Friday, May 23, 2008

LUS Update in the Advocate

The Baton Rouge Advocate runs an update of the LUS fiber project in today's paper.

Begin Meta Media Aside:
Alert readers will note that the story, "Faster service set for ’09, Lafayette Utilities readies fiber optic lines," is written by Richard Burgess rather than Kevin Blanchard. Kevin, who I had admired unreservedly, has gone back to school and taken a job with Cox researching the (un)Fair Competition Act that he so ably researched and covered as a reporter. As a Cox employee he's working for a company that he well knows wishes his community ill. I'm hoping that he's accumulated enough good karma from his years of journeyman reporting to offset a move to the dark side. Be that as it may, Burgess is a reporter cut from the same strip that Blanchard was: a solid worker that follows a beat in depth and whose stories show signs of real background work. His beats have included environmental (the tornadoes, the derailment chemical spill), government (the bus station, police and fire back pay) and general civic issues (like the Attakapas-Ishak bike trail). He's often assigned work with a challenging technical foundation. He'll be good on this story and I (with mixed feelings) expect the Baton Rouge Advocate to remain the best source of Fiber To The Home stories as Burgess comes up to speed on the social and business implications of the new system.
End Meta Media Aside

There's not much that is new news in this story—the point is to review the basics and signal what is coming. So if you want a refresher on the plan and the basics of how the connection will work take a good gander. But the clear overview offers some interesting tidbits for those who've been following closely. To wit:

On the build itself:

LUS is rolling out the service in four phases.

Huval said the first phase will make the service available to about 25,000 homes and businesses, nearly half of LUS’ current customer base of about 57,000

That is interesting--you might wonder why LUS is rolling out to fully half of its customers in what is clearly at least two separate segments instead of biting off smaller chunks and doing promotional sign-ups of each small segment to build excitement. The simplest answer is the (un)Fair Competition act. Lafayette cannot do anything that a suit-happy incumbent could call "offering service" until it has the largest possible number of subscribers. That is because the law has set up a minimum date for "profitability" based on when the first "offer service." So Lafayette is well-served by waiting to start the clock until they can bring lots of customers on quickly--regardless of otherwise smart marketing possibilities. (And, yes, our "conservative" legislature has legislated a time-bound, state-structured definition of success for our project. The big boys at the state house think they know best. As in the looming state video debacle the legislature's idea of conservativism apparently has little to do with keeping control as close to the people as possible everything to do with pleasing out-of-state corporations. Such is the new "conservativism.")

On the heart of the system:

The fiber system’s main hub is a building near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 49, where LUS will tap into one of the main Internet lines running along the interstate system, receive satellite feeds for the television service and operate the telephone switch.

The fiber lines will run from the main center — built with 6-inch concrete walls to survive hurricanes — to one of 13 existing electrical substations and then along city streets.

On what is emerging as the signature feature:

Huval said that regardless of what service someone signs up for, anyone on the LUS fiber system will be able to send or receive at the 100 mbps rate when communicating with someone else within the LUS system.

“It’s just opening things wide open for the creative class of the community,” Huval said.

The high speeds could also give freedom to workers tied to the office because of data-intensive work.

“You will truly be able to work from home,” said LUS Fiber Communications Engineering and Operations Manager Mona Simon.

Simon said at speeds of 100 mbps, the quickness of most file transfers will be limited only by the user’s equipment.

“It’s not going to be bottlenecked by virtue of the system,” she said.

On the services to be offered:

LUS officials are not yet talking about specific service or pricing options, but they tout “breakneck” Internet speeds and a wide variety of TV choices at a price about 20 percent below competitors.

The minimum Internet speed with the service will be 10 mbps — more than enough for casual Web browsing, quickly downloading media, streaming high-quality video or playing multi-user games over the Internet.

Users could opt for up to 100 mbps, which would allow for quick communication of the massive files used in everything from data-intensive oil-and-gas research to filmmaking and music production.

...Simon said the television service will also run at 100 mbps, allowing for seamless video-on-demand and the ability to watch multiple high-definition programs at once.

The Internet and television do not share bandwidth, so intensive use of one service will not cut into the other, she said.

That's all pretty deluxe.

It's an understatement of the first order to say LUS' cheapest, slowest offering of 10 mbps (symmetrical!) is "more than enough" for common web uses...it's an astonishing speed. That low end product is a capacity that is only available as the most expensive option for the cable incumbent and is unavailable for any price, anywhere from AT&T. It's national news on the net when one or two private providers begin to offer a "limited to a few subscribers" speed of 20 megs. Here that speed will be cheap, available to all and popular enough to be the basis of real business plans. It is simply not purchasable, at any price, to almost all in the rest of the country--and never at a price regular folks can afford.

