Suppliers support municpal fiber — and innovation

EWeek carries a story—Municipal Broadband Bills Come Under Fire—that illuminates another of those odd alliances in the battles that are taking place in statehouses across the country over whether or not states should restrict the rights of municipalities to provide their citizens with telecom utility services. It is certainly an index of just how successful the incumbents feel LUS is likely to be that BellSouth and Cox, who certainly recognize that the day that they become mortal enemies is coming very soon, are joining forces to defeat it. Not quite as strange, but still remarkable, is the tale this story tells of a fiber-to-the-home supplier and a supplier of wireless mesh networks, who would normally see their technologies as competing for client dollars, drawing together to oppose strangling municipal broadband.

Now you might think that neither company would much care who its clients are, as long as someone is building. But they do care. And therein lies the tale. They care because they are (relatively) small, innovative companies working at the edge of their respective technologies. Without municipalities, they are looking at a universe with no room for innovation and hence no room for their hopes. If the incumbents across the country get their way, there will be nobody to challenge the local duopolies of Bell and Cable. It’s looking more and more like there will be no more than 5 or 6 geographically distinct companies in each grand category. These huge monoliths will play it safe. They buy in huge amounts and they are looking, not for long-range utility or breakout innovation, but for the near-term profit that buoys up stock prices (and executive bonuses). They will buy (and have been buying–look at the glacial upgrade path for DSL if you doubt it) only the tried and true, and certainly nothing new or risky. Bigness, short-sightedness, and safety are the enemies of innovation.

Innovation needs a scrappy group of small competitors to break up the stodginess of the big guys. It’s the new little guys who see the value of new approaches and are unburdened by legacy architectures. But the giants are in the process of squashing some of the most significant of those small competitors by law…or rather by lobbyists, campaign contributions, and a system of good ole boy favors. (Which is precisely how BellSouth came within a hair’s breadth of getting a law passed outlawing LUS’ fiber last summer. Had the governor not been a home-town girl they likely would have succeeded in assuring that neither the people nor the city-parish council had any right to vote at all.)

Here is the way the article describes these suppliers’ concerns about dwindling competition:

Obviously, companies like Tropos Networks and DynamicCity have good reason to denounce such legislation. It robs them of the ability to do business with municipalities and, instead, forces them to negotiate with competing providers (with their own aging infrastructures to protect) if they hope to do business there at all.

Understandably, they’re not happy. The anti-muni bills present a scenario where their companies aren’t submitting bids to win the business. They’re forced into negotiations with a competitor, the incumbent carrier, which understandably will want to protect the market and keep its competition out.

We hear a lot of noise that municipal utilities like LUS are somehow disqualified from being competitors because they are publicly owned. If you won’t believe the data from the feds that shows that public utilities drive down prices on the customer side wherever they enter the market, then maybe it would be worthwhile to notice that businesses on the supply side of the equation also think that municipals supply much-needed competition, and are crucial to an ecology in which innovation is possible.

We lag far behind behind nations like Korea in broadband deployment as much because we’ve allowed a few dinosaurs riding antiquated technologies to use their inheriting our telemcommunications infrastructure to wring every cent of residual profit out of their outdated technologies as for any other reason. Stifling competition isn’t only bad for consumers, it’s also bad for innovation—and that’s bad for our country.

Stifling competition by outlawing municipal fiber builds like LUS’ is one reason the country that designed and built the guts of the internet is falling behind second-world nations in true broadband deployment and consequently in the hardware and software that true broadband makes possible.

Incumbents Trying to Mess with Texas!

The Legislature That Tom DeLay Bought (aka “the Texas State Legislature”) is considering legislation that would ban municipalities from offering bandwidth to ordinary citizens.

The Austin Business Journal reports that this has got folks in Austin (the capitol of Texas!) in a bit of a lather since the city has been offering Internet access for years through public access spots and offers free Wi-Fi service in places like the Austin airport.

Naturally, the incumbent providers are behind the legislation. In this particular case, the offending parties are SBC, Time Warner, Inc. (via it’s cable subsidiary), and Texas-based Grande Communications.

The article points out that Austin is preparing to host the 2006 World Congress on Information Technology and that some citizens of Austin view the proposed legislation as a turning away from the city’s leadership as a tech-savvy community.

I know of no one who disputes the fact that technology has played a essential role in Austin’s growth over the past three decades, so the comments included in the article on the impact of restricting the ability of city governments from delivering bandwidth are particularly relevant to the discussions we’re having here in Lafayette.

Consider this passage quoting David Deans, founder of the nonprofit Economic TeleDevelopment Forum which is based in Austin:

Deans agrees that stifling Internet access — either at public buildings or through “hot spots” around a city where free or inexpensive wireless services can be accessed by laptop users — doesn’t bode well for economic development.

“We might find, at some point, that a company would rather relocate to another city or town where the environment is conducive to facilitating a global network economy,” Deans says.

“In other words, a forward-looking community — not the telecom backwaters.”

