Saturday, April 17, 2010

Lafayette, Google and 1 Gig Fiber

LPF noted LUS' application to the "Google Fiber for Communities" project several weeks ago as a bit of lagniappe to an article about the city's tech efforts more generally. Both the Independent and the Advocate caught the story late this week, in advance of Fiber Fête. Google's Minnie Ingersoll, a product manager for alternative access and one of the people shepherding the project will be a speaker at Fiber Fête on Tuesday of next week and that connection is noted by the Independent.

[For those of you who were on a different planet for the last two months—or just from a place which already has its fiber—and missed the fevered internet excitement, here's the short version: Immediately prior to the unveiling of a National Broadband Plan that pushed an anemic goal of 100 megs in 10 years Google announced that it would fund a testbed project that would offer communities a gig FTTH network. Conditions to apply were minimal: not more than 500,000 people, and a demonstrated eagerness to "accept" a 1 Gig, open network. More than 600 communities officially applied and another 190,000 individuals applied on behalf of their communities.]

Both stories reported that LUS based their appeal on Lafayette's vision, willingness to battle to build its own network, and on how cheap it would be to up grade LUS current system to the 1 gig standard. As the Independent wrote:
"We already have a system in place and that's what we were trying to sell to them," Huval says. He notes that LUS' fiber network, which reaches internal speeds up to 100 megabits per second, could be upgraded to 1 Gig per second speed relatively easily. "We looked at what kind of things do we bring to the table that might be unique," Huval adds, "and yet still substantive enough to attract Google's attention and we felt that the fact that we already have a fiber to the home infrastructure almost completely in place that we have clear unambiguous community support because we had a vote of the people [on fiber] with strong support. We also talked about the strength of the utility system and we talked about our visions for the future, that we didn't build this system only to have competitively priced cable TV, telephone and Internet, we were looking at building an infrastructure for the future."
The Advocate's coverage made it plain that LUS was intent on moving to a 1 gig to the home network even without Google's help, even but that it would take till the next scheduled round of network upgrades to get there:

The city’s LUS Fiber system already offers top-tier Internet speeds and has the capacity to eventually offer 1 Gbps service, but Huval said Google’s project could speed the pace of development.

He said the advantage that Lafayette offers for Google is that the 1 Gbps speed would be easier to achieve here because the city has already installed fiber lines in most areas.

LUS application chose to present what some might say were Lafayette's weaknesses in such a competition into strengths—to turn the fact that we already have fiber and some of the fastest, cheapest speeds in the nation into a testament to the community's dedication to the vision of a faster, cheaper, community-controlled network.

But another part of the difficulty in applying for Google's support is that the LUS network is not an open network in the sense that Google set down as a condition for gaining its support. Google's version of network openness is that of "open access" which means that any service provider could provide services in competition with LUS. LUS almost certainly can't afford to travel that path. It can't afford to take the risk that the much maligned (un)Fair Competition Act would be used to force it into a premature forced sale if it ran for even a short time a loss—particularly as the law's chief consumer effect is to put a limit on how low the local utility can drop prices in response to price competition. (The enormity of that unfairness is whole 'nother post. Or two.) The most immediately obvious problem is that opening the network to Cox invites the cable operator execute a double edged strategy that would use Lafayette's superior network to undercut LUS' network offerings on, say the high end, where its own network is bandwidth-constrained, while lowering its price for its low-end offerings to levels LUS would not be able or even allowed to follow. Cox would not, of course, be under any obligation to offer its low-end network to LUS at prices that would allow it to compete fairly over the cheaper, slower network. The slightest misstep in such an open access scenario would put our community's hard-fought and very expensive network on the block for fire-sale prices. As much as it pains me to say it, unless circumstances change it simply would be irresponsible to open Lafayette's network.

Of course, circumstances can change. LUS could conceivably reach a tête-à-tête with Google by promising to open their network to any provider that does not own a competing network in Lafayette....there might be something to talk about. Or Google could simply agree to shoulder Lafayette's risk. It'd still be a cheaper way to build a network as all Google would have to do is promise to get the city out of any hole the new policies put it in. I doubt that LUS suggested any such thing (but would be pleased to stand corrected). Much more likely is that they put their best foot forward where they had a good argument and intended to deal with the hard parts when, and if, Google decided on further talks.

There is, however, another way to try and dodge the bullet of Google's desire to experiment with an open network; one that I suggested. Eventually I went ahead and made citizens application on behalf of Lafayette that tried to make lemonade not only out of the lemon of already having a network (using the same approach as LUS) but also leaned on the fact that Google went to great lengths to insist that their experiment, well, was an experiment. As far as I can tell most analysts cynically assumed that all that "science" talk was feel-good misdirection meant to underline the fact that Google wasn't trying to establish a toehold in the business of building a national network. It's more likely that Google is being perfectly honest. Anyone who has thought much about the roots of their search engine and then watched them build services like Google Apps has to believe that experimentation is is the company's genes. Google looks like a company that actually took the "knowledge-based" economy seriously. The bit about being the most profitable business in the world is a by-product of successfully making that commitment; not the goal.

What Lafayette could do is offer to make Google's experiment a LOT better. To improve their knowledge.

Science wienies will tell you that a good experiment controls independent variables...and to make even a stab at that you have to have multiple conditions. Helping Lafayette reach a gig and installing the same experimental apps and resources it does in other "Google gig communities" would give the overall experiment a lot needed validity; it would let you, for instance, decide whether open networks OR local ownership or experimental apps were more important factors in rates adoption and levels of innovative use...or at least it would allow a researcher to think about it with at least some contrasting data. (To prove that Lafayette also cares about research itself I'd point you to the fact Lafayette did its own full-throated "pretest" evaluation of internet attitudes and usage—on its own dime. The DIY attitude extends beyond simply building our own network.)

Sooo...if you want a look at the ridiculously dense, full-throated, Lafayette fan-boi version of the idea that I submitted to Google you can have a gander for yourself: Google Lafayette, La Proposal

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