Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lafayette, the NCTC, and National Policy

Both the Advocate and the Advertiser have posted stories focusing on the latest move in the Cox/NCTC versus LUS/LCG contest being gamed out in the courts. In this turn Lafayette is has filed suit to dismiss a lawsuit filed in in Kansas by the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC). That lawsuit was filed in an attempt to block LUS from pursuing a complaint with the FCC.

So...this is a suit to block a suit which hopes to block a filing at the FCC...there's a legal logic in there somewhere I am sure. Or in the words of the Advocate:
Attorneys for Lafayette argued in court filings that the cooperative’s lawsuit is an attempt “to drag a Louisiana municipal public utility into court on the plaintiff’s home turf in an effort to avoid being held accountable for its conduct before the Federal Communications Commission.”
The Advertiser:
The FCC complaint by LUS Fiber argued that NCTCS engaged "in unfair, deceptive and anticompetitive conduct that has the purpose of effect of preventing LUS from becoming a member of NCTC and thereby obtaining the huge quantity discounts and other that NCTC negotiates for its members..." "We have stated in our pleadings filed today that the court should dismiss NCTC's complaint in deference to the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, or alternatively suspend any further proceedings until the FCC has decided the case initiated by the Lafayette complaint," city-parish attorney Pat Ottinger said.
The story closes, appropriately, with the note:

NCTC's largest member is Cox Communications, LUS Fiber's primary competition.
That Cox is engaging in anti-competitive behavior through its influence at the NCTC is the core of Lafayette's public relations case; and, given Cox's behavior here in Lafayette, it seems entirely likely. The fact that the other two cities that had initially joined Lafayette in its complaint, but were after filing suit admitted to the membership process, did not have the NCTC's largest member as competition is damning. That these cities' corporate competitors do not belong to the NCTC tends to clinch the argument.

In fact, that those other cities had competition that does not belong to the NCTC is a strong argument that more is at stake nationally than simply the interest of a mid-size, aggressive city somewhere along Louisiana's cost and its huge corporate competitor. As I've pointed out previously, other members of the NCTC have engaged in the sort of anti-competitive blocking that Cox has used in Louisiana.

The NCTC used to be a mechanism for small, locally-owned cable networks and municipalities to get relatively fair programming prices for their customers. Over the years the market has changed and single-system mom and pop operations have all but disappeared as large and medium size "mulitple system operators" (MSOs) cable companies have grown by leveraged buyouts of smaller competitors—not by successful competition with other cable companies. Successful head-to-head competition requires building a better network and providing better services. (The route, incidentally, that Lafayette has chosen.) Buyouts only require taking on large debt burdens...burdens in fact so large that they can make finding the money to make major service upgrades very difficult.

Now the NCTC is run by debt-heavy MSOs, not mom and pop, local, cable companies. Cox is merely the biggest. Many other NCTC members are no doubt in the same structural position as Cox cable—heavily in debt—and many of those are in the smaller locales that may be actually losing population. These smaller municipalities could reasonably feel that they've lost the local businesses to which they felt loyalty to faceless corporations who do even fewer network upgrades than the small local businesses did. Those small cities and towns are the ones that, nationally, are most likely to consider investment in a fiber network an investment in their future.

The NCTC has a legitimate national function...lowering cable prices for the customers of small cable companies and thereby allowing local alternatives to enormous international telecommunications corporations to exist. The outcome of the current conflict over Lafayette's membership will be a decision-point for the nation. Either the NCTC will provide that service for all small operators or it will turn itself into an exclusive cartel that uses its purchasing power to push out all competition.

That is a national problem; it is not simply a small side fight down in some damp part of Louisiana.