That alone is a digital divide story that deserves to be told but on top of all that is 100 megs of intranet "peer-to-peer" service. Giving everyone equal communications access to one another is to lay the groundwork for an equitable community in the coming net-centric era. Lafayette will be in a position to allow participation, both live and asynchronously, that will simply be unparalleled and will allow Lafayette to move onto completely uncharted ground and create new models of community. (We better get cracking with that imagination thing.)

As the story notes, LUS has remained chary of committing to detailed service plans months in advance of market situation when it actually begins to sell product. But a recent bit in a consultant's critique of iProvo's recently sold service hints at the initial thinking:
For example, Lafayette has told the public they will be offering three residential products – a 10 Mbps, a 20 Mbps and 50 Mbps symmetrical data products to the Internet. In addition, they plan to offer 100 mbps Intranet for connections between any two customers on the network within the City.
That consultant is LUS' primary advisor and presumably knows whereof he speaks.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Cable TV franchise revision advances"

Today's Advocate covered yesterday's House Commerce Committee proceedings and the editor even ran the story on the front page. That showed good judgment. The bill is actually much more than most of the "issues" that the legislature spends its time on and the press spills ink on. Unhappily the difference this bill will make will be mostly for the worst.

The gist:
A House committee fought off efforts Tuesday to regulate cable television, then approved Senate-passed legislation that would allow companies to get a statewide franchise to offer cable television service....The legislation would allow companies to seek a statewide franchise, rather than negotiate with each individual municipality and parish....Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco vetoed similar legislation last year [actually two years ago-John] after local governments voiced concerns that there would be a negative impact for them....State Rep. Chris Roy Jr., D-Alexandria, said the legislation specifically does not require companies to build into rural areas or into low-income neighborhoods.
It's a mess. What is going to happen here is what happened in North Carolina when they passed such a law. There AT&T hoodwinked the legislature with promises that it would spend huge amounts of money upgrading the state's network and would use the upgrade enter into aggressive competition with the cable companies (chiefly Time-Warner). In fact, they were so eager that they just couldn't be bothered to actually negotiate with the owners of the land they needed to use: the local government's rights of way. So the NC legislature gave the corporation "reform" and two years later....well, AT&T hasn't applied for a single state franchise but Time-Warner and the cablecos have submitted 118 franchises--all of which allowed them to exit significant local responsibilities by revoking previous contracts with local communities. Exactly 1—1!—small new competitor in only 1 locale has provided "new competition" since the law was passed. (We've done better than that here in Lousisiana without such a brown nosing law.) The local governments there have lost services, and cash income—income that the citizens will doubtless be asked to replace.

It is simply bad policy to turn control of local property over to some faceless out of state corporation. North Carolina is now trying to patch up a badly flawed law. They shouldn't bother; admit the mistake and repeal the thing.

I actually spent time yesterday watching the video stream from the house hearing. Sad... In my judgment neither the pro nor the con sides presented their strongest case. The pro side didn't need to and knew it. But it was disconcerting to see the people's representatives from around the state flounder and fail to make what should have been a compelling case. (The best speaker by far was a consultant from Shreveport—not a representative of the municipalities and the parishes whose ox is being gored.)

But even more distressing were the raw political facts of the matter. The legislators on the panel exhibited a truly piteous picture of asking, again and again, if AT&T was actually going to use the law to build out to poorer urban areas and rural places. Again and again AT&T said... "No promises." Just that the chance that some rural folks would get served would be better. Frankly anyone that has watched this issue nationally and read the corporations' own promises to their shareholders knows that AT&T is planning, at most, over the long run, to serve about 50% of those it has a phone line to today. The "high value" customer. Poor thinly settled rural areas of one of the poorest states in the union? It ain't a gonna happen. One speaker quoted what he said was a common response to such facts; legislators are reported to have said: "False hope is better than no hope." That is simply not true. False hope is misleading. And hoping that AT&T will go into rural areas when there is less chance it will here than in North Carolina is just a way to mislead the public—and to delay taking real steps to fix the problem. The legislators also noted that half of the state's population—the state's largest cities—would not be included in this bill at all. AT&T's only even tentative commitment was when they said they'd start in Baton Rouge (sometime) and Baton Rouge is a place where they, in fact quickly got a local franchise and to which this bill will not apply. They wouldn't make another commitment or even a guess about any other place.

