Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Bad: St. Mary council demands Internet, cable service for all

Early this morning I posted the good news that a small rural carrier in northeast Louisiana was building out a fiber to the home network for its customers using stimulus money. What made it news was that a poor rural area was getting advanced connections.

Today the Advocate carries the bad news story that rural residents in St. Mary parish are complaining that they can't get a decent internet connection—and that the council there is calling the incumbents Cox and AT&T in on the carpet saying: "If you are going to serve St. Mary Parish, you have to service all of St. Mary Parish.” It's not news that rural folks don't have decent broadband. What makes this news is that their local representatives are trying to do something about it.

What reading these two stories back to back makes pretty clear is that explaining the difference between the two isn't hard. The rural areas that have little chance to get world-class connectivity are places "served" by large national carriers like Cox and AT&T. Places that do better are served by local folks, be they private or publicly owned.

That might be something for the people of St. Mary to think about. The people of Lafayette already have.

The Good: Fiber To The Home...in Morehouse Parish

Hey, it's true...Northeast Louisiana Telephone Company up in Morehouse Parish is going to rebuild its aging copper network and roll out FTTH in rural parts of the parish. It serves customers in Collinston, Bonita, and Jones. They are up in the NE corner of the state outside Bastrop.

Read all about it in the Monroe News Star. The heart of the story:
The Collinston-based company will replace its current copper network with buried fiber optic cable that will give its customers access to high-speed Internet, digital TV service and expanded telephone service.

The funds, awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture following a grant application by the company last summer, include a $4,359,000 grant and a $8,124,600 low-interest loan. The company must complete the project within three years under the terms of the grant.
Congratulations!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Acadiana "Program aiming at tech gap"

If you missed the story Je’Nelle Chargois and her computer rebuilding project then you need to take a look at the story in the Advocate. The project exemplifies all those grassroots, community-driven public/private ideals you hear about so often—and so seldom see in full-blown action. Here's the gist of the story; one that will hopefully drive you to read the whole thing—and maybe even contribute to the project at hand or start one yourself:

Through a partnership between community organizations and local businesses, at least 200 computers will be placed in the homes of Faulk students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the technology outside of the classroom.

“We’re trying to close the digital divide and give them to the tools to compete,” said Je’Nelle Chargois, manager of KJCB radio and coordinator of the Heritage School of the Arts and Technology, partners in the project.

The group has worked with the school to match 137 students with computers. By next month, the group will have reached its goal of placing 200 computers, Chargois said.

The computers have been donated by area companies and, as needed, refurbished by volunteer computer technicians.

Those students who receive a computer and their parents must attend computer literacy workshops. The parents also agree to get more involved at Faulk.

There's more, of course; there's a neighborhood center involved, Vision Community Services, founded by Sessil Trepagnier, a computer analyst with Halliburton. I've worked with Je'Nelle briefly on a rebuilding project a couple of years back and can testify that she's devoted to doing this right.

If this sort of thing interests you and you think you'd like to help out or do something similar I've got a meeting you might want to attend: the League of Women Voters of Lafayette is bring together a group of folks who have previously expressed an interest in starting projects in Lafayette concerning both computer rebuilding and community computer centers. That meeting is next Monday, Jan. 25th at 5:30 at AOC (Main at Lee downtown). Both Sessil and Je'Nelle will speak as will a number of others ranging from League membe Thetis Cusimano reporting on research on current community center resources done by League members to Sona Dombourian of the Lafayette Library.

Friday, January 15, 2010

WBS: "LUS Fiber: Already running a network"

What's Being Said department

LUS Fiber is serving as an example of a real community fiber network in places like Champaign-Urbana Illinois that want to start their own fiber network. Now I admit to having a soft spot for C-U for both personal and technical reasons—it was my first "real" professorial appointment and it was the original home of ideas foundational to our current tech surround— like Eudora email (which I only recently gave up), the Mosaic browser (the www's first browser), and "the Cave" 3D immersive technology we see at Lafayette's LITE center. For long years C-U's NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) was the biggest node on the infant internet and fount of new, imaginative applications that made the network useful.

