Saturday, March 29, 2008

"The Latest From Lafayette, LA"

What's being said dept.

It's nice to be noticed. Especially for the things you're actually proud of. Lafayette got a bit of notice online today from Geoff Daily over at Apps Rising. Geoff has visited here in Lafayette a couple of times and has had an outsiders eye on the city and its unique fiber project for awhile. So its gratifying that in reporting on an interview with Terry Huval of LUS he focused on the really important stuff. Sure, he mentions that he found out about technical issues and things that are interesting to industry pundits. But he spends all his time talking about what Lafayette's network means.
But there were two other nuggets of news that really caught my eye as they proved LUS's desire to be progressive in deploying one of the most advanced communications networks in the world
100 meg intranet—He's right to headline this; it's the biggie:

First off, Terry shared with me their plans to offer high speed intranet or LAN services for free to enable consumers and small businesses to transfer data in-network at speeds much faster than the Internet connections they're paying for.

So say you've signed up for LUS's baseline broadband, which will likely be around 10Mbps. Because of these free LAN capabilities, you'll be able to establish point-to-point connections to other users on LUS's network that go beyond the speed of your broadband connection to support burstable speeds of up 100Mbps for in-network data transfer.

What might this enable? Imagine sharing an HD home movie with a neighbor in minutes instead of hours, or a small business being able to send large datasets across town exponentially faster than it would take over the open Internet. No longer will you be limited by your Internet connectivity but instead you'll be able to take greater advantage of the capacity fiber provides.

It is one thing to see the objective implications of this innovation. Daily understands what it means. He Gets It:
It's my fervent belief that leveraging the in-network capabilities of full fiber networks holds the potential to revolutionize our relationship with the Internet and how we use connectivity to establish stronger bonds within our community.
That's as wordy as I might be...to simplify: communications is the foundation of community. Owning the communications network means we can choose to build a more robust community in ways that private corporations would never consider. To wit:

The Digital Divide: building on the power of a 100 meg intranet the issue becomes making sure that power is as evenly and fairly distributed as is practically possible. This concern motivates what we've called the digital divide. Daily has clearly heard about Durel's presentation in Washington.

The second major tidbit I learned relates to one of LUS's initiatives to bridge the so-called digital divide by offering low-cost Internet service to TV sets.

The idea is that many people may want TV and phone service but aren't yet convinced they need broadband. So LUS is going to enable them to pay a low fee to rent a special set-top box and for very basic Internet access--slower than their base level broadband--so that they can surf the Web from their TV.

The downside is significant limitations:

Now Terry admits that this service will be limited as it likely won't be able to do things like allow people to watch YouTube videos plus there are the limitations of the set-top box, which won't have the storage and ability to support an endless array of peripherals as a full-fledged computer would.

But users will be able to visit webpages, use email, and other basic functions of being online. And because it's LUS's mission to deliver their services for 20% less than their local competitors, it'll essentially work out so that you pay the same to get TV and this limited Internet product from LUS as you would to get TV alone from the cable company.

The overall idea behind this is to provide another way for people to get introduced to the advantages of being online so that they might find inspiration to upgrade to the true broadband connectivity LUS's full fiber network can deliver.

Daily is on target about the limitations:
When I heard Terry describe a service where you couldn't watch YouTube, where you didn't have any storage, where you likely were extremely limited in the Internet applications you could use, I found myself cringing at the thought.
But he comes down here:
...in the end I think this is an innovative approach to tackling the digital divide from a different angle, and I couldn't be more excited to see how it plays out, because if it works then we'll gain another important arrow in our quiver as we all work together to convince America that broadband's great and that everyone needs to be online.
Frankly, while I respect both Geoff and Terry's judgment, I think we can do better than accepting the limits of Alcatel's favored supplier. I do think that the set-top box solution is the best solution for those not yet on the web. (And I've long held this opinion.) But it isn't at all clear to me that there is any reason that we couldn't have a much more capable settop box setup than is suggested in Geoff's post.

It really should be pretty easy.

Let's think about this a little: a cable settop box these days is increasingly often a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and is capable of two-way communication with the headend. It is, in reality, already a network connected computer with a fat hard drive for video storage. Often the guts of the software is a Linux OS already because that is what is cost-effective (and free) for the developer. The typical cable provider is desperate to get these boxes into every home because the company knows that once they get a digital box in the home they can 1) sell more services that require two-way communication (say Video on Demand which is a huge cash cow) and 2) upgrades do not require an expensive (hundred + dollars) truck roll and 3) many typical outage issues at a home can be dealt with from the hub without a roll or if a roll is necessary they know what the problem is going out.

These additional revenues and savings MORE than pay for the cost of the box. So cable companies do their best to push them on every customer and if the FCC did not require them sell a non-box, "analog" cheap tier they would not do so.

LUS would share these benefits, so getting sophisticated set top boxes into the hands of as many consumers as is humanly possible should be a high priority for the sake of video revenue alone.

Since the basic setup is already a hard-drive capable networked computer with very nice video circuitry spending the very few spare dollars to add a few things like a bit more RAM and maybe a usb port should be a tiny incremental cost.

Presto chango: a fully capable, if cheap, computer--if you open it to your customer.

It would be a stunningly cheap way to meet their social obligation to close the digital divide in our city. —Something I know they really want to address.

