“Tech will cause a real estate crash”

This little article on the CNN site attracted my attention because Nielsen, the man interviewed, is one of my favorite design/usability experts. (I’m even more fond of the fellow he has partnered with, Nelson.) So I stopped and read the article.

All that is basically claimed is that the web and associated technologies will lead to a more dispersed workforce in the future. Living in a large city will be necessary for fewer kinds of jobs and so people will be better able to leave the city and live in the countryside. This isn’t new, of course, but it did set off a little moment of reflection. People don’t actually seem to be dispersing into the countryside and as futurists have predicted for more than a decade. There is a lot more telecommuting. But mostly folks are telecommuting from other locations in the city or in the surrounding suburbs. So far at least, there has not been the move to the countryside that has been predicted (a prediction that Nielsen repeats).

Futurists tend to overemphasize technology and underemphasize the social context in which it has to operate—people mostly like their colleagues and operating in a social vacuum is not the best way to succeed at most jobs. So there is a social rather than technical limit to how far telecommuting is likely to go. But it is also true that in-city telecommuting is much more successful than its country version. And I suspect that a large part of that difference lies in the fact, which Nielsen and futurists ignore, that you can’t really get big pipe broadband in the country. If you want full-frame teleconferencing with your creative team, you cannot do it from a house in the country.

No, for the near future at least, your best bet to back off the city lifestyle and still keep your job will be to try to find a nice smallish city with some huge pipes and settle in there. I’d look for a place with good music, good food, and a laid back atmosphere. But that’s me.

Broome says she’s not ‘vicious’ person

Here’s the whole of a brief in today’s Advocate (with the caveat that my streaming video-based recollection is that it was Mike Michot whose invitation to eat in Lafayette that elicited Broome’s rueful reply):

State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, told the Senate Commerce Committee last week that she had taken a lot of heat from Lafayette residents angered that a bill she authored would hurt Lafayette Utilities System’s proposed telecommunications project.

After supporting amendments that excluded Lafayette from being affected by the bill, she asked City-Parish President Joey Durel to tell his constituents she’s not the “ugly and vicious” person described in some of the e-mails she received.

Durel extended Broome an invitation to come to Lafayette and “eat some of that good food.”

“Let me know when it’s safe,” Broome responded.

Thanks go out to the readers of Lafayette Pro Fiber who participated in the letter-writing and calling campaign that left Broome with the impression that even a senator from Baton Rouge wasn’t immune to an outraged defense of Lafayette.

(Just for the record: I don’t think anyone accused Broome of being ugly and vicious…complacently uniformed, unreflectively ignorant, and a willing tool of corporate interests to the detrement of the people whose interests she claims to champion come to mind. But not ugly or vicious. See earlier stories: 1, 2, 3)

Cox ups speeds dramatically—in Northern Virginia

Its always pleasing to see what a little competition can do. Broadband reports notes that Cox has raised its speed cap dramatically in Northern Virginia—to as much as 15 megs download for its most expensive residential tier—in an apparent attempt to slow losses to fiber-optic based competition from Verizon. (A little much-needed competition is one of the chief advantages of LUS’ plan to build a fiber-optic network in Lafayette. It suggests yet another reason to vote yes on July 16th even if you are perfectly satisfied with Cox: “Vote yes! For better service….from Cox!”)

Northern Virginia near Washington DC is one of the nation’s wealthiest “exurban” communities but has long complained of wretched Internet service. So it makes sense that Verizon would move aggressively in this area. And it makes sense that Cox would fight to protect its wealthy customers. And that is the simple and largely true explanation. But saying that doesn’t explain why this response is banner news on the Internet sites devoted to broadband. Why is this competitive response surprising and unique? After all, Verizon is rolling out its fiber in places across the country. The answer seems to be, at least in part, because in Northern Virginia Cox can respond—and in most places the cablecos can’t come near matching Verizon’s fiber. And for that near-parity it appears to owe gratitude to a meddling government. As broadband reports notes:

A skirmish between Cox and Fairfax county started in 1999, when the cable company purchased the network of Media General. Cox was slow to update the newly acquired networks – which – if you take a trip back to our forums in 2001, offered a connection quality easily bested by a 300baud modem hooked to a Wildcat! BBS.

