Saturday, July 25, 2009

WBS: Lafayette Becoming Most Wired Community in America

What's Being Said Dept.

Geoff Daily over at his blog AppRising has posted "Lafayette Becoming Most Wired Community in America." He touts LUS' speed, price, and our access to a 100 mpbs intranet (and bemoans the price he has to pay for his 10/2 connection — more than I pay for a 50/50). But that's pretty much old hat, the heart of his story lies in a remark that was made at his CampFiber event last week. A Cox rep attending* said that AT&T was planning on bringing U-verse to Lafayette. Add that to Cox launching their very first 5o mbps docsis 3 service here (at a unique discount I might add) and you end up with Geoff's headline. If AT&T does launch U-verse we could at least try to lay claim to the title. Pretty impressive results for our little city which, however much we may love it, has to be seen as a backwater worth ignoring by the big guys...except for the fact that we own our own local fiber utility. Something they do not want to succeed and become examples to other towns that don't care for backwater status. I'm not sure that giving Lafayette the best of everything is the way to make that point but I'm happy enough with the result.

U-verse, as you may be aware, is AT&T's attempt at a "next-generation" network. It's a fiber to the node (FTTN) sort of architecture which involve pushing fiber optics deeper into the network so as to enable a cable-style video experience and higher speeds over the old phone twisted pair copper. The key metric for Lafayette users is that its internet tops out at a laughable 18/1.5 mbps; nowhere near the Lafayette standard of 50 mbps. Of course that's a real step up for AT&T whose physical plant is aging badly but it doesn't hold a candle to the old BellSouth's VDSL-2 plans which had promised 80 mbps down before they sold out to AT&T.

Supposing that AT&T is coming to Lafayette the most interesting question by far is just where. A big chess game with hidden pieces is emerging in Lafayette. LUS is, so far, is only in the city proper. Cox is parish-wide in its available footprint; presumably at least partly to stymie any LUS expansion. AT&T, unlike Cox, is actually available everywhere in the parish. Will it offer the service to the whole parish? Just to Lafayette? Just to Lafayette and the more densely settled towns and newer subdivisions? It makes a lot of difference in the game being played out here for mind share, market share, and profits. If the point is to try and reduce LUS' marketshare in video by providing a third wireline provider then they'll go only to the city and accept that the Lafayette unit will never have the marketshare in a three-cornered market to be remotely as profitable as spending the same money elsewhere. If they want to find a local footing in our regional market where their network is literally 3rd-rate they'll provide their premiere service in the rural areas where Cox and LUS will experience the most difficulty in providing their products. What folks in the region need to realize is that LUS is setting the pace here—and they are benefiting. Normally three providers do not provide real competition on price. Modern corporations will try just about any trick to avoid lowering their profit margins and what is happening across the country where Verizon and AT&T are competing with the cablecos is differentiation of product (speed, bursts, integration, etc.) and an exploitation of the areas in which they do not compete on a block by block basis. (Verizon, in fact, recently raised its FIOS rates.) Cox has lowered its top rate in Lafayette because, and only because, they are faced with a differently motivated competitor who does not want to maximize the profits it extracts from the community. LUS' 20% cheaper policy forces a price cut by giving one. Other parts of the country, like northern Virgina where Cox launched its second 50 mbps service, are not getting cheaper prices.

Frankly, I don't see the business case for AT&T in Lafayette or the parish....so I'm still not convinced that U-verse is coming. I have, from multiple people, heard that an upgrade in the local network has been underway but the Cox guy is the first that I've hear claim U-verse was in the offing anytime soon. He said that it was in fact overdue and that the original schedule had said that it should have already been launched. I've no doubt that network upgrades are underway and have been for some time. But whether they are being done to simply shore up the current network and make Lafayette's plethora of iPhones work a little better or as prep for an immenient U-verse launch hasn't been made clear to my jaundiced eye. I'd love to be told differently. What eagle-eyed readers want to do is look for the tell-tale DSLAM installations. They've excited a lot of trouble with local communities in some places where they are considered huge eyesores. If you see a batch of these big new boxes somewhere let me know.

So...Lafayette may be in line for the nation's most wired; at least in the sense of having multiple, cheap, top-of-their class options available for less.