With such a device in hand the smart thing to do would be to offer it to every customer as part of the package. Even, especially, the low-cost tier. The FCC only forces you to allow the low cost tier to be box free. If you want, you can give the customer the box or allow them to refuse it. If that box carried with it a free low-level internet that was fully capable but slower than the city's 10 meg basic tier I predict few people would turn it down. Instantly almost every LUS subscriber would be on the internet by default. Making that capacity available in every home would instantly turn the household TV into a household internet device—I'd bet families would cruise YouTube together. We already do that with our grandchildren on tiny 13 or 15 inch laptop screens with the kids crowded around and laughing. Imaging how much more fun it would be to do it comfortably on a big screen. Or gaming.....a lot of network things are potentially more fun or valuable on the multiple participant TV screen than on our seperated little ones.

It'd be a healthy switch from a passive social medium to an active social one. And Lafayette could pioneer it.

And LUS could sell more VOD and other product to those people than they would otherwise and save lots of money on maintaining them. (And pay off the network more quickly.)

It is a classic win-win.

a small variant:
Suppose LUS doesn't want to provide a local hard drive because of cost (though drive costs are absurdly cheap). Hey, we've got fiber. With a 100 meg intranet connection at every house there is NO reason not to provide online storage to customers. Cheap, easy--and you're already obligated to do email storage anyway, just to provide that basic service. What's an additional gig or two for good citizen-customers?

All that is standing in our way is the capacity — or rather incapacity — of the set top boxes currently being considered. The only reason YouTube does not work, I'd venture to guess, is that the creaky old OS version that the Motorola or Cisco has installed can't handle flash. So get 'em to upgrade it. Make sure to pick a box with a USB port. Let the user hang a disk off that if they want. (The ones they are considering already support wireless keyboards and mouse.) Find a box that does what we want it to do.

We can do this.

If we decide we want to.

That's what makes owning the network so wonderful. We can do it for ourselves.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"AT&T, EBR approve TV deal"

Well, that was fast! The day before yesterday we noted here that AT&T through its astroturf subsidary TV4US had launched the public relations champaign to support its statewide video franchise law. This morning we see the first substantial political move in the upcoming battle. Baton Rouge has cut a deal with AT&T and so is taken off the board in an early first move of the chess pieces.

AT&T, according to the Advocate, has reached a franchise agreement with the East Baton Rouge City-Parish government to provide cable TV (aka "video services") in the parish. Follows a summary of what seems to be going on with the caveat that all I have to go on is the article...I can't find the ordinance or contract online as I would be able to in Lafayette—anyone have access?

AT&T will have the right to offer its new "U-verse" services (site, overview) in the parish for 5 percent of revenues to the general fund and .5% of revenues to support public, educational, and governmental channels (PEG channels). Presuming that turns out to be correct (and enforceable) its a good deal on two of the three major issues that any locale should consider: a fair price for the rental of public land and support for local media. Realizing any actual benefit from those two will depend on the third leg: the product being offered to a sizeable number of citizens. AT&T has long made it clear that they do not intend to offer this product to just anyone...instead they want to offer it chiefly to their "high value" customers and less than 5% of their "low-value" purchasers. (Fiber To The Rich, FTTR) If you figure out the implications of what they told investors back when this plan got underway they only intend to offer this product to about half of their current population base. Baton Rouge and other wealthy centers in generally cash-poor Louisiana might get U-Verse in rich neighborhoods but I'd be surprised if it went much into North Baton Rouge and Scotlandville. That might prove a difficult thing for Mayor Kip Holden to explain.

A bit of unease about the part AT&T was unwilling to promise might well, in turn, explain the secrecy with which this deal was constructed and the stealth with which it was executed. Holden received the council's blessing to negotiate on Wednesday with no (that's NO) discussion, and was able close and announce the deal on Thursday. The fix was in. (*) What didn't happen was any public discussion of the pros and cons of the deal offered by AT&T--discussion which might well have lead to uncomfortable demands that the city-parish require AT&T to actually serve the citizens whose property AT&T wants to use. Such a requirement is part of Cox's deal...but not, I have to strongly suspect, part of the deal with AT&T.

And, speaking of Cox, what about the cable companies? Where do they play in this game? A smart reporter will try and delve into that question. AT&T is using its extraordinary influence in the legislature to push two very bad video bills through the legislature. By comparison the cable companies have relatively little influence. What's curious is that Lafayette is the state's largest community to whom these bills will apply. Should Lafayette succeed, as she did two years ago, in getting herself excluded along with other older home rule communities the five largest metro areas of the state comprising the wealthiest 35-40% of the state's population will have to have local franchises anyway. Since no one (except deliberately naive legislators) actually believes that AT&T is going to provide video in rural regions the question has to be who will really benefit? One devious answer would have to be: the cable companies. They will be able to drop their local franchises with the communities that actually own the land they want to use, pick up a state franchise at a 30% discount in fees and NO local obligation to serve PEG channels. In other states like North Carolina where the phone company waged a bitter war to win the right to a state video franchise they didn't make use of it and filed few such requests. On the other hand their supposed cable opponents made out like bandits snatching up state franchises which allowed them to drop the more demanding local ones. The end result was no significant new competition, no price drops, and a huge drop in income to local municipalities.

Somebody in North Carolina got taken.....and the grifters are on the prowl here



(*)Revealing tidbit: The wikipedia section on U-Verse vailability was updated to include Baton Rouge on the 25th, two days before Baton Rouge supposedly concluded the deal and one day before the city-parish council approved negotiations. Not surprisingly, the prescient anonymous editor who added Baton Rouge to the list of cities was operating from a "BellSouth" (now AT&T) URL. The fix was in....

F2C conference streaming

The Freedom To Connect (F2C) conference is this coming Monday-Tuesday and readers are cordially invited to "attend." A live stream will be announced on the central web page starting at 8:30 Monday.