And STILL the legislators line up to change the laws and hand over control of local rights of way to the Lords of the Network on the off chance that some day they'd deign to help out folks outside of the large cities (which this bill, they understood, did nothing to help). The lined up to genuflect even after their questions showed they understood that the likelihood that their law would actually help the state was small to none. They lined up to help even though AT&T said it was a law they wanted to make things convenient for them to do business. They lined up even when they understood that the new law would mean the end of requiring all the people—not just the most profitable households—be offered the new technology. They lined up to help the massa even after the representatives of the state's governments that are closest to the people, the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Police Juries, stood shoulder to shoulder and vehemently opposed the bill.

When, in Louisiana, you get both the urban Louisiana Municipal Association AND the rural police jury association lined up in vehement opposition and threatening to mount a constitutional challenge if they are ignored and the committee STILL reports it out without opposition or even change you know that the actual representatives of the people don't matter anymore at all: only the convenience of corporations.

There ought to be some sort of grieving process we can go through when something this blatant reveals the true allegiance of our government. I'm beyond embarrassment and well into shame.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wall Street Journal on Muni Broadband

The venerable WSJ puts out a pretty even-handed review of the contending sides of the municipal fiber to the home movement. There's a succienct summary of the necessary background--from the US's falling rankings in internet connectivity to the desire for towns and small cities to boost growth, to the needs of small business for reasonably priced bandwidth, to the consistent objections of incumbent providers.

The story takes off from the case of Chattanooga which is working toward installing its own FTTH network. Chattanooga is being sued by Cox and other cable companies--which is no surprise to Lafayette's citizens. (At issue there too is the incumbents' reliance on a new state law that forbids "cross subsidization.") The story closes with the following on-target quote:
"The issue is, does our community control our own fate,'" says Mr. DePriest. "Or does someone else control it?"

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cox blocking P2P traffic

A new study out of the Max Planck Institute flatly states that Cox is interrupting P2P traffic over the internet...and is one of only 3 large service providers worldwide for whom this is undeniably true. What's more appalling is that it appears that Cox is blocking traffic without any obvious regard to the sorts of traffic congestion that are used to justify such blocking. This is a worldwide phenomena with local implications: take a look at the map and see if you see a red dot where you live. I think I see two in South Louisiana...BR/Lafayette and New Orleans.

While Comcast is the poster boy — and the whipping boy in Congress and at the FCC — for this behavior it is merely the first company to have been caught with its hand in the cookie jar. It also came in for more than its share of attention because it had the poor grace to first deny it altogether and then to claim that what it was doing was not "blocking" traffic but merely delaying it with the intent of managing traffic in order to improve the experience of its customers. The trouble is that, unknowable intent aside, what Comcast and Cox in the US and Starhub in Singapore are doing is clearly and obviously denial of service—blocking—of a perfectly legal file transfer protocol. (The first time Comcast was caught interferring the file being transfered was the King James version of the Bible!) These companies are using their control of the routers over which you send messages to another net user to dip into the flow of bits between two people and alter that stream to indicate to both sides that the other side has dropped the connection. They lie to both ends. The inevitable and intended result is that after a few retries the two pieces of software drop the connection because the cable company has successfully used its control of the network to convince the users that the other side has hung up. The critical terminology, should you care to google it is: "forged TCP/IP packets with the RST (reset) flag set" or some such...

An analogy from elsewhere in the telecommunications world that illustrates what is wrong with this sort of deceptive practice: The phone company does not send the caller a ring that never gets picked up when their network gets congested. They forthrightly tell you that all their circuits are busy and that you should call back later. They don't lie and tell you the other person is busy. The phone companies are owning their problem. In contrast the cablecos are lying to you and telling you that they don't have a problem--the person you want to talk to has gone offline.

Comcast continues to deny that this is blocking but the raw fact of the deception necessarily involved has lead to a renewed interest in Net Neutrality by Congress and a series of very uncomfortable investigatory hearings by the FCC.

The immediate response of the net media to this latest study has been to react with surprise that Cox is also included. That's just because they've not been paying close attention—as readers of this space will know. In fact the fellow that exposed Comcast quickly made the same accusation against Cox whose non-denial defense slipped under the radar in uproar surrounding Comcast's mishandling of the issue.

The meaningful bits from the AP story:
A study released Thursday found conclusive signs that file-sharing attempts by subscribers of Cox Communications were blocked, along with customers at Comcast and Singapore's StarHub....