*Yup, the event was well attended by Cox and AT&T reps, who were mostly extremely reluctant to admit the fact. Fiberina pushed 'em on it. Good for her. :-)

PS...AT&T's big advantage is wireless. If they show up here with a better wireline side sometime soon then expect them to find ways to bundle wireless to give them some sort of lever with local customers. But the wireless side isn't a clear long-term win either. Both LUS and Cox are on record as intending to supply a wireless network. Wireless is a big deal in this three-sided chess game. Expect more on that when I get a little time to write it up.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

WBS: "The Future of the Internet is in Lafayette, Louisiana"

What's Being Said Dept.

A reporter for Governing Magazine has blogged a nice piece on Lafayette's Fiber network. An excerpt:
What if you could hold a video conference from your home? What if your doctor could send your MRI electronically to another of your doctors who needs it? What if you could upload a video of your child's soccer game and send it to grandma in seconds?

...we may all be looking to Lafayette for the future of the Internet.
The post is a teaser for an August story that I'm now looking forward to. It briefly points to the local struggle, to critics of the idea of a city showing such gall, and promises the final story will set out more detail. It's nice to see the positive publicity—and in a place that may well influence other communities to follow our lead.

One caveat: the author talks about the intranet as having "bursted" speeds of 100 mbps. That's a misconception; the up to 100 mbps intranet is a real speed, not a short, temporary burst. I get 95-96 mbps on the intranet in a constant stream. —And with low latency to boot. (Bursting is what Cox does when it gives you a few seconds of higher speed on a large download; it's a widespread cable company extra—and a gimmick allowing advertising I consider deceptive. Cox will not "burst" your video chat or gaming stream. Don't confuse those numbers with real speed.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

CampFiber Redux

Arrrghh! Just realized I'd failed to mention the latest CampFiber put together by Geoff Daily for this Thursday evening. The focus will be on development and ideas for Lafayette's fiber network. The first event was very interesting and I expect this one to be no less. Also planned for the same day and place: a 7 AM (!) to 5 PM "Jelly"—hang out and work with interesting people at the media room in the Travis Center (better AC than the outside tables at CCs.)

Oh yeah; there'll be more talk afterward as well at some choice watering hole. :-)

As before it'll be hosted by Abacaus and presented at the Travis Technology Center.

CampFiber Redux (Sign up)
Travis Technology Center, 110 Travis St (map)
Thursday 7/16, 5-7 PM

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Google Needs Lafayette

“Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world”

...Archimedes, 220 BC

Google needs Lafayette, and Amsterdam and Vasteras and....any of the fibered-up cities you might care to name. And, of course, Lafayette needs Google. That's been true for some time. But it recently became much clearer. The big news on the internets these last few days has been Google's newly announced Google Chrome OS. Most of the coverage has been predictable and mediocre but more thoughtfully analytical stories have finally begun to appear. (cf. the NYTimes) Even in the better articles the focus is inevitably on Google vs. Microsoft. While that might be understandable given that a battle between the two has become a journalistic stock-in-trade that is used to "explain" every move that either makes it really doesn't seem like the best analytic starting point for understanding what is going on. The fact that Google's OS isn't good for Microsoft is incidental to what Google—and a few other web players—are trying to do aid an ongoing process. Exactly what that process is requires a little explaining:

What's Going On Anyway? The backstory

The world is shifting yet again; this time onto the web from the computer. Not so long ago we moved much of our activity onto the computer —be they mainframes, PDAs, desktops, or laptops. The world shifted from only having physical objects that were unique or functionally identical copies of the unique object (think newspapers) to having perfect digital copies that paradoxically almost infinitely changeable, copyable, and decomposable (think email). The myriad internets focused on finding other computers and on transferring files between them. Mostly you worked on files locally in your own complete environment—even when you were actually a client "your" computer desktop had a separate copy of the document that you worked on. No more: while we struggle to come to grips with the social changes accompanying digitalization we find ourselves undergoing yet another shift off computers and onto the web. This shift widens the scope; it is easy to have a single unique copy that many people alter in addition to single, stable copies and many transforms of the original. That shift promises to make it possible to do our work with less duplication—of files, of storage, and of processing power and promises to pass the savings on to the final user.

Really, it's all about leverage
The world is shifting and Google, with one of the longest levers, is trying to increase its leverage by moving the fulcrum ever closer to the weight it wants to move. The whole point of levers is to move a huge weight with a small force and the closer your fulcrum is to the weight you want to shift the greater you mechanical advantage. [image] The huge weight that Google wants to move is the "dead weight" of the existing paradigm of single, local, users that periodically transfer files. The emerging model is one which shifts toward multiple, distributed users that remain connected to files that are, themselves located in multiple, distributed "places."