It's well worth the click-through. I recently outlined the virtues of the conference and you can take a look at my review. But being able to "virtually" attend—and at F@C even participate by commenting on the scrolling chat screen that dominates the stage behind the presenters—is one of those amazing things the internet has made possible.

I'll be on 1:00 Monday panel "Open Fiber" and my focus will be Lafayette's fiber and net citizenship. (A hint: I think citizenship is, or should be, the goal—and that local, public ownership is the only realistic path.) That panel should be especially interesting for Lafayette's fiberistas but the lineup, my name notwithstanding, is really impressive.

Give it a look, take advantage of the net to inform yourself on how to keep it.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kaplan Telephone talks Fiber

The Advertiser has a short article this morning on Kaplan Telephone's fiber to the home buildout. Longtime readers will have seen laudatory mention of Louisiana's local projects on these pages over the years. Of the three privately held small, local telephone companies building fiber that I know of Kaplan is by far the least assuming. (Eatel, Cameron Communications, and Kaplan Telephone are the three.) When I have checked their website over the years they've always said a version of "coming soon." They still do, not withstanding the Advertiser's reporting that half of Kaplan is connected to the system. An interesting point is that Cox is in Kaplan...the local boys aren't doing too shabby.

The website doesn't mention a price for FTTH service indicating to me that they aren't yet differentiating between their DSL and FTTH connections—nor offering fiber's capacity to their customers; the description of their service indicates slower DSL speeds--up to 1 meg range since dialup is 56K and the advertised 15x would be 840K. It's not entirely clear that they are offering anything beyond DSL electronics and a standard phone modem hung off fiber with those sorts of numbers. That may explain why the company is reticent to describe their network as a FTTH system on their website.

Kaplan does directly sell what sounds like a faster WiFi point to point wireless broadband product though...and I'd be interested in hearing about how that is deployed and where it is sold.

Kaplan Telephone, EATEL and Cameron Communication do prove that it doesn't take dense populations or big city smarts to run a fiber network. What it does take is a local company willing to serve its community.

Wireless Waking Up

Just a small moment in the maturity of broadband advocates: MuniWireless, Muniwireless is saying:

What I see in a lot of cities is that politicians are using “Wi-Fi for low income communities” as a cheap and easy way out of their real obligation, which is to take leadership for laying down a robust, open telecommunications infrastructure (based on fiber) that benefits everyone, not just low-income people. That’s harder to do, and certainly more politically risky, since that means going up against various communications incumbents that fund political campaigns, and pissing off people who have a stake in keeping things the way they are. (emphasis mine)

The context is Houston where a classic "free" municipal WiFi plan crashed and burned leaving Houston without the network it had contracted. Esme Vos at MuniWireless is distressed because the city isn't holding the private provider to the contract in a way that would meaningfully meet the goals of the contract.

That, in the end, necessarily means substantial fiber as now apparently even the most ardent of the muni wireless fans understand.

Good for her. And good for the movement. Maturity is a useful thing to have.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

TV4US Astroturf Org Active in Louisiana

Well, we knew it was coming. The legislature is coming back in session and the latest push to take take local municipal property rights and hand them over to AT&T is back.

In the grand tradition of misleading advertising this is euphemistically called "statewide video franchising reform" and it is, of course, nothing of the sort. The good thing about this year's version, otherwise the same as last year's, is that 1) we've seen it before and 2) we can now show how the phone companies have failed to provide the promised benefits after they pushed through similar laws in other states. This being Louisiana, and the governor being who he is, we can't expect mere rationality to put the quietus to this. But this time those legislators that decide to be tools of outside corporate interests will have little room to pretend to be merely encouraging "competition." Such laws have not resulted in price reductions (in fact prices have risen) or much new service.

TV4US, an astroturf organization funded in part by AT&T kicked off the campaign yesterday with a press release critiquing the cable companies price rises over the last 8 years and attacking Kathleen Blanco's veto of the earlier version of statewide franchising back in 06. Regardless of how you feel about the cablecos (cough, cough) this attack on them is pretty dishonest...the release trumpets price increases going back to 2000 and then (presto chango) implies that the big jumps they list are somehow caused by the governor's veto...in 06. They don't use the 06 to 08 figures because, in fact, the price rises since the veto are quite modest. But that doesn't stop astroturf organizations from trying to confuse the issue.

TV4US claims to be a "grassroots" organization but it is nowhere composed of locals. Instead it is a national lobbying group specializing in pretending to be local when, in fact, it is a small national lobbying group funded by the corporate interests it serves which springs up "local" organizations wherever AT&T wants a law passed. (The phone number listed in the press release is located in lobbyist central: Washington, DC.) Hence: artificial grass: astroturf. TV4US runs large scale advertising campaigns and engages in push polling (something we here in Lafayette are familiar with). They are actually pretty sloppy about all this. In Michigan they tried to present a petition was riddled with people who objected to being so listed--including members of the legislature who actually were in opposition. The new "Lousiana" website is a great example: it is supposed to be a local website but is actually a carbon copy of Florida's website (which in turn is clearly a simplified clone of the national one). The copying is painfully obvious. When you get to the back pages like the "independent voices" section (gag) the logo is Florida's and the content in the "take action" section is about Florida. The contempt for Louisiana is pretty stunning. We're so dumb that we're going to believe this is an honest grassroots organization? A better fake would at least show some respect.

