Thursday, December 30, 2010

Menu–>Extras->App Dashboard !! LUSFiber Gets Apps!

LUS Fiber has apps for your TV. (But they've yet to announce they've got 'em.) Right now you can get a look at three of them: Weather, Messages, and News and the stub of links to on-screen Caller ID and Email. Yup, eat your hearts out Cox, LUS customers got apps. Now they're not much when compared with some of your smartphone apps but they are a definite start and their provenance as iPhone-style apps is apparent. They'll get better and more interesting with time just like smartphone apps did. Whether the day will come when apps are as important on TV screens as they are on smartphone screens is an open question. But having them this early puts LUS Fiber and Lafayette out on the cutting edge. There's a mobile phone developers community in Lafayette; I wonder if they will get involved?
LUS Weather App (click to enlarge)

The weather app is an obvious example of a useful app. Wasn't "weather" on your first smartphone homescreen? It pops up as a vertical Iphone-like panel on left side of your screen. Simple...and you can go in and change the location if you really want to. (It's cold and rainy in Vancouver, for those who want to know.) The weather app appears over the ongoing show as a translucent overlay...the show underneath goes on.

This all works because the that little Motorola set top box from LUS is really a small computer. It can be programmed to do pretty much anything that a not-too-powerful media computer or smartphone can do. The real issue is having the software to make this potential real. In our case this is Microsoft's MediaRoom, the new UI/media manager that LUS brought onboard relatively recently. One of the big advantages of going with MediaRoom is that it brings along the entire MS ecosystem (one of its chief disadvantages too...). So apps developed by Microsoft, Alcatel-Lucent, or any third-party producer targeting AT&T or numerous national telecoms across the world that use MediaRoom will be easily deployed in Lafayette—we won't have to reinvent the wheel. (This also means that cool apps developed for LUS will have a world-wide market.) Similarly, the hooks for smartphone apps and computer-based interaction are also well-developed. I'm looking forward to scheduling online and using my smartphone as a universal remote.

There are those who question whether folks need or want apps on their TV. There were folks who felt the same about apps on a phone. (Wasn't that a truly weird and silly idea only 5 years ago? How quickly perceptions change.) The apps that have been successful on the smartphone were aimed at individual users. It will be very interesting to see what will be successful on the more social device that a TV screen is in many homes.

How To:
So how do you get to see these app and how are they used?

The Apps Dashboard
Well the first thing to do is to take a quick journey to your "Menu" function. If your set top box has updated recently you'll see something new: an "Extras" function on the bar across the top. (If you're missing it go to settings and restart your machine; that'll bring up the new software.) Select "Extras" and you'll see a new button appear: "App Dashboard." Click on that and up comes your new selection bar on the bottom of the screen over whatever you were watching. From there you can select and activate Weather, News, or Messages.

You might ask yourself why the "Extras" selection only shows an "Apps Dashboard" function; wouldn't it have been easier and more efficient to just access your apps by calling it that and make it a one click, easy-as-pie function? Why make everyone click twice? Well, almost certainly because they are thinking about other things to put below "Apps Dashboard" in the Extras section. And there is a clue hidden elsewhere in the system.

Wait,There's more!
The Main Interactive Menu...not yet rebranded
You can access the apps dashboard in another way. I discovered that if you hit the "interactive" button on your LUS Motorola remote you'll gain access to another screen that has an "Apps Dashboard" button. But it also has other, currently inaccessible, functions: A "PIN Application," " Caller ID," "Email," and the mysterious " Widi." The Apps Dashboard button works, and for those that are using the supplied remote it's probably an easier way to get there than traversing the menu system.

The "PIN Application" is ugly and it apparently only exists to allow you to enter your PIN and validate who you are. That's likely to be there for the next two slots; you'd likely need to validate yourself via your account identity to start up Caller ID and surely would need it to enter Email.

The Widi is more mysterious but I suspect that it stands in for a technology called WiDi for WiFi Direct, which is a standard promulgated by the wifi alliance. The technology allows you to "throw" your computer screen onto the TV, and the hardware is pretty widely available. (See an explanitory video.) So you could share YouTube videos, show your photos, or watch Netflix on the TV screen via your computer wirelessly. The full standard would let you you replicate your computer screen to the TV, use the TV as a second monitor displaying its own content, or simply extend the computer screen so that the active area spanned both screens. The advantage of having WiDi available on your set top box is that 1) you wouldn't need to put yet another $110+ dollar box in your stack, a wifi dongle would suffice and 2) conceivably the App could be made multi-functional...there are more than one set of wireless standards out there.

So there you have it. Apps on your TV here in Lafayette.


Tip o' the hat to Raymond Camden over at LafayetteTech who first noticed the new functions and posted it to the board...LafayetteTech is a great place to hang out; if you're at all techy check it out and join.

Pat Ottinger, City Attorney, Steps down

Pat Ottinger, the city attorney through the entire (successful!) fiber fight is stepping down. The media are all carrying the story; you can look at fleshed out versions from The Independent, The Advertiser, and The Advocate.

Ottinger is the unsung hero of the fiber fight. He worked long hours and fought tirelessly to make sure that Lafayette got the chance to make its own future in spite of well-funded corporate lawyers, Cox, BellSouth and their stooges in the state legislature. His work was instrumental in defending what we had won after the referendum battle. Lawyers don't get much glory; that's not the sort of profession you go into if glory and adulation are what makes you run. We'll surely get a more complete run-down on his accomplishments in the coming weeks as editors put together their stories and in that larger history the legal battles that swirled around Lafayette's decision to build its own future will be far from the only story. But that is the one I've watched closely and I can say without reservation that Lafayette was well-served.

The city has lost a real public servant, one whose earnestness and self-evident competence should serve as a standing rebuke to those who'd disparage those among us who choose to serve.

Lagniappe: I spent a few minutes looking through old LPF stories...the first one to mention Ottinger by name is worth your review as an example of the value of having an Ottinger on your side: The City replies to the BellSouth lawsuit

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Double take...Cox & French TV5

Just before Christmas I did a sharp double-take when thumbing through the Advertiser with our morning coffee—Cox was running expensive full-page, color ads promoting TV5 Monde, the french channel. While I didn't spit out any coffee I was taken aback. Cox, you see, has never before pretended to be a friend of Lousiana's French speakers and this kind of promotion is a particularly galling extension of the corporation's continued attempts to ingratiate itself with the Lafayette community after taking a brutal hit to its public relations image during the fiber referendum battle.

One of the mistakes Cox made during the fiber fight was a set of channel changes that included moving the French channel from basic cable into the stratosphere of channel 226, a location that required both a set top box rental and a the purchase of a special, costly, upper tier add-on package. In a city where the last census showed that 13% of the people spoke french in the home that seemed, and seems, pretty outrageous. Many of those speakers will be in our poorer communities and will be disproportionally older and on fixed incomes. If you speak french as a first language, or are simply determined to keep Louisiana's francophone heritage active this change was a huge blow...making mass media access to french content more obscure and more expensive. At that time—soon after the storms—Cox also moved the weather channel off basic cable and up into a more expensive channel package. These, and changes to the on-screen channel guide were all intended to drive users off the cheaper, bandwidth intensive lower channels and up onto the more lucrative digital channels that required a rental set top box.

Needless to say people weren't happy with these changes which pretty blatantly were the sorts of decisions made by corporate honchos in Atlanta who were unappreciative of the local cultures or the facts of life for those living in the Gulf's vulnerable coastal cities. (See examples of LPF coverage @ A, B, C.) After complaints across south Louisiana (in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette) Cox moved the weather channel back onto a cheaper tier. But TV5 has been permanently moved to an expensive upper-tier ghetto where it is paired with, of all things, a set of specialty sports sites.

