have to encourage its Lafayette citizens to value what it alone can offer. The utility will also need to acknowledge its weaknesses and take steps to minimize those weaknesses that are inescapable.

Technical and organizational advantages:
LUS' indisputable technical advantage will be bandwidth, bandwidth, and consistency built on having bandwidth to spare. (No one will have to wonder if the network is too "slow" to handle a given use "right now." -- As I regularly do on Cox when the kids get in from school.) So how does LUS find a useful advantage in all that bandwidth; or rather: how does LUS make sure its users find that bandwidth too wonderful to pass up? And how does LUS do that in ways that its competitors simply cannot—or will not—match? That involves making good use of its massive bandwidth and symmetrical connections.

But the massive bandwidth of fiber on a modern system unburdened by legacy copper and commitments is not LUS’ only advantage. Arguably, that’s not the major advantage. LUS also has the advantage of being owned by its customers. Other businesses have to compromise between what is best for its customers and what is best for its owners. LUS doesn’t have that conflict and can rationally choose to benefit its citizen/customers in ways that are simply not open to other companies. This makes it easy to take smaller profits and offer more services—the stockholders of LUS will, I assure you, not object.

But the advantage of community ownership goes beyond doing a better job of the standard business plan; LUS can do do more than offer better service at cheaper prices. A community utility does not need to pretend to be a slightly more efficient company slaved to a standard business model based on profit maximization. The utility model is based on service maximization...and that is not the same thing. Cox has to be able to show the profit potential in everything it offers its customers or be legally liable for mishandling its owners’ resources. LUS, by contrast, can do things that creates value for its citizen/owners without creating direct value for itself along the way. A utility can pass value through. A utility can take a remarkably generous attitude towards its citizen/owners.

That, potentially, is a vast competitive advantage. It means that LUS can pursue business models that its competition simply cannot emulate. And “value pass through” is not theoretical or forbiddingly abstract in practice: Passing the value through is exactly what LUS is doing when it lets its citizen-owners use the full 100 megs of intranet bandwidth and offers symmetrical bandwidth. Private corporations are loath to follow suit because doing so would mean letting customers use resources they might eventually find some way from which to profit.

Value pass through need not be limited to bandwidth infrastructure issues like symmetry or full intranet usage. It can apply to infrastructure at higher levels. LUS can provide—or support—all manner of infrastructure. On the purely video side it could offer “channels” to anyone local at ridiculously low prices (as Burlington, Vt. is doing) it has bandwidth to spare. Why not? On the richer internet side it can host neutral servers that any citizen/customer can use. The utility can host cheap applications that are open to anyone who has an IP address on the network. It can host free or cheap online storage. LUS would be wise to host (or sponsor) servers providing all manner of higher-level infrastructure capacities. It would be a trivial expense to host a server that provided users with the ability to multicast streams of video (broadcast) or to reflect a video to a specified set of users (“unicast”). Application serving, online storage, and facilitating advanced technologies would all increase the value of the network for the community of users and that, not simple profit-taking, is the goal of a utility company. Happily, it would also raise the percentage of people who’d take the service and thereby add to the bottom line.

(An aside: Google acts like a utility; and is hugely successful as a consequence....the business model of offering your customers “free” value to make richer use of your network is the basis for the most successful new business model of our era.)

If value pass through, massive bandwidth, symmetry, and high-level infrastructure represent key advantages for LUS and Lafayette then those advantages should be used to offset any inescapable disadvantages the local network will face when dealing with Cox (and AT&T, should it get its act together).


LUS’ disadvantage: Size
And LUS does have a key disadvantage: size. We are tiny compared to Cox. And even smaller compared to AT&T. Nor do we have, yet, a clearly visible wireless strategy and a wireless strategy will be considerably enhanced by the size of LUS’s competitors.

Large size makes a few things potentially easier, among them: regional content, regional network effects, and technical prowess. People want to communicate with and about local things. (Most phone calls are local, for example. Regional content like high school football has a larger area to draw from than the city of Lafayette.) So Cox will be able to establish valuable products like local calling circles and regional sports networks that LUS simply will not be in a position to match.

