“Technology firm signs on with LUS fiber-optic plan”

Heard about this little coup a bit earlier but never got around to posting on it. The Advocate manages a short piece outlining the basic story. It says:

“Global Technology Group is a Lafayette company that provides technology support for companies primarily in the health-care, energy and defense industries.”

That is true, but there is more to the back story. Global Tech is one of the companies that has been working with Lafayette’s new fiber resources to deliver services that are rare in other places simply because the broadband means to provide them are unavailable at realistic prices. The Independent ran an interesting story giving a bit more detail on their innovation back in January. (You’ll have to scroll down past the coverage of Oliver’s deceptive little head fake where we all thought that the incumbents might be in honest negotiation with the city. In just a few days Oliver would make the strange negotiating move of suing his negotiating partner. Ahh, nostalgia.) In that story you’ll find that Global Tech was providing a virtual telephone network for a local medical group with offices scattered all over the city using VOIP and LUS fiber. According to the story the client company has cut its phone bill in half and is also saving on tech support and Internet service bills. The path forward to a seamless local network inside the IP model is pretty easy to see.

This is precisely the sort of benefit that public ownership of the current fiber network makes possible. A local company, Global Tech, gets to develop its skills (Kirk Guilbeau gets props for being the guy that made it work) while another local company saves beaucoup money upfront and gains access to efficient new technologies. The hidden benefits are also large: before LUS’ fiber, the economics would have pushed the company to bring all its elements together in a single corporate tower–or to have foregone those benefits. For a medical enterprise, and for most service-oriented business, consolidating offices is a matter of weighing the benefits in savings against the losses in business that result from the fact that your new central location is now out of the way for some of your former customers. With an advanced fiber infrastructure you can have cheaper, distributed office space which more effectively serves your public without giving up the benefits of fast, advanced networking.

It is subtle, difficult-to-quantify advantages such as these that will be the chief benefits of making fiber available on every street in the city. The advantages will be available to every person and business with the gumption to pick up on the possibilities offered. Kudos to Global Tech and the Hamilton Medical Group for showing the way.

The clock has started

In the Advocate: LUS has 10 days to appeal ruling on bonds vote; the lead:

“The 10-day countdown started Wednesday for Lafayette officials to decide whether to appeal a judge’s ruling that $125 million in bonds for the Lafayette Utilities System’s telecommunications project can be brought to a public vote.”

The story uses the occasion of Hebert’s handing down his official ruling on the recent BellSouth lawsuit to review the possible future paths. Walking through the alternatives is a useful exercise–go take a look.What is apparent is that the road is now full of possible delays.

We also get additional pious silliness from the boys at Fiber411, who seem to have forgotten that for a few days after Hebert’s ruling they stopped talking as if they weren’t against the LUS fiber plan. We now are again treated to mealy-mouthed wordsmithing that says the group is “not necessarily against the idea of fiber optics” and “just” wants a vote. Nonsense. They are, and have been since day one, against the only plan to get fiber optics to the home that has any hope of being implemented in the next decade. This is a reversion to the sort of deceptive language that got folks to sign the petition in the first place. Here’s the test: if it’s “just” a vote they want, will they go away if a referendum is called? Or will all their signatories suddenly discover that, presto chango, Fiber411 is without further remark or explanation transformed into an anti-LUS, anti-city group? We all know it will be the latter. Nobody believes they will go away–because nobody believes they “just” want a vote.

Blanchard defended

The Indpendent rises to defend the integrity of local writer Kevin Blanchard in the brouhaha over BellSouth’s Oliver’s threat to pull the Cingular call center out of Lafayette. It’s pretty certain that local reporters are feeling some real anger over his treatment when you see one paper run a story defending a writer at another and, however gently, castigating the editorial decisions of the competition. The Independent is right about this (as LPF made clear in its own remarks on the matter): all that was retracted was a headline Blanchard did not write. Oliver does not deny the words Blanchard cited and doesn’t argue, indeed he confirms, the context in which they were uttered. Nor does he back down on the practical implications of his words. Oliver wants you to know that pulling cellular business out of a town where someone has presumed to compete with a minority owner of that cellular business in a different market somehow makes business (rather than retributive) sense. It doesn’t. It’s just a threat. The Advocate caved on this one and getting called to task by the competition is appropriate.