That doesn't mean that our legislature won't be happy to pretend to fall for it and to use the cover that faux "grassroots" support supplies one of the state's largest campaign funders. But what is disappointing is that the media is likely to simply repeat and amplify the misleading nonsense that TV4US puts out there. In fact, that has already started. This morning's Advocate has a front page story on the "news" that broke a month ago: Cox is going to raise rates "$3 dollars or more." If you travel to the end of the story what you find is that what happened to make that newsworthy just now was that "nonprofit" TV4US issued a "statement" criticizing cable companies and Blanco yesterday—a statement no doubt timed to coincide with two sets of bills: those first bills hitting consumers and several bills hitting the legislative docket. (See, HB1009, SB422, and HB869) This story was planted. The reporter would have been wise to dig into the background of TV4US—a simple google would get him all the background he needed to treat the story with appropriate caution.

Look for more of the same as the battle is engaged. The last time through it took some time—too much time—for the municipalities and the rural police jurors to wake up to threat. The reportorial crews were also slow to react though toward the end a savvy reporter seemed finally to grasp what was going on.

We're in for another fight. Look for Tom Ed McHugh of the municipal association and the posse from the police juries to ride again....

Monday, March 24, 2008

The 700mhz Spectrum Auction and you...National Edition

The 700 mhz spectrum auction closed last week and it is likely to be one of the most significant events you've never heard of and wouldn't normally care about if you did. Citizens should set aside a moment of silent sadness to mark the occasion. But national and local citizens will have different reasons to mark the day.

The FCC's 700 mhz auction sold off the last bits of really good spectrum that will be available for the foreseeable future. It was freed up by the Feds finally taking back spectrum from the television broadcast industry after forcing a reorganization of broadcast technology based on more efficient digital technologies. The reallocation of that spectrum held the last great hope for opening a powerful 3rd, wireless, connection into your home or business.

Opening up space for a new competitor was one of the stated goals of the sale. Instead Verizon and AT&T—by far the two largest telecommunications companies in the US each won most of a "block" of spectrum. The upside spin is that this will allow Verizon and AT&T to build faster more reliable networks. The downside complaint is the one I've already voiced: that does nothing to add new competitors to an already competitively anemic mix. This sale all but assures that AT&T and Verizon will be the dominant, largely unchallengeable national-level service providers of both wireline and wireless connectivity into future.

Part of the unhappy background to this sad tale is the finality of it. The federal government in the guise of the FCC has moved from treating spectrum as a "license" issued on behalf of the communities the licensees serve to a "property" that corporations (or at least the most wealthy ones) can buy. Because the public spectrum has been remade into private property the potential for reorganizing its use at a later time to better serve the public has largely ended with this sale. The irony is that the TV spectrum that was sold was only available because the FCC exerted its control over TV licenses to force (a bitterly resistant) broadcast industry to move to a more modern model of broadcast. The "new" spectrum will not be similarly regulated.

So...the national citizen can justifiably feel that it's sad that new competitors will not rise to challenge the oligopoly telecom market. Some had hoped that Google (which convinced the FCC to put a modest "open" condition on the block of spectrum that Verizon won) would actually buy up one of the blocks and put in what would amount to a wireless internet. A new network focused on IP data which would let you use any device to connect to it and which would be completely open. Google, it was hoped, would sell connectivity as a commodity and would eschew any attempts to build a content empire based on its control of the network. The imagined network would have been the very essence of what net neutrality advocates are hoping for. Such a network would have been very attractive one would have to think based on the bitter complaints about about the current providers and the almost universal affection for the openness of the internet. The success of a truly free entry point onto the network could have forced the current providers toward openness themselves, if only in self-defense.

We're not going to see such a network. And the record price that Verizon and AT&T paid for the spectrum is evidence of how much they feared that a neutral, open network might be successful. (The auction yielded almost twice what an optimistic Congress had hoped for.) The thin silver lining on the dark cloud of the spectrum auction is that Verizon, which has made gestures in the direction of net neutrality and which has said it would refuse to police the internet for content owners won the spectrum that was offered under the google-favored conditions. That makes it seem likely that Verizon will emerge as the preferred company for advocates of a more open internet. (Caveat: Verizon cooperated fully with the warrantless wiretapping that caused such an uproar, as did AT&T. There's no really "good" carrier, just a less bad one.)

To add insult to injury it looks like AT&T at least will have to go further in debt and eat into operational funds to pay for the ability to maintain its current business plan. That means that network upgrades, already put off as the new AT&T absorbed the debt of buying BellSouth and others, will be further delayed and since the business rationale for making the investment is, to my eye, focused on preventing new competition, the incentive for innovation will be minimized as well.

So, the hope for a new, powerful 3rd connection into the home to supplement the cable and phone duopoly has been thwarted. The incumbent phone companies have snatched up the best spectrum and there remains no block of spectrum that could be used to mount an alternate national network from scratch. This will minimize, and perhaps was meant to minimize competition and that will surely reduce innovation. Even worse, they've gone into such debt to buy the spectrum that little capital remains to do anything with it... That's the big picture and the national version of why you should care about, and shed a tear for, the unknown spectrum auction. Like many things, however, the local story may well be more interesting—and even more important to local readers. More on that in a subsequent post. Teaser: Cox, not AT&T, is the big player.



Langiappe: after drafting this up I found two smart analytical articles that I'd like to recommend to those wonkishly interested in this topic: Susan Crawford's detailed analysis of just why Verizon's win is even sadder than I have claimed and Harold Feld's take which is slightly more upbeat than my own. Lots of detail.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

FCC Bans Landlord Control of Tenant Telecom

The FCC banned exclusive deals between telephone companies and landlords this week bringing phone companies into align with the policy it recently imposed on cable corporations. In Lafayette that means that companies like Cox and AT&T won't be allowed to keep competition out of the approximately 22% of the households in the city that live in apartments by buying off the landlord. (It's about 26% nationally.)

