Monday, March 29, 2010

"Tech efforts getting noticed"

Sunday's Advertiser carried a story that —as my father might have said—"Does Lafayette proud." I recommend locals and fans give the full story a read. The article hangs its hook on Kit Becnel's Academy of Information Technology (AOIT). A school within a school at Carencro High, AOIT prepares students for careers in the broad field of information technology and is affiliated with the national academy foundation. AOIT is a leader in the national academy and its leadership sits on several committees driving changes in the national program. The award cited in the story was actually given to Louisiana Public Broadcasting and showcases several of Lafayette's tech jewels including LUS Fiber, LITE, AOC, and AOIT:
Louisiana Public Broadcasting partnered with Lafayette Utility System, Bay Area Video Coalition and Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE) to enhance technology and instruction at Carencro High School. This project provided more bandwidth to the school, expanding instruction to include creation of 3-D models and training students for careers in technology.
But beyond AOIT's award the article also delves into Durel, Huval, and Bertrand's recent appearance at Google's DC headquarters. Not surprisingly, since attendees at that conclave included the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Bay Area Video Coalition, and the CIO of San Francisco AOIT's reputation was already well-known.
...many of those invited to the event at Google's headquarters already knew about the academy and Becnel's work."The pioneering spirit exists in Lafayette with our LUS Fiber and the work and energy of people like Ms. Becnel," Bertrand said at the meeting. "You're going to hear her name again and you're going to hear it a lot. The entire United States is envious of what we've done. It's no small feat."
Also in this mix is Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) who is providing support and training for AOIT. Part of the conversation
The invitation-only event in D.C. was a workshop on broadband and the public interest, and was co-presented by the Ford Foundation and the Paley Center for Media...."Their purpose was to talk about how digital public media networks should advance in broadband and enrich connected communities," Huval said...

Lafayette officials discussed LUS Fiber, including how it is used in all Lafayette Parish public schools and is expected to be throughout the whole city by this summer. As the infrastructure portion of it nears completion, Huval said the focus will turn toward how fiber can be applied in both schools and the community.

That last (my emphasis) is what the community is waiting to hear. The benefits to education through the school system and to public media through AOC are simply the entering edge of the wedge.

The dreams continue to come...Huval, widely know for his prowess on the fiddle and his advocacy of Cajun culture, tossed out this one which will surely resonate with Lafayette's Creole and Cajun communities:

"You could have the ability for a French immersion school to work on a project with students in Paris, France, and have this real-life collaboration," Huval said. "The technology now allows you to have the exchange of ideas and understanding that you could only get in-person before. This is only the beginning. To have this little oasis of Lafayette, La. have the ability to do these kinds of things is really exciting for a lot of people."
Perhaps unknown to Huval the futuristic dream of cross-cultural francophone educational collaboration is already being realized in a project organized by WSIL (World Studies Institute of Louisiana). The pilot project, underway currently, connects classrooms in New Brunswick, Louisiana, and Haiti. Students and their teacher collaborate through Lafayette Commons, a Lafayette nonprofit that supplies the educational edition of Google Apps and support to the project.

The benefit of a community-owned fiber-optic telecommunications system to Lafayette and communities like Lafayette lies less in the technology than in the fact of public ownership. Having built our own network we can now choose to do things to benefit the people and community institutions.

Building our network was the first step—and that is nearing completion. Taking the resource of our new network and firing up the process of doing something useful with it was the next step. That process has already begun.

(full disclosure: I sit on the board of AOC, the advisory board of AOIT, and help supply services via Lafayette Commons to WSIL's project.)


Lagniappe: LUS and Lafayette have applied for the Google Gig FTTH project; apparently as a direct result of conversations held at the meeting in DC according to an exchange I had with Huval...more on that surprise when I get a little time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

There's NOT an App for That...

But if you write a good one you could win $100,000

A digital inclusion App that is...

The FCC and the Knight Foundation are teaming up to offer an "Apps for Inclusion Challenge" that asks:
technology innovators to review government and community services and develop tools that will improve lives by making it easier for citizens to receive these services through mobile and online applications.
For the FCC's part—they are interested in increasing the rate of broadband adoption in "lagging" sectors and see potential in useful apps for achieving that goal.

