Monday, June 30, 2008

BellSouth Lobbyist Resigns

BellSouth-AT&T Lobbyist/Jindal Legislative Ramrod Tommy Williams is going back to being a lobbyist again the T-P reports. No big surprise, that.

We've been watching Tommy's career ever since he was a BellSouth Louisiana Vice President during the fiber fight here in Lafayette. Tommy's son, John, was the BellSouth rep in Lafayette at that time. John was the one, you may recall, who first denied that BellSouth had anything to do with the infamous Lafayette push poll but later had to admit that BS had, in fact, come up with the idea, while complaining that, his father's standing not withstanding, he didn't know anything about a poll run in his area. Not an illustrious clan. Tommy left his job lobbying for BS and became an indpendent contractor for them back when AT&T bought up BellSouth and continued lobbying for the company right on through the transition—he still officially represents the phone company on the Broadband Advisory Council.

Williams senior is giving up his job as Bobby Jindal's Legislative Director. In that position he was responsible for making sure the administration's legislative agenda made it through the House and Senate.

The Times-Picayune article's take on the resignation emphasizes the tattered relationship between the legislature and Jindal in the wake of the last session--and it hit the net before Jindal flopped back to flip and vetoed the legislative pay raise after all this morining. Tattered is probably now a mild description of the legislature's pique at loosing that particular perk.

My perhaps cynical guess is, however, that the AT&T lobbyist had already managed to pass what his longer-term employers thought was most important, even if it wasn't particularly part of the Governor's agenda: passing the state-wide video franchise law.

Truth be told, putting a lobbyist in charge of the lobbying for an ethics package never made all that much sense. The judgment that the administration's legislative ethics package actually damages the cause of ethic's reform in the "gret state of Louisiana" has been coalescing since the resignation of 9 of the 11 members of the ethics board.

Williams didn't actually get much done for Jindal that Jindal he could be proud of. On the other hand, AT&T will surely be happy to have him back home. Practically speaking, spending much more time representing a governor's ethics program whose main thrust has turned out to be making sure that legislators bear the brunt of the public disclosure laws that Jindal thinks will heal our state's image (while opposing transparency for his own administration) will not endear him to the legislators that are his audience in his real job. As a lobbyist he needs to get back on the job of glad-handing and getting on the good side of his real constituency.

His resignation, breathless reporting aside, is no big surprise.

All in all though, his abscence has to be good for Lafayette's fiber project. As we've noted before, his presence in the governor's inner councils can't be a good thing for a project that he has vehemetly opposed.

(Tip o' the hat to Mike who sent in the pointer to this one.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cute High Tech Alligator

If you don't have much time for this tech story here's the essential, defining quote:
The alligators love cheese curls and ice cream...
ONLY in Lafayette.

Now, there rest of the story:

The reflecting pond outside the big glowing "egg" at the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE) has an alligator. Only in Lafayette would you find the strange concatation of a premier 3-D visualization and computing facility and a "cher bebe" alligator in it's reflecting pond. Or at least only in Lafayette would the denizens of such a facility find the gator a "favorite attraction" sit around talking about. Who needs a water cooler?

Finally, only in Lafayette would the solution to the "problem" of an alligator in the pond at a public facility be solved by moving the toothy creature to (listen closely now) the public pond in the middle of the university beside the student union. Folks aren't phased by such a decision and nobody finds it remarkable enough to notice. After all they've already got gators at ULL:

Mike Flaherty, assistant director for union building services, said
that while he hadn't seen the gator as of Tuesday afternoon, he expects
it will adapt quickly to its new home in Cypress Lake.

"They do
quite well," said Flaherty, who said about four or five gators live in
the lake. "No matter how many 'please do not feed' signs we post,
people think they are cute and feed them. The alligators love cheese
curls and ice cream, but they stay plenty healthy on their own, too. It
should adapt instantly and with no trouble at all."

Like I said, Only in Lafayette.