Fairfax County took action against the provider for delays and hit them with a $2 million fine. They then began fining them $2,000 each day they failed to meet upgrade obligations. By 2003, the half-a-billion dollar upgrade of the old Media General network began to take shape.

So in forcing Cox to meet its contractual obligations locally, Fairfax County probably made it possible for Cox to nearly effectively answer a real competitive challenge. Of course, if there had been real competition in the area before Verizon arrived bearing fiber, it would probably have not have been necessary for the county to insist on adequate infrastructure.

Cox raised the cap on its premier tier of service to a nominal 15 megs in response to the challenge from Verizion for these prime customers. It’s a great upgrade at first glance—and we got a similar but lesser sort of upgrade (it maxes at 6 megs for the highest-priced tier locally, I believe) not long after it became plain that LUS wasn’t going to back down on its plan—but Cox’s new Northern Virgina offering remains 10 dollars more than what Verizon is charging for the same speed cap. And not all speed caps are the same. When any company, be it Cox, Verizon, BellSouth, or presumably LUS, sells you a certain download/upload speed (its 15/2 in Northern Virginia) they are really selling you not a speed but a cap. They are telling you that you can use up to but not beyond a particular number, the cap.

Time out for a brief explanation: cable companies cannot sell you a guaranteed speed because you are on a shared line with other users. In one common example, they split 24 megabytes between users in a neighborhood of many potential users. As long as their service is unpopular they can deliver the 5 megs you’ve paid for. But if 5 users all try to download at the same time they’re trying to use 25 megs–1 meg more than is available–and if 10 users try it, nobody can get more than 2.5 megs–half of what you thought you paid for. It’s in the cable company’s best interest to oversubscribe the lines and it is industry standard procedure to do so. Hence, no guarantees.

The implication is pretty clear: raising the cap is useful only if the bandwidth is available. If Cox Northern Virgina hasn’t really increased capacity, then it is little more than a marketing ploy in terms of your day-to-day experience. The cap—the advertised speed—is much less interesting than the raw bandwidth available at your door. All things being equal, if Verizon has much more headroom in its system (and it does), then you are more likely to get the advertised speed. And it’s 10 dollars a month cheaper.

Right now all these details and technicalities really don’t matter much in Lafayette. But this is just the sort of reasoning we’ll have to go through if LUS gets the chance to build our network. And expect such reasoning to tend in favor of the system with real headroom: LUS’.

Standing Up—Acadian Home Builders Association

In a press release today the Acadiana Homebuilders endorsed Lafayette’s fiber optic project, calling for a “yes” vote on July 16th.

AHBA, according to Boudreaux, is always interested and supportive of economic development endeavors which could potentially bring new businesses and new jobs to the area which in turn keep up the demand for new housing. Keeping Lafayette on the cutting edge of technology is an exciting prospect to stimulate both new businesses and job growth.

Boudreaux adds, “We’re proud to add our name to the growing list of organizations that have come out in support of this project.”

Congratulations to the homebuilders for standing up for Lafayette.

Standing Up—Rebuild Lafayette North

Rebuild Lafayette North, the organization that sponsored the debate between Mike Stagg and Tim Supple, has decided to endorse the fiber optic project and to urge voters to vote Yes on July the 16th.

…the Committee for Rebuild Lafayette North joins other community leaders and organizations in urging the voters of the City of Lafayette to determine their own destiny and to approve the “Bond Sale Proposition” on Saturday, 16 July 2005, thereby providing the Lafayette Utilities System the opportunity to proceed with expansion of its fiber optic network to every home and business.

The organization cites digital divide, universal service, development, and educational reasons, among others. It’s all set up in classic resolution form, replete with many “whereas” and the final, resounding, “therefore.” You can get a look at it at Fibre911 which is hosting a copy.

“LUS fiber plan gets exemption from bill’s rule”

The Advocate’s story on yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee (posted late to the website) hearing clarifies some issues left over from yesterday and points to one of the highlights of the session: the potential involvement of New Orleans in laying a fiber optic network of its own.

