Monday, February 08, 2010

"LUS: Fiber schedule, meetings, software and more

Who DAT! You Dat! :-)
If you're recovering from Saints fever I have just the antidote. A long post on the latest in Lafayette's fiber fortunes. If you're starting to think that maybe anything is possible, well, read on.

Amanda McElfresh over at the Advertiser has an article up that apparently derives from following up remarks made by Joey Durel in his state of the city-parish address. In that speech (video) Durel devoted a fair amount of his time to touting the LUS Fiber network (@ minute 8:00). He revealed publicly what had been widely rumored locally: LUS Fiber was far ahead of schedule, and that the city-wide availability was expected by July, 18 months into a 24 month schedule. Durel linked the completion of the network to a series of meetings meant to engage the community with discussing what the "fiber-powered future" could look like.

Discussing that Fiber-Powered Future
As long time readers and friends will recall the general idea that Lafayette's people need to get involved meetings that would shape the future of the new network is something I've long advocated. Both here and and in various community groups like Lafayette Coming Together and the League of Women Voters. So the ears pricked up at the idea that the City-Parish President would be promoting a series of meetings to look at our fiber utility and the future of our city.

The first item on Durel's list of community meetings is "campfiber" a series, according to Durel, of "participant-driven conferences will be opportunities for local innovators to share their projects, get feedback from the community and for everybody to discuss their fiber-powered future." There have been several CampFiber meetings already (LPF coverage) and to date they've been strongly oriented toward software developers as participants and not toward public response or discussion. If they are to serve the purpose Durel describes they'll have to change. Engaging the imagination of the technology-types is crucial, of course—they've got more to dream with—but two other groups will be needed as well: the public and LCG/LUS. Both are crucial to a worthwhile discussion. The need for public involvement is obvious. But just as critical is a fully engaged LCG administration and LUS. LUS and the administration did attend and engage at the first campfiber. But in the end that participation seemed mostly defensive; real progress here will require the developer and the larger community be given more information with which to work. Two useful models occur to this writer: bring together distinct community groups beyond developers—nonprofits, church, medical, educational, creatives, small business, and neighborhoods all come to mind and ask them what a community-owned network could do for their sectors. (The Lafayette League of Women Voters has held the prototype of this model in two meetings involving nonprofits and community service organizations with fair success.) The other angle would be to organize around specific elements of the new system...for example: channel selection, internet storage, TV-phone integration, TV-internet integration, or set-top box uses (I can guarantee interest in the set top box.) For CampFiber meetings to engage the community will require focus and commitment from LUS and LCG.

The other item on Durel's list of meetings was Fiber Fete (website) which he described as designed to "bring experts from around the world to Lafayette to meet with local innovators to discuss what our fiber future looks like and plan on how to get to there from here." I've talked with the organizers—David Isenberg and Geoff Daily—and sit on what passes for the local board. The quote from Durel is just about the current extent of the planning; it is only now getting into any concrete planning. I've pushed for a more consistently social approach and for bring in speakers who are prepared to speak about how technology can be part of making communities stronger and people within them more active and powerful participants. Too many "visionary" tech conferences are trapped by the amazing technical wizardry and raw possibility of new technologies. Others go beyond that narrow vision only to focus solely on the business potential of these same technologies. While both of those motives are proper enough in their place that is not what a new community network needs and I'd hate to see
Fiber Fete captured by such limited visions. What's needed is a sense of how powerful communications technologies can be leveraged to create a stronger community and a more active and informed citizenry. (I am aware of the irony of suggesting that at a moment when deconsolidation is the talk of the town.) Having David Isenberg as one of the chief organizers gives me considerable hope that we might actually be able to accomplish this. His Freedom To Connect Conferences (F2C) are directly about promoting the idea that ensuring that we can freely connect to one another over the new network is the modern equivalent of freedom of assembly and free speech...That, rather than technical gee-whizary, is the right starting point for Lafayette and its people (not merely its "innovators") to start their thinking about a the responsibilities of a community-owned network.

For any of these public meetings to be useful rather than ornamental they'll have to involve more than the usual crowd labeled "innovators" — they'll need to involve a real cross-section of the community's most active citizens and the sense that LUS and LCG are open to sharing the information the community needs to assess what the network can accomplish and the sense that their conclusions will matter after the conference closes. That's a tall order. But it's one worth striving for.