What was really different about Blanchard’s coverage was that Oliver was accurately reported about what he was saying in the semi-private context of a meeting with “influentials.” A lot of loose talk goes on in such circumstances and BellSouth is a past master of using such events to stir up unwarranted fear and doubt in the guise of presenting “information.” In this case it was subsequently revealed that BellSouth couldn’t pull out if it wanted to and could convince the majority owner that some revenge on its behalf was in order. In exchange for a substantial governmental subsidy, Cingular has a contractual obligation to stay. Oliver neglected to mention this while he shared other, less substantial, “evidence” with the worthies.

When this issue first blew up an Advertiser article hinted that Oliver had made similar remarks during a presentation to the editorial board at that paper. The Independent opens up that angle a bit more:

It’s not the first time Oliver has raised that question. Former Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce Chairman Gary McGoffin says Oliver made similar statements to him last year. According to McGoffin, Oliver said it would be difficult to justify maintaining the center in Lafayette and cited its possible demise as a collateral consequence of the LUS project. (The chamber has not endorsed or denounced LUS’ fiber-to-the-home project.)

City-Parish President Joey Durel also says that Oliver has used the same line of reasoning in conversations with city-parish council members. In his Feb. 25 press conference, Durel fumed at Oliver’s insinuations. “I believe he said the center could be anywhere. I believe he says Lafayette is insignificant,” Durel said.

Oliver is trading on the good reputation of his company and his own reputation when he tries to manipulate people in this way. The Chamber is considering an endorsement currently. They’d be wise to re-evaluate the accuracy of what the incumbents have told them in private in light of this behavior. In trut, all our “influentials” would be wise to take with a grain of salt what the incumbents tell them behind closed doors. It’s more likely that you’re being taken than being given the “real” inside story. If the incumbents are saying things in private that they won’t say in public, it’s a good general principle to doubt that the private remarks would bear up under scrutiny.

Especially if the person speaking is Bill Oliver.

Class connects seniors

This article from the Advertiser on the successes of a computer/internet class for seniors is a bit of a change of pace but it serves to remind us (or me anyway) of why we are bothering with all this municipal fiber stuff. One of the biggest reasons to be in favor of the LUS fiber plan is that it will bring a better product at a cheaper price to everyone. Seniors are one of the largest ‘underserved’ groups and price is a big constraint on access for anyone on a fixed retirement budget.

This article illustrates just how enriching a good, open-ended, peer-taught class that opens up the possibilities of modern connectivity can be. We need some of this here…and with any luck will need it even more soon.

“Consumer advocates fear losing AT&T’s voice”

USAToday reviews a story that most of the media won’t touch: how the purchase of AT&T and MCI by regional Bell companies not only means a loss of competition (isn’t buying up your competition a dandy “competitive” strategy?) but almost as importantly means a loss of any large corporate voice fighting for competition and against the increasing deregulation of the baby bells’ regional monopolies.

The story is a great read. AT&T’s battles to enable competition were at the heart of the regulatory competition that led to the CLEC phenomena and the too-brief period of competition that made so many people and businesses customers of companies like AT&T and EATEL. Its loss before the FCC is what eliminated that competition and led to its withdrawal from the market.

From the story:

Over time, AT&T racked up court victories that fed competition. New entrants, clinging to AT&T like pilot fish trailing a shark, raced to enter the market. Consumers gained a choice of local carriers. Some also saw their phone bills drop. And AT&T built a sterling reputation for standing up for the little guy.

…consumer advocates are nervous. Their biggest fear: that the anti-Bell position, which AT&T promoted for two decades, will now get scant attention. That change, they say, could empower the Bells to flatten the opposition — and consumers — in the legal and political arenas.

Lafayette mulls calling vote

The Advocate carries an article which mostly just sustains the story we already know is in place. The city is looking at calling a vote on a referendum. That’s been pretty obviously the case since Hebert’s decision; if there is news here, it is that the possibility is being talked about in a public forum. The gist:

“City-Parish President Joey Durel said Monday night that he believes support for the project is so strong right now Lafayette could win an election, even if private companies spend a lot of money fighting the proposal.”