Champaign-Urbana is trying to build its own fiber-optic network. It's a place both cursed and blessed by its history. If you work at the university you've got all the connectivity you could dream of. If you live in the community...well the contrast is stark and the place is small enought that everyone knows how much better things are campus. Town & Gown is a real distinction in C-U.

The community, to its credit has a long history of dealing with digital divide issues. It is the home of PrairieNet, a legendary old line Free-Net organization that has transformed several times over the years and still serves the community, and it was the home of some of the smartest community WiFi experiments so the new push to fiber up the community is not a huge surprise.
C-U is putting the digital divide issues at the core of its project and there are more than a few ideas in their proposal that Lafayette could profitably copy.

All in all, it's gratifying to see LUSFiber discussed with admiration as an example in C-U. What's even more fun is to see a little real news leak out through that venue. The author of the page interviews LUS' own Amy Broussard who reveals that LUS' take rate is above the break-even point in the older parts of its brand-new footprint. (That's something LUS should be publicizing more widely.) There are three nifty postage-stamp videos — remember they don't have fiber yet — talking about the service (speeds and 100 mbps intranet), the different motivation a publicly owned network has, and the obstacles the incumbents put in the way.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Dore clarifies position on LUS rate hike"

That title might better be: "Dore commits to LUS rate hike."

According to the Independent blog Sam Dore is now a committed supporter of the LUS rate hike and will both vote for it himself and work for its passage. Dore explains it as less a shift in position than a matter of timing but that commitment changes the odds on the measure's passage.

In a LPUA meeting late last year Dore was sided with Ken Boudreaux and Brandon Shelvin to make a 3-2 majority in favor of voting down a rate hike. The five-person LPUA board must approve any changes concerning the city's utility assets and that loss made a vote by the larger council pointless. Dore, and in particular Boudreaux, cited timing, a lack of information and the feeling that the administration had put forward and a take-it or leave-it position that didn't brook compromise or negotiation.

Among the non-LPUA members of the council, the so-called rural districts, it rumor has it that Purvis Morrison who is planning a run for mayor of Scott is now in support of the increase. That decision could only have been reinforced by the power outage in Scott during Monday's frigid night that was attributed to an overtaxed connection by Entergy and when that same connection went out again Tuesday night LUS' Huval pointed to outages as just the sort of problem that he wanted to avoid by doing the timely capacity upgrades the rate increase would fund.

That brings the pro-rate increase count up to 4...with 3 of those votes being mostly out of the city and thus having few LUS customers to contend with— and the few that they do have are in the more prosperous southern reaches. It seems likely that this time around the administration and LUS have done a better job of vote counting.

Time will tell.

Friday, January 08, 2010

LUS rate hike returns

LUS will be going back to the City-Parish Council for another go at a rate hike on January 19th. Or so report the Independent, (not once but twice), the Advertiser and KLFY.

Of the early reports the most interesting has come from the Independent's Walter Pierce who starts looking into the background politics of the matter. His speculations focus on shifts toward rate hike support from Purvis Morrison and (very tentatively) Sam Dore.

But my guess is that some serious negotiating has already been going on with Brandon Sheldon and Kenny Boudreaux being taken more seriously than in the first pass when the complaint was heard that little explanation was given and no inclination to discuss mitigating the increase was entertained.

There is a lot sitting in the background of this issue, including the upcoming redistricting and a prospective change to the home rule charter that raises uncomfortable questions about city vs parish revenues and charter-based restrictions on how LUS' in lieu of tax revenues are controlled and how that money can be spent.

This might well get more politically sticky before it is put to bed.

For tech infrastructure interests that are a focus of readers of this blog the consequence of securing the rate increase might well be to put the federal stimulus money for LUS' smart grid infrastructure back on the table. (See earlier coverage.) Without the rate increase LUS was going to have to turn down $11,630,000 dollars. It'd be nice to get the feds to pay for all that build out—and smart too. Having to walk away from that much money might well have influenced the administration to quickly take another stab and the Council to reconsider its earlier action.