The Rest of the Story
But Sunday's report had a lot of fiber news beyond the revelation of an early completion date and the prospect of public meetings. The new customer service center that we've heard about for so long is now scheduled to open by June. Says LUS' Huval:
a customer service center set to open at the corner of Pinhook and Kaliste Saloom roads by June. The building will include samples of LUS Fiber products, and will also be equipped to handle the needs of utilities customers, thus freeing up some of the gridlock at the customer service center at City Hall.
That will coincide with the completion of the network and, hopefully, a more vigorous public relations campaign promoting the new network.

Huval continues to be coy about adoption rates but says that "many" thousands have joined up. I've talked to friends who talk about most of their block or street moving over. I can't say that of my northside neighborhood and suspect that take rates are a very local phenomena at this early moment.

What should be welcome news was the declaration that LUS Fiber is going to be going through its first major upgrade. Again, from Terry Huval:
"It's tied to the set-top boxes and enhanced DVR services," he said. "It was a technology that was not completely ready for us to use when we deployed our system, and it's something that's not costly to us."
The software used on the Motorola boxes just isn't very good...it's older and the interface is a pain to use. So I don't use it. Now I am an interface nerd of sorts and also refused to use Cox's set top box software. With both LUS and Cox I have done most of my TV watching via the two old TiVo's that sit precariously perched on a rickity table by the widescreen. My understanding is that the new software will be an iteration of Microsofts' Media Room. That software package has been used by Verizon in its FiOS FTTH build out in the northeast. Verizon also uses the same family of Microsoft set top boxes that LUS has purchased so it should be a fairly mature implementation and full-featured platform. It will also be a much easier basis on which to build extended services than the Alcatel-supplied software currently in use. Heck it might even be usable.

A real concern has to be the internet capability which was the bright spot in the less-than-stellar Alcatel software. That feature is a great idea but its current reliance on a WAP-based browser both limits its practical utility and makes it extremely dificult to use. That capacity exists in the set top box and represents LUS' most innovative attempt to date to bridge the digital divide in Lafayette. It should be possible to utilize it on Mircrosoft's software--after all media room for the PC allows for internet connections. If it is not baked in developing a real net connection would make a great contest with which to involve local developers.

14 comments:

Raymond Camden said...

Like you, I'm looking forward to the UI upgrade. I _loathe_ the menu system now. Slow, ugly, and clunky. It feels like something from 1985. The last Cox person to visit my house said the updates would be made in February some time and that it would NOT be pushed over the wire. Instead, users would be given new boxes. I wish they would consider being more vocal about it. I'd be sure to clear out my DVR list beforehand.

Speed said...

I finally got fiber for internet and phone (and I'm loving the internet speeds!), but unfortunately the LUS HD offering is substantially smaller than what Cox offers so I stuck with them for cable. Sad that the boxes have been so bad as well. I'd consider my Cox DVR as low of quality as I'd be willing to stand, so I'm sure the LUS DVR would drive me nuts, as well as anyone who's used to a TiVo before.

John said...

@ Raymond: Yes, I wish LUS would be more open--much more open. Being so close-mouthed only supports those who trash talk the system. The rumor mill runs rampant when silence descends--and it's almost always filled with bad rumors from LUS' standpoint.

Plus, frankly, it doesn't serve the declared purpose of keeping the competition in the dark. Your note on the Cox guy's rumor is a great case in point. I'd heard similar rumors from enough multiple sources that I am pretty sure that alternative was seriously considered. Now, apparently, that's changed and the software upgrade will be the whole of it, at least for now.

My point is: Cox knew all along anyway. And repeated the version that was best for it. The illusion that you can hide things, especially just which widely available tech you are using how you are using it from the technically competent is a fantasy. You just deny the community the same details—and they might actually help.

John said...

@ Speed —Is the HD lineup that different for your purposes? Especially considering the "I never watch those channels anyway" factor? When I reviewed it I was getting all the channels I cared about. (And I can testify that the signal is amazing, we had a houseful of family for the game last night and the picture was shockingly good on HD)

Caveat: I'm not much of TV wonk. I bought my big screen by the specs that allowed it to display a desktop screen well--and it does. :-)

bfaul said...

