Broome bill advances

An Advocate Legislative reporter has filed a story on the Broome/Cox Bill. The hook, and the only apparent reason the story got filed, was that there was a flash of humor in a house committee meeting. The reporter apparently thought that unusual enough to be worth building a story around.

[There are those of us that think this bill might deserve some coverage because it is an abysmally bad bill, written by Cox lobbyists, introduced by a Senator who had no idea what it meant, and amended in such a sloppy way that fully half of the amendment is now meaningless, mean-spirited verbiage that can never have the effect of law. But apparently that isn’t unusual enough to warrant coverage. But humor in a committee meeting…that’s notably rare.]

The bare bones report is that the bill was reported favorably out of the House committee and will be seen on the House floor soon (it passed in the Senate on June 6th). At this point the bill has the effect of forcing every municipality that wants to provide a telecommunications utility to go through a referendum and go up against the largest and wealthiest media and telecommunications corporations in the world. It’s a serious change. The humor, such as it was, came in when lobbyists for the municipalities were apparently “beat up” for suggesting that substantially changing a law that went into effect only a year ago after a bruising compromise forced by the governor really, in all fairness, shouldn’t be tinkered with until it had at least been used, you know, once. That’s the way it usually works.

But, apparently, not when a major media-owning company thinks it should work differently.

After beating up on city and parish government lobbyists, a House panel forwarded legislation Monday that essentially changes a single word in a law passed last year…

Former Baton Rouge Mayor-President Tom Ed McHugh, representing the Louisiana Municipal Association, and Dan Garrett for the Police Jury Association of Louisiana testified against the legislation.

They asked for patience before changing a law that only went into effect in July 2004.

The law that opened the door last year for local government to enter the telecommunications business was the result of many hours of negotiation, in which every line was approved by local government officials, telecommunications industry representatives and legislators, McHugh and Garrett said.

Now be aware that in Louisiana it’s unusual to “beat up on” folks like McHugh and Garrett. I mean, you just don’t offend the state’s police juries. There are huge swaths of rural Louisiana that are ruled by this peculiar institution and crossing them is rightly recognized as dangerous. During the fight to turn last year’s bill (the one this amends) into something marginally acceptable, I knew a milestone had been reached when the police jury association came out against the bill. Rural and urban Louisiana. When they stand together, others usually stand aside. My suspicion is that this is a nice index of just how little any legislator wants to offend the companies that can decide to carry or not carry political advertising and to charge open rate or cut a deal with politicians. So little that they’d risk offending both the municipalities and the police jurors at the same time. Modern telecommunications is indeed changing the world.

It’s too bad that the full court press that Lafayette put on the Senate Commerce Committee wasn’t visited on the House Committee as well. In that committee Broome tried to float the same silly idea that this wasn’t a big change. She didn’t get away with it and even after Lafayette agreed to amendments that radically altered the bill and left it with that ugly vestigial, impossible-to-implement language, it still only passed by one vote.

What makes the display in the House particularly distasteful is that Lafayette’s representative Don Trahan was a lead participant in rounding on the men who had helped save Lafayette’s fiber-optic project from a second referendum vote and a $900,000-per-year fine. You’d think he, at least, would show a little decent reserve. But apparently that’s not necessary when the bill on the table is desired by the masters of media.

Fiber updates—dates

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate carry update stories today. The Advertiser has a brief on the town hall meeting at Thomas Park and a separate small story on the close of voter registration Wednesday evening. The Advocate story focuses on the town hall meeting but also mentions the Fiber Jam at the Blue Moon that will be happening that same evening.

Today it is all about times on Wednesday:

  • 6/15/05, 4:30 pm: Voter registration for the fiber referendum closes; go to the registrars office at 1010 Lafayette St., Suite 313.
  • 6/15/05, 7:00 pm: Town Hall meeting at Thomas Park Recreation Center, 300 Geraldine Drive. Terry Huval, Joey Durel, and Dee Stanley are slated to answer questions. Yard Signs, bumper stickers and information from Lafayette Coming Together, a pro-fiber citizens group, will also be available.
  • 6/15/05, 8:00 pm: Fiber Jam at the Blue Moon Saloon and Guesthouse. Terry Huval is slated to appear when he gets free from the Town Hall meeting. Lafayette Coming Together will have a table with bumper stickers, yard signs, endorsements sheets for the ad appearing in the Independent, volunteer lists, and information.