While little companies like LUS and EATEL benefit, rest assured that the new ruling is not intended to help them—and wouldn't be enacted if it only helped out new competitors. That's not the way our FCC actually works. The new ruling is actually intended to be consistent with the recently-enacted policy of outlawing the common practice of cable companies paying a handsome monthly fee to landlords for exclusive rights to "their" tenants.

The backstory is pretty simple: The FCC has been saying that it wants competition and, that in fact, competition is already robust in the telecom market. While we may argue with that, one area in which legacy regulations were clearly out of whack with the ideology of competition was in the area of apartment buildings and condominiums—in those situations landlords were allowed to strike exclusive (and hugely lucrative) deals with cable and phone companies for exclusive access to their tenants. In such situations the actual paying customer had no choices and saw no competition. Now that competition is supposed to be widespread, and the old exclusive monopolies supposedly broken up, the situation in apartment complexes and other "multiple tenant environments" like shopping centers and office buildings too glaringly contradicted the new narrative to ignore.

The real explanation is that the phone companies want into the hugely lucrative cable business and are happy to give up exclusive access to the declining wireline phone business to get guaranteed access to the quarter of the population that is most densely packed and very profitable to serve.

So this wasn't done to benefit consumers or new competitors—if that was the reason such medieval nonsense would have been forbidden years ago. But luckily for us all, the big phone companies want into a new business (besides the wireless one, I mean) and the FCC is happy to oblige again. But, mostly by accident, consumers and new competitors do benefit. So let's be happy for small favors done...and happy that at least in Lafayette the choices will include a real change for the better.

Friday, March 21, 2008

"Cox Responds to EATEL Ad"

Sharon Kleinpeter of Cox tells the Independent that folks in Lafayette definitely can get the 75 dollar triple play deal (about half off!) as long as you don't currently have Cox phone service.

It's a good deal and the first sign of real price competition in Louisiana attributable to locally fostered competition.

Cox's Kleinpeter tries to finesse the question of whether they are targeting EATel with this promotion even while admitting that they are only advertising it in Ascension. The implication is that Cox just happens to be "testing" it in Ascension. Sure...it was entirely coincidental that the ONLY place that it was actively promoted was in the ONLY place where a local fiber to the home project was up and running and costing them market share. And it was only a coincidence that it was ONLY offered to folks who were switching phone service to Cox from a local phone company that recently started offering cable tv service over that fiber. Cox really shouldn't try to mislead people so transparently. It will make people outside of Lafayette think that Cox isn't honest about such things. (People inside Lafayette already know this.) Really, it shouldn't be embarrassing to actually admit to competing on price...regular companies have to do it all the time—and do it fairly.

The package a deal...and apparently there is no contract involved. Just a guarantee of the price for 12 months. It'll do till something better comes along.

(Thanks are due to EATEL for uncovering this and to the Independent for following up with such alacrity—the weekly had to ask "embarrassing" questions of a major regional advertiser. They did it, and are running the results, apparently without flinching. It should be noticed. Kudos.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Is EATEL stealing Durel's Idea?

EATEL is making waves by taking out full page ads in the Lafayette Advertiser advocating that the citizens of Acadiana take an offer that Cox would rather offer only to EATEL's customers. There was another full page ad in Wednesday's Advertiser and, according to the Independent, radio spots should start soon.

It's a daring idea to spend your own money to promote your opponent's good deals.

But maybe not entirely original: the idea was first floated right here in Lafayette by our own Mayor Durel just before the fiber referendum:

Durel commented on the possibility that Cox Communications and BellSouth could cut rates by as much as $30 to keep customers.

"If they lower their rates that much, I'll take a full ad out in Baton Rouge and say, 'You, too, can have these rates,'" Durel said. "I've talked to people around town, and if they can lower your rates by $30, what do you think they've been doing to you for 15 or 20 years?" (emphasis mine)

Indeed, that bears thinking about: either Cox can afford to take a 50% cut on its regular price and still turn a profit (in which case why are they charging you so outrageously now and pretending your price increases are all the fault of channel costs?) OR they are offering the promotion at below cost in order to drive EATEL out of the business (which would be a classic case of predatory pricing). You takes your pick. Neither says anything good about Cox. The Mayor had a real point back in '05. Take a look for yourself, the story can be scrounged up via the wayback machine. There's even a nostalgic BellSouth ad preserved on the page. The story brings back memories of the time and the fiery character of the Mayor.

Lagniappe Durel Nostalgia:

These "scare tactics," such as negative advertising, false information and promotion of current technology, are geared to create doubt, he said.

"They are desperately trying to defend a horse-and-buggy technology in a supersonic age,"

"It's a dream come true. I could hope for nothing more. It's a dream come true if there's a price war. Our citizens win."
Those were the days....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Fiber in Europe (& Here)

Europe is pulling out in the race to fiber up and Holland and the Scandinavian countries are leading the way. A report from the European FTTH Council is stuffed with qoutables. Let's indulge:
The battle over the future of broadband will be fought in the streets and houses...
Fiber Rules:

There is also evidence that operators that are first with fibre find it easy to attract and retain customers. John Quist of the Dutch incumbent KPN described how 85 per cent of households covered by one municipal FTTH network in the Netherlands converted to paying customers.