Thank God. I have been an enthusiastic supporter of LUS Fiber but I've been feeling very let down over the digital video service. I'm very relieved to hear they are upgrading the set top interface. I have been doing a slow burn ever since I got the thing. I've come to hate it with a passion. It is slow to respond, it often doesn't respond to button presses, then, infuriatingly, it double taps. It changes channels randomly when the fast forward or rewind buttons are pressed, or when you browse the buggy channel guide, and in the process wipes out the prerecorded video on the channel you were watching. It doesn't record from the beginning of a program once you pass the program start time, even if you've been watching the same channel for an hour. The title search is abysmal. It's as though the people writing the menu system have never used a set top box and didn't bother doing any research before they put this thing in production. I've written a list of about 20 other different gripes I have with this interface. It is simply awful. I've been thinking of switching my video back to Cox. I never thought I would say it, but Cox's set top box is far, far superior. I can't believe how much less usable this box is. The internet interface is a joke in poor taste. I tried it out and I can find no circumstance in which I would ever use it. It's that bad. They should not be advertising that this box provides internet access, because given the nature of the interface, for all practical purposes it doesn't.

As others already mentioned, Cox has nearly twice the HD channels that LUSfiber has, and Cox also gives you The Movie Channel series complementary with the digital tier. I miss this more than I thought I would. Another thing is station dropouts. I've been seeing the message "Channel is temporarily unavailable" with disappointing regularity. Where is that fiber reliability I was told to expect? I don't really know if this is limited to my location or if it is the service as a whole, but it happens much too often. I suppose I need to give them a call to check it out.

I've been very happy with the internet service. It's as fast as I had anticipated and reliable. The phone service is adequate, but there again, I was disappointed to find the voice quality kind of muddy compared to Cox. There is just no excuse for this. Also, there is no circle dialing, so numbers that I've become used to calling for free in surrounding areas are once again long distance. I feel like I've taken a giant step back. Furthermore, the only enhanced phone feature I really care about is Caller ID, and I've got to pay an extra $18 a month for the "premium" service to get it. That's worse than AT&T, which charged an additional $9.00 for this service alone. I thought we were going to leave this kind of gouging behind with LUSfiber. Finally, they don't allow you to do automatic billing. Why in the world would they not have put this in place to begin with? Like so many other things, they keep saying "it's coming", so I keep hoping. Maybe my expectations were unreasonable, I don't know, it just isn't what I hoped it was going to be. All in all, I think the digital video service should be priced at about half of what Cox charges because it is literally half as good. I am stunned to find myself saying this.

Sorry about this whiney post, but my God, I wasn't prepared for how inadequate the high tier video service was going to be. I needed to get this off my chest. I've been planning to write a letter to Terry Huval complaining about it all, but now I think I'll hold fire till the new interface is released and I can evaluate it properly. Thanks for the update.

Speed said...

John,
Unfortunately there are quite a few channels that I would really miss in HD, but mainly being a hockey fan, Versus is a big one. Plus, they don't even carry the NHL Network. Cox doesn't have it in HD, but at least they have it.
I absolutely love HD and usually start there for looking for something to watch. I don't know how all that channel contract stuff works, but maybe someone could explain why if they have a channel, they don't have the HD version? After all, I assume the fiber network should be able to handle it so I doubt that is the issue.
Here's hoping they add some more HD because as more people get HDTVs, I could see this becoming more of an issue the longer they have a small HD lineup.

John said...

Hi Brent,

I wouldn't hesitate to go ahead and send my list of complaints about the set-top box interface to Terry. They might be in a position to look hard at what is "revealed" in the new interface and would be more likely to implement features if they knew somebody cared. Like most things MS I expect it will be larded up with features that not all will use.

I've not had your experience with anything but the video interface. My phone is good, the video itself stunning and the internet great. I'm getting more from my video than I got from Cox. I've not had any dropped channels though I saw an instance last night at my daughter's house. Lasted about 30 seconds. Much of this might well be about location--my area was one of the first ones to come online and may be more mature for that reason.