Senator Vitter gets no (public) response on municipal broadband

A big thanks to Doug over at LUSFTTH for catching this one which was buried in a “day in the life” piece about Senator Vitter in the Advertiser this Sunday. Here is the snippet about Vitter’s meeting with the cable guys. There is a list of things to bear in mind as background in reading this snippet:

  • Vitter represents the entire state. He makes his home in Metairie.
  • New Orleans has recently been mentioned as the next candidate for a Lafayette-style municipal telecom utility.
  • Vitter endorsed the fiber optic initiative during his election campaign.
  • Gary Cassard is the head Cox guy in Lafayette.
  • Tim Tippet is the public affairs officer—the guy who deals with municipalities—of the Cox division that includes Lafayette but not New Orleans or Baton Rouge.
  • Lafayette is about a month away from a referendum that—prior to the anticipated misinformation media campaign by the incumbents—looks set to pass in Lafayette.
  • “Open agenda” doesn’t mean that the folks who requested a meeting with a federal senator don’t know what they want to talk about. It means they don’t want what they plan to talk about published in the senator’s daily agenda.
  • Representative Sessions of Texas has introduced a bill that would have the federal government take away the power of any local government to start a telecom utility.

Now it might not be apparent to everyone that a little talk about Lafayette and municipal franchises more generally might have been part of the not-published agenda of this meeting. But it seems pretty likely to me. Oh yes, two more bullet points to bear in mind when reading this snippet:

  • Vitter showed up at the meeting with a reporter in tow who was doing a “day in the life of” piece for the daily paper in Lafayette. Vitter’s conservative voting base was more likely to read about their new Senator’s day in that paper than other readers.
  • That daily paper has endorsed the fiber optic initiative in a string of stinging editorials.

Now, take a look at this snippet and tell me what you think.

At 4:05 p.m., Vitter joined one of his last meetings in one of his office’s conference rooms with representatives from Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable. Gary Cassard, from Lafayette, Cox’s regional vice president of operations, Cheryl Rummel, president of Time Warner in Shreveport and Tim Tippet, from Tyler, Texas, vice president of public affairs and government relations for Cox Communications wore nametags as attendees to the Key Contact Conference 2005. Their agenda with Vitter was open.

Vitter brought up the issue of television decency and said that ‘the divide between network and cable doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to people.’ Before Vitter entered the room, Tippet had said that the decency issue had moved to the ‘back burner,’ but once the senator brought up the issue, it was quickly moved to the front burner.

As the meeting was drawing to a close, Tippet asked Vitter if there was anything else he wanted to discuss. Vitter brought up the issue of municipally owned utilities ‘like in Lafayette.’ Tippet said that he preferred to talk about the utilities issue at another time. The meeting adjourned at 4:25 p.m.

I think the conversation would have been entirely different if the reporter hadn’t been in the room. And I think that Tippet, the Cox VP from Tyler, Texas, will indeed make the effort to “talk about the utilities issue at another time.”

Fear: It really is that simple

We’ve another fearful anti-fiber letter in the newspaper today. I was concerned a few days ago when I suggested that what really seemed to motivate the antifiber crowd was fear of the future and distrust rather than simple principle, saying: “But letters like this one, which don’t have much left if you take out the fear of the future.” This letter is even more straightforwardly about fear of the future and change than the last.

Abe says:

The idea…scares me.

Where is the need to change…?

The basic idea is that there is no need for change, that the way things are now is good enough.

It isn’t that things aren’t “good enough” now; it is that some of us see the way forward to something much better. And we want that for Lafayette.

“Die TV. Die! Die! Die!” or “Why You Want Real Bandwidth”

Television is really aggravating. We are so used to it that we forget how irritating most of the time but occasionally something happens to remind us just how bad things are. And we go off on TV (and sometimes even go off it for awhile). But we almost never realize why it is so bad.

We hate our TV because of limited bandwidth.

A fella named Ernest Miller reminded me of this with a post of his called “Die Channel. Die! Die! Die!” Ernest is one of those brilliant men who sit down, locate a problem of real substance, and try to fix it. His area is the intersection of law and technology. He’s at Yale now and is noted for his work on modern copyright issues. But his complaints about having to watch TV on someone else’s scheduling and about the artificial lengths of TV shows is what led me to think once again about how irritating TV is.

And I think we hate our TVs because of long-standing bandwidth limits.