Monday, June 23, 2008

LCG Fires up Integrated Voice/Data Service

The Independent blog carries a nice post on Lafayette Consolidated Government's (LCG) bringing their phone system in-house.

The basic story is that LCG will be getting more for less. (An advantage that we anticipate being extended to the community come next January's LUSFiber launch.)

Keith Thibodeaux, the LCG CIO proudly announced the savings and service upgrade; as the Ind reports:
Lafayette Consolidated Government has gone live with its own internal phone network, expected to generate approximately $1 million in savings over the next decade...

The IPT system, which has been a goal of City-Parish President Joey Durel's administration over the past three years, also offers LCG employees added features such as call-forwarding and integrated messaging.
Noted in passing was the reduction in monies paid out to AT&T:
The system greatly reduces LCG’s dependence on AT&T’s services. “AT&T used to do everything,” says LCG Chief Information Officer Keith Thibodeaux. “Now, the entire system is internal to us.” While the system will still be relying on some AT&T network lines, Thibodeaux anticipates LCG’s phone bill with AT&T to go down from $60,000 a month to approximately $20,000 a month..."
LCG has offices outside the city, of course, and can't drop AT&T altogether. Yet. An interesting sidelight is AT&T's relation to the state of Louisiana. Louisiana owns an extensive telecom network and web of dark fiber spread out all over the state. And Louisiana was, I understand, BellSouth's largest single customer, laying down a huge sum of cash for the privlege of giving AT&T an exclusive contract for all state services. The administration, if it is really serious about running the government responsibly, should be looking into following Lafaytette's lead.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Debating Municipal Broadband

Geoff Daily has interviewed Christopher Michell on municipal broadband and the discussion is well worth the less than 20 minutes it takes to view it.



It's an interesting discussion because, well, it actually feels like a discussion. Most of the stuff we hear on Municipal Broadband relies on a set of myths about muni-broadband that mostly go unquestioned. The format here allows Daily to bring up the traditional objections to municipal broadband and Mitchell quietly and directly show that the assumptions are untrue. To some extent Daily, as a broadband partisan, is playing the straight man to Mitchell--but Daily's comments on his blog demonstrate that he is serious about some of his concerns and hasn't quite absorbed the implications of his own remarks that "whoever owns the pipes controls the pipes."

Do give it a look. Sensible talk. The conversation does a rationalist's heart good.

It's Not News

For anyone in Lafayette it's not news: Cable companies faced with real fiber networks like to pretend that they too have fiber-optic networks. The Me Too, Mee Tooo!! claim has long become tiresome here.

Now the rest of the nation is getting the same sort of misleading PR that Cox has been promoting here since they lost the fiber fight. (Before that moment they told us we didn't need and didn't want a fiber to the home network.) From an AP story datelined New York:

The picture on his TV would freeze now and then, and he had heard good things about FiOS. Then the 21-year-old student saw a TV commercial from Comcast that made fun of FiOS and claimed the cable TV company has a larger fiber-optic network...

But after asking around online, he found that nothing's changed about Comcast's service: It still uses coaxial cable to connect homes. It does use fiber-optic cable further away in the network, as it has for many years.

"From what everyone said ... this is kind of misleading," Axel said.

Axel had fallen for one of a series of commercials run by every major cable company that competes with Verizon's FiOS. Besides Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Charter have all run ads belittling FiOS.

Verizon's FIOS fiber-optic network which is very different from, and much more powerful than, the cable companies' tradtional hybrid fiber-coax networks, inspired the spate of misleading advertising from beleaguered cable companies that have to compete with Verizon's more modern network.

Summed up:
"Cable is deploying the rhetoric instead of the technology," said Verizon spokeswoman Bobbi Henson.
That's pretty much the whole of it.

The article outlines several ads that range from misleading and confusing to outright deceit (the cable companies have had to pull several when challenged). There's one from Cox that says that Cox had fiber-optics before the phone company...which is goes beyond tricky wording into flat-out lying. The phone companies were the first to commercialize the telecom technology.