Correction: It's been pointed out that Lafayette has not really filed suit in response to the suit. They've merely responded to the NCTC's Kansas suit. Point taken. That is actually clear in the press release. I let a fun line get in the way of a close reading...mea culpa.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

LUS announces Mediaroom set top box software

At a 2:30 press conference today LUS officially announced the launch of media room with Terry Huval saying that adopting the new software would move the system to the cutting edge of video services and development. According to the press release:
The platform focuses on giving consumers advanced flexibility to enhance their overall TV viewing experience. LUS Fiber is the only provider in Acadiana that has a network capable of delivering Microsoft Mediaroom to its customers. With the power of Lafayette’s only 100% fiber optic network, and the compelling Microsoft Mediaroom IPTV platform, residents and businesses will now have access to world class features not available from conventional cable TV companies.
Current customers are being called and appointments made to replace the current set top box with another containing the new software. The change-over will begin immediately:
LUS Fiber anticipates that the new Video service powered by Microsoft Mediaroom will be made available to all customers receiving new service beginning July 8.
The most visible changes will be in the enhanced capacities of the DVR software that allows recording shows for later viewing.
  • Whole Home DVR
    • Record and watch recordings from any set top box equipped TV in the home, which allows a customer to start playing a recording in one room and finish watching it in another room. Record up to three programs at once – Flexible!
  • Instant Channel Change
    • No more waiting for the next channel to show up. You can scroll through channels with ease to find the program you want to see – Faster! ·
  • Picture-in-Picture Browsing
    • Get a peek at what else is on other channels while still watching your current program – More!
  • Enhanced Search
    • Find shows and movies quickly. This comprehensive search will even check the recorded TV list and Video on Demand offerings – Better!
Terry Huval addressed the question of why the change was necessary:
“During the deployment of our LUS Fiber system, a number of our customers asked us for more advanced video features...Microsoft Mediaroom provides the platform that will deliver the features our customers want and, because it’s a web-based system, it offers us endless possibilities for future applications and expansion.”
That last sentence is the key: LUS recognizes that what is wanted and needed is a platform that will allow bringing internet-based material and methods to your television. The television needs to also become another screen onto the web; albeit one especially suited for showing video and for occasions when multiple people want to view the same material. During the Q&A after the short demo I asked Huval to elaborate on those possibilities. He responded that they anticipated weather and news apps and mentioned putting caller ID on the screen and providing the ability to remotely program your set top box's DVR.

I talked to an Alcatel rep after the show (Alcatel is the maker of much of the equipment that hangs on the side of your house and pretty much the system integrator) and he said that Microsoft makes the platform that the new apps/widgets/services runs on available to developers as a download. That sounds awfully good; I know that there are a lot of folks locally who are raring to get involved. Alcatel makes some middleware and I presume that is what LUS is using. Linking up the two should make most development possible. That sounds like the avenue for anyone who wants to get ahead of the TV app tidal wave...

Itsa good thing gang. Major media showed up; look for it on your (old-fashioned) TV screen tonight.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

LUS' new set top box software in beta trial

LUS Fiber has begun a limited beta test of its new set top box software—Microsoft Mediaroom. Even in its current state mediaroom is a much better piece of software. There's been a lot of complaints about the old vendor-supplied software; while it does provide basic digital video recorder (DVR) functionality it did so in ways that were, at best, clunky. A more serious problem was that it was pretty dead-ended; there was little chance that it would be or even could be upgraded to provide for more digitally-enabled advances that integrate phone features and apps and widgets that access internet content.

The new software is most emphatically not clunky; the new complaint will be, of course, that the slick finish and transparencies are naught but "eye candy"—but it is beautiful eye candy. More seriously the navigation interface is much easier to use and some user interface gurus have clearly been consulted. Nothing is more than about two clicks away. With Microsoft as the producer it goes without saying that integration into the world of digital convergence is a major theme. Implementations of mediaroom at other carriers have included many new features along this line including caller ID displayed on the TV and various forms of weather and sports widgets. We're not likely to see those until the basic DVR and Video On Demand functions have been fully implemented. But this area represents a potential major opportunity for local designers and programmers—Microsoft has a developer framework.