It should be interesting to watch the sausage being made.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Municipal fiber needs more FDR localism, fewer state bans"

Christopher Mitchell, the best researcher/commentator on municipal fiber in this country bar none (IMHO) has an outstanding essay up on Ars Technica today that you ought to read.

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/01/municipal-fiber-needs-more-fdr-localism-fewer-state-bans.ars

It holds Lafayette up as the premier example of a city that has done the right thing by its citizens. I have to say that I agree. But more than that: this essay lays out as coldly and directly as I have seen it done the rock-solid case for municipal broadband. It doesn't pull punches, and it doesn't bother to engage in histrionics.

I cand do no better than to excerpt the case he lays out and emphasize the parts that delight a Lafayette partisan but really, you'd be better served to read it yourself and not bother with my abridgement...it's not long and it's well-crafted.
The “broadband market” in much of the US happily provides snail-speed connections at inflated prices when compared to many of our peer nations....Recognizing the disconnect between the best interests of distant shareholders and the best interest of their community, cities across the US have built their own networks, taking a page from the thousands of small cities that built their own electricity networks a century ago when private utilities ignored them...

Lafayette, Louisiana is a good example. The city begged its incumbents to beef up local broadband networks and was rebuffed. This Cajun country community decided to build its own next-generation network. The incumbents argued that the households and businesses of Lafayette had all the broadband they needed and sued to stop the city. This year, after years of litigation, the victorious city began connecting customers to LUS Fiber.

LUS Fiber may offer the best broadband value in the country, offering a true 10Mbps symmetrical connection for $29/month. Those wanting the 50Mbps symmetrical connection have to pony up just $58/month—about what I pay to my cable provider in Saint Paul for "up to" 16/2 speeds.

Lafayette and Monticello were lucky because they had the power to build a digital network. Many communities do not.... Eighteen states impose some barriers to community broadband....Though Monticello and Lafayette have succeeded in spite of barriers, many other communities are unable to persevere, and watch their younger generation leave for modern opportunities elsewhere...

...communities have fought this fight before—when electricity was only available to the urban and affluent. Profit-maximizing companies not only refused to build the grid to low-profit areas but argued those areas should not be permitted to wire themselves. Fortunately, FDR saw things differently:

I therefore lay down the following principle: That where a community—a city or county or a district—is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of Government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up, after a fair referendum to its voters has been had, its own governmentally owned and operated service.

We need FDR to remind us that we are discussing the basic right of a community to invest in its future. Communities must not be held hostage by an absentee company that knows it can overcharge and under-invest without consequence.

Wireless is nice for mobility, but does not threaten the wired monopoly or duopoly. These networks—particularly full fiber-optic networks—are natural monopolies. There is no natural “market” any more than one could imagine a competitive market in streets or metro airports. This is infrastructure—the foundation for many other markets...

Industry-funded think tanks have produced many reports claiming publicly owned networks are failures. Their methodology is suspect—equating long-term investments in next-generation networks with lost money....The truth is that publicly owned networks do quite well. Communities typically borrow from outside investors to build the network and pay off the loans over a 15-20 year period with revenues from phone, television, and broadband services...

State barriers to publicly owned broadband networks may benefit monopolistic cable and telephone companies but can cripple communities within those states. Of course, such policies also give a competitive edge to cities in other states who have moved ahead.

Actually,” says Lafayette’s Republican Mayor, Joey Durel, “I often say with tongue firmly planted in cheek that I hope that the other 49 states do outlaw what we are doing. Then I will ask them to send their technology companies to Lafayette where we will welcome them with open arms and a big pot of gumbo.

Cold weather is gumbo weather and we can sit down over a bowl and watch TV with our grandchildren, and later help with their homework over a medium that we own. It's been a good week for self-reliance in Lafayette regardless of the icy weather and Mitchell's essay is nice reminder of how good we have it.

PS: Check out Christopher's blog: muninetworks.org, and for some background on the topic of municipal restrictions his recent post.