Take a look at the story. It's a rare instance when a major news outlet does anything like aggressive reporting on misleading advertising...after all, the cynic in me notes, that's an important revenue source.

Expect more of the same FUD in Lafayette as the ad war here heats up in anticipation of LUSFiber's January launch.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Verizon Raises Speeds on Fiber Offerings

One of the more perplexing facts of US internet has been the slow speeds provided by the incumbent providers. Most surprising has been Verizon's fiber-based FIOS network which launched with speeds barely faster than its competition. The company only raised speeds in locales when the cable companies had a plant strong enough to compete.

That ends today with Verizon offering a 50 meg down/20 meg up package across its footprint and declaring: "We've already had successful trials of the 100-megabit home, which will be a reality faster than anybody thinks."

Cable operator Comcast, which competes with Verizon over large swaths of its northeastern territory, "is upgrading its network to offer download speeds of 50 mbps in 20 percent of its service area by the end of the year. Other cable companies are following suit." (I think we can guess that that 20% will be located in the areas it shares with Verizon.)

Maybe the bandwidth logjam is being broken by Verizon's fiber--at least in Verizon's service area.

I have no doubt that Cox will be able to respond to Lafayette's fiber in a similar fashion. Cox is, recent history demonstrates, "the Verizon of cable"—the corporation has been willing to spend on substantial network capacity upgrades that the other cable companies have not (though Cox didn't quite have the vision to rebuild New Orleans' ruined cable plan with fiber). Cox will probably have the ability to raise its speeds at least substantially in Lafayette. The question, though, is whether it will be willing to make Lafayette a special case and offer pricing decreases and speed increases in Lafayette that it does not offer in Baton Rouge and across the rest of its chiefly Southern footprint.

It will be interesting to watch.

Update 11:30 PM 6/18/08. According to Broadband Reports the full story is even more interesting: Not only is FIOS going to offer 50 megs across the board they are also going to offer a SYMMETRICAL 20/20 meg tier. And they are bumping up the speed on all their tiers for free. They are using their fiber network to assert their superiority in ways that the cable folks just can't match. Interesting times indeed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Monopoly, Community Wisdom, and LUS

History counts for a lot in trying to understand a community and Terry Huval's commentary in today's Advertiser lashing the railroad monopoly is a good starting point for understanding how history works.

There's been a lot of comment on "conservative" Lafayette could have voted, overwhelmingly, to start its own community-owned telecommunications utility. As a community which relishes confounding the expectations of outsiders we are happy to encourage the perception that we can't be easily predicted.

In truth, what this community calls conservativism has very little to do with what is called conservative elsewhere in this country. (I suggest you spend a few minutes reflecting on Mardi Gras, Festival International, and the multitude of drive-through daiquiri shacks before you too quickly reject that statement.)

We often make reference to our latin heritage in explaining the cultural differences between South Louisiana and the rest of the South or the rest of the country—and that is accurate, as far as it goes. Just "being different" goes a long way toward explaining how a community that takes bold stands understands itself. But more particular histories count as well.

The fact that Lafayette has an LUS — a broad community-owned set of utility systems— makes it different from the adjoining towns. Our experience is different; we have a different history because we've decided to do things, like build a utility, for ourselves. We pay attention to different parts of the world precisely because we can make a difference in how our utilities are delivered--something most communities do not bother to interest themselves in because the cannot change it much.

So nobody here is surprised when the head of our local utility reaches out to repeatedly lash the railroad monopoly.