The contrast between LUS and Cox on this issue is stark. If you want TV5's French language programming and have access to LUS Fiber then your best choice is LUS...it's on a basic tier that doesn't require the rental of a set top box or a more expensive digital tier. On Cox you'll need to rent a digital box to get service and opt for a specialized, mostly sports, package.

The Cheapest Packages with TV5 from LUS Fiber and Cox:

—LUS Fiber: on Expanded Basic @ channel 71: $46.95, no set top box: $0, Total: $46.95
—Cox: on Advanced TV Preferred @ channel 266: $64.98, required set top box: $5.25, Total: $70.23

LUS advantage: $23.28 a month or $279.38 a year...

And that's before you add on other one-time charges. Suppose that, in reaction to Cox's full page ads in regional newspapers, your old Tante Sue is so delighted at the prospect of French TV that she decides to take the plunge and get some of that cable television. She'd be hit with a connection fee of $53.95 (and possibly various and sundry other cabling fees to get service where her TV is). Even if Tante already has Cox and only has to upgrade to digital to get that channel back she'll still pay $53.95 to only upgrade to digital! Cox, your ersatz "friend in the digital age" doesn't particularly want to come visiting...and charges accordingly. And you've got that silly extra set of sports channels to click through. So if you want to watch some of your TV in French you'll end up paying $333.31 more to buy it from Cox than you would if purchased it from LUS during your first year.

Now maybe Tante Sue already has that fancy digital TV stuff and only has to switch to the package that contains it...but she'll have to give up one of those other "packages" to switch into the "Sports and Information Pak." So she sits down and has to decide to give up the Turner's old movie channel or the Cooking channel, or...some other favorite of hers to get a channel in French. Or, of course she could upgrade to higher priced service to get the privilege of adding TV5. No doubt helpful sales agents will suggest that...and that will cost her an additional $6.00 dollars a month.

By contrast LUS Fiber doesn't do all that contract, install fee nonsense. It's simple—French TV is in a basic tier...you get it for no extra cost, no monthly box fee, and don't have to give up other channels to get it. Pay for "expanded basic" @ $46.95 a month and add nothing on. End of story.

So Why?
Cox's French language offer is simply not a credible competitor with LUS'. Which brings up the issue of why Cox is bothering to dump substantial advertising dollars into full page color advertising. Well, two reasons. 1) PR, "public relations." It looks good to be promoting the French language, particularly in Lafayette, the largest city in the French speaking areas of Louisiana. It doesn't hurt that such ads promote a sense that Cox "cares" about local people and local issues. Cox has been doing its best to counter the lousy PR it gave itself during the fiber fight and promoting French is an apple and babies sort of issue: who could oppose it? 2) through most of the area of Cox's "greater Louisiana" district, which ranges from Gonzales through Baton Rouge and over to Lafayette there is a distinct, well-established French subculture. Somebody (finally) figured that out. There are certainly many "Tante Sue's" out there and it wouldn't take many of them being pushed to buy cable outside Lafayette or upgrade to digital or higher tiers to substantially increase Cox's profit. And that, I imagine, is what clinched the argument with the higher-ups in Atlanta when the promotion was pitched.

The moral of this story is that there is a difference between supporting local communities and exploiting them...LUS Fiber is providing native language support to the traditional local communities with minimal barriers. Cox is providing French to burnish its local reputation and make some bucks. Motivation matters and Lafayette's French speakers should be pleased to have a community-owned alternative to the national corporation that offers much better prices and more widely available placement for the French channel.



Lagniappe: Cox has tried (and failed) before to make cozy with Lafayette by pretending a fellowship with the french strand of our heritage; that much cruder era was exemplified by the infamous TJCrawdad. and the "down-home" ad that used an actor delivering the generic "hick" Arkansas accent and a Cox delivery van with Texas plates to tout their local bona fides.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A rant against the all-mobile utopians

What he said:

Fiber Evolution: "In which I rant against the all-mobile utopians"

Benoît Felten rants against the silly ideas associated with mobile utopianism. Some of those, like the idea that mobile networks can under any conceivable use case substitute for wireline for more than a small minority of people you'll be familiar with from these pages. But Benoit has a knack for cutting to the most fundamental points...He's right that there simply isn't enough bandwidth to keep that many bits flying. But the most profound point is that mobile networks don't even exist. Good point. What's called a mobile network is, for almost all the miles a message covers, fiber or copper wireline. Only the last, small cell—small and getting smaller as user density/bandwidth demand ramps up— transit the "airwaves."

As always: Fiber First.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Cox finalizes netbook donations

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate had stories this morning about Cox's donation of laptops to kids in the GEARUP program. The Advertiser's was a brief story about Cox completing their commitment to provide the netbooks and internet connectivity to those student's families who don't already have it but it's not visible on the web (see p. 3A of the print version).

The Advocate version is longer and updates an earlier version of the story from back in July when the commitment was announced. That story detailed an earlier donation by Cox and other in-town efforts to bring access to more people—private donations and two grants were applied for by LCG/LUS. LPF reviewed the story then. Neither of the grants were won.

Interestingly, the Cox press release from July used the term "bridging the digital divde" and the most recent Advocate story repeated that phrase. That's only a catch-phrase here in Lafayette where the LUS-sponsored Digital Divide Committee back before the fiber referendum produced a document entitled "Bridging the Digital Divide" encouraged a multi-pronged attack on the problem. One of its recommendations was for a general free or reduced-cost computer program for those that qualified and were willing to "get invested" via education and/or a willingness to give back by educating others. While the educational initiatives Cox is pursuing are not at that scale they are a start. Good for Cox. And Lafayette.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LUS Fiber Refer-a-Friend v2.0

LUS is doubling down on its referral promotion. You're probably familiar with the initial version of this social marketing idea—in that one a friend would cite you as the person that gave them a referral to LUS and LUS in return pulled 50 dollars off you bill. Nice! Version 2.0 doubles that by making sure both you and your referring friend get the benefit. And, apparently you can get that referral credit for as many friends as you convince to sign—up to the amount of your bill. Since the fine print says that you get your 50 bucks in 10 dollar increments over 5 months that means that you could get your bill zeroed out for nearly half a year if you can convince all the cousins to join up and they'd get a nice discount as well...something to talk about over the holiday table! But you have to do it by January 30th when the promotion is slated to end.

Scuttlebutt has it that the initial referral program was very successful. I'd expect this one to be at least twice as popular.

You can check out all the details at the LUS website or, if you prefer, you can listen to Dee Stanley give you the pitch at 291-8100—a robo call from Stanley is what put me onto the new launch.

This is a natural form of social marketing for any tight-knit community. If you're the geek in the clan or the one who always knows where the best deals or in your group people trust your advice on matters like this already. Word of mouth advertising is always the best way to get new customers anyway. Turning referrals into a win-win for both sides is bound to be popular. This makes a lot more sense in a real community like Lafayette than spending the same bucket of money on conventional advertising. Everyone understands that you have spend money to acquire customers but instead of spending it on fancy advertising it makes a lot of sense to hand the money spent acquiring customers back to the members of the community that are making the project a success. I know that a more standard campaign has to be coming, and eagerly await it, but there is something very right about this being LUS' first move.

It's a good deal all around. And the 50 bucks deal is just a good example of the larger process: we all save when our friends and neighbors join up and support the community resource. The more customers LUS Fiber gets the more accounts its expenses are spread over and the lower everyone's rates can be.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Let LUS join cable cooperative"

The Advertiser opines that the National Cable Television Cooperative (and by implication Cox cable) should let LUS join the coop. They're right. Some of the highlights from the editorial:
LUS is seeking membership in the cooperative, a body created by the federal government to leverage the purchasing power of small cable TV companies.