I've been lucky enough to be included in the beta test—possibly because I've complained to LUS about the software. The installer came by late last week and put it in and I've been feeling it out since then. He brought it already installed on a new box that looks just like the old box; apparently mediaroom wants a chipset newer than the one I had.

I like it. So much so that my antique pair of TiVos may be in danger of retirement from their role as my main interface to video—I haven't used a provider's interface (Comcast, Cox, or LUS) in more than a decade so that would be a major step for me. LUS' version of mediaroom not feature-complete at this moment. In particular, the Video On Demand is pretty much unpopulated; the shell is there but the content is not.

Expect to see a few posts about the new software and its implications—more than you've seen about the old package. Mediaroom one has far more potential. I'll write a bit on the interface in another post sometime soon with others to follow. My first interest has never been the cable video side of the network. I appreciate having it, and appreciate that income from it will help pay for the community system. But both my wife and I spend far more time on our laptops than watching TV and I'm pretty well convinced that is the path we'll all be taking. Mediaroom can open a lot of doors between different screens and bring some of the participatory elements of the net to the TV in much the way that the iPhone brought elements of the net to the cell phone. It'll be an interesting ride with both its upsides and downsides. By bringing Mediaroom onboard LUS assures that Lafayette will be in a position to ride that wave.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"LUS vs. Cox goes federal"

In a return to its he-said, she-said, sorta-kinda-neutral editorial policy on LUS Fiber the Advertiser runs a Saturday editorial on the exclusion of LUS from the national cable buying coop that manages to leave the vague impression that the Advertiser is piously favor of...of something good for our citizens. It sorta endorses whatever would be good without coming to any firm conclusion about just what that might be.

Come on...sure Cox is an advertiser who takes occasional full pages and all but really; no firm position on an obvious injustice? Where is the fire we saw late in the fiber fight? There was a time when the Advertiser had finally come to understand what was and wasn't to the advantage of their community—and as a consequence what was to their own advantage.

I'm not asking for much here, just a dose of enlightened self-interest that can see beyond next week's revenues. A newspaper can take its name all too seriously.

Sigh...

You can read it for yourself.

Friday, June 11, 2010

LUS Files Suit, Sorta...(updated)

LUS, for a change, has initiated a lawsuit. Or at least an FCC proceeding. Close enough.

In a press release issued today LUS outlined its case for the public. That release underlined the basic irony of the situation that LUS finds itself in: fighting for admittance to a coop whose reason for existence is to help small guys, like LUS, somewhat level the playing field with big guys, like Cox. It's outrageous that Cox is in a position to try and block LUS. From the press release:
The concept behind the establishment of the NCTC was to allow small cable providers to aggregate their collective buying power for national programming, therefore providing an opportunity for more competition in the cable TV marketplace.
In a move that is reminiscent of the angry days of the fiber fight here in Lafayette Joey Durel blasts Cox's willingness to block fair competition:
It is a sad day for the free market economy when a corporation hundreds of times the size of a small, community-owned enterprise will use every means necessary to snuff out competition so that they can go back to charging outrageous prices for services.
That's from the press release, and really that's pretty much all you need to know. But the complaint to the FCC is only marginally less caustic in its lawyerly way. A reader who'd like to savor the full flavor of this story is encouraged to read it through. But if you're not in that group, I'll be happy to replay some of the highlights...

I was intrigued to see that the complaint to the FCC had a politically timely overtone...the introduction begins by emphasizing that LUS depends upon video revenues to "provide ultra-high-speed broadband services." Devising a high-speed broadband plan is the project of the moment for the FCC and Lafayette's LUS received much favorable attention in Washington during the plans proceedings, serving as the national poster-child for local initiative for having provided ultra high-speed broadband at a shockingly low price.