"The cable companies and KPN and the other telcos were just wiped out," he said. Another Dutch municipal network, Neunen, claims 90 per cent take-up, while Sweden's ViaEuropa claims 78 per cent. One municipal operator said that its FTTH services were so appealing that it did not need to market them to the younger population, hence the coffee mornings for the older generation...

First little piggy to market wins...
The problem for conventional telecoms operators is that there is more at stake than just subscriber numbers. If one operator beats others to wiring a house or apartment block, it will have a monopoly on that infrastructure that will likely last decades. In order to serve these customers, other operators will have to rent capacity at least on their competitor's in-building wiring, even if they take the risk of laying their own fibre to those properties.
Municipal networks are scarfing the incumbent's lunch:

Municipal networks in particular pose a challenge to conventional operators. Driven largely by social rather than commercial motives, these publicly funded projects are spreading from Europe's northern states to its larger markets, having been sanctioned in France and Spain.

Reggefiber, the owner of the network Quist referred to, already has FTTH infrastructure covering 200,000, or nearly 3 per cent, of the Netherlands' 7.2 million homes and is expanding. One of its projects, Citynet, plans to eventually cover 450,000 homes in the capital, Amsterdam. Municipal networks in Sweden, meanwhile, pass more than 6 per cent of homes and counting...

Municipal networks in particular pose a challenge to conventional operators. Driven largely by social rather than commercial motives, these publicly funded projects are spreading from Europe's northern states to its larger markets, having been sanctioned in France and Spain...

Another advantage the municipal networks have over incumbents are their close links with communities. Organising town meetings, door-to-door sales and recruiting well-known local figures as ambassadors for their wares is not much of a stretch for them.

Who'd a thunk it?

Today's New York Times waxes worrisome about the lead the Scandinavians and the Dutch have amassed:

“We have four countries that are world leaders — Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland,” said Viviane Reding, the European telecommunications commissioner. “We have eight countries which have higher penetration rates than the U.S. and Japan. We are not doing badly at all.”

Now in bone-wearying fashion the good gray lady of the New York Times doesn't ask HOW those countries pulled ahead. Even though it's apparent that the municipalities of the the Northern countries have been the engine. But the NYT in a fine fit of presumptive understanding knows it must be some new competitive scheme that the European regulators are cooking up. (The European Regulators are happy to tout that as the explanation.) But contemplated competitive regulation does NOT explain how the leading European countries got out front. The real explanation for the burst of energy from Europe is that the municipalities of the north were free to compete. And their stunning success has scared the rest of the European Union into action.

It'd be nice if Lafayette and few of its brethren could do the same for the United States.

"What’s the Deal?" Cox & EATEL

The Independent picks up the EATEL ad in Sunday's Advertiser we reported on earlier. Reporter Nathan Stubbs gets on the phone and tries to get the half price deal Cox is publicizing only in Ascension and southern Livingston parishes. Initially he's given the runaround but after checking in with EATel's Communications Manager gets the secret password: "Special Promotion R-123" he is offered access to the deal.

More fun: the Independent reporter was able to bargain the price down further by not taking phone or HBO....though Cox is certainly not required to go that far in order to meet its legal obligations to offer promotions fairly throughout its area. It certainly seems logical to allow this base price to be the starting point if you want to add on channels or tiers at the regular price as one would normally do.

And, what's more Cox is claiming that you don't have to sign a yearly contract. That's nifty. The Cox phone rep tells the IND that they "don't do conracts" and a quick review of the local website seems to bear that out. But Cox certainly does demand contracts for special deals in other parts of the country and has here in the past. (A Cox attempt to tempt small businesses into a 3-year contract with a paltry 3% discount was especially noteworthy.) So it's interesting that they aren't doing that any longer in this locale—where LUS has, from the very beginning said it would not require any kind of contract. It sounds like pricing is not the only concession Cox is making to the specter of local competition.

For those of you out there that take advantage of this deal, remember who to thank: the little local fiber competition that could, EATEL and LUS. Nobody is getting a deal like this in New Orleans. Or in Los Angeles, for that matter.

Monday, March 17, 2008

FTTH satisfies consumers

Fiber T0 The Home is better than AT&T's Fiber To The Node....according to a Corning program manager for fiber networking:
In a survey of customer satisfaction, respondents ranked Verizon's Fios FTTH network highest in satisfaction with 96 percent of respondents satisfied with the service. By contrast, satellite-based services for DirecTV and Dish Network ranked at 89 and 82 percent respectively, and AT&T's fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) service was in line with several cable TV services that ranged from 70 to 73 percent.

Separately, among consumers who said they were not satisfied with their new FTTN service from AT&T, about 70 percent said the reason was it offered inferior video service compared with their previous supplier, presumably a satellite or cable TV carrier.

In addition, adoption rates of the AT&T service have slumped recently, while those of Verizon are on the rise. The percentage of homes passed by the AT&T network that chose the service has gone from about 10 percent to about 6 percent. By contrast, figures for Verizon are trending up from about 4 percent to about 15 percent.
"inferior video service" —ouch.

So the FTTH service generates 7 to 14% more satisfied customers than satellite services and 23 to 26% more satisfied customers than cable or AT&T's new cable service. And as people are becoming more familiar with AT&T's service the phone company's ability to get new customers is actually dropping. (You expect a new service to become more popular as the good word spreads and people become more familiar with its availability and advantages. If that isn't happening it means that the bad word is spreading.)

It doesn't sound like there is much hope that AT&T, if it should every get to Lafayette, will offer much of an improvement over Cox. If I had any I'd be selling my AT&T stock.