We don't realize that ideas like these are vanishingly rare in the public conversation of most of our United States:
A recent guest column inaccurately addressed attempts by the Lafayette Utilities System to curb monopolistic railroad pricing....The real issue is that Lafayette is a captive rail customer that has no reasonable choice but to use railroads for coal deliveries to its power plant and has become subject to uncontrolled monopolistic rail pricing power...Rail companies take advantage of customers like Lafayette because they are allowed to do so.
Monopoly corporate power—and the federal government's collusion in maintaining it—is not a topic for discussion in most communities because most communities don't have utilities which are victims of monopoly pricing which are consequentially forced to pass on overcharges to the community they serve:
Due to these rail price abuses, LUS customers and businesses are paying a $15 million premium in electricity costs annually - with a cost share of $1.5 million being paid by our local education system.
And LUS can do something about it on our behalf. Terry Huval has repeatedly testified in Congress regarding the railroad monopoly's exploitive pricing. There, no doubt, having the head of a small southern utility company stand shoulder to shoulder with giant mining corporations, the chemical companies and the oil industry, lends credibility to the claims that last mile monopolies in the rail industry are bad for everyone.
A number of public and private industries, including our state's petrochemical industries, have banded nationally to form Consumers United for Rail Equity. Together, we support the passage of laws placing rail companies under the same anti-trust restrictions imposed on other businesses.
Monopolies are, in short, bad for business and bad for communities. Lafayette's ownership of its own utility is a continuing source of rational, non-ideological conversation about such issues. LUS is a constant reminder that public ownership, good service, being pro-business, and being pro-community stance are not inconsistent.

Conversations like these are opportunities to take another look at the odd modern rhetoric that demeans taxation, recoils at public ownership, dismisses reasonable regulation of natural monopolies, and glorifies private greed. It isn't true, for example, that all public services are a result of taxation. LUS is supported by fees-for-service. And those freely paid fees actually displace some of the taxes that other communities must impose:
Contrary to the misstatements made by the guest columnist, LUS is not supported by tax revenues of any kind. Instead, LUS makes substantial payments to help support the cost of local government functions, such as fire and police.
By contrast the federal and state governments often directly subsidize or give other special breaks to huge industries like the railroads--these cost governments income which must be made up by taxes. In most of the country mentioning such favoritism is considered an impolite violation of the illusion that corporations don't seek or accept . Not in Lafayette:
On the other hand, the major railroad systems have had a long and continuing history of receiving governmental assistance directly from tax dollars paid by citizens and businesses....

Rail companies falsely suggest these proposals will "re-regulate" or place financial burden on the railroads. Reading the elements of the proposed legislation and reviewing the financial growth in recent years of the railroad companies quickly dispel those myths.

In short, we have an ongoing, concrete conversation in Lafayette about practical local decisions that are mostly abstract and ideological in other parts of the country. It makes a different sort of sense in Lafayette to rail against railroad monopolies (and telecommunications monopolies) because we don't have to just lie down and accept it. We have utilities that can fight back in our defense. That makes a lot of difference in the public discourse here. And helps explain why we were able to understand how empty the ideology offered by the incumbents during the fiber fight was: we'd heard it all before.

As Huval says in his closing statement:
LUS will continue to represent its customer-owners by standing up to fight entities and practices that hurt our community.
Having someone to fight for us is a huge advantage. Having someone to keep or local conversation grounded in reality is an even greater advantage in the long run. Thanks, LUS.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Nutria Rats...and Fiber

Ok, so it's NOT Nutria...but Beaver is the as good as it gets in Arkansas.
A beaver took a nibble out of a fiber optic cable northeast of Hope and knocked out telephones and other services to part of southwest Arkansas. Rain washed away soil that had covered the line about 10 miles from Hope and the beaver bit through it early Wednesday.
Apparently having aerial fiber doesn't necessarily save your precious fiber from the attack of the monstrous animals. According to the mas knowledgeable Dirk van der Woude, crows attack fiber in Tokyo and people are worried about rats getting into fiber in ductwork.