The Knight Foundation is fronting the money. Details are not yet available but the Knight Foundation suggests that they've got three core beliefs that this challenge would serve:
First, our ideal of informed, engaged communities; second, our conviction that universal broadband is key to achieving this ideal; and third, our deep interest in using new approaches to connect with innovators.
The inclusion of mobile platforms and highlighting it with the allusion to "Apps" is probably pretty good policy. Recent research shows that more of the poor and minority populations that are lagging in net connection are adopting wireless devices more rapidly than the rest of the population...mobile's probably a pretty good target.

There's been a recent push in Lafayette to get more governmental data available online. We've even got a placeholder location for hosting data in an accessible form. Some places, like San Francisco, are a bit further along in having its data available in a form developers find useful. It'd be a neat project for somebody—or some civic-minded group of geeks. I'd sure like to have a version for the Lafayette Commons' gadget page....

Anybody?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Boradband Plan a Pipe Dream?

The response to the National Broadband Plan has been muted nationwide, at least in part because it was released at the climax of the health care debate. The response has been even more muted, if possible in Lafayette...after all, we've got ours Jack...real 3 way competition even if AT&T is an also-ran. (Caveat: Economists say a 3-way is not enough. The fact that we've got a public option will help immensely.)

But for most of the country the plan would be uninspiring in any context, mainly in that it has failed to grapple with the underlying problem of competition. The plan as currently constructed simply accepts the current nation-wide wireline duopoly. The pretense that wireless competition is large enough and that it is separate enough from wireline to generate genuine competition is just foolish. (I have two friends who've worked, in differing capacities, on the plan. Both have expressed deep disappointment. One bitterly.)

The Economist does a great job of summarizing the painful reality of the American situation:

Almost uniquely among OECD countries, America has adopted no policies to require the owners of broadband cables to open their infrastructure to rival sellers in order to enhance competition. America relies almost exclusively on “facilities competition”, the provision of rival infrastructures: a cable provider may compete, for example, with a network that runs optical fibre to the home. True, there is a legitimate worry that forcing a company to rent out parts of its infrastructure to competitors may deter investment, but a review of international broadband policies prepared for the FCC by Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society revealed a range of successful compromises in use in other countries. The FCC has availed itself of none of them, and suggests that wireless broadband could instead provide more competition. But wireless data transfer is very much slower and less reliable than fixed broadband; it is more a complement than a competitor.

If America’s facilities-based system were really working, the country would at the very least enjoy first-rate broadband in dense urban areas where providers are most likely to recoup their investments quickly. Yet in February the Saïd Business School at Oxford and the Universidad de Oviedo released a study, funded by Cisco, that produced a broadband quality score based on bit volume and speed, mapped against current and probable future applications. Chicago, America’s best-performing city, ranked 26th, below Sofia and Bucharest.
Lafayette is lucky not to have to rely on the "beginners" sort of broadband plan that has been generated so far. It's yet another instance of it being demonstrably wiser to do for yourself.

That's not to say that there is nothing positive to be said about the plan....most importantly it's a plan worth criticizing. Up till this moment the US has had NO plan. We are admitting that not having a plan is a problem. And, as we all now recognize, admitting that there is a problem is the first step in solving it.

That said there are parts of the plan that, if implemented, could have a real effect on communities like Lafayette. More on that as time allows....

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"City seeking $9.2 million in stimulus grants to address digital divide"

The Independent blog reports that LUS and LCG have submitted a pair of stimulus funding grant applications worth 9.2 million dollars that are directed at reducing Lafayette's digital divide. This has been a central issue in Lafayette for a long time and this is the first attempt to move beyond lower prices for better services as a way to close that divide. (See LPF digital divide coverage—LPF also offered some background on this grant application back in February when the authorizing ordinance was proposed.) The Library, the Housing Authority and Je'Nelle Chargois' Heritage School of the Arts and Technology are also partners. The grant money would come from the second round of BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunity Program) stimulus grants. LUS won a first round stimulus grant for its smart grid program back in February.

BTOP provides separate programs to fund broadband infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption projects. These two applications are for the computer center and the sustainable broadband adoption sections.

The coalition has applied for $3.9 millon to build out or expand public computer centers in the library, senior centers, and the Housing Authority. The money will be spent on new computers and personnel.

The second grant is focused on "sustainable broadband adoption." That's bureaucratese for finding ways to help folks who are not currently getting service or who underutilize service available to get up to speed. That one is worth $5.3 million and:
would go toward 55 direct or indirect jobs in providing 35,000 hours of computer training and 1,000 new PCs, as well as pay for two-year subscriptions to high speed Internet through LUS Fiber for graduates of the program.
Details on the plans for the training program would be very interesting.