...the lawsuit was just another punch thrown in the fight between LUS and its private competitors. The court was right to reject the lawsuit and to allow LUS' attempt to join the cooperative to proceed.

...Denying LUS membership in the cooperative is fundamentally unfair.

...Originally, the membership applications of LUS and city utilities in Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn., were ignored. Wilson and Chattanooga eventually were granted membership, but not LUS.The private competitors of the other two systems are not members of the cooperative. Cox is. There's nothing subtle about that.
Indeed, there is nothing subtle about what is going on here. Cox is playing bully-boy with its more than 6 million subscribers (vs. Lafayette's 52,000 Total households) to keep Lafayette out of a buying coop that is chartered precisely to allow small guys like LUS to compete with the likes of Cox. —Leading to the conclusion that is also the title of the editorial:
Let LUS join cable cooperative.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Market Share - The Independent Weekly

20101124-cover-0101The Independent has published its second and final installment in the series on "LUS Fiber — where it stands and where it’s headed." This one focuses on the immediate road ahead. The issues are ones that would be of interest to an partisan of Lafayette: marketing, market share, financing, the competitive landscape LUS Fiber has created, and innovation.

This series marks the beginning of the inevitable "friendly critique" of LUS Fiber. Supporters—not detractors—are beginning to voice disagreement with LUS over specific points while continuing to be broadly supportive. That's the beginning of a more healthy relationship between LUS Fiber and its public. The inclination of supporters, and that includes a large majority of the citizenry, has been to close ranks with LUS against the (accurately) perceived hostility of the incumbent providers to our venture. That supportive criticisms are now being made of the still unlaunched advertising claims, and the sort of innovation that LUS has is seen to have encouraged is probably a good thing and indicates that people are seeing LUS Fiber as an accepted, "normal," part of the landscape. Now I'm sure LUS is not feeling nearly so secure just yet and would prefer a longer stretch of reticence from the public but it should take some comfort in the implied confidence such quarrelsome talk represents.

Apparently some in the marketing community want a bang-up, high tech projection of LUS Fiber's advanced network and object to what they see as the stodgy utility orientation of the ads they've seen. Just to stoke the fires of community discussion: I disagree with both sides either/or... I'd like to see ads that first, emphasize the home-town, local benefits that owning our own fiber accrues and that includes the utility orientation that LUS projects, then, second, I'd like to see the evokation of civic pride in what we've got and that in turn includes bragging on the unique aspects of our network. I can see why we can't have, and benefit, from both. The point though is until recently all I heard was how badly people wanted to see some, any marketing strategy enacted. That the situation has matured to the point that we can now disagree over the style of a marketing strategy is a happy development.

Similarly others in the space between tech and business want to see LUS pursuing Google and the likes as it opens the public network to innovation. Shoot, so would I and have long advocated that the city pursue a Google "internet in a box" located on network. But I am located in the space between tech and community and would see the real potential for innovation occurring around decisions to give us all 100 megs of intranet bandwidth (check!) and opening the set top box to internet access...the really innovative things, in my judgment, will involve pulling in greater levels of participation at higher levels of usage. But again, until recently folks were just looking for "innovation" — arguing about what sort of innovation we should emphasize is a good sort of disagreement...and one that LUS should be proud (if not always comfortable!) to have inspired.

There's more in the article worth looking at and discussing but none of the financial stuff beside upping the take rate number to 30% strikes me as news.

The real news is that we are beginning to talk about our network openly enough to disagree. And that's a good thing. A very good thing. Just not a comfortable one.

"Hardly Cooperative"—Dissent within the NCTC

In response to my last post loyal reader Jeff has pointed to a very interesting story in Multichannel News that focuses on dissension in the ranks of the NCTC following recent changes in membership that give large national cable companies influence over what had been an alliance of small, local companies. There's plenty of meat on the story but what really caught my attention was the suggestion that the larger companies subscriber numbers don't necessarily add as much weight to contract negotiations as one might think and the even more interesting revelation that the coop already has a number of large overbuilders, including Verizon, as members.

Big cable and little systems:
One of the complaints that the older, smaller members of the coop have is that the larger members don't really add their numbers to the common pool in a way that makes everyone's prices cheaper:
By its own account, the NCTC said that typically, about half of the co-op’s subscribers — between 10 million and 12 million — participate in most of its programming agreements.

The rest, mostly the larger MSO members such as Cox, Charter Communications and Cablevision Systems, cut their own separate arrangements with programmers, save for a handful of deals through the co-op. That, according to smaller operators and programmers alike, diminishes the value of the scale those larger members bring. (Cox, Charter and Cablevision represent about 14 million subscribers, or more than half of the 27 million claimed by the NCTC).
No doubt the smaller companies do benefit to a degree. But the big guys still usually get better deals. So why do the big guys bother? Apparently so that they can have a fallback if they get in too big a tousle with a stubborn content provider:
The latest example of that was Cablevision Systems, which joined the co-op in 2009 essentially to take advantage of its agreement with Tennis Channel. Cablevision had been in a heated battle with Tennis for months over its placement on a sports tier, which the programmer had resisted. The MSO was able to circumvent that resistance by joining the NCTC, which already had a deal in place that allowed members to put the channel on a tier.

That Tennis Channel agreement is set to expire next year and according to people familiar with the situation, the network is likely to seek to remove that tier provision from their NCTC agreement.
So Cablevision, which seldom actually adds its numbers to the deal-making in a way that benefits the rest of the NCTC, does uses the NCTC's contract when it can't get a benefit any other way. The logical response of the content providers is to no longer give the smaller NCTC participants a better deal than they'd give the better-heeled big cable companies. Not an ideal outcome for the little guys.

The NCTC has no policy against competing members joining the coop
Since the NCTC has pretty much refused to say publicly why it won't allow LUS to join by far the most reasonable idea has been the one the city of Lafayette has consistently put forward: Cox has used its new influence as the largest single member of the organization and its seat on the board to keep LUS out. I've assumed the NCTC were unwilling to say that because that motive is so blatantly anti-competitive.

But it turns out that they may not want to say that they won't accept new members who compete with established members because they know that such a claim would be transparently false. There is apparently no policy, official or otherwise, that bars competing members of the industry from belonging to the NCTC. It is, in fact, common practice:
The NCTC counts the three largest overbuilders as members — RCN, WideOpenWest and Knology — and WOW even has representation on its board (WOW vice president of programming Peter Smith is NCTC vice chairman). The largest telco competitor, Verizon Communications, also is a member (through its ownership of the former overbuilder, GTE Ventures). Missing from the ranks is AT&T, which has a competing video service, U-Verse. The reason: AT&T has stressed on several occasions that because U-Verse is an IPTV service (its programming is delivered via broadband and at the demand of the consumer, not in a continuous stream), it should not be considered a cable-TV service by regulators.
An "Overbuilder" is what LUS is—someone who comes in and builds a new system over an area in which there is already one. If anyone were going to be excluded simply because they are competition to established members of the coop it would be these larger overbuilders whose business model is to seek to expand by building new systems in established territories when the industry standard is to expand not by competition but by acquisition. With both long-standing overbuilders and Verizon's new fiber to the home system both accorded a place at NCTC table it is all but impossible to figure out a (consistent, rational) reason for LUS to be excluded.

Just exactly what is left but Cox's simple spite and a blind determination damage the one community that has defied them?

Consider that the next time you notice Cox claiming to be "your friend in the digital age."