The percentage of blocked connections for Comcast and Cox subscribers did not appear to correspond to periods of high congestion, despite Comcast's assertions to the FCC that the filtering only happens at certain times. Subscribers were roughly equally likely to be blocked at all times of day and night. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told Congress in April that testimony collected by the agency indicated that Comcast's filter was active even when there was no congestion.
What should be at the top the news is that substance of the report:
  1. the interference is undeniably occurring
  2. It is NOT normal practice and it can only be reliably show for a very few cable companies worldwide.
  3. It is NOT being used to decongest the network in any systematic way. (Network congestion is very predictable and occurs in 24 hour cycles. If this technique were honestly being used to limit congestion you'd see increasing percentages of blockage during periods of high usage like when the kids get home from school or early evening. There is no such pattern in the data.)
Comcast, under intense pressure has pledged to stop this practice soon.

I wonder if Cox will do the same?

Lagniappe:
If you'd like to know if your connection is being lied to you can run the Max Planck test on your own connection; just click on over. Try a couple of times. Cox's is apparently blocked about half the time, for instance, so you'll need to run multiple tests to see if your local network is one that is being "managed." PS: When I tried it was busy...and told me it was too busy. At least they're honest about it. ;-) I'll try again later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vint Cerf, Google, Municipal Broadband & Lafayette

(If you're only perusing this for the "& Lafayette" skip the windup and run to the bottom.)

Vint Cerf, internet pioneer and VP at Google, recently voiced support of high-speed municipal fiber-optic networks.
Some operators contend that municipal networks create competition between the government and private companies. "That's nonsense," Cerf said.
Indeed; Cerf links network neutrality—a position he has pushed as Google's "Internet Evangelist"— to control of the shared resource of the internet:
Operators may simply not want to invest in their networks to bring higher bandwidth to users, he said. "That comes back to the municipal argument. Citizens that want the capacity should be able to decide among themselves to put the resources in place to get that kind of capacity," he said....

"I still think it's not a bad idea to have legislation that says don't discriminate unfairly simply because you happen to have control over this shared resource," he said.
Who owns the network is indeed the crucial question. The current owners won't agree with Cerf that the network is "shared;" they are certain it is theirs. With public ownership the shared nature of the net is unambiguous and net neutrality is simply not a contentious issue—owner-operators are free to do what is technically the most advantageous to the community.

While the endorsement of a major name in the networking world is significant in and of itself these remarks in Spokane come at an interesting juncture locally and nationally.

Locally Seattle is considering following its neighbor Tacoma and building a municipal fiber-optic network. Such a network would be the largest in the US if built. The discussion in Seattle has see-sawed between politicians wanting to "invite" private investment and tech advocate who advocate a municipally-owned system.

Nationally Google has become one of the staunchest opponents of the expansion of the vertically integrated business model of carriers like Cox, Comcast, and cellular owners who already have an exclusive lock on much of the content carried over their network and owners like AT&T who would like to emulate that model.

Google's main thrust in this battle has been to try and force open the wireless marketplace. It recently upped the ante by bidding in the recent 700 megahertz FCC auction thereby making sure that at least some of that bandwidth would be more open than any cellular airwaves have been to date. It has put considerable resources into the "Android" open cell phone architecture in the attempt to pressure cellular carriers to reshape their network policy so that users can use their cell phones to access data and content as freely as they use their laptops.

But perhaps most significantly Google has followed the down-home maxim: "Money talks where BS walks" with a half billion dollar investment in the recent tech alternative "Clearwire" consortium of Sprint, Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Intel, and Google. The group hopes to put together a national WiMax network using Sprint and Clearwire's spectrum to force an open regime in the wireless mobility arena. That's a lot of money to spend--especially when you are allying yourself with the cable companies whose networks currently represent the acme of closed networks on the wireline side.

This story is one of an alliance of convenience and necessity. The three-sided alliance benefits all. The telecom companies are strapped for cash to exploit their spectrum; the tech companies desperately need open networks to keep their business models running at full tilt, and the cable companies need a wireless play to offset the phone networks ownership of the cellular marketplace. The players need each other's money, spectrum, and credibility to create a markeplace suited to their strengths.

The tech giants are spending billions to establish an alternate vision of how the world could be—in part by pulling Sprint and Clearwire into their internet-centric orbit. Intel wants space for new technologies...and most immediately for the WiMax chips it is currently fabricating and which the teleco's reasonably see as a threat to their business model. Sprint and Clearwire are looking exit a loosing battle against the Verizon/AT&T closed cellular behemoth. If you are losing, change the game: the internet-open network model looks like a good bet for the also rans of cellular. Google has built its business on having unfettered access to individual customers. Verizon/AT&T is very clear about wanting to move the sort of control they have over applications in the cellular part of their business to their landline-based internet offerings. The needs and benefits for the players are easy enough to see.