The complaint outlines the history of the conflict; and a very suggestive history it is. Congress. The NCTC, the complaint alleges boasts of its inserting a clause into the 1992 Telecommunications Act that assured that the coop would be treated like a cable company by content providers by convincing legislators that this was the only way to insure fair competition between the little systems it represented and the mammoth national cable companies. But, a two-year "moratorium" on new members the NCTC opened up their membership...to Cox and Charter; two of the nations largest multi-system operators. Since that time they've apparently quit admitting new members that would compete with their present (expanded) membership.
[The NCTC and its dominant members] are now undermining Congress’s pro-competitive intent by using denial of membership in NCTC as an anticompetitive device to insulate NCTC’s existing members from competition by new entrants.
A footnote offers evidence that Cox and Charter aren't the only members who have fought against local municipal competition...MediaCom, SuddenLink, Bridgewater Telephone have also engaged in their own versions of the anti-competitive behavior Cox has practiced in Lafayette.

Lafayette wasn't the only municipal provider caught in this trap. Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina were similarly denied membership--right up to the moment that they demonstrated they'd bring a complaint in conjunction with LUS to FCC. Then, suddenly, they were notified that the NCTC had reconsidered. LUS and its lawyers draw the obvious conclusion and urge the FCC to do the same:
NCTC’s discrimination against LUS cannot be explained on legal or factual grounds. In fact, the only significant distinction between LUS and Chattanooga/Wilson is that LUS’s major rival, Cox Communications, is NCTC’s largest member as well as a prominent member of NCTC’s Board of Directors, whereas Chattanooga’s and Wilson’s major competitors, Comcast and Time Warner, respectively, are not members of NCTC.

...NCTC’s continued flat rejection of LUS’s membership application, despite LUS’s offer to join under the same terms and conditions as Chattanooga and Wilson, underscores the arbitrary, discriminatory, and anticompetitive nature of the Defendants’ practices. Indeed, to keep LUS out, the Defendants are even willing to go so far as to harm the membership of NCTC as a whole, as the addition of another qualified member would increase the bargaining power of the whole group.
There's more in the complaint, including a series of emails between Lafayette's lawyers and the NCTC's explaining—or rather refusing to explain—why Lafayette was being treated differently, the text of the first joint draft of the cities' complaint, and the text of the NCTC's attempt to pre-empt the three cities legal action.

It's a surprisingly readable and interesting document. And it will be very interesting to watch this go forward. Lafayette has asked for a quick and frankly pretty brutal judgment against the NCTC and the individuals and companies represented on the NCTC board. I look forward to seeing how these companies enjoy having their feet held to legal fire.


Update: Back during the fiber fight when Cox and AT&T were doing everything in their power to eliminate LUS as a possible competitor each ugly episode made national news. The push polls, lawsuits, and incumbent-promoted petitions were widely reported. No small part of Lafayette's victory was the result of unremitting bad PR in the national press. Those days have returned and the current fight over NCTC membership has garnered extensive coverage.

Local:
The Advertiser: LUS files FCC complaint
The Advocate: LUS Fiber complains to FCC; Cable TV order asked
The Independent: LUS alleges 'unfair, deceptive' conduct by Cox, NCTC

National:
Broadband Reports: LUS Files Complaint With FCC Over Cox Blackballing
Broadband Breakfast: Small Town’s Telecom Drama Continues: Municipal Utility Sues Cable Group For Discriminatory Access To Programming
Telecompetitor: NCTC Membership Fight Stirs Up Controversy, FCC Asked to Intervene
FierceCable: LUS blames Cox because it can't get into National Cable TV Co-Op

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

FiberFete 2010 on Vimeo

The Fiber Fete videos are up on Vimeo...production took a while but they are up now, look great and are certainly worth visiting—or revisiting. Thanks go out to Eric Credeur who did the work of editing.

If you didn't get the chance to go to the conference, now's your chance. And even if you did now you can revisit the presentations and think through what was said. That's what I plan to do...The quality of the presentations was really impressive. As I review I'll post any notes worth sharing.