LUS wins first round with NCTC re FCC (But what about the FTC?) —Updated

LUS has successfully argued that the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) was wrong to attempt to use the Federal Courts in Kansas to prevent LUS Fiber/LCG from complaining to the FCC (or the FTC or, well, anybody they want to) about the NCTC blocking their bid for membership. The case has been thrown out of court with the Federal Court in Kansas stating that it had no jurisdiction and, further, that the planitiff the NCTC was really trying to use the courts as an inappropriate battleground or as way to try and establish a decision before a case is actually brought—neither of which is legitimate:
The timing indicates that plaintiff is attempting to use this declaratory judgment action for purposes of procedural fencing or to provide an arena for a race to res judicata.
Backstory:
Folks who've followed the long fiber fight in Lafayette (currently in its seventh year) will recognize this as the latest iteration of the incumbents using the court system to delay LUS Fiber from moving forward. The consistent result for any case pursued to final appeal has been for the final decision to find in LUS' favor. This is simply the latest instance in which the real result, and likely the only really intended result was to cause delay and expense for the people of the city.

The immediate backstory for this instance is that LUS and two other municipal fiber to the home providers had been denied entry to the NCTC which provides their coalition of small cable firms with prices for content that are competitive with those the large multi-system cable companies are able to get. LUS had to wait during a two year moratorium on new members was put in place during 06 and 07; the moratorium was extended multiple times. LUS Fiber then immediately applied for membership when the NCTC lifted the moratorium on new members. But the NCTC quickly inducted two very unusual new members completely at odds with their previous membership: large cable corporatons Charter and, yes, Cox Communications. LUS and other muni providers were put on indefinite hold—their applications simply not responded to—far in excess of the organizations own deadlines for acting on applications. LUS and the other muni providers finally signaled their intent to ask the FCC for relief on the grounds that this exclusion from the cheaper prices available through the "small provider" coop amounted to anti-competitive behavior. The NCTC quickly offered to admit the other two cities on the condition that they drop their complaint. Neither city faced competition from either Cox or Charter who now had members on the board of directors. They agreed. LUS, who does compete with the largest (brand new) member of the NCTC was not offered membership and the basis for refusal to act on LUS' application has yet to be explained. Except, of course, by the Lafayette utility which unambiguously points to Cox. No denial or confirmation has been offered by the NCTC.

(If that recounting was too condensed or abridged please take a look at the account on "Stop the Cap" What makes their take even more interesting is the fact that the author has a prior, at one time supportive, relationship with the NCTC. His judgment is damning.)

The Case at Hand:
The NCTC asked the court for a "declaratory judgment" that would have precluded LUS/LCG from seeking any of the remedies that its FCC filing said were possible. Those ranged from asking the FCC for redress, to asking the FTC to withdraw its letter stating that the NCTC was not in restraint of trade, to requesting congressional review, to seeking redress under Louisiana law. The court walked through each claim by the NCTC and essentially found that the plaintiffs, the NCTC, asked the court to assert an authority it did not have—and to effectively reach a decision in advance of having a case actually presented.

Consequences, FCC:
So the complaint to the FCC will not be blocked. When Lafayette will hear back on that is anybody's guess but the filings with the Kansas court claimed that they thought that the chance of having to go beyond the FCC to receive satisfaction were small. That sounds like confidence to me. That confidence is reinforced when I realize what a potential "nuclear option" the NCTC is risking if LUS and Lafayette were to go to their second option...

With LUS' complaint cleared to go forward what the NCTC has to decide is what they'd risk by allowing their pro-Cox position to be struck down by the FCC. Mainly it would seem to be that they'd lose their much of their current ability to arbitrarily deny an applicant membership. Their defense would have to put up some sort of reason to deny—something which they haven't deigned to do to date. Each potential defense, and were Lafayette's response successful, endangers an excuse which they might want to use at a future date. (For example: it would be risky to try and claim that LUS is using a different, IP-based technology from the rest of their clientle both because that isn't entirely true—IP is already embedded in much cable tech and they've admitted other muni providers using identical tech—but more worryingly because the loss of this excuse would endanger their ongoing policy of refusing to admit small, local telephone companies that are beginning to offer video.) Letting the FCC reach a conclusion on this matter is an open-ended risk for the NCTC; they can't know how far the new FCC under Genachowski will go. Openly stating that they are excluding competitors of current members would be even more risky, especially if they are successful—where the Federal Communications Commission might let such blatantly anticompetitive activity slide if it thought it served some higher purpose related to its telecom-related mandate it is unlikely that the FTC would be happy to hear that the NCTC had explicitly changed its raison d'être to one that is intends to exclude competitors in order to gain an advantage for its members. The central purpose of the Federal Trade Commission is to prevent collusion in restraint of trade..more on this below.

I won't be surprised if we soon hear that the NCTC has decided to let LUS join provided they drop their FCC complaint.

...Especially if they consider that even a refusal to act in Lafayette's favor on the part of the FCC might have truly dire results if the city has to go to its second option.

Potential Consequences, FTC:
The second avenue of redress mentioned by the city's lawyers was asking the Federal Trade Commission to withdraw its "business letter." That pretty much mystified me until I dug up the latest version of the FTC's letter. As it turns out what the letter does is to certify that the FTC does not think that the NCTC operating practices constitute an illegal restraint of trade that would lead them to start enforcement proceedings. But reading the letter makes it clear that its all pretty tentative and as I read it I started to wonder if the new size and constitution of the NCTC after it has bulked up and changed its nature by bringing in some of the nations largest cable companies (it now constitutes the largest group of customers in the nation) would change the FTC's view. And then I hit the final substantive paragraph, reproduced in full with my emphasis:
For these reasons, the Department has no current intention to challenge the NCTC's proposed procedures for jointly negotiating national cable programming contracts for its active members. This letter expresses the Department's current enforcement intentions, and is predicated on the accuracy of the information and assertions that you have presented to us. If the conditions you have presented are substantially changed—if, for example, a major MSO or a DBS provider were to join NCTC or there were other significant changes to NCTC's active membership—the conclusions we have drawn would no longer necessarily apply. In accordance with its normal practice, the Department reserves the right to bring an enforcement action in the future if the actual activities of NCTC or its members prove to be anticompetitive in any purpose or effect in any market.
That has GOT to send a chill through the hearts of the bureaucrats that head up the NCTC. And may well explain the panicky legal response to LUS' simple notification of intent to take their complaint to the FCC that the court has here so easily dismissed. Perhaps the FTC, not the FCC, is the entity they really fear. The FCC would merely make them play fair. The FTC could destroy them. That they've exposed their organization to such a danger should frighten the NCTC membership. And should thoroughly frighten its membership. If LUS/Lafayette were to pursue this it seems very likely that the FTC would have to seriously reconsider its reassurances. After all the NCTC has admitted not one but two major MSOs (mulitple system operators)—Cox and Charter. And it is acting rather transparently in the interests of one of them. That seems like a huge risk for the NCTC take. Playing a game of brinksmanship with LUS could easily lead to the dissolution of the coop. Something which wouldn't bother Cox or Charter; they've always had the heft to go it alone. In fact they'd find it a lot easier to compete with any of the little guys who now take advantage of the better prices the coop offers. It's win-win for Cox and Charter—either they gain a price advantage over little LUS that competes with Cox or they gain a price advantage over all the little guys when the coop fails to meet FTC standards. It's hard to avoid concluding that the little guys that the coop was once run to benefit have been snookered.