The city-parish has to be torn between two very real desires: 1) the desire not to invite your own mugging; and 2) the desire to move ahead as quickly as possible.

I think the people of Lafayette—at least those who follow the controversy—now understand that the city will be vastly outspent and that the interests and hopes of BellSouth and Cox are not the interests of Lafayette and her people. That is not enough to shake some people’s support of the incumbents but even they, I believe, recognize these fundamental truths. The city’s fear that being outspent in this way will be accompanied by an unprincipled attempt to induce fear of the future, mistrust of public institutions, disdain for local officials, and misinformation about technology is not something we have to speculate about. We have only to look at the initial campaign the incumbents waged to prevent a positive vote in the council to know with certainty what their strategy will be. BellSouth and Cox will attempt a mugging.

What the administration, LUS, and the council have to hope for is that the long lead-in will have innoculated the people against the line these outside entities will take. Someone who is not to be trusted will not be listened to. To some degree this will be a test of how small a town Lafayette really is. If she is still a small town where opinions are formed at the barbershop, where people know who understands this political issue or that technical problem, then Lafayette will find it easy to shrug off the siren calls of money-fueled propaganda. If, on the other hand, Lafayette has become a modern media market whose people form as strong a tie to characters in ads as to their neighbors, then we are all in trouble. (And not just over our little bit of an attempt to determine our own future.)

But what is less well understood than the money differenetial is the fact that the city will be fighting with one hand or both hands tied behind its back. It can only run “factual, educational” advertising. It cannot directly advocate a “yes” vote. BellSouth and Cox, on the other hand, will not be constrained to even the (dubious) level of truth it embraces in ads for its own products. It is illegal to lie in commercials and companies are regularly brought to heel for doing so. Ah, but in a political ad almost all lies are protected–even speech that would be libelous in another context. So the city is restricted by state law to a squeaky-clean good-government routine and its opponents are licensed by federal law to say pretty much anything they want. Even if they could spend the same amounts of money, this would still be an unfair fight. Going into that mugging with your hands tied behind your back is damned scary, I am certain.

On the other side is the undeniable fact that the current legal ruling opens up endless routes for delay. The opponents can sue about the venue (city/parish), they can sue for clarification (of all sorts), they can sue for the first petitition and when that fails, sue for the additions to the first petition and when that fails, sue for new rules they’d like a bit better than the old rules. Certainly there has been no hesitation to sue to date–and no hesitation to use the big guy’s bottomless pit of money and lawyers. The choice might be shaping up be to one between a mugging and an endless war of attrition stretching into a future where the endless money and resources of BellSouth and Cox grind away, waiting for a slip in attention or a shift in circumstance. (Like what, you ask. Oh, another BellSouth lobbyist-written bill that does what the last bill failed to do: outlaw municipal participation completely and take away the right of local communities to act on their own–by vote of their representatives OR vote at referendum. The call for a referendum is not a call based on principle for those funding the suit.)

The city has to decide whether it prefers a sharp dangerous fight in an alley or a long grinding war of attrition that still might end in fight in the alley. I can understand their hesitation. Either way, we here are up for the fight.

But I for one hope they follow out the logic of the path they’ve started on: they were honestly shocked at Hebert’s decision; they think it wrongly found and should appeal. The one misstep that I can see in their to-date brilliant campaign was being so sure that the law was with them that they were rocked back by the decision and didn’t instantly have an alternative to go to. They still believe they are right. It makes sense to follow an expedited appeal that goes straight to the Louisiana Supreme Court and ask for a quick decision. This is something local governments can request. Since they honestly believe they are right, they should stay with that principle. I don’t think there will be any significant publicity hit from taking a principled stand here if it’s clear that they are pushing for as rapid a decision as is possible. (What hit this voting tactic can produce for the incumbents has already been taken–and it has been surprisingly small.) I hope they couple an appeal with encouraging (rather than discouraging, as has been the case until now) the formation of several PACs prepared to spend money and one or more citizen groups to be ready to face a street fight if it comes. It would be good to have some people in that alley on your side who don’t have their hands tied behind their backs.

Fight hard in court. Prepare to fight hard back home.