The new Google OS is all about building an OS that is optimized for that new environment. Right now we have an operating environment in which we are using a computer/local-user-centric OS to access the web. From the standpoint of web-centric use such OSs are bloated, slathered over with useless "features" and surprisingly anemic when it comes to operating quickly and securely within in the new "always-connected" world.

Note that moving us in this direction is what Google has been from the beginning: making it easy and cheap to move to a web-centric mode of interaction. Google's innovation in web search is all about using web links and web stats to make good guesses about what is sought. That made finding things much easier—and then they made if free...It displaced a hierachical organization (cf. Yahoo's (still extant!) example) arranged by respected experts that more closely resembled the library's Dewey Decimal System or Linneaus' taxonomy than anything that we'd now call search. You can perform pretty much the same analysis for Google Apps, Google Chrome, Android, and, now, the Google OS. Those are all fulcrum points that give Google (and Google's user) additional leverage as we shift the weight of the past. With Google OS that point is very near the center of gravity of the opposing paradigm.... The point here is not that Google does NOT have want to "beat" Microsoft (or Apple or Linux) at any of these tasks. It will be sufficient for the purpose if the new browser or operationg system forces a shift on the rest of the field. It will be quite alright with Google, I suspect, if MS beats them in the browser war as long as the winners all support HTML 5-Ajax-multiple threading and the like. Google will have won if its Apps—and similar web applications that rely solely on nonproprietary foundations—run beautifully on all browsers. It is investing in winning the war; not the battles.

If Microsoft, or Apple, or Linux responds to a Google OS with popular instant-on, secure, web-centric OSs and Google's dies a slow and embarrassing death the larger battle will have been won. And, for my money, that is the most likely outcome. Google to date has done an amazing job of creating the ecology in which it can thrive. Google Search made an impossible-to-navigate complexity suddenly usable—and that encouraged the myriad of small, eccentric, impossible-to-classify sources to find an audience and thrive. That in turn made search ever more dominant and gave Google search the page views it needed to thrive through even the lightest-weight advertising. The old hierarchical web was designed by and for graduate students. The new searchable web is usable by almost anyone who has a vague idea of how a topic is discussed.

Now, back to the topic

Google is leveraging the brutal fact of efficiency, its method is so much more cheaper per person than the oldr way that it can afford to give us significant services for free. We do waste enormous amounts of processor cycles and memory storage. The current system is inefficient by design: We buy memory to store our copy of a file stored (but not easily accessible) in a myriad of other places. How much space do you devote to browser cache alone? We purchase computers with several times the processor power necessary to do what used to be called supercomputing (and was illegal to export only a decade ago). Indeed, much current supercomputer design is consists basically of hooking up many personal computers or even game consoles together through a very fast network. We only very occasionally need the enormous power that is at our fingertips in the current personal computer. Web-based apps and systems do not need to waste anything like that amount of firepower. The difficult, processor-intensive tasks can be done on the web. The big storage can be on the web.

The web is, or can be conceived of as, a big, oddly configured computer. It's got great memory and a great, if wildly distributed, CPU. And it can be radically cheaper to use because of those facts.

But...

The Catch
But, the catch is that the web is great computer that has lousy and expensive I/O by comparison. It is only the beginning of a great computer. You have to be a touch geeky to recognize all three parts of a computer...memory, cpu, and I/O. We are sold computers and parts on the basis of memory and CPU speed; not I/O. I/O is code for input/output. It defines what sort of and, crucially, at what speed, information can flow in and out of the computer. On your personal computer I/O is seldom a bottleneck and its expense trivial. Not so for the web where the I/O is the network itself. On the web I/O IS the bottleneck, always.

Most of Google's initiatives can be conceived of as trying to find ways to minimize the effect of the webs' I/O bottleneck. When we hear talk about running faster or yielding a better user experience that is what is typically where the real bottleneck is. Google Apps, Google Gears, Google Chrome, the Google OS and more are all shaped by getting more out of a slow and expensive connection. They've bee surprisingly successful. (The idea that you can do good word processing over the web is really pretty shocking.) The Google OS is merely the latest and potentially most powerful way to evade that constraint and keep that huge weight moving.

But, really, it's all a sad hack.