Conclusion:
At the end of the day the real question remains unchanged; the lawsuit did not serve any real purpose but delay and to drain the resources of the defendant:
With respect to plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claims, a declaratory judgment would not clarify the legal relationship between the parties with respect to the question at issue: whether plaintiff broke the law when it denied defendant’s membership application.
Does LUS/LCG and Lafayette have grounds for claiming that this was frivolous lawsuit? I have no idea. But it certainly has proved, in fact, if not in intent, meaningless.

(Court order link via the inestimable Baller-Herbst List...)

Lagniappe:
The Lafayette legal team has released a press release that outlines their take on the victory in Kansas.

Update:
The Advertiser, the Advocate, and the Independent have all weighed in with responses to the LCG press release.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Independent Covers LUS Fiber

The Independent published a cover story on the state of LUS Fiber, the first of two in a series. The article, entitled "Waiting to Connect" tallies the issues and missteps of the first two year or so of its service. As you'd expect the story focuses on the dramatic moments—and those are the ones where things did not got smoothly. Those things that worked out exactly as planned...like an ambitous roll-out schedule that for launch and final buildout that many loudly doubted could be done went of with only minor hitches. That's not "news."

The Independent does a the community the service of searching out the details on many of the glitches those of us in the community saw occurring but did not understand the background that might explain them. So if you were curious about the set top box debacle--you get a partial explanation here. There's also mention of why that last small bit of the network isn't yet complete...contractor troubles. Cox's game-playing with the NCTC (which reflects very much to the discredit of both Cox and that cooperative) is treated in greater detail. A reason for the larger-than-expected basic tier is laid out plainly and its relation to costs and the NCTC mess clearly shown. It's good to get these kinds of explanations.

But it shouldn't need to wait on the local news weekly for supporters to find out these details. LUS needs to be much more open with its constituents-customers. That they are local and trusted is by far their greatest advantage. By avoiding talking about their problems LUS makes the problems "theirs" instead of "ours." A very large mistake. Look at the support that immediately flared up when the unjust exclusion of LUS from the national cable coop was made public--or even the minor flap when Cox played snit with the "I'm proud of LUS Fiber" signs. Both of those, to be plain brutal, were marketing opportunities. LUS needs to seek the support of its citizens...and can only do that if it is much more open than its competitors.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

"LUS Fiber to hold 'Community Fest' Nov. 20"

Both the Advertiser and the Independent have short stories up telling essentially the same no-doubt-press-release generated story. It is also featured on LUS Fiber's front page.

From the Advertiser:

The event will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Parc International and will feature a free concert by Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble.

KJCB apparently will co-sponoser and give away a big screen TV. Local churches and noprofits will sell lunches, keeping the proceeds....

What's most interesting is that this event is LUS Fiber's first community outreach event (unless you count the opening of the LUS Fiber store—and I don't). Choosing to celebrate a local ethnic community is a reasonable opening move for Lafayette-owned utility.

So far we've seen all but no marketing of LUS Fiber...yard signs being the most exciting effort to date.) The Indpendent ties this event to the impending completion of the network. Here's to hoping we see a more vigorous marketing outreach soon. I'm hoping for one that emphasizes local ownership, local control, and keeping local money in local hands.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Big Cable Is Bleeding

An interesting story today in GigaOm ruminates on the third quarter loses in video subscriptions for the top US cable corporations. While there is both an upside and and a downside to these reports the downside is pretty dramatically evident:
There’s now even more evidence that subscribers are cutting the cord and opting out of paying for cable: By adding up subscriber losses from four of the top five cable companies, we found that more than half a million users have ditched their cable companies....(No. 3 cable provider Cox Communications is privately held and therefore doesn’t have to announce its subscriber losses for all the world to see.)
As the story goes on to point out cable loses are not a new story; the available market is popularly understood to be pretty saturated but what is new is that satellite TV and IPTV (mainly Verizon in the east and ATT's UVerse) is no longer making up for cable's shrinking base.

Fewer people are subscribing to paid channels. Period. Full Stop.

That's a real change.

The Downside:
Much of the speculation on the net is that people are not watching less video but are instead getting their video over the internet. (The terms to google are "internet" and "cable cutters.") Less acknowledged is that the recent transition to Over The Air (OTA) HD digital broadcast may also have had an impact. A digital signal is by its nature clean (or not available); the "bad" snow and breakup that plagued analog signals at the edges of the broadcast area and the generally poorer-than-cable picture and sound is no longer true and people are discovering that their old antennas are bringing in a really nice picture. A combination of OTA local and network television with free internet downloads are very tempting. Add in a ready supply of "must have" TV and movies from the likes of Netflix and iTunes and you have a solution that makes for a more than adequate—and much cheaper—alternative for many.

All that has implications for Lafayette—even beyond the few people who hold stock in one of the big players. These days we all have an interest in seeing LUS Fiber succeed and prosper. And LUS has structured its business plan around seizing a substantial portion of the video market. I've no reason to think that there is any real trouble there in the short run. LUS knew well that the city's video market was already saturated and that it would have to take customers away from Cox to succeed on this leg of the triple play of video, phone, and internet services. The utility's business plan called for a three year ramp up to getting the 23% penetration that they've said we'd need to make break-even. We're at the beginning of that three-year cycle that kicks off when the system is complete and Huval has claimed that we're above that number in areas where the network has been in place for more than a few months. My guess is that the recent video-only price increase was intended to make sure that the video side continued to contribute its projected share to the plan to make break-even in the face of recent video price increases (example).

Because LUS has modeled its business plan after the video-focused one that has succeed so handsomely for the major players we need to be concerned when the larger industry has trouble spots like this one.

The Upside:
But an interesting counterpoint to gloom and doom is that while subscribers are declining the amount of money each subscriber that is kept contributes is continuing to rise:
Comcast reported on its earnings call that average revenue per user (ARPU) increased by 10 percent year-over-year, ending the third quarter at about $130 per month. Charter’s ARPU also rose about 9 percent, to $126. And while Cablevision’s reported average revenue per sub didn’t grow as fast as the others, it’s now a whopping $149.
What's happening, of course, is that prices are rising and people are, by and large, paying. That resulted in higher revenue and higher profits for the big cable companies. LUS has reported that people are buying more services (all of the triple play for instance) and higher tiers (especially on the internet side) than their original metrics predicted. That's good news, of course, all other things being equal it should mean that they could make break-even with a smaller number than originally predicted. (Though all other things are seldom equal...the upswing in video costs no doubt hits hard.)

The contrast between the incumbent cable market losing customers at the same time that profits and prices increase is evidence of some pretty serious market failure and confirms the idea that what we are dealing with is a quasi-monopoly situation. People pay until the can't pay any longer simply because the lack of real competition at any price, much less a lower price, means there isn't much in the way of practical choices.

Lafayette's LUS Fiber is an IPTV system...in this it is like AT&T and Verizon. The upside here is that this is the segment of the market that appears to be growing fairly strongly according to Q3 filings reports. In fact, that's the main point the GigaOm story misses: the adds the two new IPTV video providers have account for 440,000 of the half million loses the old cable side of the market suffered. That accords well with LUS' experience as well. They are growing their market; in our fairly simple context it is pretty clear that LUS' gains come at Cox's expense as far as the video market is concerned. What LUS provides that AT&T and Verizon do not is substantially cheaper, long-term, ungimmicky prices; LUS offers no discounts on bundles (hence part of their surprise at the larger-than-expected uptake of multiple services) and it offers no discounts that are "limited" in term. The traditional providers all offer special introductory offers, 6 month specials, and aggressive offers to "lost" customers.