My reaction is pretty tolerant, partly because I'm a big supporter on grounds other than the services I get directly and partly because I've read a good bit about new systems starting up and recall the glitches that lasted several months when Cox was upgrading my older neighborhood. I was braced for outages like I had back then and heard about. It's a big deal bringing up a brand new system and with a full set of services on top with people who've might be ultra capable but have never run one before. I expect improvements and expect them to get much better when they can concentrate solely on maintenance.

In general I recommend going ahead and giving them a call about any problem you have. The fact that you are a big supporter shouldn't cause you to hang back...:-)


Oh, on the phone, check your bill I think the upcharge is 13 dollars for the premium set, not 18. If you don't want anything else in that package (the Voicemail and Call waiting) call and ask for a price on just the Caller ID.. that's all I've got.

John said...

Speed,

I think you've mentioned hockey before, I'd lost track of that. There will surely be long-tail stuff like that...I wish I understood how the channel contract business works but I only know enough to know that it doesn't really make any sense to me. What the guy who does most of this work tells me is that LUS is in a hard place because they're new, small, and IPTV-based. (The majors are terrified of the technology and associate it with piracy, apparently--they insist on pretty absurd clauses some of which.) This won't last because major players like AT&T & Verizon are coming on board with IPTV but until then... The upside is that LUS is simply not channel-limited by their infrastructure. They are capable of turning on insane numbers of channels. Time is your friend. If you can get a few friends to ask for a particular channel you'll have better luck with LUS than with any big organization. Ask.

Gene said...

I come from many years of DirecTV TIVO service. Yep, I know the interface is bad compared to the TIVO, but so is every other DVR I have seen.

I went with the triple play. I had cox for cable, Directv for channels, and ATT for phone service with unlimited long distance.

I went from $188 per month for the old services to $158 for the LUS service. My internet is incredible compared to everything else out there (symetric up/down is important to me). The phone is much better in voice quality than I was getting before (50 year old house with 40 year old phone lines). The television is better than I was getting before, simply because I didn't have HD at all with Directv.

Bottom line is that I upgraded all my services, and am paying less.

Thats the bill of goods I was sold, so I couldn't be happier.

Yep, COX, ATT and Directv have all called me back, offering lower rates and more features, but that just gets me angry. I had those guys for over 15 years, and all they did was raise my rates the entire time. If they could have sold it to me for less, they should have done so when I was a loyal customer.

Give it time. Once they have it fully built out, I expect things will get better.

Raymond Camden said...

Just an FYI, I had a brain fart in my original comment. It was a LUS guy.

Raymond Camden said...

@Gene: I'd disagree about the interface and Cox. When I left them, their interface worked very well. Now maybe I just got used to it, and it did take time, but it was a pretty good UI I thought.

As for giving it time - well I definitely want to. I'm a huge proponent of what LUS is doing. I also went through a _lot_ of growing pains with Cox, so I know LUS can improve. My gripe though is that I find it hard to believe they couldn't have started w/ a nicer package. It's not like they are starting 4-5 years ago.

@John: You think we should ping Terry? Got an email address for him? ;)

John said...

@ Gene vs Raymond :-) While I understand (!) Raymond's frustration I think I'm with Gene on this one. While Cox's interface did get better I still found it stunningly awkward--and the navigation on the VOD/Freeverse stuff so nonsensical as to make it unusable (my son got mad at me for suggesting he try it!).

I am glad they're moving on and hope they can retain the good features--that is letting users access the internet through the box on the TV. If that worked well it would be a digital inclusion breakthrough.

Re Terry's email. He posted this string on the blog as a response to another query not long ago (so I don't feel bad in reposting.)

"If you, or anyone else, feel like we did not do our job properly - feel free to contact me at thuval@lus.org or call me at 337 291 5804."
http://lafayetteprofiber.com/Blog/2009/12/getting-his-fiber.html

Raymond Camden said...

Thanks John - I've reached out to him.

C Gossen said...

I agree with @bfaul the UI is the worst software I have ever used. I'm really looking forward to Microsoft Media Room, I really hope it clears up the HD resolution because my HD looks awful. Lets also hope it runs super smooth like this..
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3bwNz-mMig&feature=related