The Independent is also the first local news source outside this blog to mention the community broadband survey that will be providing supporting evidence for this grant. Hopefully we will soon see the release of the study and the supporting dataset.

Streaming History; Will we be Smarter?

Ok fellas, it's happening....Video is joining text in laying down an accessible version of history's first draft. The NYTimes reports that C-Span is in the process of finishing uploading its entire video record going back to 1987—and all that it has archived going back to 1979.

Now before you yawn and switch channels: this is a big deal. Really.

You want "transparency" in government? All transparency really calls for is having a good enough record to hold the people in charge accountable for the mistakes they make. CSPAN making this archive available in a freely searchable internet archive that allows anyone to stream the full record is an enormous step forward in transparency.

And a lot of the usual suspects like the idea:

Having free online access to the more than 160,000 hours of C-Span footage is “like being able to Google political history using the ‘I Feel Lucky’ button every time,” said Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC host.

Ed Morrissey, a senior correspondent for the conservative blog Hot Air (hotair.com), said, “The geek in me wants to find an excuse to start digging.”

They've got a point; this means that everything, everything done on the floor of the House or the Senate and most of the major committee meetings going back a full generation are going to be available for free on the web in a form that allows us all to witness history directly. And it's going to mean that a lot of people, fairly and unfairly, are going to be held accountable for past actions.

Remember the old saying that "Hindsight is 20-20?" You're about to get a great view of a huge undigested glop of history that before now was either concealed by "the mists of time" or visible only through the lens of other people's interpretation. That doesn't mean, of course, that you will be able to understand everything you see, after all, we don't understand everything we see in the present when we are immersed in the context. History needs interpretation. In some ways History is interpretation. We are going to need to get a lot more sophisticated about understanding history if we are going to get full benefit...but this is one way; and a very important way that the web is making us more knowledgeable.

It will be up to us to make sure it is making us smarter.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Huval: LUS Fiber 'well above' target"

The Indpendent blog checks in with Terry Huval, director of LUS, and gets a nice chunk of good news for supporters of the system. The system will be complete in "around July," 9 months ahead of schedule. Even more heartening is:
LUS Director Terry Huval writes in an e-mail. "Early in the planning of the project in 2004, we estimated that our breakeven for the project would be about 23 percent. In the areas where we have done the most of our limited marketing, we are already well-above that target. We are opening up new areas for service every week, so naturally those early take rate level are lower in those areas. But, we are pleased with the response we are getting. All indications are that we will easily meet all our financial obligations moving forward." He adds that the business has also exceeded its projection of customers who buy all three services — phone, TV and Internet. LUS Fiber first began serving customers in February of last year.
That's all good news! To unwrap that last a bit...having higher than expected take rates for the full triple play is not only a vote of confidence, it also means that the very large expense of taking on a new customer (paying for the truck rolls and expensive electronics inside and on the side of the house) will be paid off more quickly than expected. Purely in terms of paying back the bonds this is a "better" pattern.

<grump>
The Ind unfortunately continues to feel obliged to report meaningless and misleading monthly revenue vs expenditure figures. (I know, this quarter's numbers are "good" in that for two of the three months it shows a paper profit. It's still misleading to cite them.) It's meaningless because now and for several years into the future LUS is making huge upfront capital investments in plant and customer acquisition. NO business like LUS' should be making money at this time. It's also meaningless because the figures mix in the revenues from the mature wholesale business with the still-building retail network. Without accounting for build out and separating mature and growing parts of the division it is impossible for reporting on those numbers to be anything other than sensationalistic—whether they look good or not.
</grump>

"Cabling America: Fibre in paradise"

The Economist, Britian's venerable and well-respected newsmagazine, reports on Bristol Virginia's BVU and its FTTH project. Long-time readers will recall Bristol, Virginia: claims that BVU was a failure were a regular and regularly ugly feature of the fiber fight here (summary). The truth was that Bristol was very successful, the first municipal utility to offer the triple play, and has done extremely well for its community. The Economist points this out, emphasizing the rural nature of the location and the jobs it brought to its Appalachian corner of Virginia.

It's satisfying to see Bristol being recognized as an economic success by the Economist.