The final upside, however, is the one that interests me as a supporter of LUS fiber the most: the moment is rapidly approaching when the quality of the internet connection is all that really matters to savvy consumers. When that day comes LUS will have a clear advantage. People can legitimately dispute over which video system is best. (I've my judgment and I argue it is well-founded but, hey, I'm pretty clearly biased toward the local provider.) But there is little to no room to dispute over the internet connection. It's simply faster, cheaper, and has vastly lower latency. If you like Netflix you'll love LUS Fiber. And in the not too distant future that's just about all that will matter.

Lagniapppe:
GigaOm has a new weekly series on cord-cutting that is, appropriately, offered via free streaming internet video. :-)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

No comfort for the incumbents in the news...

Every so often I run across a series of stories that taken together make a much more interesting tale than reading them separately. That happened to me this afternoon when I found the following stories all open in my browser. What emerges is a cautionary tale for all big wireline providers....

First up was a story from USAToday—"DSL projected to lose out to Cable." That article reported a projection that:
predicts that just 15% of all broadband users will have DSL in 2015 -- half of its market share today.
The story is simple enough:
The problem for DSL, Anninger says, is that providers transmit data at only about 4 megabits per second. That can handle most of today's tasks, including videoconferencing. But by 2015, most broadband subscribers will want at least 7 mbps -- with many demanding much more -- to serve homes where different people simultaneously use the Internet to watch videos, stream audio, make phone calls, download files and surf.
Frankly this isn't new or much of an insight; it's a shift that is already well underway. And it is gratifying to live in a place where the local provider is so ahead of the curve that its cheapest, lowest speed product has a speed of 10 mbps symmetrical today. But the idea that most of the country won't be able to get 7 measly megs from their phone provider and so ditch the last pretense that real competition exists is pretty disturbing.

Of course the fact that cable will become an obvious monopoly in most places shouldn't obscure the fact that cable is already charging what economists call "monopoly rents," that is, wildly irrational profit levels:
Cable profits are the envy of other industries. Adam Lynn, research manager for Free Press, said information from SNL Kagan shows cable companies had an average 38.7 percent profit margin in the second quarter of this year,
That's from an article I ran across from a local newspaper in Connecticut, of all places. That level of profit-taking demonstrates that what the textbooks say is true: that duopolies are no better than straight-on monopolies from the cost-to-consumer point of view.

But what looks like a "good" news for cable companies is tempered in USAToday article by the closing lines:
Before the cable companies do a victory dance, though, they should consider this: More than 60% of FiOS and U-verse's broadband customers in the survey said they are "very satisfied" with the services. Only 36% of cable customers were equally pleased.
So the phone companies could save themselves—if they'd just go to fiber or deep fiber and carrry video over that enhanced line...

Or maybe not.

Maybe offering video isn't their salvation; that "cable" market may be about to disintegrate...and in fact, maybe it is already disintegrating. I recalled a recent story that calls into serious question the idea that video content rather than raw bandwidth will be the salvation of any company:
Netflix represents more than 20% of downstream Internet traffic during peak times in the U.S. -- and is heaviest in the primetime hours of 8 to 10 p.m., according to a new report from bandwidth management equipment vendor Sandvine.
Primetime is no longer the province of "hit" network shows. It's still when people sit down to watch TV. But increasingly they are watching netflix. Or Hulu. Or maybe Google's YouTube. Incidently, Google was reported today to provide 6% of the total internet traffic. Much of that has to be YouTube's fancy HD downloads.

There's not a lot of comfort in the news for any incumbent...it's all about the big pipes folks.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

LUS Fiber Video Rate Increase

LUS Fiber will see its first rate increase as of November 24th according to a letter from Terry Huval. That letter was posted on October the 15th and is making its way to subscribers.

Only the prices for higher-end video services are being raised—phone and internet services are not. The letter I received mentions only changes to the "Digital Plus" tier (from $58.31 to $67.82 monthly) and to the premium movie channels, Cinemax (to $7.78), Starz/Encore (to $10.85), Showtime (to $12.11) and HBO (to $14.81.) The Digital Plus tier is LUS' most extensive and highest priced offering. It seems that the lower-priced tiers are not changing at this time. [Update: Amanda McElfresh at the Advertiser has the fuller story in a short piece posted in the afternoon of 10/18; there she notes that all the video tiers were being updated:
Expanded basic tier will go from $39.95 per month to $46.95 per month, an increase of $7

Digital Access will go from $46.44 per month to $54.95 per month, an increase of $8.51]

It will have been about 22 months since LUS first began service when these initial increases show up on peoples' bills; November is a somewhat traditional time to see cable rate increases and generally they come in yearly—or such was my experience while I was on Cox. (Cox's most recent rate increase was 11 months ago in November of last year; that included increases throughout Cox's video offerings and price increases to its internet offerings as well.)

LUS explains the changes as a consequence of the rising costs of programming, complains that it has been shut out of money-saving deals by its exclusion from potentially money-saving deals available to members of a cooperative of small providers. Readers will recall that there was quite an uproar about The Nation Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) not too long ago—LUS has filed a formal complaint with the FCC and while it is not mentioned in the letter to its customers LUS, in both its filings and its public messages basically blamed Cox. Cox joined the coop after the fiber referendum where LUS won the right to build the system. Cox's new membership in one of the nations largest cable systems was highly unusual for the organization—which originally was formed to allow smaller operations to compete with huge corporations like Cox. Cox now has a seat on the board. The whole thing smelled even odder after the two other municipal fiber utilities that had originally been denied membership along with LUS were admitted after joining in the preliminaries to the FCC complaint. The only visible difference between LUS and the other two cities was that Cox was competing in Lafayette—and not in the other two cities.

National News Connects...
While the ongoing battle over Coop membership surely played a role, it's unlikely that price increases could be put off indefinitely. Video programming is simply expensive, and getting more expensive yearly.

For instance, technology and business news on the internet was rife with stories about how the Fox network was locked in a showdown with cable giant Cablevision over the upcoming programming contract. Fox is allegedly more than doubling in price this year from 70 million to 150 million and Cablevision is refusing to go along. Fox's channels all went dark today exciting angst from sports fans. But what roiled the internet was that Hulu was briefly forced to cut off internet access to Fox shows for Cablevision customers—and only for customers of Cablevision. So if you bought your internet connection from Cablevision you couldn't get last weeks programming from Hulu....even if you used AT&T or the DishNetwork for video. That didn't last long, Hulu was allowed to open up access again rather quickly. But it raises real network neutrality issues. But perhaps more importantly, Fox was willing to flash the knife in this conflict, showing the cable companies that it controlled internet access to its programming with the implicit threat that it could go over the head of the programmers at the cable companies and take its content directly to users if it so chose. Large pipe internet connections have started to shift the balance of power between content providers and the cable companies. We may have just seen the first shot in a war that makes cable companies much less powerful. Many people anticipate that cable will not be able to avoid being cut out of its powerful—and profitable—role as the necessary link between consumers and producers. The Fox network just fired a warning shot across the bow of not only Cablevision but all of the national cable companies.

Update 10/19/10: The Advertiser has posted the official, it's-in-the-paper version of the rate increase story...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

LUS: Who Governs?