Large size also means that Cox and AT&T can afford to spend big bucks putting together sophisticated interfaces to their content and building devices that allow them to integrate wireless and wired, phone and internet, and generally to try and lock people into unified world where they can offer easy integration. —For instance they could work on making it easy to program your DVR from a phone or see a telephone caller’s name and number on the TV when the phone rings.

Advantages and Disadvantages. Lemons into Lemonade.
So regional network effects and the ability to spend on integration and interface issues favor large corporations. But home town loyalty, massive bandwidth, symmetrical bandwidth and, most crucially, a willingness to pass value through to citizen-owners favor local, municipally-owned competitors. LUS can build higher-level infrastructure that drives participation and adoption.

Capitalizing on Advantages: Broadband and Symmetry

LUS can do what no private provider will: encourage bandwidth usage. And kill the old broadcast model while doing so. It will be to LUS’ advantage to do so since it will lead to a place where the competition will simply be unable to follow.

The most obvious driver of bandwidth usage is video and LUS needs to be thinking about how to drive levels of use so high that Cox and AT&T cannot match local demand. The way to accomplish that is make it possible and easy to use video phones, simple to use security cameras casually, to send video’s of T-boy’s birthday to grandmama, to watch a live stream of the Tuerlings game broadcast by a fan, to talk to salesfolk at a local store, to sign into a video “channel” organized by the Chamber of Commerce...or the Wetlands Coalition, to attend class, to, even, view locally produced full-length documentaries. Local video needs to become a casual, normal, accepted, unremarkable way to communicate, share, and promote products and ideas. If that level of usage can be reached LUS’ network will be wildly popular...and the intimate local content will make other networks look weak in comparison.

Making video communication unremarkable is quite possible. But it will require active promotion on the part of LUS and the Lafayette community. We will have to break our own path—fortunately that’s something we’ve done before.

LUS has already made an amazing start. We’ll have true bandwidth, true symmetrical bandwidth. It will be cheap. It will be ubiquitous. Those are the necessary if not sufficient conditions to move to a visually rich communications system. With the lowest tier, even in the first year, being 10 megs there will be no one on our network that will have too slow a connection to regularly use a video phone or watch full screen HD streaming video. Even when we are communicating with the outside world. When we are connecting to our fellow citizens we’ll have the full capacity of local network available to us, limited only by the electronics on the wall of our house...currently 100 megs. And everyone here will have the same 100 megs of intranet capacity. Regardless of what they pay for their connection to the outside world. That sort of uniformity and capacity will make it possible to build networks--human networks of people talking, playing and working--based on the expectation that you can communicate with huge resources.

We’ll have a dense population of uniformly high-bandwidth subscribers in a small city. Once a tipping point is reached everyone will want to be on such a network. First in Lafayette and then, when others see what is possible, elsewhere.

Reaching that tipping point though will have to be a goal that we work toward. Having the necessary conditions is not sufficient.

Getting There: Supporting Higher Level Usage

Bandwidth and Symmetry give this community a huge leg up on the future. The future will be possible in Lafayette come January. But they aren't enough alone to ensure that we make the shift ahead of other communities. The community will need more to make the jump. Luckily LUS is a public utility and it has already show that it thinks in terms of giving the community the most it can. That is why we have big bandwidth and a 100 meg intranet.

Public utilities can and often do pursue such a "generous" policy—and LUS has shown every sign that it understands the value of this. (For details see "On Really Getting It") A generous attitude turns the ROI attitude on its head: anything that benefits the user is good unless it does serious damage to the bottom line. The owners must be pleased first, just as in any business. But since the consumers actually are the owners in a public utility scenario pleasing them includes giving them what they want, mostly--which is lots of reliable services for as little as is possible. That is what public utilities do. They “pass value through” to their community.

We’ll still have two sets of needs that someone will need to generously provide; they will be both social and technical. Social needs are essentially educational. Technical needs are essentially infrastructure.

Social Support
On the social side we’ll have to teach people how to use new tools. Dialing the telephone was once a daunting technical challenge involving unfamiliar concepts like codes that stood for locations and an elaborate set of rules about when to release the rotary dial. (Really) Use needs to be taught. In our era we’ll need to teach folks the rudiments of lighting, (backlighting is rude) how to upload video, a bit about politely providing a compressed stream to the poor people who view our stuff outside the city, and something about how to usefully tag our products. If that seems crazy and forbidding go back and look at the phone video I linked to above. In 5 years it will all be second nature--but until that time we’ll need to provide basic education.