Google needs Lafayette, and Amsterdam and Vasteras and....
What Google really needs is for everyone to have better, much better, bandwidth. And damn near no latency too, while you're at it. Google needs Lafayette, and Amsterdam, and Vasteras and every other local fibered-up high-bandwidth network in the world as testbeds to showcase what is really possible. It (and others) need a place with no I/O constraint, with a network that has the quality to take advantage of the infrastructure that it is building and surely wants to extend. It needs to build an on-network cache and server system to explore how it can use a decent I/O network to compliment its current products and develop new ones. It needs real communities to really test those new ideas. (Like Google Wave, which could be launched today in a place with real bandwidth.) Google is creating the conditions for the next big shift. It'd be a pity if like xxx it moved the world only to find that the effort had left in a place where others benefited first and most.

If Google's attempts to move the system can be understood as trying to shift the fulcrum to give them more leverage, promoting big-bandwidth communities might well be likened to making the lever longer...that is what most needs to be changed to really shift the old world to a new place. And Lafayette just might provide that crucial place to stand and use that longer lever.

Lafayette is a special case...
because Lafayette is a campus—it provides 100 mbps of speed, with amazingly low latency, between every household it connects. It's hard to overstate the value of that. What make most great networks less great is, ironically in this context, network effects. In most cases network effects are good [http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Network_effect.png] things...the value of your phone connection only increases when your neighbors also get one. But if your network is great and other networks that contain the people you want to contact are not then the added value of what you get from a great network is seriously diminished. So Google, with its large suite of apps that emphasize interaction finds it difficult to find a population that has a large enough population to use its products who all have the same fortunate circumstance. Even networks, like Verizon's here in the United States, which have some higher bandwidth tiers sell mostly lower bandwidth tiers. And they do NOT give their customers large bandwidth between themselves. These networks do not form a cohesive pool of high-bandwidth users.

Lafayette's will.

And, wait, there's more! What Vasteras teaches us is that a high-bandwidth community can flip from having most of its traffic connect to places outside of the local community to making most of its connections inside its own network. Various reporters say that 70% to 80% of Vasteras' traffic is internal. That really shouldn't surprise us; it has happened before. When the first phone networks were built they were conceived of as substitutes for the long-distance telegraph and few thought their use would extend beyond the business world. In short order, of course, it became apparent that the people we actually want to talk to are right down the street; those are the people we know. Phone traffic is, and has been for a long time, mostly local and the widespread adoption much less expensive long distance calling has not changed that.

There is no reason to think that a more robust network, one that is rich in ways to communicate will not follow a similar pattern. People want to communicate and trade information with each other, not someone far away.

Lafayette et al. needs Google
Google can make the local network truly valuable, it can significantly erase the negative weight of the old network by locating caches and services on the local network. Local networks like Lafayette's need that support to make their own business case. Such networks would be wise to court Google (and many others, Google here stands for the new web aborning) and to suport the company in its efforts. A partnership would be of enormous value to both sides. And would help in shifting that weight.

So.....
There's a major shift underway; it's hard not to feel everything straining toward that change. But a single constraint keeps the current edifice from falling: Bandwidth. Kick out that constraint and the new web comes into its own. Quickly. There are a few places where that bandwidth constraint is not in place. Those are the places where, with a little judicious midwifery, the new web could be born. And Lafayette shows how the initial densely interconnected communities that would kick-start the process could be developed.

It is a dream. But it is just barely beyond our grasp.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How Things Work: Louisiana Edition

Long-time LPF blog readers will recall Bill Oliver, the president of AT&T Louisiana with something less than fondness. Oliver was (and is) the man at the helm of AT&T Louisiana that directed the campaign that sought to prevent Lafayette from building its own competitive network. Oliver's signature style in Lafayette was back-room dealing and public bluster. The back-room dealing, at least, he brought to the national level as the Advocate article indicates:
"Another old Jefferson cohort was Bill Oliver, president of AT&T Louisiana in New Orleans. Oliver, who has known Jefferson for 16 years, would go on hunting trips with him, attended the Kentucky Derby with him and once served as king of Washington Mardi Gras, where four of Jefferson’s five daughters served as queens.

When Jefferson asked Oliver to look into iGate and its unique technology of transmitting audio, video and data over copper wire, Oliver agreed out of “a combination of friendship and respect.” The two companies never linked, but Oliver ran the idea by his product representatives for Jefferson, he told the jury.

“It mattered to me that he was a member of Congress and I was reporting back to him,” Oliver said."
The reporter doesn't say if the prosecutors asked who paid for those hunting trips and the Mardi Gras Ball expenses (both peculiarities are traditional forms of influence-peddling in the Gret State). Nor does it note how the trip to Derby was financed. The story's intro does note that Oliver would take trips on the company's Lear jet with Jefferson's wife. It would also be interesting to know if AT&T's "product representatives" actually sold any of the third party iGate tech—and, if so, who got the commissions...