The question of who governs LUS—and apropos this blog, LUS Fiber—was raised last night at the meeting of the Lafayette charter commission. Terry Huval, LUS director, suggested that he favors some sort of governing board. This drew sharp questions from the commission and featured articles from both the Advocate and the Advertiser. The Independent blog weighed in early alerting readers to the meeting and offering useful background information. But AOC, as part of its desire to inform the public, has uploaded the full meeting to the web and I've embedded it here:



The stories, understandably, focus on the sure-to-be-contentious issue of governance. It's a source of conflict because LUS' governance is the point which most clearly illustrates the reasoning of those who are pushing for deconsolidation, for giving Lafayette back its own city government. LUS was owned by, and arguably was the most valuable asset of the city of Lafayette back in the days before consolidation. The clear intent of the new consolidated city-parish charter was to keep control of LUS in the hands of the city. In pursuit of that goal LUS was to be governed by the LPUA—a panel made up of all the members of the city-parish council whose district contained at least 60% city residents. Almost immediately, however, legal opinions were sought and contradictions were found between those sections that gave control of LUS to the LPUA and those that gave control of "all" functions to the full council. A subtext here is the general tenor of the time immediately after consolidation— a "we can all get along" feeling was apparently widespread and when bond attorney's voiced a feeling that bond issues would be look stronger if both the LPUA and the full C-P Council approved them that principle was quickly generalized to all governance matters. With a few tweaks to the implementation details that has been how LUS has been governed since.

This all blew up recently when LUS asked for the first electric rate hike in more than a decade. Arguably (and I do so argue) the ensuing deconsolidation conflict grew from the fact that ideologically conservative Bellard and Theriot, rural members of the council with few city citizens in their districts, refused to honor the majority decision of the LPUA to grant the hike. That resulted in a squeaker vote and served notice that the traditional ways of working around the deficiencies of the charter could no longer be relied on. People began looking for ways to "fix" the problem by fixing the charter. But once that Pandora's box was opened the issue quickly morphed into one focusing on sovereignty for the City of Lafayette—a new city-only council, a real mayor for the city, and total city control of city assets. LUS has become a secondary issue for most of those passionate about issue but it remains the biggest practical problem, and among those whose bent is practical and pragmatic a solution to the problem of LUS governance would go a long way toward ending their worries.

(Unintended consequences alert: Bellard and Theriot are the councilmen most passionately opposed to deconsolidation. It's a practical not principled position. The new ideological conservatives are supposed to be all for smaller government and moving power closer to the people as a matter of principle—and deconsolidation would do both. But Bellard and Theriot have the practical problem that their largely rural constituencies would be the ones left without resources in a new, rump, parish government. So, principle aside, they are against it. If they'd been old-fashioned conservatives earlier and honored the tradition of allowing the LPUA to decide on matters relating to the city utility they'd not be in this position today.)

What was interesting in Huval's presentation lay as much in what he did not suggest as what he did.

What was suggested (@ 1:16 minutes in the above video) was drawn from data offered by the American Public Power Association (a body of which Mr. Huval is a past president):
  1. 44% are run by an appointed Board
  2. 28% are run by an elected Board
  3. 28% are controlled by the Council or local equivalent
The Commision had asked Mr. Huval to suggest a range of alternatives and this is what he offered in response. Huval clearly did not want to wade in any deeper though he seemed, in several remarks, to favor some form of a board. For instance, he remarked that he'd recommend, and repeated this recommendation several times, that a condition of membership on the board be residence in the city of Lafayette. At another moment he was also clearly concerned that it was at least possible for a council to be made up representatives who, even if their districts were mostly in the city, were not themselves city residents.

What was not suggested was any of a range of alternatives that had been batted about and which were mentioned in passing by Commission members. Specifically: proportional voting. In such a scheme all members of the council who had any city citizens in their district would get a proportional vote on the LPUA/Council on matters relating to LUS. So, in one example, if Representative A had a 20% city constituency then he'd get 20% of a vote and Representative B, whose district was 80% city would get a vote that was 4 times as large as A's. Bruce Conque, a commission member who'd floated such a suggestion, was not present at this meeting.

Also not suggested were ways of dealing with the issue by simply changing the charter to take away any ambiguity as to the governance of LUS. It should be a relatively simple matter to make LPUA control explicit. Why that should not be explored more specifically is a matter for speculation. How much of the bond-worthiness of the city and the parish is due to having the large and stable income of four utilities to stabilize its income?

Nor was there any discussion of separating the traditional utilities—which operate as a municipal monopoly and the LUS Fiber division which operates in a much more competitive environment and under a vastly different set of constraints. State law already separates LUS Fiber from the rest of LUS for many purposes (part of the infamous (un)fair competition act) and discussion of the value of a separate LUS Fiber board would seem in order—even if it were finally decided that was not the way to go.

A lot of the questions asked by the Commissioners centered or touched on the role of LUS in encouraging or discouraging annexation of developing areas into the city. Mostly this centered around water (which is now being sold to surrounding areas at a rate that is higher than the retail rate in the city!) LUS Fiber, which is too young to have an historical role to play in that story was largely unmentioned. But it should be clear that LUS Fiber adds significantly to what the city of Lafayette can offer unincorporated areas. What isn't being discussed is how LUS' tight ties to the city have limited the growth of the utilities themselves. To the extent that the people of the community own their own utilities they keep local money at home and can use the resources to best serve the people of the community rather than the best interests of out-of-town investors. LUS has traditionally been seen as a huge benefit to the town and then city of Lafayette and it is often cited as a partial explanation for the way Lafayette moved past larger, but less progressive cities to become the hub city of the region. Is there any way to extend those benefits to others in the region without being unfair to the people of the city of Lafayette? I'd hate to see the value of public ownership stifled by peculiar historical arrangements. Of all the suggestions so far put forward the most easily adaptable to allowing the utilities to benefit the people outside the city limits would seem to be proportional voting. It'd make sense to separate LUS Fiber and the other utilities so that they could advance at differing rates. (It is my understanding that bond covenants which entangle all of the traditional utilities would likely make it impossible to separate out the water service from the electric. I'd be happy to stand corrected.)

Interestingly, the current dustup isn't the first time the issue of LUS governance has been raised locally. The local League of Women Voters (full disclosure: I'm an active member) recommended an oversight board as the "final recommendation" in their extensive study of LUS Fiber's potential for the community. Interestingly Terry Huval was at that time adamantly opposed to the idea, attending a public meeting SLCC called to discuss the issues raised by the report chiefly to make the point that such a board for LUS Fiber was not a good idea. It isn't clear what has changed between then and now...beyond the uncomfortable realization during the rate hike discussion that LUS could no longer count on the city-parish council to honor what city councilors thought best for the utility.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"LUS now offering 100 Mbps residential Internet"

Nathan Stubbs over at the Independent blog has a brief article announcing that LUS Fiber is now officially offering a 100 Mbps residential tier. That makes Lafayette one of the very few places in this country where homes can easily and relatively affordably buy a 100 Mbps of connectivity.

It's not entirely clear why LUS has decided to offer this service at this time. Huval points to demand; apparently regular folks are asking for a speed that LUS thought only businesses would desire:
He adds LUS Fiber continues to be pleasantly surprised by the higher levels of service being sought by the average residential and commercial customers. "The level of service [being sold] is higher than we expected," he says, "which is very positive."
The utility was already offering a commercial tier at the 100 Mbps speed for $199.95 a month. Huval has long said that any resident that wanted to pay for the commercial version was free to order it up so it is a little unclear as to just what is new about this explicitly residential service offering. (The LUS Fiber residential internet page has not yet been updated to reflect this change.) Unlike the 10 and 50 Mbps residential offerings the new 100 Mbps residential tier it is not cheaper than the corresponding business ones. The other residential tiers are cheaper than their corresponding business tiers by 45-48%. Nor, according to Huval's remarks in the comments is the monthly usage cap any different—in both the residential and the commercial versions of the 100 meg package is capped at 8 terabits. (Note: that'd be about 1 terabyte of hard disk storage.) The idea behind the higher prices for businesses is that they use much more bandwidth than households—and LUS pays for its connectivity by capacity.