Things to be justly irritated by:

  • Your favorite show is scheduled at a fixed time every week. (But your schedule isn’t fixed to match!)
  • Somebody in New York thinks all the good stuff ought to come on while you want to sleep. (And you refuse to change your sleeping habits or job to accommodate that New Yorker!)
  • Apparently there is some “normal” person in Kansas who all these shows is supposed to please mildly without offending very often. (But this fare pleases you about as well as the food in Kansas . . . you want something with a little more life!)
  • Someone has made up a rule that TV shows can only be shown in increments of a half-hour. (But you are irritated by shows that are have 23 minutes of decent content and 7 minutes of utter fluff!)
  • Every time something dramatic or interesting is about to happen on a TV show, they go off on a commercial break. (Even worse, you suspect that the only reason anything interesting happened was so that you’d hang around till the commercials were over!)
  • 212 channels and they can’t find anything worth watching? (What’s that about? A rerun of the Mary Tyler Moore Show is my best choice? Why?)
  • Not only that–but all that junk is expensive. (I hate paying for stuff I not only don’t like but wouldn’t have in my house if I had a choice!)

All that can be attributed to limited bandwidth — to bandwidth that is rare and therefore expensive. Now nobody much thinks about it this way right now. But that is because you seldom can see what the problem is until it has been solved. And I suspect that the problem with TV is about to be solved.

The solution is Downloadable Video (DV instead of TV). You go to the internet and find the show you want to watch, (pay probably), download it, and watch it.

You can:

  • You can watch episode one at 7:12 one Wednesday night and episode two at 2:00 the next Thursday if it suits your schedule.
  • Watch your favorite show at 3:15 in the afternoon every day and sleep when you want, thank you very much.
  • You don’t have to watch anything that that guy in Kansas would watch. And you don’t have to eat his food, either.
  • Some episodes of a show are 52 minutes long and some are 68 minutes long and it is all good stuff, ’cause nobody bothers with fluff if it doesn’t have to fit the schedule of some advertising executive.
  • The rhythm of DV shows is not determined by advertising breaks the way that TV shows are. The plot actually drives the show. At first it seems weird but it’s easy to get used to.
  • You’re not limited to 212 channels. Like bass fishing? Download your favorite show from 1982. Have a strange sense of humor? Download 12 Andy of Mayberrys and have a party with an Aunt Bee theme.
  • You pay for what you download. But you only pay for what you want to watch. None of that awful schlock. (Unless you like awful schlock–then you can have as much as you want—there is plenty.)

But you can’t fix TV this way unless you have real, big, bandwidth—cheap. Fiber to the home is the way out of the wasteland. Nothing else will provide adequate bandwidth to do this and everything else you might want to do at the same time. It is the future. Even after we get big bandwidth it will take a while to mature. Only those companies that have capacity to burn will be able to compete. And only those communities that have really big bandwidth will get it early. It will be well worth having, don’t you think? Replace your TV with DV.

You can put in an order on July 16th by voting Yes!, For Fiber.

Register to Vote!

A nifty little article in today’s Advocate lays out all that you need to know to fulfill your civic duty on the July 16th Fiber Optic Referendum. Vote!

If you are not registered or if you have changed your name or residence since you last voted you need to trek down to the registrar of voters next to the courthouse and get it straight. If you’re fine but you know friends or family who need to do so offer to take them down there and treat ’em to lunch at Dwyers or T-Coon’s—after they register. (No need to get fancy, after all this is a duty!)

The Advocate story has all the details, hours of operation, holiday days, address, and more.

As a little lagniappe: If there is any chance you’ll be in Cancun (or Minden) on July 16th you need to start thinking about your absentee ballot. Mark your calendars. Absentee voting runs from July 5th to July 9th.

“Digital Divide proposals are off target”

There is a letter to the editor in the Advertiser from Lawrence Uter using the mere existence of a “Digital Divide” committee as a reason to vote against LUS’ fiber to the home plan. This letter reminds me that I’ll have to get back to an abandoned post on the digital divide issue but what really struck me is that, as nearly as I can see, it isn’t the actual proposals that offend the writer but what he thinks will “likely” happen in the future—bad things that “can’t be far behind.”