Imagine the disadvantage Austin would find itself when competing against a “forward-looking community” that had done more than merely deployed free Internet access. Imagine if Austin had to compete against a community with fiber run to every home an business — like will can have in Lafayette.

This is exactly what technology leaders in Austin fear: that tech-savvy communities with great lifestyles and great quality of life will make the kind of technology infrastructure investments in their own economic future that, if they incumbents have their way in the Texas Legislature, cities there will no longer be able to make.

The LUS project offers Lafayette the opportunity to step out of the telecom backwater and onto the global networked economy. That will be our choice. Status quo, as determined by a couple of Atlanta-based corporations with no allegiance to this city; or, an investment in ourselves and our future?

“Council chairman supports fiber vote”

This short article is pretty much a clean-up and mark-your-calendars story. The author carefully lays out the important upcoming dates for the advancing referendum and in the process impresses us all (or at least impresses me) with what a methodical process it will be. Council chair Randy Mouton expects the council to grind through those checkpoints with the same votes with which the project was originally approved. Apparently some councilmen, sensibly in my judgment, were disappointed that the city wasn’t also going forward with an appeal of Hebert’s ruling and such dissension as there was centered around that rather than the issue of a vote.

If you need to fill up your dayplanner or PDA, it’s a good article to visit.

“Opposing fiber factions ready ad campaigns”

The Advertiser today carries the first in what is sure to be a series about the money side of Lafayette’s fight for fiber. While the story wanders, the basic plotline is clear. The outside telecorps have the money and the demonstrated will to spend amazing amounts of money in campaigns of disinformation that they’ve already tested across the country. The local boys have the fact that they’re local and trusted. It will be a classic case of big money versus word-of-mouth, neighbor-to-neighbor politicking. I hope some of the academics at ULL are gearing up to study the fight. It should be one for books.

A snippet:

“‘The telecom companies will spend unlimited dollars in advertising to try to convince you to vote against this project. They will attempt to confuse you with misstatements, scare tactics and outright false information about the project,’ said City-Parish President Joey Durel in a letter to Lafayette residents announcing the referendum.

LUS and the city can do information advertising but cannot ask for a vote using public dollars. Durel said he believes a private fund will be set up in so residents who support the fiber project can make donations.

‘We believe we can energize an army of people from Lafayette who will be up in arms against outside interests trying to push their greed on Lafayette,’ he said.

Although BellSouth and Cox Communications would not comment Tuesday on possible advertising efforts, a local marketing expert said high-dollar advertising efforts were likely.”

The word is that several pro-fiber PACs are starting and that an issue there will be coordination. Similarly, and not necessarily connected, more than one citizens’ group is ginning up. For our money here at LPF, if the fight for fiber is to be a “viral,” word-of-mouth campaign, then we ought to encourage multiple ways for citizens to engage and interact. Loose coordination would be a good thing but it will be more important to make sure that all segments of the community have a way to act and a congenial vehicle to act through. It’s not likely that a single organization could or should do it all.

The PACs are not going public yet though activity is intense in the background. But you can turn in your name in support of forming a pro-fiber citizen’s group in two places so far (no one has yet to actually hold an organizational meeting). The email addresses: and

If you’d like us to post a way to contact your PAC or citizen’s group, please drop us a note. We’re all in this together.

Benjamin goes…sane?

After a string of snidely strange commentaries on the fiber issue using Lester U Smiley the snake oil salesman (LUS–get it? tee-hee) and culminating in a pretty incoherent homage piece to Hunter Thompson that seemed like it might have something to do with the fiber issue, Benjamin has turned in a piece that seems, well, reportorial. Sane, even.

He steps out of the way and lets Joey Durel speak. It’s a good tactic and makes for effective reporting. This is one of the most expressive pieces I’ve seen on the issue and lets the reader get inside Durel’s head and follow the reasoning and gauge the emotional timbre of the man.

Durel does a great job of laying it out and Benjamin, to his credit, mostly restrains himself from making snide asides.

A sample:

Durel’s secret weapons? Two things. One is the bully pulpit of elected office. When he speaks, he makes news. His words are quoted on the front page of the daily newspaper and lead the TV news. He can’t buy access to the media the same way as the private sector, but they can’t buy the level of news coverage he commands. The second of his weapons can only be termed as leadership. He’s proud of the effort he’s made to visit people’s homes and civic organizations and discussions he’s had on radio talk shows, all of which, he claims, end with converted skeptics asking what they can do to help.

“I do believe that our hard work can beat their money,” he says.

Right now he’s searching for the solution that will help him realize his dream. Somewhere in the pantheon of political solutions is the right deal that will bring Cox and BellSouth onboard in a cooperative effort — or totally freeze them out of the municipal infrastructure. It’s all up to Joey Durel right now. It’s his ability to lead that is to be measured here, and with his success or failure follows a large chapter in the development of 21st century Lafayette.

Aside from that small bit of nonsense that puts the burden on Durel for finding a way to “cooperate” with BellSouth and Cox, it’s good reporting. (We’d all do well to recall that the last time Durel sat down to negotiate with those two he woke up the next morning with a lawsuit staring him in the face.)