Beware the critters!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Making the Most of LUSFiber's Advantages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Capitalizing on Advantages: Broadband and Symmetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting There: Supporting Higher Level Usage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Louisiana Lege Shoots Itself in the Foot. Again

This morning's Advocate carried the news that the Legislature has again decided that giving a AT&T whatever it asks for is more important than what local communities want and what would be be good for the people of the state. The House passed Senate Bill 807 94-9. With a bit of reconciliation between the two versions it will soon be put on Jindal's desk and he will not have the scruples that lead Governor Blanco to veto "franchise reform" when faced with a similarly irresponsible bill a couple of years ago. AT&T will soon be free cherry-pick the few wealthy suburbs it would like to serve on the North Shore of Lake Ponchartrain and in places like River Ranch in Lafayette and continue to ignore serving anyone outside of the big cities (the law doesn't apply to big cities). It won't have to even talk to those little local people in towns and rural who actually own the property AT&T must use to run its lines and cart home its profits to San Antonio. Big brother in Baton Rouge has fixed things for them so that AT&T (and now all the cable companies) can just ignore local communities.

It's pitiful the way that rural legislators ask all the questions that would indicate they understand what a bill of goods Bill Oliver and the lobbyists AT&T pay are peddling and it's sad that our representatives don't seem to be inclined to learn from the mistakes of others.

Here, as in North Carolina, the big winner is going to be the cable companies. They'll get out of real commitments they made to real people in real local governments to serve all the people of a community and to return some services to those people in return for using local property.

It's not that the phone companies don't get something, even if the big winner is Cox and Time-Warner. The telephone companies get to ignore local communities about all sorts of things now. Maybe you don't like the idea of a refrigerator-sized box plopped down in your front yard in the right of way that you must maintain by law. Used to be the city could regulate that. No more. A "video franchise reform" law passed in Connecticut demonstrates how that worked. That state passed a law moving all control from the local governments that own the rights of way to the state, just like ours is preparing to do. Now, several years later AT&T is putting huge boxes in people's front yards, the communities are outraged, and the state is scrambling to figure out what to do about it. The Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) is trying to force AT&T to deal with local owners and desperately wants to bring in local communities to help negotiate locally sensitive issues that nobody at the state level could possibly know about. (Be careful what you take on legislators...) DPUC has issued a new ruling that outlines methods for securing the cooperation of local owners and municipalities. AT&T is having none of it. And a law the legislature passed, they pointedly note, means they don't have to listen to those local guys:
In its motion, AT&T also asked the DPUC to clarify its new requirement that AT&T obtain consent of “all municipalities where equipment is placed.”
AT&T argues that existing law gives the DPUC exclusive rights over the placement of utility equipment in public rights of way, and that municipal approval is not required.
“Municipalities don’t have a place in the approval process,” Carlow said. “That’s not to say we don’t want to work with them, but Connecticut law doesn’t require their approval of our facilities.”
Carlow said gaining approval of municipalities would be difficult and time consuming and disrupt the way many utility providers in the state do business.
[emphasis mine]
What they cleverly don't mention is that they wrote that law....

So the cable companies get to dump their franchise agreements and AT&T gets to do what it pleases in your front yard.

All courtesy of your representatives down in the legislature...

The Cox, Time-Warner and AT&T have got to be laughing up their sleeves at the rubes.

They're right to laugh. It's damn embarrassing to watch.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

ToDo: Facial Fun

Here's something that's just plain fun...and may occasionally prove useful: "Ultimate Flash Face" and online "sketching" program that lets anyone draw a pretty darn good face.

I can personally testify that 8 year old boys love it...and that everyone who I've introduced to it has gotten sucked in.

The easiest thing to do is to try and draw each other's faces. It's a pretty shocking how accurate you can be if you're just patient. The next trick is to try on new hair or glasses. Arguing about whether or not your nose is that large or lips that thin can take up a fruitful half hour.

Advanced "students" will want to try their hand at caricature. Exaggerate Elton John's glasses. (Don't think it can be done? It can. The dimensioning tool is pretty nifty.) Play. A sick child or a grumpy friend can be nicely distracted.