Another possible reason to formalize a 100 Mbps tier right now is that Chattanooga's still-building municipal fiber-optic utility recently announced a 1 Gbps option on its system. Chattanooga's Gig is expensive for a regular consumer at $399 a month. In general, while Chattanooga has offered higher speeds, their pricing schedule has been more expensive than LUS'. That relationship no longer holds with LUS pricing its residential 100 Mbps package at the same cost as its commercial one—LUS' price is 200 dollars a month while Chattanooga's is a 14o...

It sounds a bit as if this new residential tier hasn't been completely thought out. I'll not be surprised if revisions that bring it more into align with other residential packages don't appear.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Worth the Listen—Net Neutrality

Ok, here's something for those of you that are aural learners or just like a good rousing speech...The FCC hearings in Minnesota on Net Neutrality.



Franken starts @ 17 minutes
Copps begins @ 31 minutes
Clyburn @ 55 minutes
Chris Mitchell @ 72 minutes


This one's been making the rounds of the internet...you may well have heard remarks about Senator Franken' speech or raves about FCC Commissioner Copps' (An FCC commissioner got a standing ovation? Really!? Really... And deserved it. ) Both of those are well worth the time spent listening. Franken has lost none of his wry, dry wit in the transition to Senator and who knew that any nerdish regulator had the capacity to give a stem-winder like Copps did? The freshman on the FCC team, newly appointed Mignon Clyburn turned in a journeyman piece of work as well.

But the hidden gem is in the follow-up to the headliners. Don't miss Chris Mitchell—friend of Lafayette and all-round advocate of community-owned networks—get in his licks. He makes his points—that regulation is a necessary check on the self-interest of corporations, that the FCC's role is to regulate in the public, not the private interest, and that all communities should be allowed to own their own networks. The FCC has the authority to do all this and should, he avers. In the process he cites Lafayette for being a model of non-partisan, local decision-making and the best-value network in the United States. "...Lafayette, operates the absolute best broadband network, as measured by value; for less than 30 dollars a month anyone can get a 10 gigabit connection. Symmetrical....in St. Paul I have to pay 3 times that much to get anything like that upload."

Of course, not all of us are willing to slow down and listen to an actual speech. Ars Technica has a very readable overview of the major players that includes the money qoutes from both Franken and Copps: "I believe that net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time," from Franken and "I suppose you can't blame companies for seeking to protect their own interests, but you can blame policy makers if we let them get away with it" brought down the house for Copps." Clyburn made it crystal clear that she, like Copps, won't stand for separating wireless data services from the internet. So, early in the game, two of the 5 FCC commissioners have made it clear that the Google-Verizion deal won't get past their desk—and that's amazingly good news.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Championing Fiber—And Our Advantage

1012 Corridor, a regional business mag run by Baton Rouge's Business Report has a rather late recap of the April Fiber Fete here in Lafayette. The news, such as it is, centers around the revelation that the organizers are now characterizing it as the "first annual" fiber fete and that an ancillary group "FiberCorps" is being formed that ogranizer Daily says is:
 “an entity that can coordinate the people and resources of Lafayette to work toward the common goal of being the Hub City for fiber-powered innovation.”
The story closes with a worth-repeating quote that emphasized maintaining the momentum Lafayette has now:
“Right now, Lafayette has the attention of the outside world, and I think a good goal would be, by the start of next year, to have made a whole lot of progress.”
The question is: What sort of progress?

It'd be good to see a second event and good to see a community support organization—though I have to say that one that supports only for-profit business forms of "innovation" would be show a massive lack of imagination about what is possible for a community-owned fiber network. The real value, the unique value, of a powerful, affordable network that runs past every home and corner grocery lies in those many homes and micro businesses. We'd be smart to compete in areas in which we have a clear and sustainable advantage—and not for businesses that could be developed in any decently-appointed business park in this country. I've no objection to devoting some resources to big blue-sky business projects and even more energy to encouraging private investment in private businesses that utilize our resources. But I do think that the real value lies in the fact that we are well on our way to providing the resources of that enable a top-notch business park to even the least well-appointed neighborhood in our city. Why not build the sorts of resources on top of our network that you see in those "incubators?" Big bandwidth is a nice start. Community WiFi at full speed? Shared supercomputing resources? Shared storage? A streaming video server? A server with free cloud services like Google's Apps?

What would a community look like if it didn't take thousands and thousands of dollars to use the tools that are now restricted to large businesses and college campus but would instead be available to all for a cheap, shared price?

Nobody knows, of course. But then again almost nobody else has the basic resource of a community network upon which to build these new sorts of community infrastructure.

But we do.

And that is our advantage.

LUS Fiber Commercial Released

The draft video I reviewed on July 27th has been released unchanged by Joey Durel into general circulation. I think it is safe to assume that this is the version that will soon be showing up on local TV sets. You can now see it on the lafayettela.gov site.

I hope we'll start seeing the ad, and the the campaign for which it sets the tone, soon. This should be the start of the promised major media advertising push.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Judge asked to toss LUS Fiber suit" [updated]

¿¿ "Judge asked to toss LUS Fiber suit" ??

Uh, no—The suit in question is the National Cable Television Cooperative's (NCTC) suit. Lafayette Consolidated Government has filed papers further supporting its contention that the NCTC's lawsuit is merely designed to block an ongoing FCC inquiry into the matter.

So if the headline isn't actually the news in this story then what is?

Well it is a little hard to tell from the Advertiser story. Especially since important bits that might make it all make sense are missing.

The real timeline involved goes something like this: LUS and two other cities with new FTTH networks who have submitted applications for membership after years of being ignored and then enduring a "moratorium" on new members started proceedings at the FCC asking the FCC to exercise its obligation under the Communications Act to block anticompetitive practices. The FCC requires that complaints be preceded by filings of intent at the FCC and fully informing the interested parties. LUS and its sister cities did so. (This is not fairly characterized as a "threat.") The FCC's hope in requiring this is pretty clearly that the two parties will get together and work it out without burdening their docket with the case. Indeed, the two other cities were admitted...and only Lafayette was refused. Why? Well the NCTC simply hasn't said. But the fact (unreported in this story) is that Cox Communications is the largest member (this is recent—they joined after the successful referendum battle in Lafayette and the "moratorium") and has a seat on the board of directors. The two other cities don't compete against Cox or any other NCTC member. (This is not established policy, other places have more than one competitor in the NCTC.) If the point of the NCTC refusing only LUS membership is to stifle competition on behalf its most powerful member—well...on the face of it that would make their action anti-competitive and the FCC would be obligated to act.

Sooo, armed with a more complete picture can we now discern what the real news is?

Why yes, it is contained in the final, trailing paragraphs:
Included in Lafayette's latest filings is a letter from an FCC official, supporting Lafayette's position.

"We are extremely gratified that the Federal Communications Commission has taken the extraordinary step of writing a letter for submission to the federal judge in order to indicate that the agency is in full agreement with Lafayette's position that the FCC should have primary jurisdiction over resolution of the issues under the Communication Act," City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger said in a statement.
Lafayette has garnered the support of the FCC, which is agreeing that the matter falls into its domain. This is a big deal and Ottinger is right to be "extremely gratified."The court will surely understand that if it allows the lawsuit to proceed it will be in danger of federal preemption—that the FCC will simply exert its right under the Communications Act to rule on such issues and take it out of state courts.

That, actually, is news. And it is good news for Lafayette and LUS

7/28/10, 2:12 pm: I'm Wrong: It has just been pointed out that federal preemption can't be at stake here because the case is in federal court. That was careless. Thank goodness there was a knowledgeable reporter around to gently set me straight.

It's still good to have the FCC asserting its authority and that will help sway the court to defer to administrative authority but it is not nearly as effective in a federal court as the implied threat of preemption would be in a state one.