Go take a look. If you want to understand what moves a major player, this is the best article yet. Kudos to Benjamin.

Standing up! Dud Lastrapes on fiber

A former mayor joins the chorus of support for fiber:

I write in support of Lafayette’s fiber optics project. Admittedly, it is a bold step, but it is a giant step forward in the effort to stimulate greater economic development for Lafayette…

It should be noted that we have historically and legally implemented bond issues through our duly elected representatives. There is, and has been, ample public airing and debate on the issue. It would not make sense to have a public vote on every bond issue that comes up. The erroneous judicial decision should be challenged.

I hope that if the election is mandated the people of Lafayette will see the need for fiber-to-the-home (and business) and realize that LUS is in a very strong position to provide the appropriate investment.

This is a much needed and sound venture for Lafayette.

Dud Lastrapes was mayor from ’80 to ’92. His letter walks through the logic of the issue—LUS has been a valuable asset, a fiber-optic network is a necessary element in our development, the incumbents won’t do it, LUS can and should—very cleanly.

A very similar letter appears in today’s Advertiser. Oddly, it does not appear online. When that is corrected I will post a link here.

Roundup of referendum news

KLFY: Fiber Plan to be Voted on by Residents (thin)
KATC: LUS Fiber Plan Headed for July Vote (with video)
The Advertiser: City ready to put fiber to the vote
The Advocate: Officials urge fiber-optic vote

Everyone has a story, nobody has much news. That’s the nature of the story. Nothing happened today. Everything will happen late.

The only thing that happened last night was that the administration recommended that the city take the matter to a vote — and not pursue an appeal.

The latter is the only surprise of the day. With this decision, the city abandons an issue that confuses, pretty radically, state bond law in a way that has large consequences for every municipality and local governing body in the state. With Hebert’s ruling, the concept of “controlling law” in regard to bonds goes out the window and has to leave bond issuers with a lot of new uncertainty. And uncertainty in the bond market translates directly into expense. Before, it was assumed that the bond law used contolled the legal procedures used. Now it becomes an open question as to just which of dozens of laws need to be considered. Regardless of the politics of the matter—and it’s not hard to see what the political calculation might be—Hebert’s ruling is at best confusing and at worst dangerous. Somewhat ironically, the decision functions to establish new law in the “best” tradition of an activist judiciary. It should be appealed as a matter of principle.

Both dailies lay out the process that will be necessary to get us to a vote on July 16th. Go take a look; it’s worth a slow read. And find a citizens’ group and a PAC (or several) to your taste and begin the necessary work to secure our community’s future.

Engineers look at fiber

Here’s an interesting story passed our way by a local engineer. The story, “Data Demand Sparks Race to Bring Fiber Optics Home,” appears in Engineering News-Record and amounts to a practical introduction to the realm of Fiber To The Home for the technically inclined. It touches on the economics, politics — in clear and practical rather than ideological ways. But the real fun lies in the pictures, the pop-up charts, and the vivid how-it’s-done descriptions.

Here’s a bit of the clear and practical:

Gallo says fiber-optic systems are also robust, almost infinitely upgradable and considerably cheaper to maintain. For the telecoms, making the transition to fiber is “a no-brainer,” he says.

As lagniappe there’s a pretty extensive discussion of New Orleans’ fiber in the sewer (really fiber around the sewer, but that’s being picky and no fun) and the pipe-bursting technology it’s based on. (Don’t miss the link to the pop-up graphic of bursting pipe.) You gotta have a little of the geek in you to really enjoy this one, but if you do it’s a real treat.

“Text of Durel’s letter on Fiber for the Future referendum”

The Advertiser carries the text of Durel’s call for a referendum.

“Having been unsuccessful in stopping our project in the legislature, the out-of-state telecom companies know by experience that the only way to defeat our Fiber for the Future plan is at the ballot box. The referendum will be placed on the ballot of the upcoming July 16th election. There will be much said about this in the coming weeks. The telecom companies will spend unlimited dollars in advertising to try to convince you to vote against this project. They will attempt to confuse you with misstatements, scare tactics and outright false information about the project. I urge you to be cautious and study the issues carefully.

And I urge you to get actively involved. Take a stand. If you support Fiber for the Future then let it be known. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Join our advocacy group by emailing or calling 291-8926 and signing up as a volunteer. Become passionate in your support of this plan for Lafayette to become a shining light of community empowerment.”

Get going!

There will be a referendum! July 16th!

The Advertiser reports:

“No petition will be necessary,” Durel said in a letter to the editor dated today. “To appeal the ruling or to proceed without a referendum would be met by further lawsuits that will endlessly stall our momentum. We cannot delay the project any further.”

It’s been apparent for some time that this was the fastest way forward. People are organizing PACs and citizen groups all over town.

The die is cast. Now is the time for us all to step up.

Update: 3:50—The Advocate’s version of this breaking story has been posted now as well.