The teacher in me feels compelled to point out that you can learn a lot about how crime sketches are composed (that process is clearly the basis) and about how faces are shaped. Have you ever really looked at other people's eyes? They're really different. Like all good instruction, you'll come away looking a the subject, in this case faces, differently.

What's wonderful, of course, is that this little tool is freely available on the web. Someone--actually a generous German by the name of Franks Fahrschule—has offered this up to the world. People all over the world get a bit of pleasure, a moment of fun, and the chance to learn something.

It's an amazing world we live in, really.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Telecommuting to Korea...or Paris

The Casper Star-Tribune carries an interesting story about a small town in Wyoming, Powell, that is anticipating gaining a 150 jobs. The jobs: teaching Koreans to speak English.

The folks in Powell are understandably pleased. That's a LOT of jobs in a town of 5,373. But your question has to be: Why Powell, Wyoming, of all places. Not, because there is a secret hotbed of Korean expats in small-town Wyoming. It's happening because Powell is having its own fiber-optic network built. As a result, the people of Powell will have enough bandwidth in their homew to hold video-based conversations wih "students" in Korea. (That is a mighty long telecommute!)

But Powell has no other advantages beyond fiber. No one there speaks Korean, I'm willing to bet. Being able to speak the native language of the student would be a huge advantage. Which brings us to Lafayette: We're soon going to have plenty of bandwidth available to our homes "real soon now." And a fair proportion of the population speaks a French patois — and not a few have acquired facility with "Parisian French."

How'd you like to make a few bucks chatting with folks in Paris? Lafayette and Paris is surely less unlikely than Powell, Wyoming and Korea....

5:56 update: You don't have to rely on being hired by some company. You can freelance your language skills at EduFire.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Digital Arts in Louisiana & Lafayette

Here's something that Lafayette ought to get one of: "Tipitinana's Music Coop." Or at least some of this funding for our native equivalent. An article in last week's Advocate describes the concept and its utility:
[Tipitinana's Coops] in New Orleans, Shreveport, Alexandria and now Baton Rouge provide workspace and office and production equipment for musicians and digital artists to help them make more money and fuel the state’s culture industry.

“It’s a job-skills training and economic development project,” said Todd Souvignier, technical director of the Tipitina’s Foundation who has spearheaded the opening of the co-ops.

For $10 a month, the co-ops give members access to technology — from conventional office machines to software such as Pro Tools and Final Cut Pro, “the kind of stuff real musicians need to get their hands on to do some real work.”

Souvignier said 1,200 musicians and digital artists use the various co-ops 12,000 times a year to check e-mail and make phone calls or faxes to book tours or use computers to make press kits, Web sites or MySpace pages.

As I understand it this is pretty close to the concept behind ACFM (Acadiana Center for Film and Media) But where Tipitinia's starts with music and strays to video ACFM starts with film and strays to "media," broadly understood.

Tipitina's appears to be supported by grant funding with a small $10 dollar a month coop membership fee that could do no more than supplement the exterior funding. ACFM appears to impose no fee on users and has at least channels 15 and 16 on cable as farm league placement for the work of folk who do their production using the facilities.

Both concepts are good ideas in as far as they get the tools of production into peoples' hands. There's a lot of belief that the near future holds a lot of potential for media production moving away from the big centers and towards very local, artist and fan-produced works. If that vision is to be realized we'll need lots of places like Tipitinas' Coop and ACFM. It's not enough for a thing to be possible--people have to be able to afford the tools and, even more crucially, find the community of folks that will help the learn how to use the tools well.

For my money, Lafayette could easily support both a Music-facing digital studio and a Video-facing one. You have to think the synergy would be good for both. And, you know, real soon now we'll be getting an in-city network that will open up a 100 megs between local nodes on the LUS network. A Tipitianas or an ACFM could easily put together a "channel" on that kind of bandwidth. Either tap into the multicast stream or download from the growing archival library. It'd be an instant way to make good cultural use of the bandwidth we'll have.