One of the "needs" of the spectrum owners is one that Sprint recently came up against hard: the need for substantial backhaul from its local cell sites. Not consistently having enough bandwidth to push modern services out over its newly constructed Xohm WiMax network was the central reason Sprint delayed its nation-wide launch. Allying with the big cable companies, who have more capable last-mile networks deployed into every nook and crany of the densely populated regions that are the first targets of Sprint and Clearwire's now merged networks is a huge help in actually getting that network properly launched. Which brings us to the implications for Lafayette.

& Lafayette...
You'll notice that none of the cable partners has a presence in Lafayette. That is because Cox, in a smart and aggressive move, is going it after the wireless arena without the compromise implied by partners. It no longer needs Sprint or Clearwire or any other carrier's spectrum and has not joined the coalition. (It was a member in an earlier incarnation.) That is because Cox recently invested heavily in the aforementioned 700 mhz wireless auction and won good spectrum in an arch from Gonzalez through Baton Rouge and across the Atchafalya to Lafayette. That roughly corresponds to the unified Baton Rouge-Acadiana market that Cox now operates. You can be confident that Cox is planning a wireless rollout of its own to compete with AT&T — and differentiate itself from Eatel & Lafayette's more capable fiber to the home landline systems. The new spectrum is still being freed up from its previous owners but 700 mhz offerings can be looked for in 2010. The time for LUS to act to secure its own wireless offering ahead of the rollout of Cox's new network and AT&T's 4th generation services is right now. First to market is worth a lot. As is maintaining a set of services that matches and outclasses the opposition. The incremental cost of adding a WiFi network capable of being upgraded to 802.11n-k-r-y is truly minimal, perhaps 5% on top of the fiber investment. LUS is aware of the potential and already has a test of 70 WiFi nodes running.

Because the Clearwire coalition will have no local cable company to rely on—and with whole coalition organized in opposition to the likes of AT&T—the new group will need to find a lot of high quality backhaul in Lafayette and the parish. LUS' fiber network should be the obvious candidate. If LUS is really smart they'll seek a more extensive deal after attracting the coalition's attention with something it needs.

But Lafayette amounts to only a tiny side-deal in this battle of giants. Why in the world should the coalition go out of its way to cut a special deal in Lafayette? Maybe they won't. But they should. Because it is not about Lafayette: it is about municipal broadband and the consumers —citizens— owning the crucial last mile and "next mile" infrastructure. And visibly encouraging Lafayette is a cheap and effective way to encourage that sort of ownership to spread.

Spend a billion or two on Communities
The Tech folks and Sprint/Clearwire surely understand that their alliance with each other is one of genuine parallel interests but that their alliance with the cable companies is one where only their short-term interests are aligned. People as smart as Vint Cerf understand that in the long run the interests of cable companies lies is in extending their tight control of content to the internet and the interests of tech companies lies in continuing the open internet and letting the destruction of the broadcast/cable model proceed apace. In contrast communities could be long-term allies with whom their true interests are permanently aligned. Encouraging communities to build and own their own broadband infrastructure is something that both Google and Intel have both visibly supported. They've committed to spending billions on an infrastructure that fortifies them against the telcos' intentions but leaves them dependent upon cable companies which share the same long-term goals. It'd be wise for them to lay a foundation for moving away from the cable companies when the inevitable day comes that their divergent interests become practical obstacles.

So what could these companies do to help out a community? Let's make one of those lists bloggers are famous for:
  • Sprint could partner with the muni network and provide a cellular tie-in for the muni's bundle that would help it compete against quadruple play offerings from the telephone and cable companies.
  • Clearwire could offer cut-rate wireless locally (though the municipality that owns fiber should really do this itself).
  • Intel could offer money and technical support.
  • Google has by far the most to offer:
    • An on-network google cache that would lower costs and speed up the internet for local users
    • Google email for the community--ideally with community addresses rather than generic google ones
    • Google apps for the community--ideally run of the local server for unmatchable speeds; an amazing way to help bridge the digital divide by bringing down costs
    • YouTube in HD....
    • Use the partner communities as a testbed -- Lafayette with its 100 megs of intranet bandwidth would make a unique playground for trying out the sorts of ideas that Google is famous for.
Spending a little money...and even more, spending some prestige and thought on supporting municipal efforts could do as much to sustain and create the internet Vint Cerf and other wise tech types want to see as any other partnership they might undertake.