There were, you will recall, two critical issues as far as Louisiana municipalities were concerned: the requirement of a vote (and potentially multiple votes) and the question of effectively fining any city that decided to provide some competition for the current providers. The issue of a vote was settled in favor of Cox in spite of protests from Lafayette and the Louisiana Municipal Association that coming back this year to rework a bill written last year after extensive negoitiations and compromise was simply not the way things should be done. A more normal legislative procedure would be to let such a hard-won bill have a little life before trying go back in and change the negotiated settlement. Here’s the way the article puts it:

As the bill stands with the new amendment, any municipality planning to enter the communications business in the future — such as New Orleans — would have to put the issue to a vote.

The second issue, of fining cities for daring to oppose Cox or their local cable provider, is more complicated. Blanchard does a good job of distilling it:

The Senate committee also addressed the issue in Broome’s bill that would allow cable companies to rid themselves of paying franchise fees should a city enter the telecommunications business. The panel agreed to an amendment which, in effect, made such an exemption something that would never happen — as the law stands now.

This amendment means that if a municipal government calls an election — which the law in its current form would require in all cases — and the public OKs the issue, then the franchise and contractual obligations of the cable companies would not be suspended.

This is a real win for the municipalities of our state. What the vanishing act may well point out is how poorly drawn the bill was in the first place: both of its central points were ammended in ways that completely changed their effect. On voiding franchise agreements it seems that the bill violated the state constititution on at least two accounts: 1) It effectively voided valid contracts. Louisiana’s constititution simply forbids this. 2) had the effect of granting the use of public resources for free—something else that is rightly unconstitutional in this state. But far beyond the legal stupidity of the law as it was originally drafted is its political foolhardiness. Consider trying to speak in favor of a bill that would fine Lafayette 900,000 dollars a year —about 9 million dollars total the way the bill structured it—and giving all that money to “the cable company” because Lafayette had the nerve to actually do something that “the cable company” didn’t care for: offer a little competition. This might all sound reasonable while talking to a lobbyist over dinner. A little wine will do wonders. But my guess is that it would have been much harder for the Honorable Broome to defend on the floor of the senate. How many of her constituents on Baton Rouge’s “northside” would have the least increment of sympathy for Cox? How would her mentor, now Baton Rouge’s mayor, Kip Holden, really feel about opening up this can of worms? There’s a name for stuff like this: political suicide. Ms Broome got off easy.

New Orleans

By far the most interesting new development from the committee meeting was the broad hint from Tom Ed McHugh, head of the Louisiana Municipal Association, that New Orleans was actively considering some form of fiber-optic network. This will not be entirely a surprise to regular readers but I’ve never seen it mentioned publicly outside of this blog and one of Blanchard’s analysis pieces. My own position was that it seemed far-fetched but that in Louisiana stranger things had happened. I remain of that opinion. You might think that the recognition that this bill could effect the largest voting block in the legislature—and the commerce committee—might auger poorly for the bill. Not in our version of local politics:

Two state senators from New Orleans on the Senate panel — Francis Heitmeier and Ann Duplessis, both Democrats — said they wanted the election requirement added to the bill because they are concerned New Orleans could embark on a plan similar to Lafayette’s.

Only a few cities in Louisiana have the capability to follow Lafayette’s lead, McHugh said.

New Orleans is “next in line,” he said.

There is are a few more tidbits in regard to this part of the story:

The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board has a series of bills in this session looking to make it easier to lay conduit for fiber-optic cable with sewer pipes.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is a former Cox Communications official who has visited Lafayette while the city worked on its plans to offer telecommunications services.

All the earlier news about New Orleans had pointed toward a buisness-oriented city-owned ring in the downtown business district across Canal from the Vieux Carre. But the above and a story I found recently which made it clear that all of New Orleans is slated for a mandatory sewer upgrade argue for much, much broader possibilities. And here I thought Broussard and Mayor Langlinais might be next….

