Wednesday, December 17, 2008

LUS Fiber: First Local Media Report

Today’s Independent carries what will undoubtedly be the first many stories on Lafayette’s new community-owned fiber-optic system. It’s contains exciting details of the sort that will lead to extensive national coverage when they are officially announced.*

Sadly, you have to wait until the latter half of the story to catch a whiff of the excitement. The Independent leads with graphics, a head and a subhead that distract from what ought to be the meat of the story. While granting that there is more than a bit of the usual media tendency to try and generate excitement with sensationalized coverage, this wound is largely self-inflicted.

The Lead
First, note the dire graphics visible in the print/pdf version. Then see the Head: “Ready for Prime Time?” And Subhead: “Lafayette Utilities System is tight-lipped about its highly anticipated fiber-to-the-home telecommunications service, due next month. Will it live up to the hype?” If you read through to the end of the story you'll find that the clear answer is “Yes!” But you have to make it down to that part—and be knowledgeable enough to be excited by the low-key presentation you find there.

LUS has certainly been “tight-lipped” about their project. And, frankly, with good reason—there is no reason to give Cox and AT&T any additional ammunition to use against our community.**

Still, letting fear of the incumbents be the reason for not talking to the community is the wrong decision and this story in a sympathetic local newsweekly is evidence of that mistake. Eye on the Prize: The overwhelming goal of LUS right now has to be to generate as large a number of enthusiastic users as is possible. The way to do it is drive excitement, enthusiasm, talk, and local pride. You can’t do that from a hunkered-down position. There comes a point where people sensibly assume that no news is bad news. And while there has doubtless been disappointments about issues ranging from contractors, to channel contracts, to the practical availability of nifty technical features not letting those questions arise and dealing with them easily as they are solved or explained hands the incumbents the advantage of introducing issues and setting the context—something they have proven time and again they will do in unfair ways. The ancillary benefit of dealing openly and forthrightly with things like channel contracts and contractor issues is that everyone grows used to Cox et al. making silly claims and with LUS regularly showing how foolish they are. In short order people decide they don’t trust Cox's attacks even before LUS makes its explanation. That’s the way it worked during the fiber fight and that is how the community was inoculated against the last minute nonsense put out by the incumbents and their allies that worked so well elsewhere.

The upside of talking is that your community—and subscriber base—is both excited by the new features and understands their sensible limits. You can’t achieve even one of those necessary prerequisites to widespread adoption without an ongoing conversation.

The Meat
Now on to what should be the real meat, and the real excitement, of the story. First there is a restatement of what we’ve heard before going all the way back to the early discussion of the idea before the council...claims that some doubted would survive to the product launch. We see that they have:Text Color
LUS will sell phone, cable and Internet services individually, but Huval says the better deals will come with ordering the “triple play” combination package. That service of expanded basic cable ­— more than 80 channels — local phone service, and Internet service with a download and upload speed of 10 MBps will sell for approximately $85 a month. It will also include 100 MBps speeds for peer-to-peer Internet communication (when two LUS subscribers communicate with each other)[Note: that should be Mbps]. Huval adds that on average LUS’ prices will be 20 percent less than the standard rates now offered by its competitors.
The basic claims were always essentially: More for Less. That’s being realized with a full triple play, a full suite of channels, stunningly fast internet for the cheap tier, and a price level 20% lower than the competition. The 100 megs intranet was added after the initial promises and constitutes an exciting feature that only makes sense on a community-owned network. It’s a feature that requires some explanation (talk with the public!) to really appreciate. But among other things what it will make trivial is video telephony, easy sharing of any content--up to High Def Video, and all sorts of innovative small business models. Much of that would be made yet easier by making static IP addresses standard...or at least making the addition of such trivially inexpensive.

Other promises were for advanced services and since LUS has decided to go with an all IP system (something once in doubt) that will be relatively easy. In that department we’ll apparently get caller ID on the TV screen for starters but expect a raft of nifty integration features downstream.

