Friday, April 01, 2011

Why no Google Fiber for Baton Rouge? (Updated)

The folks in Baton Rouge are probably asking themselves why they didn't get Google's gigabit fiber network. After all for a while the Facebook page "Bring Google Fiber to Baton Rouge" had more fans than any in the country and there seemed a pretty large groundswell of support. There was a heavily rewritten AP article in the Advocate that interviewed a BR Chamber officer and recounted the history of local public involvement. (Unfortunately not online check p. B-6 of 3/31/11 paper.) It all seemed so hopeful. The Chamber held out hope that Baton Rouge might get in on the second round.

I don't think so. At least not until we put our own house in order.

Here's at least one reason that Google avoided Louisiana:



See Kansas? It's Green. Texas and Arkansas are Red. Louisiana is a sickly Orange. Google is only going to green states. This map has nothing to do with solar energy or recycling. The green denotes a place where there are no state-wide legal barriers to a community building and owning its own fiber-optic network. Red states absolutely forbid it. Louisiana is among those who are hostile but do not completely outlaw the idea. (Witness Lafayette's ongoing battle.)

Google wants to strike out and do something truly different. They are frank about thinking the Cox's and AT&T's of this nation haven't done a good job and that local communities can do better and should be helped to do so. Google has no reason in the world to go to a state that tries to make the sort of community involvement they count on illegal.

They aren't coming to Louisiana until the "(un)fair competition act" is abolished. If Baton Rouge (or New Orleans, or Shreveport or Bossier, or any of the other Louisiana cities that applied) want to have a shot at Google's second round the first thing they have to do is get their own house in order.

Repeal Louisiana's (un)fair competition act...


(Check out the great map at muninetworks.com from which I grabbed the above illustration. It chock full of valuable, if depressing, information.)



Update 4/1/11: Stacy Higginbotham, tech journalist extraordinaire over at GigaOm, covers the Texas version of this story. Apparently Austin had a very credible, widely supported effort to get their city picked. The local organizer thinks:
“Austin caught their eye for all the right reasons, and we had support at the highest levels with the involvement of the mayor and the city manager, but given the Texas limitations on municipalities getting involved in network, there was only so far we could go,” Rosenthal said. “So I look at the Texas Legislature, because they really put us in a box with regard to Google, and every response the city gave had to be measured within that box.”
Yup, I expect he's exactly right. Texas forbids muni networks. Google is doing this to encourage muni networks. The are NOT going to pick a city in a state with lousy laws that forbid what they are trying to get other municipalities to do. That's only common sense.

Update 4/4/11: Take a look at what the paper in Kansas City, Kansas thinks were the reasons that its city made the cut. The story, understandably, tends to focus on drama and secrecy but there are some very interesting nuggets in there about the underlying factors that might have favored KCK once the first cuts were made.

Update 4/4/11, 8:15 PM: As part of the ongoing discussion in the comments I reviewed the Louisiana law constraining muni networks. There I found what I thought I remembered: The law explicitly includes the sort of public-private partnership that Google is undertaking in Kansas City. So anyone who is murmuring that Google could do a project similar to the KCK one in Louisiana simply has not read the law. You can bet that Google has. See the element of the law which defines a public-private partnership as one that must adhere to all aspects of the law at RS 45:844.47 B(3): "Through a partnership or joint venture." If Baton Rouge wants Google to consider them in the second round they'll want to repeal this law first.

6 comments:

bfaul said...

Here's a relevant story from ARS Technica. It seems that North Carolina wants to become an orange state too, or maybe a deep orange-red:

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/03/cable-backed-anti-muni-broadband-bill-advances-in-north-carolina.ars

John said...

bFaul,

You're exactly right. So much for the tech triangle. North Carolina has had huge support for muni networks... all the major cities have condemned the new bill. Google and HP and numerous other Tech companies have been very vocal. The state's tech triangle is going crazy. All to no avail.

Frankly this case is SO egregious that it may turn out to be the incumbents "sinking of the Lusitania." That mistake arguably brought America into WWI and made standing by and doing nothing seem craven. This may do the same for muni networks...bring out the troops and make their commitment unshakeable.

I certainly hope so.

But until we get national relief a la the call in the national broadband plan to forbid states to block muni networks, the people of North Carolina will suffer. And Texas. And Arkansas....

Mike Stagg said...

Interestingly, the Louisiana Municipal Fair Competition Act was negotiated by fiber advocate Jim Baller along with the Lafayette City/Parish government. They were completely happy with the short-sighted notion of letting LUS go forward with its fiber project while erecting high barriers to other Louisiana communities doing so.