It's also a treat to read the Economist—the weekly news magazine is known for its unusual combination of tight, fact-filled language and light-hearted tone. The reader is encouraged to read through the article for themselves just to reassure themselves that it really can be done. The following is offered up as an example of clean reasoning that will resonate with Lafayette readers:
Should cities be in the business of providing fast internet access? It depends on whether the internet is an investment or a product. BVU could not afford to maintain its fibre backbone without selling the internet to consumers. And it could not build a subscriber base without offering cable television and a telephone line as well; households these days expect a single price for all three services.... Fibre is expensive, and a purely commercial business would not have been minded to pay for it.

All this is true for much of rural America, and it is an analogue of the reason why municipal utility companies were launched in the first place: to electrify thinly-populated areas where commercial utilities would not go.
Good stuff.

(via Christopher Mitchell @ Muninetworks.org)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

LUS and Deconsolidation...

The Advertiser runs an article this morning focusing on the City-Parish councilmen's attitudes toward LUS governance. What makes their positions on so technical an issue a story on this fine Wednesday morning is the burgeoning question of deconsolidation.

It's good to get this issue on the table early. As far as I can tell the issue of who controls LUS is the nub of the practical (as opposed to more theoretical) fears driving the proposal to take apart the current city-parish government by reconstituting a city of Lafayette. The pretty clear intent of the current charter is that LUS should be solely controlled by the LPUA (Lafayette Public Utility Authority)—a subset of the council made up of those members who have represent areas with 60 percent or more city of Lafayette residents. But that has never been the case in practice as other parts of the charter also require that full council approve matters relating to rates, taxes, and fees with no exception clearly made for those matters covered in the LPUA portion. The thing is poorly drafted and the consequence has been dual LPUA/Council votes on every LUS issue. Traditionally the LPUA votes first and the full council votes with the majority, deferring to their judgment about city matters.

That system came to within a hairs-breadth of breaking down recently.

The current situation is that the 5 members of the current LPUA, who represent city citizens in percentages ranging from 72 to just a hair this side of 100, can be overridden by "rural" members who represent from 48 percent to just shy of no city residents. This became painfully visible recently when LUS' electrical arm applied for its first rate increase in more than a decade. After patching up poor relations with some members the LPUA passed the increase. But there was real doubt that some of the rural members—who pride themselves on a reflexively anti-government stance and insist on viewing rate increases as "tax" increases—would go along. The final count, in fact, came down to a 5-4 squeaker of a vote with the two most anti-government rural representatives (with the smallest number of LUS customers in their district) voted against it. They joined the two most liberal members of the board who represent poorer, mostly black districts, and had voted no to avoid the cost increase in a bad economy. It's not a natural lineup and not one that you'll see often. Had one more rural representative decided to not honor the LPUA majority they could have overturned the vote.

Much of the current feeling that there is a "crisis" is directly attributable to this vote in my judgment. It was apparent that Theriot and Bellard would pursue their anti-government stand even in if it meant overriding the vote of the LPUA. They had made it clear that the old deferral to those on the LPUA was dead as far as they were concerned. As a consequence a lot of folks started to realize just how much the traditional workable solution depended upon "good behavior" by the non-LPUA portion of the council. With Theriot and Bellard making it clear that they could not be counted upon to cooperate other solutions were sought. And so deconsolidation became a hot issue. Theriot has certainly not been happy about that outcome—he's made his position that now is not the moment for deconsolidation in several venues. That's most likely because, by most accounts, it is the rural districts like his, and especially those constituents that are not in any municipal area, that will lose the most by the creation of the newly impoverished parish government that will be left when Lafayette becomes a full-fledged city again. The irony, of course is that he and Bellard did more than anyone else to make this an active issue. (Maybe a strong parish government is not such a bad idea after all? Hmmm..)

LUS stands at the center of this gathering storm. Fixing LUS' governance issue would take much of the immediate, practical, wind out of the sails of deconsolidation. (Though the issue is quickly becoming a question of the city of Lafayette's sovereignty—a beast that will be much harder to put down once it is awakened.) LUS is, as it stands now, the symbol of Lafayette's sovereignty. It is both a point of pride and an enormous practical and financial asset. We decided to build our own fiber optic network on the basis it provided. We can use it to carry out policy and attract new business. The ILOT money that it provides substitutes fees for service for taxes—without LUS the city's property taxes would have to rise. The rest of the parish doesn't have that asset. But, in my judgment at least, it should—and I've always suspected that the endgame in Lafayette parish was to extend LUS Fiber out into the parish. Deconsolidation done poorly or rancorously could make that impossible. And that would be a lasting tragedy for our community.