Most exciting, because we’ve heard so little about it, is the set top box internet capacity...and it too requires explanation to fully appreciate. LUS will be the first, absolutely the first, to make the internet available to its users without having to buy a computer and a monitor. This is a huge deal that will immediately catapult LUS into the the head of the line in terms of the digital divide. Instantly Lafayette will have a larger percentage of its households capable of using essential internet services than any place in the nation. (Long-time readers will recognize that I’ve advocated this alternative before.) Realizing the potential of email (still the killer app of the internet) and even limited internet access will require education...and, yes, talking it up. The downside, and there is always a downside, is that the browser won’t be as capable as the one in your computer:
The TV browser is limited. It will only display Web sites that are Personal Display Assistant-optimized. PDA-optimized Web sites are largely text-based with limited graphics and pictures, and LUS’ TV browser won’t allow for any online videos. Huval explains the feature wasn’t put in place to allow subscribers to go to YouTube.com and watch a series of videos on their TV.

“It’s a light browser,” he says. “It’s not designed to have the kind of horsepower that you would have on a PC. It’s not to say we couldn’t do [online videos], but we’re the first ones in the United States trying this, and I don’t want to be pushing our system this early in our new business.
It’s good to be getting that news out there now...the idea that this is unique and forward-looking is absolutely true. (Trust me I’ve looked. Somebody in rural Canada sorta kinda used this feature for local information from the video provider; not general internet access no matter how limited. It was very vague info and may not have been the same box that LUS is using.) It is also true that this is limited. And that those limits should not have to persist. —The feature has been buried in advanced set top boxes for a long time, probably a decade and never turned on by the incumbents that sell services. (That, discouragingly, is not all that hard to understand: they want to sell a more capable, higher-priced internet package. It is only a community-owned network that sees the rationale in providing cheap, easy access to the whole community.) Because it was never turned on the feature has atrophied and never been upgraded by the producers...just carried forward in new models. Some of the underlying capacities are used sparingly for integration into WAP cell phone stuff (now dying) and interactive little picture in picture things for various set top box guides and the like. Not much upgrade is needed if none of the buyers are allowing the users to interact with the richness of the internet. So, in effect, LUS is limited by the decisions made by competitors that didn’t share its generous motivation. Here’s to hoping that actually having one visible customer that uses the full capacity of the internet features of the box will encourage the bean counters to expand that capacity. Really, this should be a software issue. Modern IP-capable set top boxes are already full computers capable of advanced video protocols, pushing HD quality video to the screen and with the hardware built in to negotiate multiple IP protocols...it should just be a matter of putting the package together and having a network customer willing to let their customers use it. LUS will be that customer

Exciting, exciting times. We’re about to get everything we asked for.



Footnotes:
*I expect an official announcement no later than the last city-parish council meeting of the year...that’s the last possible moment and that fits the (unfortunate) LUS pattern. An official Press Conference with all the bragging trimmings would be much preferred and would create more excitement than letting reporters and the public overhear a council power point. Still... Stay tuned.

** Recall that Cox and AT&T have consistently tried to destroy the network, and failing that weaken it, at every turn. Beginning with trying to pass a law to outlaw the idea, to achieving a very restrictive law that places unfair and anti-competitive limits on LUS (but allows Cox and AT&T to freely engage in the very same activities), to waging an expensive public relations battle to thwart the will of the community (which they lost resoundingly), to repeatedly suing the community after the loss (which failed repeatedly but achieved the purpose of delaying the launch by years) to, currently, running a website devoted solely to generating bad publicity about a competitor that doesn’t yet have the first customer (how often do you see that? Never. An anti-Panasonic site by Sony? Bad form.) No, LUS is right to think that the incumbents are out to get them and will take unfair advantage of anything that they know. That’s the clear history and to act as if it isn’t true would be irresponsible.

2 comments:

KameronK said...

MBps should be Mbps.
Last I checked, we aren't getting a gigabit intranet.

John said...

KameronK,

I'll have to let the editor at the Independent know. :-) Didn't catch that... guess I should go put a "(that should be Mbps)" in the text.