Worth pondering.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hey Legislator: State Video Doesn't Work!

It's considered wise to learn from the experience of others.

Sadly, State Legislators—or at least our state legislators—fail to follow that simple maxim. If they did Louisiana would not be even considering state legislation yanking local communities' ability to manage their own rights of way down roads and drainage as the community sees fit. Instead the state is about to pass laws shifting that power to the state legislature and and their "plan" is to then hand that control over to the corporations that are lobbying for the change.

They call it "Consumer Choice for Television Act" and that is a serious misnomer. The name is supposed to indicate that the law will encourage AT&T to offer competition to the cable companies. That is what AT&T, who wrote the thing, says it will do. Some of the legislators voting for it (though you can bet none of those who sponsored it) might even think that is more or less true. But based on the evidence it will not.

That's what they've found out in North Carolina. The story there tells the results of a similar law in North Carolina, Video Services Choice Act. North Carolina, like Louisiana is a smaller, southern, rural state that has been trying to upgrade its image and technological prowess. I'd argue that it has been considerably more successful. Even so the demographics aren't all that different from Louisiana. A major city or two, a handful of second-tier cities (among which are the more progressive) and a large rural population. It's a good state to compare to Louisiana.

And North Carolina passed a law like this two years ago—at the time when a similar law was (wisely) vetoed by then-governor Blanco. Here's what the article says about the success of that law in North Carolina.
When state legislators passed the Video Services Choice Act (VSCA) two years ago, their goal was to increase competition....One of the few things legislators asked of those companies was to keep setting aside space for public access, education and government channels....

But laws often have unintended consequences, while their intended consequences can fail to materialize.

In fact, nearly 18 months after the VSCA was enacted, neither AT&T nor Verizon has submitted a single application to provide video service in North Carolina. Of the 118 new state franchises, almost all were submitted by Time Warner; only two new providers have entered the market; and only one service area has any competition.

Meanwhile, many PEG channels have seen their funding evaporate under the new law.

Here is what the experience of North Carolina should teach our legislature:
  1. Two years after AT&T got the law it sought to "bring competition" it has not brought any competition to that state or to the incumbent cable company.
  2. The dominant cable company and target of hoped-for competition, Time Warner, was in fact the real beneficiary of AT&T's law and used it get out of contractual obligations to local communities in most of the 118 state franchises actually issued.
  3. The law has had real negative effects: The state legislature's attempt to protect local interests in PEG channels like Lafayette's Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) failed. Had local control been maintained that would not have been a problem.
In short: In North Carolina this law has completely failed to bring AT&T into quick competition with Time Warner in the two years since it was enacted. In truth all it has done is to allow Time Warner to escape its local responsibilities.

State video "reform" is nothing of the sort.

Friday, May 09, 2008

WBS: The Path to Leadership

What's Being Said Dept.

They're talking about Lafayette's network in New Zealand. Or at least David Isenberg is. David visited recently and I am embarrassed to admit I haven't written about it. (Yet. I will.) I've written about Isenberg & the Internet and his F2C conference here before. For now let it suffice to say that he has the sort of stature in the field that people happily fly him across the globe in order to get his advice on what should come next in telecommunications policy. (For a well-written overview of the man, and a review of his speech hit the NZHerald.)

He went to New Zealand intending, apparently, to walk the Kiwis through a path toward internet leadership that included fare like "structural separation," and "unbundling local loops." But he ditched that complex policy message and decided that the real message should be:
"...let's face it, fiber, the all-optical network, is the end game."
His recommendation to New Zealand: Just go for it. And he thinks its pretty reasonable financially. He uses Vermont's rural and Lafayette's urban networks to run up an estimate for the cost of fibering up the whole nation. Here's what he said about Lafayette:
"In town, it costs a lot less. I visited Lafayette LA two weeks ago. Lafayette is a city of 110,000, or about 40,000 households. They're building a municipal fiber network to every house in the city, rich and poor, black and white, for about 300 million, or about $2000 a house at a 50% take-rate. If you factor in OPEX and everything else, their cost will be about $50 a month. They plan to charge $70, for TV, telephone and 100 Mbit/s Internet."
I think several of those numbers are off but the basic point remains true: It's not too costly for a determined community. And Isenberg's advice to the nation of New Zealand is to follow Lafayette's lead in building fiber to every home.

