Sunday, October 02, 2011

LUS Fiber at a crossroads

A bevy of stories that have been in the cooker for awhile finally landed today. Check out the Advertiser for a Sunday quartet: LUS Fiber at a crossroads, Other municipalities try fiber systems. Details regarding National Cable Television Cooperative are hazy, and an editorial: Fiber system needs realistic plan. That's a lot of ink spilled for a result that's pretty hazy itself. There's not much that looks like new news in the story and it seems mostly the result of researching recent remarks made by a councilman or two and insistence complaints by an old opponent of the project. That research didn't turn up much that will surprise those of us that have followed the last couple of months of the story. The results are articles which no doubt schooled the reporter/s—and the public that hasn't been following closely—in just how complex the issue actually is—and how unresolved matters are as they now stand. And maybe that's not bad. It's certainly a lot better than the hyperbolic reporting we got too often in the past.

The theme of the front page story, LUS Fiber at a crossroads, is that some sort of decision needs to be made soon about whether or not to commit to the project or dump it. But nothing in the story itself warrants such a theme. There's nothing in the story that should make any reasonable reader think LUS Fiber is anywhere near failure and plenty of evidence that it is over the hump and is well on its way to success in what is hugely capital intensive business that nobody ever thought would make money in the first years. But more to the point: frankly the choice of whether or not to go forward has already been made: back on July 16th, 2005 when the citizens voted in the new public utility. The community now has the system that the citizens wanted. The discussion is no longer about "whether;" the discussion is now only about how to make sure it succeeds—and having succeeded how to make sure it is run so as to most fully benefit the community. Those are not trivial questions and I don't intend to underplay them. But pretending that there might be a choice, well, it might make a better headline but it doesn't help inform the real project at hand.

The editorial, Fiber system needs realistic plan, doesn't quite succumb to the facile idea that some sort of choice between support and nonsupport might be offing, instead opting to advocate for the hazy idea that in light of changing conditions the plans for the system might need reworking. That's not exactly news either. Any real enterprise that is not continually reassessing how it meets its goals isn't doing its job.

What's disappointing is the claim that the system is rudderless, that it lacks clear goals. That's just silly. Of course it has a clear purpose and one that its leaders clearly honor: LUS Fiber is a public utility and its purpose is to put an essential service under the control of the community, to provide a first rate example of the service, and to provide it as cheaply as it is possible. That is i's fundamental purpose and I submit that there is no question but that it is meeting that standard. LUS Fiber is, for every service, cheaper than the private alternative. It is available to each and every citizen of the city; something no private provider would promise. The services are high quality—the video and phone services are at least as good as the former monopolies and the internet is unarguably not only cheaper but better. Yes, it has to "make its nut" and not lose money but considering that Huval has recently said that they've got over 10,000 subscribers then it is clear that in a city of just short of 50,000 households they are with a few percentage points of the break-even point.

That is all our new utility needs to do to justify itself. Everything is else is lagniappe...a little something extra. Absolutely we all hope it will boost our reputation and serve as the infrastructure for vibrant new businesses...and at both ends of the economic scale it appears to have already done so: witness the NuComm call center and Pixel Magic's video studio. Yes, it's been great for our kids: every school in the parish now has a 100 meg connection courtesy of LUS Fiber—at speeds and prices that it private competitors could not meet. Sure I, for one, have been an advocate of using our community fiber to do more to bridge the digital divide. No, I don't think we've done enough there...yet. But, honestly, I have a million times better a chance getting our community to do really great things for our community than Cox or AT&T would ever find it affordable to do. The strange idea that LUS Fiber doesn't know what its purpose is just foolish. Especially since it is apparently doing a good job of addressing its obvious purposes.

The other two stories, Other municipalities try fiber systems and Details regarding National Cable Television Cooperative are hazy are just not very interesting. After reading them both you get the feeling that the reporters decided these would be good sidebars and set about a fair amount of work reviewing what was out there and digesting it for us. But it isn't clear what lesson is there for the reader to take away. I can point to problems with both stories, mainly in what doesn't seem to be understood by the writer. For instance in the municipalities section the inclusion of Marietta, Georgia is pointless. Marietta never built or intended to build a public fiber to the home network but instead failed at what LUS had already succeeded at before our current network was proposed: building a wholesale fiber network to serve regional businesses. Similarly, you come away from the NCTC story with the sense that LUS is paying more for video because Cox is a leader in the coop...what the story doesn't bother to tell us is that Cox only joined the NCTC after LUS won the right to build its network; that Cox joining was remarkable because until that period the coop's purpose had been specifically to unite to get the same sorts of deals a corporation like Cox could already get; that two other municpal fiber providers that applied with Lafayette were accepted after a lawsuit was threatened; and that the only difference between those cities and Lafayette was that Cox, our competitor was on the board. That's all something the community should know—frankly, there is a notable abscence of anything that could put Cox in a bad light in all four stories but this is a particularly outstanding instance.

So do read the stories, they provide a nice if bland and somewhat incomplete summary of the current situation. But don't bother to take too seriously the hook of the main story—and don't believe any mutterings that LUS Fiber doesn't know exactly what its purpose is.

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