2theadvocate.com: News

“Tri-Cities Trials”

The Independent has published a piece we should all go out and look at entitled “Tri-Cities Trials.” You’ll probably recall the Tri-Cities battle for fiber, it’s been discussed pretty extensively on these pages and LUS and the administration have treated the ugly fight there as a preview of the battle plan they expect Cox and BellSout to roll out here. In the Tri-Cities the the warning shot was a push poll. We’ve seen that here. But the deluge that followed was truly amazing and we await the flood.

What we, as citizens of Lafayette will be most interested in is the picture of what might be coming and a hint from those who’ve experienced the onslaught as to what it will feel like and how to best understand what is happening when the whirlwind descends. The Ind doesn’t offer up that story directly. What it does is hand you a loosely linked series of three personal vignettes drawn from major players on the the profiber side. The faces are chosen to represent a mayor, a city Information Technology (IT) guy, and an ardently profiber housewife. They are pretty much allowed to tell their own story.

And what you can learn if you listen carefully amounts to a mosaic image of what the experience was like. The mayor, Kevin Burns, feels abused. Emblematic of his outrage is push poll call that his father received. It isn’t hard to imagine how the Mayor felt when his father got a call floating some bit of nastiness about his son that the phone company wanted to spread around the city in hopes of tarnishing his son’s reputation—as a way of eroding support for a potentially competitive system that threatened their profits. The father’s response was a shocked: “My Kevin?” My guess is that his son the mayor’s response wasn’t nearly as printable. Mine would certainly wouldn’t have been. We do know that if he wanted to complain it wasn’t easy:

Burns was equally incensed by the lack of accessibility he had to the people pulling the strings at Comcast and SBC. “Even in war there are rules of engagement,” he says. “We had a hell of a time trying to find the decision makers. I kept asking, ‘Who do I call?’”

All, in all, you get the picture of a public officials, who thought that they were doing a good think for their people getting run down by a team for whom fair-play wasn’t a part of the rule-book. It feels, from reading the article, that that is what still stings.

The IT guy is insulted. The idea that the local crew couldn’t do a perfectly good job of managing a system was bizarre. “It’s not rocket science” he says metaphorically–meaning that its been a long time since running a decent FTTH system was a mysterious venture involving not readily accessible talents. You want an good network engineer, you hire one. It’s implementation not science or new product development. He’s also irked, in the manner of engineers everywhere, that anyone would oppose doing a project that they themselves won’t try. If your thing is crafting good products and (pretty much obsessively) making sure they run right—and this is the framework through which engineers view the world—then you are going to be really insulted by the type of people who tell you first that they won’t do it and then that they won’t let you do it. It doesn’t seem right or sensible.

The “offer” from the incumbents to build a local system when asked was viewed as particuarly insulting:

“Geneva was interested in getting AT&T Broadband to build a high-speed fiber optic network. To start, the city wanted to link its public schools and government buildings with fiber. In June 2000, AT&T Broadband said it would build Geneva’s fiber network for $4.8 million, leased out to the city over 10 years. The city would be limited to speeds of 100 megabits per second, and after the 10-year lease was paid, AT&T would still own the network.”

That, of course, was seen as insulting. Both technologically and from a business point of view to accept it would be irresponsible. To offer it was insulting. Pete Collins sounds plenty insulted.

Annie Collins is angry. She’s the mother with three kids who’s active in the Rotary and wants to help revitalize downtown. She got pulled into this fiber thing, got angry, and is not the sort to let it go. The anger is easy to hear:

“It’s not too hard to understand that your communities need new businesses to survive,” she says. “It’s not too hard to understand that you don’t need big corporations in your community controlling how much you’re paying for these services, when you can have your own hometown utilities creating jobs. It’s not too hard to understand that competition is good. That’s all you need to understand. Do you get your bill from Comcast and not get it? I mean, what don’t you get? Why is that so hard?..

Her advice to Lafayette rings true:

“Be suspicious of corporations that are lying to you,” she says. “They are only concerned with their profits. I don’t think your local cable and phone company really care about any economic development for your community…”

All in all the takeaway lesson for Lafayette is to prepare to be abused, insulted, and angry. I’m not sure it’s news or something we want to look forward to. But by all accounts it’s what’s coming.