Call it the 'Bad Neighbor Policy.' Thanks, Lafayette!

John said...

Mike, I don't think that characterization is fair. It's true that it was negotiated— negotiated down from what would have been an outright ban for all. I don't believe it fair to say that anyone was "completely happy" with the outcome—especially Baller or Lafayette. The law puts hateful restraints on Lafayette, it was NOT grand-fathered out of any regulation; the major exception for Lafayette--no referendum--ended up being something we did anyway.

I think it little short of a miracle that Texas and Arkansas have bans and we don't. We should thank our lucky stars that Blanco was willing to veto the thing and force it to negotiations else we would have a total ban. That was the on-the-table alternative.

Politics is the art of the possible. What we need to do is try and build a basis for getting the damn thing repealed. Dividing the troops doesn't serve that cause.

Mike Stagg said...

John, my comment is not only fair, it's accurate.

As you recall, the original intent of the law was to prevent LUS from building the system at all. Work, in the form of a feasibility study (maybe it was a public opinion survey), had already been done.

What the law does is set up strict limitations on the expenditure of public funds on those very preliminary feasibility studies. Lafayette had already done that work but agreed to the limitations that (because they had already done that work) only applied to other municipalities that might have come along later with the notion of building their own network.

The regulations contained in the Act are burdensome, but by agreeing to the limitations on those initial studies, Lafayette erected a barrier to entry that it had already crossed.

Governor Blanco, word was then, had told Lafayette that she would not sign any law that officials here did not think they could live with. They could live with the preliminary studies restrictions because they had already done them.

No municipality has gone through the feasibility study phase precisely because of the restrictions and limitations placed on them in paying for that work that are contained in the 'Municipal Fair Competition Act'.

Those restrictions did not apply to Lafayette because they had already passed beyond those milestones.

That was part of my criticism of the Act — and Lafayette's acceptance of those terms — and it remains so today.

John said...

Mike, I think you are mistaken, and misremember a key part of the history.

I appreciate the implicit agreement that neither the referendum nor the insane regulatory regime that the (un)Fair Act create are areas in which it can fairly be said that Lafayette somehow devised a thoughtless advantage for itself. Lafayette, like all Louisiana cities, suffers equally from those provisions.

In my judgment you very badly underestimate the weight of regulation and the role the type of regulation and the implementation details have on deterring participation. The law is unremittingly hostile to the operation of the utility as a utility. It effectively forces community-owned telecomms to act and price as if they were stand-alone, short-term-profit-driven entities. And it puts unrealistically solid "drop-dead" dates for achieving positive returns after boxing new utilities in in this way. That is what terrifies (justly) any new entrants. But it is a burden Lafayette is bearing—and is trying to prove can be borne.

But to the central point of your objection:

It is inaccurate to say that the feasibility study provisions — as currently written — are prohibitive. True, there WERE originally clauses about funding feasibility studies that were the major reason that we all regarded the initial drafts of the despised law as forbidding muni networks. That version had a catch-22 clause that made it impossible to actually get the money to begin the process. That may be what you recall. But that part was changed early on—as a consequence of Baller's & Lafayette's intervention.

The current law on this point can be found at: http://law.justia.com/codes/louisiana/2006/65/285532.html

The process it describes is not onerous— it says a study must be made that demonstrates that the the new network can meet the "revenue requirements" under the definitions laid out elsewhere in the law (which ARE onerous-see above), says it must be completed in 180 days and must be received by the local governing authority, which must hold at least two publicized public hearings a week apart with questions taken. The text of the law explicitly excludes the disclosure of any "commercially sensitive marketing information." It imposes no limits on expenditures or payment sources to fund the feasibility study.

I don't think any of the actual clauses should discourage a municipality from doing a feasibility study. This part is basic good government—timely, responsible study and public awareness.

Lafayette did all the things the law requires; you will recall the study and multiple town hall meetings. It did not irresponsibly allow a law to go into effect that imposed feasibility study standards on others it was not willing to meet.

………

What worries me most is that there may be municipalities whose principals actually believe that Lafayette and not the state legislature is somehow responsible for the obnoxious law that the legislature passed. Repeal, as I have repeatedly called for in these pages and elsewhere, is devoutly to be desired. The law is unfair to all. Practically speaking Lafayette has to succeed if others are to follow it in taking the risk. But that is Lafayette's real responsibility—to succeed in spite of obstacles we both consider unreasonable. Convincing others that they would take a greater risk than Lafayette did gives politicians, the incumbents, and their ideologues a (false) tool to divide our communities and discourage other communities from following our lead.