There is a rumor out there that AT&T will make another try at statewide video franchising in the coming regular session of the legislature. The last time around only Kathleen Blanco's brave veto (at the behest of both rural and urban local governments) saved the state from giving away the farm on AT&T's promise of a fancy new service. The evidence is starting to come in that its a service that is so bad that nobody much wants it. I hope the legislatures this time through trouble themselves to look at the evidence of whether or not people really want this thing before they offend both the municipal association and the police juries.

If Verizon can get 96% approval for its new fiber offering, just think of how happy a utility with hometown chops and fiber can make you.
I want my LUS Fiber. Now.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

EATEL Joins Fiber Fight

The fruits of competition...

That image to the left is a full page ad in the A section of today's Sunday Advertiser. Click on the image for a large, readable image...(caution, it's a big jpg.)

EATel's experience in their fight over in Ascension parish ought to inform ours. Clearly Cox "Greater Baton Rouge" is offering special deals only to EATel's customer base—possibly only to those that have threatened to move to the local, more powerful, fiber to the home alternative.

That, as EATel is pointing out in this ad, isn't fair pricing. You've got to offer the same deals to all. Otherwise you are engaging in a form of predatory pricing. —But you don't have to promote the great deal everywhere...On the other hand you do have to be willing to give it to anyone who asks for it.

So EATel is engaging in the wildly unusual act of promoting a great deal from its competition so you can ask for it. Cox can refuse, of course. If it does you should tell EATel who is surely preparing a lawsuit alleging unfair competition if this deal isn't offered fairly. Or Cox can honor the offer. Which would be hugely expensive if any number of people take it up outside of EATel's relatively small service area on the south rim of Baton Rouge.

It's a good deal. (And will cost Cox real revenue whenever and wherever it keeps this promise. It's evidence Cox is running scared.) But folks here in the city of Lafayette that are in the first build area would be best served to hold off. (IMHO) A better product is coming in nine months with hugely faster net speeds that will keep those dollars in local hands. (That 100 megs of intranet speed is going to make a whole lot of difference. I had two conversations at a party last night that revved me up on that score.) And even if localism and a superior product don't make your choice as easy as mine will be wait a little while anyway. --The closer LUS gets to launch the better the deals for Cox's standard alternative will become. This is only the first offering.

Folks outside Lafayette's first build should look into this. If Cox is going to push the bounds of fair competition with their small local competitors they shouldn't be allowed to do it secretly or cheaply. Fair Competition. That was what Cox wanted. They ought to be held to it. Call 'em and ask for the deal. What you want to do if they give you any guff is mention "Special Promotion R-123" — that detail is in the fine print at the bottom of the ad.


Cox was foolish to combine the Baton Rouge and Acadiana markets. Now they've got a two front battle on their hands and the contrast between little, local alternatives with a superior technology and the huge predatory out-of-state corporation with old technology will be inescapable.

Justathought: LUS should consider some coop advertising deal with EATel. I get the Baton Rouge Advocate and there's no similar EATel ad in it today.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Why LUS Will Be Cheaper

Or at least one reason, anyway:
Randall Stephenson, the AT&T Inc. chief executive who replaced a respected long-serving predecessor last year, earned roughly $18 million in compensation...

The traditional "justification" for such nonsense is that the CEO's take is justified by how much value they (they?) created for their shareholders. That doesn't hold much water:
Since the start of the year, however, AT&T's shares have been pummeled by fears that the sputtering economy will hurt growth in revenue. Shares rose $1.44, or 4.2 percent, to $36.09 Tuesday but are still down about 13 percent this year.
(From the Houston Chronicle.)

Could it be just compensation his consideration of and respect for his customers? ........Nah.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Why Voting in Fiber Was Smart

Ok, every so often I see something that just snaps my head around. An "upbeat" report from Parks Associates, reported by Broadband Reports, demonstrates just how different my frame of reference has gotten. I think about the technical future differently from my compatriots.

This report is pleased to say that a bit more than 10% of the US population will have access to 10 Mbps of broadband by 2012.

This is regarded as good news.

Really.

That strikes me as crazy. Here in Lafayette 10 Mbps or so will be the least capable, el cheapo tier offered by LUS. Not the best. The least. Everyone...100% of the community...will have access to that kind of capacity. Within our own network we'll be able to communicate at 100 mbps at NO additional charge.

And the rest of the US is supposed to be happy at the idea that 10% will get access to 10 mbps by 2012?

There is a better way than waiting for the incumbents to do it for you. You can do it for yourself.

We figured that out on July 16th, 2005.

We made the right decision.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

F2C: Highly Recommended

The 3rd Freedom To Connect Conference (F2C) is being held in Washington on March 1st and April lst.

I recommend it highly. Go get on board now. Prices go up March the 7th (this Friday!) I went to the inaugural meeting and am going again this year. A fascinating crew shows up and, like most good conferences the best takes place in the halls and over lunch-time hoagies — but unlike most the sessions are worth every penny. Smart people saying what they actually believe. Nothing is more invigorating—including that silly trip to Cancun you thought might be energizing.