It’s pretty typical of the opposition to the plan that it all comes down to fear and uncertainty about what the future might hold and doubt about our elected government. The continuing contrast is striking. Those for the plan tend to be positive about our future and confident that, especially on the local level, they can help shape the future. If local government does something they don’t care for, they plan to work to change it and their involvement in this fight is an example of how they hope to do so. Enduring alliances are being built during the current fight that will be useful in other matters. People from every corner of the city, from every race and income level, from every political persuasion, are involved. They seem motivated by civic pride and the idea that they can make life better for everyone.

People who are against this project seem, to a man, fearful about the future, distrustful of even the level of government that is closest to the people, and doubtful—or even disdainful—of the idea that people can be motivated by anything other than fear and selfishness.

The contrast is so stark that it almost seems unfair to talk about it. But letters like this one, which don’t have much left if you take out the fear of the future, make it hard to avoid at least thinking about it.

On one level it often seems that it’s all about ideology…and, in fact, the opponents tend to try to make it so, calling their positions ones of conservative principle. The fact, pretty obviously, is that that can’t be a very good explanation. Many of the most conservative people in town are fighting for the plan. The Republican Executive Committee has endorsed it. The Chamber of Commerce has endorsed it. Even the very conservative Homebuilders have endorsed it. These people are not, as opponents want to claim, abandoning their principles. But these people do have a positive view of the world and their capacity to change it. It is not, or is not simply, a matter of ideology.

The pattern I am beginning to see is more a matter of personality. Some people seem to come to us with an in-built fear of the future, a conviction that they cannot change that future, and a distrust of those around them. Some kinds of conservative ideologies, but not all, fit this way of seeing the world pretty well and fearful folks tend to trumpet those talking points. But it isn’t, I suspect, really about that. It’s about being fearful of a future that appears out of control.

And I’m not sure that any amount of good reasons or good reasoning can change that.

Team CajunBot Going Back to the Grand Challenge

Great News! ULL’s Cajunbot has been invited back to the 2nd DARPA Grand Challenge.

When the evaluation team came around earlier this year to access the progress of the team I made the following remarks that still seem appropriate:

Last year ULL’s “Cajunbot“–a modified swamp buggy that seemed oddly out of place in the Mojave desert– made it all the way to the race to compete against teams from private industry and schools like MIT and Caltech. It was, and is, a great underdog story.

DARPA is the storied source of funding for blue sky projects ranging from artificial intelligence to ray guns (really) is now interested in something they call autonomous robotics. The idea is to develop a vehicle that can navigate complex terrain without human help. So far its not been a lot more successful in meeting its ulitimate goal of developing a vehicle that can drive itself across complex, unknown terrain than the artificial intelligence projects were. But the point, often missed by unreflective critics of government, of DARPA projects like the Grand Challenge is to deliberately set tasks so difficult that they “challenge” the participants to invent valuable new technologies in the processs. This is truly one of those instances when the value is in the journey and not the destination. It represents a specie of risk taking seldom conceived in the private sector.

The “field” of autonomous robotics is actually an offshoot of the artificial intelligence research cited above. While we never got “brains” like Hal in the movie “2001” that we can talk to (and fear) we did get whole new ranges of computer science that form a substantial part of the curriculm now taught at ULL. Autonomous robotics actually emerges from artificial intelligence’s failures–as it turns out it was easy to “teach” artificial minds to do things we consider hard (like math) but forbiddingly difficult to do thins we consider a no-brainer–like walk across a new room or navigate 200 miles of open terrain in a jeep.

The participation of ULL in the DARPA challenge (and LITE, and, of course, our proposed fiber-optic network) serves notice to the world that folks in Lafayette can participate in technological challenges at and beyond the bleeding edge. We needn’t take a back seat to anyone. And won’t.

The phone companies go federal –and thinking about real bandwidth

Om Malik comments on the phone companies’ new push to “reform” telecom law at the federal level and nails the intent. Since the cable companies are so far ahead, the phone companies need the Feds to step in and save them. Outlining the success of the Bells’ “give us an inch and we’ll take a mile strategy,” he says:

In other words, with carefully spent lobbying dollars, and masterful business/political strategy, Bells got whatever they wanted.

Till recently, when they met their match in local governments. The locals quickly dispatched the Bells state-wide video franchise plans, and Bells know this is a battle they cannot win easily. So what do they do? Wave Stars and Stripes, plead nationalism and cry…big bad broadband policy makers are pushing us down the broadband ladder. So lets change the national policies! Boohoo!