They get it in Seattle: city is told it must rewire

Yo folks, you know uber cool Seattle of Microsoft fame? The place out of which all those nifty realnetwork video trailers are streamed? You’ll be surprised to find that Lafayette is actually out ahead of Seattle in regard to understanding broadband basics. But hey, the folks in Seattle aren’t so uncool that they aren’t starting to figure it out on their own. As reported in “Seattle is told it must rewire,” the city got something a little different than what it bargained for when it sent out a blue ribbon panel to examine the potential for a city-wide broadband network:

Seattle City Council member Jim Compton, chairman of the Utilities and Technology Committee and a sponsor of the task force, said he was surprised by the findings.

‘We sent them out to find out if we should do citywide Wi-Fi, and I thought that’s what the business model would point to,’ Compton said. ‘Instead, they came back and said that is one of the things we should do, but more important for our broadband future is a citywide fiber-optic network.’

Hey, that’s what happens when you send tech types out to really look at a problem. They figure things out:

The recommendation of fiber comes as a number of cities, including Spokane and Philadelphia, have approved construction of less expensive wireless networks. But wireless, including an emerging technology known as WiMax that can cover many square miles, does not provide the bandwidth or security necessary for applications such as telemedicine, remote learning or interactive government. It also has issues with network interference and spectrum licensing, Clifford said.

“The long-term problems and challenges that Seattle faces are not likely to be solved by wireless,” he said. “What Seattle and all cities will need is a big, big pipe capable of 25 to 100 megabits (per second) each way.”

Yup. Exactly. And Seattle, while it may have a reputation as a slacker haven, knows it can’t just sit around and wait for all that broadband goodness to come along at the convenience of the incumbent providers. If they want their city to prosper they’ll have to invest in themselves:

The idea of a municipally supported network that provides high-definition television, voice over Internet, on-demand movies and other services could put the city in competition with telephone and cable companies. Though there are potential ways for the city to work with those incumbents, the report indicated that it would be a mistake for Seattle to wait for “private markets” to drive the construction of new networks.

“Without the city playing any role and without taking the initial steps we outlined, other cities are going to fare much better because there will be more robust competition,” Clifford said.

I have to say they play a good game of catch-up. They even understand that the city will provide competition if it goes this route. It’s clear they get it in Seattle.

Want to know more? You can download the study, Report of the Task force on Telecommunications Innovation, and look through it yourself.

Broomes’ bill transformed

The Broome Bill was voted out of the commerce committee this morning, 4-3, and sent to the floor of the senate where it should be heard in the next few days. It was only reported favorably with a raft of amendments that appear to have exempted Lafayette from its provisions. Some of the consequences of the changes are clear. Some are less so.

What’s crystal clear: Should any municipality choose to try to follow Lafayette’s lead, it will have to go to a public vote if this bill becomes law. A clause was inserted that makes Lafayette’s bond election count; we won’t have to have a second election should this bill pass and be signed into law.

What’s less clear: a clause “D” was sticken from the draft language. I’m no lawyer and so don’t understand how it works but the consensus at the committee hearing seeemed to be (I watched the streaming video) that striking this resulted in Lafayette not having to put up with the onerous “fine” that would transfer $900,000 from Lafayette back into the pockets of Cox Communications if we had the nerve to do this for ourselves. No doubt this will clear up over the next few days. What is still less clear: how this will affect other municipalities. This is bad law and Lafayette’s gain shouldn’t become other municipalities’ loss.

But, for Lafayette at least, the news is good.

Broome Bill: Movie at 9:00 (am)

According to the senate website page on “Live Broadcasts,” the commerce committee hearing today will be streamed. So you should be able to listen to and watch the sausage being made. The stream is set to start at 9:00 and until then you’ll get some sort of error message when you try to activate the link. (You’ll need the realaudio player to listen.) The agenda says the Broome Bill, aka SB 126, aka Cox’s anti-Lafayette amendment to BellSouth’s anti-Lafayette law, is the first item up. As I recollect they do tend to try to get the most contentious issues out of the way first, but are also amenable to last minute agenda changes. So if you watch pay close attention to the first few minutes when any such changes will be announced.

And yes, you’d get a much better and bigger picture with less breakup if you had fiber to the home.