“Quaint” outrage in Illinois

Sasha Meinrath writes with outrage about the possibility that the local regional bell telephone company (SBC), rather than an elected legislator, might have written the telecom bill that threatens to shut down the rights of local governments to provide telecom services to its citizens (and, by the way, to remove a host of protections against the abuse of monopoly power at the same time it outlaws a whole class of competition). He vows to track down the true authors. Others join in calling the behavior outrageous.

All this has to sound quaint to our jaded ears here in Louisiana. When “Noble” Ellington handed his rural broadband bill number over to BellSouth’s lobbyists last summer because, so sad, they’d missed the deadline to get one of their legislators to start a new bill entirely for them, no one pretended to think there was any possibility that Ellington had read, much less written, the legislation that bore his name. That bill slammed in at (really after) the last minute and was a close copy of a piece of teleco boilerplate legislation. (Incidently, that law would have used state power to make the project impossible. BellSouth’s first instinct wasn’t to bravely stand up for a vote. Its first instinct was to make sure we mere citizens customers had no right to consider it at all.)

No, in Lousiana, turning the legislature over to BellSouth lobbyists doesn’t excite outrage; it is so commonplace that we don’t even bother to much notice it.

It might be useful to develop a little sense of outrage. I think we would find it useful.

Cox considers sale of 900,000 customers

Off the AP wire: Cox is looking to sell off almost a million customers, including much of the Middle America Division of which Lafayette is a part . . . but not our system. What’s wrong? Aren’t we ungrateful enough? Oh well.

Cox Communications Inc. said Monday that it is exploring a sale of four cable operations serving about 900,000 subscribers in Texas, North Carolina, California and several other states.

Systems under consideration for sale include West Texas, serving the Lubbock, Midland, Amarillo, San Angelo and Abilene areas; North Carolina, serving the Greenville, Rocky Mount, New Bern and Kinston areas; Humboldt County, Calif.; and much of Middle America Cox.

MAC is primarily comprised of operations in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and also includes certain systems in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Missouri. Excluded from the potential sale are some operations serving the northwest Arkansas and Lafayette, Louisiana areas.

[emphases mine]

I don’t have an interpretation on this one. As far as I can tell Cox is inviting offers. No press release is posted to the Cox site yet. I’m sure the story will mature. Ideas?

Update 9:20 pm, 3/8/05: I’ve been trolling around looking for discussion of this pretty dramatic move and so far as I hear most folks think that what is happening is that Cox is trying to shed at least some of the huge debt it took on in taking itself private. Selling of in the neighborhood of a sixth of your customer base is pretty radical stuff–especially since you are having to sell at an effective loss: the price paid shareholders to take the company private was predicated on an amount per customer but the customers they are considering getting rid of are rural and worth less than on the market than the price they just paid for them. They are moving toward focusing on densely populated “rich pickings” markets and giving up rural and small urban markets. (Last week they wanted to be regarded as loyal corporate citizens of Alexandrian and Lake Charles. This week….? Oh well, not rich enough.) They would be keeping New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Too bad we made the cut. But it’s possible they thought they couldn’t get the price the want for Lafayette right now. “Uncertainty in the market.”

The most informative single article is from Channel 5 in Alex.

Baby Bell says fiber future proof — in Virginia

Cox is looking down the fiber barrel in places other than Lafayette. Around Hampton Roads, Virginia, the battle with Verizon (their version of BellSouth) is about to be joined:

The fiber system gives cleaner connections than existing copper wires, with fewer points of potential disruption, and it is more reliable and allows for easier maintenance – all bringing cost benefits to the company, said Harry Mitchell, a Verizon spokesman. And the system is “future-proof,” ready for technology and products yet to come.

“If there are future applications out there that we’re not even dreaming of today, this network will be capable of doing that,” Cohen-Hagar said.

That is what their baby bell says. The short-sightedness of our local providers doesn’t extend to all corporations. Of course, the reason that the folks in that area of Virginia might be considered for fiber might be that their most common family income is $56,879, while ours is $ 29,708 (2000 census). Not everyone in Verizion’s footprint is getting fiber, only the favored few. It’s all about the money for all of these guys.

There is no reason we ought to have to wait around while communities whose only virtue is that they are wealthier get better services. Since our providers have no intention of stepping up to the plate, we can do this for ourselves, thank you very much.