So the Bells want relief from having to do what the cable companies have to do. It is all about securing a competitive advantage over their rivals. And what the cablecos do that the phone companies do not want to do is to treat local communities like each one might have some unique needs and desires. (Worry about supporting any of South Louisiana’s unique cultures? Nah, too complicated for us…) As far as companies like BellSouth are concerned, the real advantage is in not having to serve all citizens of an area equally–something that the cable companies are almost universally required to do in their local franchises. Even if the cable companies were exempted as well, they are already completely built out. Only the phone companies could benefit.

It’s not a pretty picture.

But Om closes off an interesting project, one that isn’t realizable on any of the incumbents system but which would be available on ours if Lafayette votes yes on July 16th:

How about giving consumers 100 megabits per second and letting them figure out what they want to do with it. Downloadable video, not IPTV makes more and more sense over the new fiber networks Verizon is building. Why build the same-old television, when you can build a new TV. Not a passive TV, but something better. A sort of hosted TiVo where consumers go to the web and build their own TV channel which comes down the fiber. Thinking different is hard, but in the end that is what is going to make Bells broadband standout, not complaining from the roof tops.

IPTV is, really, just a way to shoehorn a cable-lookalike into the bandwidth the newer technologies will make available to Telecos. But what would really be neat is what Om Malik is hoping for: a system that does away with channels entirely. Watch what you want when you want. Store your content online in huge, cheap (per gig) server farms. Three different TV’s could be downloading at the same time, and with a few seconds’ hesitation to buffer a few minutes worth of buffer, you could watch streaming video of your choice anywhere in the house. A parent could walk in, demand a kid start his or her homework, stop the show and only start it flowing again after the homework was done. Guests come to the door during the last 10 minutes of your favorite show? Just pause it, no need to be rude. Wanna stop the biography and check to see if Richard Nixon really said that? Pause it, switch to web browser mode and check it out on wikipedia. Store the video of your grandchild’s Grand Isle birthday celebration and let the system stream it out for all his cousins to watch.

All this is as easy as pie with real bandwidth. And it isn’t worth worrying about at the meager bandwidth the incumbents are willing to sell us at a reasonable price.

“Illinois Checks In”

Peter Malone has a letter to the editor in the Independent with some advice for the people of Lafayette:

Lafayette residents should be prepared for a barrage of misinformation arriving at their homes during the two weeks leading up to the July 16 municipal fiber vote…

Peter’s right, and he should know — he lived through it when the tricities tried to build a fiber-optic network in Illinois. Peter is writing to the Independent in response to the paper’s article on their travails, Tri-Cities Trials,” which is worth a review if you missed it when it ran and want a peek into what it will be like after in Lafayette after Independence Day.

The story the Tri-Cities tell is strikingly similar to our story here in Lafayette. It starts with local electrical service, built back in the day when private companies didn’t think the towns were worth bothering with; moves on to a well-run municipal fiber network that is well positioned to offer the citizens a service that, again, the private companies are not willing to provide themselves; and ends with the story of just how overwhelmng the misleading and deceptive campaign was in the final days:

Trying to tell the truth was like whistling in a windstorm.

Peter thinks the last two weeks will be decisive. And he is undoubtably right.

There is a sense among some people, even people who should really know better, that we might avoid the coming storm—that there is something we can do, perhaps by laying low, that can ward off the evil that is to come. Were that there were such a spell we could throw. But just as there is no voo-doo that can divert a hurricane from its track, there is no spell that would cause Cox and BellSouth to not visit this firestorm on Lafayette. Folks who hesitate in hopes that this is true are, however well-meaning, dangerously wrong. They are choosing not to recall the character exhibited last summer and fall by the incumbents when we saw a series of events perfectly in line with what the Tri-Cities experienced: nasty push-polls, outright lies at an “academic” broadband conference, an arrogant assertion that we didn’t know what we needed and that our local folks were incompetent to provide it anyway, and an editorialist-for-hire snuck into our local paper, to name only a few. The incumbents’ character hasn’t changed—witness the most recent push poll which was equal parts incompetent silliness and vicious rumour-mongering — which was then followed by a little lying about who paid for it and what it was intended to do.

No, what Peter warns of is coming. Our best bet is to recognize that basic fact and get out ahead of the storm with the message of how valuable a fiber-optic network can be for our city and make sure the city understands how deceptive and unprincipled that final barrage will be. We don’t want to end up, as they did in the Tri-Cities, “whistling in a windstorm.” We need to speak, and speak as loudly as we can while we can still be heard.