That's what I call good press. And sensible advice.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

iProvo to go private

Long-time followers of Lafayette fiber will recall the supportive visits from Mayor Billings of Provo, Utah during our fiber fight. Sadly, Provo will be losing its publicly-owned network if the current plan goes through. If the city council approves the sale it will be bought by Broadweave and run as a closed, private network much like Cox, Comcast, Qwest, or AT&T. Broadweave has, to date, specialized in fiber networks in new, upscale, gated communities. The silver lining on this dark cloud is that the people of Provo seem to be getting off pretty much even financially. The purchaser, Broadweave, will being paying slightly more than bonded cost of the network. And, the people have a fiber-optic network in place that no private provider would have ever built. Of course this was not what the people of Provo hoped for: they wanted two things: to own their own system and to have a rich variety of providers running over the common infrastructure. In Provo, at least, these two desires turned out to be incompatible.

I'm sure the full story is more complex (and would be happy to be further enlightened) but from this edge of the continent it looks like the misgivings Mayor Billings voiced in Lafayette during one of his visits has proven all too wise. Back then he had a blunt response to a question comparing LUS's decision act as a utility and offer retail services directly and Provo's "open network" practice of instead relying on private retailers to market all the services that used the network's wholesale infrastructure. He said that Lafayette's model was the stronger one. Utah's legislature, however, had forbidden communities to offer retail services and so that option was not open to his city.

There is a story behind that state policy: Qwest--the Bell phone system for that region--had eyed Provo's acquisition of a local cable company and rushed to the state legislature to outlaw the very idea that the people should "compete" in the telecommunications business with their venerable monopoly. A last minute compromise to its law whose original intent was to simply outlaw all public competition was to allow cities to build networks but then to forbid them to run them as utilities--offering services themselves like water or electricity. Resourcefully, the communities made lemons into lemonade: the cities and their community activists found virtue in the "open" network idea that had been their last defense against a total ban and touted the advantages of increased competition and the lower prices and increased efficiency that would (surely) follow.

But Mayor Billings was right: it is the weaker model. It is never a good idea to allow your competitors to dictate your business plan. As history has repeatedly demonstrated there is a reason why all cable companies and all telephone companies have fought for vertically integrated networks and reserved its basic functions for themselves: it reliably pays the bill. The public wholesale and private retail model forces those that take the risk and do the work of building an expensive, sophisticated network to rely on outside, private providers who have done neither to generate enough profit to pay for the network and to provide a nice profit for themselves. Having an extra profit-making business in the flow of cash necessarily, all things being equal, means charging higher prices. And, in Provo's case at least, it also meant that the reputation of the network depended upon the quality of service that the for-profit face of the network offered the community. The private firms, while surely good folks, simply did not have the experience or the resources necessary. The Provo network initially had trouble securing providers and only one out-of-town provider was found (HomeNet). It struggled, did (generously) a mediocre job, was unable to get the sorts of adoption rates that public telecom utilities in places like Burlington, VT or Bristol, VA have quickly and easily achieved. When it went bankrupt Provo was forced to quickly bring on board two new providers and simply gave each half of HomeNet's meager pie. Subscribers had no voice in who they went to and were frozen in place for a period of months while the new operators took over restructured services. Not surprisingly Provo's citizens who experienced this chaos started dropping off even as new users came on board. This "churn" lead to slow growth and limited the pool of customers available to the replacement providers further limiting their ability to improve their offerings.

As we succinctly say down here: "Not good."

Or at least not good for the community. It suited Qwest fine, I am sure. Their state law worked. Just more slowly than they might have originally hoped.

A community-owned network needs to be a utility. It needs to be run on the same stable, sensible, local basis that other community networks are run. When the community can see that it is their network, can see the lower prices and superior service that come with a utility orientation it quickly gains subscribers — as it has in Bristol and Burlington. iProvo's troubles are a case study in the worst that can happen when a community-owned network loses that connection to its community.

I am increasingly glad that Lafayette has not gotten caught in this trap. As bad as the (un)Fair Competition Act is at least it did not force us to put an artificial barrier between our network and our citizens.

For more on this story see the short articles in the Salt Lake paper, the Provo paper and the post at the Free Utopia blog. No doubt there will be fuller stories when the morning paper comes out. (Free Utopia also posted an excellent set of suggestions to iProvo recently...that is really worth the read. It's too bad Provo didn't act on them.)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Smart Power, Networking, and Lafayette

(Note: Lafayette is about to get its introduction to this topic when Terry Huval addresses the League of Women Voters tonight. Invited to talk about Lafayette's new network he says he wants to bring up ways to use that network to cut the community's electrical costs. Lafayette may be the place where the electrical and the communications networks first merge in ways that preview what will happen more widely as soon as the current, ongoing energy crisis echoes through to electrical market place.)