Lagniappe:
Oliver, BellSouth, and the infamous push poll.
Oliver threatens to pull Cingular call center from Lafayettte (twice)
Oliver tries to deny having threatened Lafayette.
Oliver's offers to partner with LUS prove "insincere" as BellSouth launches lawsuit.
Oliver, New Orleans, and Lafayette

Saturday, July 04, 2009

WBS: But Lafayette prevailed

WBS; What's Being Said Dept.

Here's something I missed: Bunnie Reidel, the impresaria over at Telecommunications Consulting posted a nice piece of Lafayette Envy. She leads of with the sorts of news stories that get under the skin of US broadband advocates: the farmer in Japan who likes his 50 mbps broadband; the one about laying fiber in Kenya; the Australians putting together a real national broadband plan (one that involves actual broadband) and then to add to her general frustration:
... it was only last week that I listened to a presentation by Terry Huval of the Lafayette Utilities System on how Lafayette took things into their own hands and built their fiber ring because they knew if they waited for Cox or any other provider to do it right they might as well wait for pigs to fly...
After laying out how much she had to pay for her measly broadband she notes the lower price and higher (symmetrical!) speeds folks in Lafayette can get from LUS. Suffice it to say that for the amount she's paying for a 6 down/1 up connection she could get 30 mbps symmetrical from LUS. Leading her to grumble:
I hate those people in Lafayette.
But then to fairly, if grudgingly explain:
They do have a history of being cranky. Seems in 1896 they decided to build their own electric and water system because they knew there was no way the utility providers would provide water and power any time too soon to what was an outback Cajun village. And they had to fight in the 1940’s to keep the big utility companies from taking over their system. Imagine the hubris of those people in Lafayette! It was déjà vu when they proposed to build their own fiber, and the public overwhelmingly approved the initiative, in 2005. The incumbent cable company that starts with a C and ends with an X, did everything to stop them, including taking a case all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court. But Lafayette prevailed.
Bunnie, as you might have gathered, is a pretty cranky gal herself. She thinks this is exemplary behavior and recommends it to the FCC as an example of the sort of inspiring broadband "best practices" story that would encourage others to roll out broadband in difficult places.
And I’d like to recommend the first place they start is by putting in a call to Terry Huval in Lafayette. He plays a mean fiddle by the way.
I'm liking the idea that people see us as determined and an example in this way....it's what I'd call a good reputation.

But then, with Bunnie, I'm pretty much the cranky sort.

Treasure Hunt gets digital update in WiFi Venice

Now here is a nifty idea for the first July 16th celebration in Lafayette after the fiber is in and the wifi network built: A city-wide Digital Treasure Hunt with a great back story that gets people to really explore the city.

That's inspired by an article that describes a hunt played in Venice (Italy, you goober, not the fishing port down in Plaquimines) to celebrate the city's finishing a ubiquitous wifi network built on a fiber backbone (they get big wifi speeds). This is the same Venice that has made internet access a birthright by issuing every child a user ID and password entitling them to free Internet access along with their birth certificate. Someone's Seriously thinking ahead over there. They have fun there too...(Carnivale, masking? It's not only a Louisiana thing.)

The idea of the Treasure Hunt, as described on the website, is pretty much what you'd expect with a few twists. Like the Treasure hunt you played as a kid you get a clue that leads you to a place where you can find the next clue and, eventually, solve the puzzle. The three big twists are 1) an engaging narrative, a story that hooks it all together and motivates, 2) exploring the city's more interesting and obscure nooks an crannies and 3) using text messages instead of paper clues. That last allows the maker to work on a larger scale and to do so asynchronously: you don't have to lock yourself into a one-time, hard-to-scale, competition. Instead you can play through at anytime with as many people as you want and you can play it as a non-competitive "experience" game.

It's an idea that can be used to teach folks about the more interesting byways in the place where they live and to help tourists get intimate with the place they are visiting. Once the infrastructure was up (and ubiquitous wifi would really help) it's easy to imagine different games promoting different aspects of the community (Zydeco, French language, food, Festivals, charities...) and using different themes (Old South, Cajun, Mystery, Sci Fi, Dave Robiceaux novels...) Lots of fun..especially for the person/s creating the games. Any of our fun-loving/creative types up for the task?