F2C is the brainchild of David Isenberg, a funny, fiesty fellow of just the gadfly sort we approve of here at LPF. The idea is to get a bunch of smart committed people interested in sustaining our "Freedom To Connect" over modern networks together and let them go to it. (Isenberg has a more reasonable-sounding description, I think he's being politic.) This year the theme is "The NetHeads Come to Washington" and the contrast is implicitly between the beltway "bellheads" and the insurgents from the restless hinterlands. Isenberg is the "Original NetHead®;" he is the fellow who coined the approving phrase "the stupid network" to describe the architecture of the internet, which places processing "intelligence" at the edges of the network (i.e. at Google and at your 'puter) and to contrast it with the old Bell telephone network (where all the intelligence is in the switches and your phone is as dumb as a rock). You might be under the impression that Net Neutrality is a new issue. You'd be wrong--at least about the underlying philosophical differences involved. Those are as old as the internet itself. Check out the 1996 Wired screed that is the first reference I know of to "Netheads vs. Bellheads." The contrast between the two sides—right down to the core issues of money, control, and Quality Of Service vs. raw bandwidth have been on the table for years for those in the know. Isenberg gathers up those sorts of prescient folks. If you'd like to be a decade ahead of the curve you oughta consider the conference.

Take a look at the agenda. You'll find folks from all over the world (Amsterdam's FTTH guru Dirk van der Woude anyone?), industry stalwarts (like Ron Sege, head of Tropos that is supplying LUS' wireless network), all around brilliant types (Clay Shirky, Susan Crawford and almost anyone you care to pick off the list), legal eagles and advocates, (Jim Baller, Matt Stoller) and even the occasional local activist type (modesty forbids)...

It should be interesting.

Get a clue: if you can, go.

And if you can't click into the web stream; that's what I did last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Cox: New Building, Old Line

Cox Communications has opened its new headquarters for what is left of its operations on our side of the Atchafalaya basin. (Cox shed its former holdings to the north and west back in 2005) It's a serious investment in the region and looks like a nice building—complete with meditation rooms. The Advertiser's tone is in the traditional laudatory vein that local newspapers inevitably adopt whenever a company opens a new building or invests in the area. It's a welcome relief, I am sure, from the usual grind of the news beat where "good" news usually means "no news" and I'm pleased that Cox, its employees, and the area have a new building.

But I can't help but be annoyed by Cox continuing to run out its silly "Me too!" line about it having fiber and nobody knowing about it. [Note that the online version has a final "press release" paragraph on fiber that didn't make it into the print version.] This is smoke and mirrors and it is intended to confuse the public about the difference between Lafayette's new system and its older one. It also reveals that Cox still doesn't understand what happened during the fiber referendum fight and why it lost that fight.

Cox has tried, in its press releases and its advertising to say that it has "a fiber network." This article, to its credit, doesn't repeat the silliness of using that phrase—whether that is due to the good judgment of the writer or the fact that Cox has quit trying to run that particular form of misinformation is not clear. Just for the record: the implication that Cox has anything like the fiber to the home network that LUS is currently building is just silly and Lafayette is now sophisticated enough to both understand that and to understand why Cox would want to obscure the difference. Every network in town has a fiber core: Lafayette's ring, AT&T's network, Cox's, and the miscellaneous national networks that also have terminations in our city. Cox, like all its competition uses fiber's massive capacity as a the cheapest way to handle massive amounts of bandwidth where it has to have that capacity: in the backbone that supplies the less capable copper leading to homes. Having a fiber backbone just isn't noteworthy—what is noteworthy is how close you bring that fiber to your final customer. Only LUS will bring that massive capacity all the way to your home or business.

What's more interesting to me than that old story is that telling it seems to mean that Cox actually believes that it lost the vote in Lafayette because the people believed that they wanted "fiber." So Cox is determined to pretend that it will give us fiber (not quite to the home) too.... But "fiber" is not the reason that Cox lost that election. It lost because it tried to deceive us about fiber to the home—something it is still trying to do with its current PR double-talk. In the end it all came down to trust. And Cox proved itself, through deceptive PR, silly "academic forums," insulting push polls, threats to our jobs, and endless rhetoric about the dangers of a trusted local utility providing local services cheaply that it couldn't be trusted. Every time its PR personnel try pass off some half-true claim about fiber networks Cox reminds us why we didn't trust them back then. Until it figures out why it lost in 05 Cox will continue to lose in Lafayette.

-----on reflection------
Truth is that fiber isn't all that Lafayette wanted by the time we got to the end of the fiber fight. By the time we voted we knew we wanted to control our own destiny and the fiber fight just proved the context for coming to that decision. As our national history has played itself out telecommunications has turned out to be an essential, and a monopoly business. Those sorts of businesses ought to be public utilities, not private monopolies. It took our wanting fiber and the ugly battle to win it to get Lafayette to realize that. But now we understand that every community should own its own network. Even if it isn't fiber. The social and economic benefits of controlling that locally and keeping that economic stimulus entirely in local hands is enormous and every community that can ought to do the same.

It isn't fiber.....it is trust...and local control.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

French & Fiber

The old saw goes: "Play to your strengths." The Advertiser's Bob Moser pens a blip that points to a set of new economy jobs for Lafayette: "Foreign" language call center agents. It's a work-at-home job that routes calls from non-english speakers to bilingual agents. The money, like all call-center money, isn't grand but the job setting can't be beat, especially for shut-ins or stay-at-homes.
Many of Arise's larger clients in retail are expanding their call center contracts to regions of Canada where they sell to French-speaking customers. They've begun rerouting more English and French language customer calls from Canada to bilingual agents in the U.S., said Jared Fletcher, vice president and ACP of admissions and certification at Arise.
The job requirements are fluency in a second language and fast internet connection.

It's no wonder that Arise Virtual Solutions is recruiting in Lafayette--according to the last census a healthy 13% of the city speaks french in the home. And, as readers well know, a really fast net connection—more than sufficient to access reams of data for customer suppor—will soon be both cheaper and faster from LUS.

Fiber and French make a good pairing.