Want to get a sense of what that is about? Try the AP article that appeared in Sunday's Advocate that explored smart electricity.
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Lafayette's POV
It's all about peak demand. Or: It's all about saving money.

Your choice of focus depends on your Point Of View.

Network Engineers will focus on the first, peak demand. It's a constant source of irritation for neat, tidy, frugal, engineer types that they have to add hugely to the expense of their networks in order to accommodate a few days in August when all the AC units are chugging on high. The customer POV, on the other hand, focuses on saving money. With the rising price of energy this motivation looms larger every day.

And of course there are those pesky, forethoughtful sorts who claim that we can't keep on doing what we're doing to the environment and simply must burn less fossil fuels if we don't all want to sink into the Gulf faster than is necessary.

All these groups can hope that Lafayette's new community network will help lower peak demand and cut costs and usage.

Lafayette is positioned on the cutting edge of all these issues: unlike most communities we own and produce our own electricity. We are about to own our own advanced telecommunications system with fast fiber and, eventually, ubiquitous wireless. And, in a time of climate change and rising waters, we sit in a spot where the alluvial plain sinks into the Gulf. Had Rita come ashore southwest of Lafayette instead of south of Lake Charles we'd have seen storm surge in the southern half of the parish and up the Vermilion River to I-10.

Doing Less with More
We can hope to do less (use less energy, spend less money) with what we have more of (networking and community).

The AP article talks about what is being done in some locales--and neglects to mention how important a capable, pervasive network is in making its dreams possible. Without two way communication between the customer and the electrical grid none of the potentials can be realized.

What the engineers at power companies want is to eliminate the spikes in demand that drive the costs of providing service up dramatically and make the network dangerously unstable. Here in Lafayette you might be surprised to know that our Fiber To The Home network is not the most expensive public works project undertaken in last few years. In fact building a set of gas-fired power plants here in the parish to handle merely the occasional peak demand cost nearly twice as much! (Nobody much noticed that project and it sailed through the council with out much public notice or media comment.)

Saving money on that cost is something that, if you have smart communications, you can share with your customers who are willing to help cut such peak demand. Power companies have long sought a way to give customers breaks who cut their usage during such periods--but the technology simply has not been available in a world where the finest grained reading of meters is done monthly. With smart, continuously read meters and a tight connection to a household network a dramatic set of possibilities for helping the power company, the consumer, and the environment emerge.

You can simply charge more for electricity during peak usage periods. Smart consumers and especially businesses can shift their usage cycles to respond to that price savings. Big electricity users like chemical plants have had such capacity for years--and have responded well, running power-intensive processes in the middle of the night helping providers save on new capacity. Other, more sophisticated programs give the consumer a substantial break for allowing the power company the ability to reach in to the home and raise the AC temperature 2 degrees, or to turn off the hot water heater or refrigerator for an hour during crisis moments. Just being able to monitor how much running various electricity-hungry processes costs can have a surprisingly good effect on holding down wasted use.

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So, if you're interested in this sort of value-added convergence of LUS Fiber and LUS Power consider coming to this evening's LWV meeting. --The focus will be the network but expect Huval to introduce this new potential to the community.

Monday, May 5, 2008, 6:30 @ City Hall, Conference Room
(6:00 for Social/Refreshments)
Lafayette Consolidated Government Building—705 W. University Avenue

Friday, May 02, 2008

"Lafayette lauded for innovation"

Trying to catch up from a conference trip (on which more as soon as I do catch up) I've been alerted by my spouse to an article in yesterday's Advocate that Lafayette's partisans might enjoy reviewing.

Lafayette was named one of the "Top 10 Great Innovation Markets in the South" by Southern Business and Development magazine.

The fun part as relayed by the Advocate:

“From its world-renowned cuisine and festivals to its state-of-the-art virtual reality center and high-tech infrastructure, Lafayette is founded on creativity and innovation,” the magazine writes.

The magazine points to Lafayette’s multicultural and multi-industrial makeup, along with innovative projects such as the Lafayette Utilities System fiber project, the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise as key contributors to the ranking.

Lafayette is the only Louisiana city named in the listings, which also include Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Orlando, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Roanoke, Va.; Hampton Roads, Va.; and Savannah, Ga.

The story's not online as of this recounting but the magazine has had similar kind things to say about Lafayette's business potential in past years. For your self-indulgent reading pleasure I offer up links to "The 10 Coolest Mid-Markets in the South" circa 2004 and "Ten Places in the South for the Creative Class" from 2007. (The magazine clearly likes decimal systems...)