Beyond basic communication we’ll also be undertaking to create media...to broadcast our kid’s soccer games, to hold business meetings virtually, and to create advocacy films and websites. We’ll need to learn how to do this well. The schools should be involved and we’ll need a community center, or several, to foster a new layer of people who are the equivalent of today’s photographers and newsletter writers...again, we’ll know this has been a success when nobody really needs to be taught this any more; when it is absorbed from the culture and every small group has its “Uncle Bob” who knows how to get it done.

AOC --Acadiana Open Channel, the PEG channel— who already does a similar task for TV production and film needs to be retasked to include these functions or some new organization created to serve these educational functions.

An AOC-like organization will also be needed to host Uncle Bob’s videos, to run the server, to vet the new “channels” and playlists made available by groups and individuals, and to keep the technical backdrop going. Community access channels will remain, if renamed in any new big broadband future that takes local communities seriously. Someone has to do the work.

Technical Support
There’s a level of infrastructure above the physical connection that really should be attended to. If we can set up some reasonable standards and provide some resources that are easy and cheap for us to do collectively the whole process of “getting there” will take place much more rapidly and the Lafayette network that LUS runs will be much more useful.

LUS and LCG could provide most of this—and perhaps should—but they could also simply support it by sponsoring organizations that provide the functionality.

Most basically, community support organizations should be provided with bandwidth; they are serving the network and making them pay for bandwidth would be both prohibitive and unfair. The community media support, the local portal, organizations that support nonprofits...all need bandwidth to serve the community. If they don’t make a profit they shouldn’t be expected to pay to use resources that are, after all, not scarce.

Server and storage space are the 21st century equivalent of a the TV studio--the necessary infrastructure to make community media possible.

LUS can also establish basic technical capacities that anyone can use. For instance LUS should turn on multicast features in their routers, They should help make sure that a multicast server and a server that supports multicast are available for broad use. That is much like reserving channel capacity for public channels on today’s cable networks. The new networks will also be served by fostering public media.

There are also a wide range of things that the community, in the guise of LUS and LCG could do to keep the network up to date and able to dynamically adapt to changing conditions. Because Cox and AT&T will have much more money to drop in developing integrated applications (like the phone/TV ones mentioned above) than Lafayette ever will it would behoove the community to adopt the broadest standards available and encourage developers to treat a protected portion of the network like a “sandbox”--a safe place to play that encourages innovation. In one example: it is clear now that in the near future the standard set top box for cable television will be based on a standard called “Tru2Way.” This is a published standard and allows anyone to write applications that can be used on any compliant box. If history is any guide cable companies in general will try and strongly restrict what people can actually do with their signal and what applications are allowed to run on their boxes. The companies will want to control the experience (and dollars) of “their” users. Innovation will generally be restricted and nifty new services will not make it to market. (Want to know why your HDTV can’t surf the net? It’s not because such technology wasn’t developed a decade ago in rudimentary form.) If the Lafayette network adopts only boxes that run this standard and adopts an open attitude about allowing others to add value we’ll likely end up with advanced integration and a better user interface than any of the larger, slower, more constraining network providers.

Conclusion:

This has been a long piece but the take-away is relatively short: The success of the new LUSFiber network is dependent upon maximizing the advantages it gives its citizen/customers and finding ways to compensate for the networks inescapable weaknesses. Bandwidth, symmetry and the ability to pass-through value due to the network being community-owned are fundamental advantages. Size is any local network’s fundamental disadvantage. LUS needs to focus on making its advantages essential to the community; a process which will require both education and building another layer of infrastructure above the fiber itself.

Even if LUS has an advantage in a standard face-to-face commercial matchup (and it clearly does) it would be wise to play a deeper game; one that focuses on making the new network central to how we live and play in Lafayette. That means helping citizens find rich ways to use the network; especially help using the network to communicate locally. In that arena Lafayette’s network is free to adopt policies which will make it overwhelmingly more useful to community members—policies which its competition cannot match.

The Lafayette community has already demonstrated that it is up to the task and LUS has shown that they have right generous spirit to pursue their part of the effort.

What remains is to settle down to the hard work of making it happen.

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