“Political labels have their limits”

There’s a good editorial in the Advocate today on Lafayette’s conservatism–or lack thereof. It’s one of those issues when a good editorial is more informative–in that it teaches more usefully–than “objective” reporting.

The editorial is a considered response to the Bay Area Center for Voting Research releasing a list of the most conservative and liberal cities in the country that listed Lafayette as the ninth most conservative city in the United States. The original point of the Bay Area study seems to have been to demonstrate that San Francisco was one of the most liberal cities in the state and country—Something that needed little research to establish. So, in fact, little research was done. Using info from a Patrick Courreges story (wherein the reporter, gasp, called to fact check* and find out what was the basis of the Bay Area claim) the editorial notes that the rankings were based solely on the ’04 presidential election. That’s actually pretty embarrassing for the group doing the study—it turns out their “research” consisted solely of lightly manipulating a database of the election numbers.

The editorial goes on to point out that the label defies a lot that we know to be true about Lafayette:

There are several ways in which Lafayette defies the conservative stereotype. For one thing, more voters are registered as Democrats than as Republicans in the area. Democrats make up a little less than 45 percent of the 74,135 total registered voters in Lafayette’s city limits, while Republicans make up slightly less than 33 percent. Voters without party affiliations or with other affiliations make up a little under 23 percent, according to the Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Office.

Additionally, Lafayette voters recently approved, by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, a plan to allow the city’s public utility system to provide phone, cable and high-speed Internet access using a citywide fiber optic network. Whatever one thinks about the merits of the proposal, approving such broad government involvement in telecommunications isn’t an expression of conservative orthodoxy.

Additionally, the most conservative area in the city– south Lafayette–gave the referendum its largest plurality. And even more disconcerting for an easy analysis the campaign that was waged here made no bones about opposing “greedy monopolists” from out of state with local self-determination in its desire to build a publicly owned utility. That, in both rhetoric and substance, is classic urban populism. Apparently its not all that easy to say what people mean when they say that Lafayette is politically conservative.

The Advocate also raises interesting questions regarding cultural conservatism–the other too easy explanation for Lafayette’s conservative reputation:

South Louisiana is a bastion of Catholicism, so in today’s culturally tinged political climate, issues such as abortion might be listing the region to the right. But it is also a land of joie-de-vivre, with a live-and-let-live philosophy that includes drive-in daiquiri shops. Those are not exactly what people think of as emblems of a “culturally conservative” community.

It is a puzzlement…I suggest we just go our own way and ignore all that stuff.

*Yes, that’s intended to be a reference to the Benjamin debacle. This is a nice example of how editorials are supposed to be done. You take facts, established by real reporting, and dig into the implications and meaning of those facts. The contrast between the Gannett method and the Advocate method should be instructive to those that exercise editorial control at the Times and the Advertiser.

News from the Iowa Front

Opportunity Iowa” has been engaging in an effort to tie together its towns and cities in a regional alliance that would, together, give them the economic basis for developing a fiber-optic network. They are inspired, at least in part, by the example of Cedar Falls, a city which built its municipally-owned network years ago and offered advanced services over its then state of the art hybrid fiber-coax network long before the local cable company got around to it. If this sounds vaguely familiar that may be because Cedar Fall’s experience was the subject of a keynote address at Lafayette Coming Together’s breakfast event during the referendum campaign.

Iowa recently turned back an attempt to outlaw municipal systems but a bitter political battle rages on, a report from the Chicago Tribute claims. The most interesting parts to the author were the reports on the success of muni broadband networks to grow, attract, and enable the startup of new businesses.

Bits from the story:

“Municipalities from Lafayette, La., to Philadelphia are moving to provide residents with broadband connections, while in others, such as Geneva, Batavia and St. Charles, voters rejected the idea. The initiatives, which proponents say boost local economic development opportunities, are spurring intense battles across the nation with cable and phone companies, which believe the competition is unfair.

Municipalities like Cedar Falls jumped into action a decade ago, when community leaders perceived that information infrastructure would be vital to economic success in the new century. They decided that if left to market forces, small hamlets would be among the last to get connected to the information superhighway.

…the Mudd Group, makes TV commercials, video e-mails and Web site content that it ships to TV stations and customers around the country over communications connections as fast as anything available in Chicago or Los Angeles.

“Many TV commercials once made in California now come from Canada because it’s cheap,” Mudd said. “In Iowa, we can make them even cheaper.”

The Mudd Group uses high-speed optical fiber lines supplied by the Cedar Falls Utility, a municipal operation that offered affordable high-speed data connections years before the local cable TV operator or phone company made such services available.

And that’s only one inspiring example from the story. Give it a look; its worth the the free registration.

“Federal telecommunication legislation could slash cable access TV funding”

Here’s a story from our friends in the Tri-Cities. It examines the local effects of the proposed federal-level “Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act of 2005.” The proposed law, of course, has little to do with the laudable title. The Act, sponsored by Nevada Republican John Ensign, is actually about ending local franchises and any state or local control based on the ownership of the local ownership of rights of ways that telecom operators use. The story clearly identifies the centralizing* thrust of the legislation:

At its core, the legislation, would eliminate all local and state control…

The focus of the article is on monies paid to municipalities and especially to local access channels like our own AOC and looking at the issue, as this article does, from the point of view of how the federal law would effect local issues is something I am happy to see and makes for thought-provoking reading on how this would effect our own locality. Consider these remarks:

Through the franchise agreement between the city and Comcast, for instance, Batavia received about $229,200 in 2004, $137,500 of which went toward Batavia Access Television. And the larger the town, the more the charge. The city of Aurora received more than $1.1 million in 2004.

“Not only would it kill BATV but (it) would leave a big hole in our general fund budget,” said Alderman Jim Volk, who was the city’s representative on the BATV board for the past nine years.

Meredith Mercier/Daily Herald

Jenny Glick, operations manager of Batavia Access Television, tapes Monday evening’s Batavia City Council meeting at the government center.

The Batavia City Council went on record recently in opposition to the Consumer Choice Act, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, on July 27…

“There is no question that it would mean drastically less money for cities,” she [
Cheryl Leanza, principal legislative council for the National Leauge of Cities] said.

Leanza said she knows of no city that supports the legislation.

Stuart Chapman, a Hoffman Estates telecommunications consultant for cities and counties, agreed those fees would be cut quite a bit.

But in pursuing a very useful focus on costs the story does miss what I believe is the central issue in all legislation of this stripe, be it federal or state: the end of the universal service requirement. Upgrades to the current phone and cable networks would not have to include all the citizens of a community if they wanted to serve cable TV as these franchise agreements almost universally require. It’s no secret who the private corporations would leave out: any neighborhood that isn’t profitable as quickly as another gets built last. Any neighborhood that isn’t as profitable as any competing use for the company’s money (say buying other cable companies or buy wireless carriers) never gets service at all.

The loss of universal service is by far the biggest potential competitive advantage that the Baby Bells will garner by killing local franchises and it is worth noticing that they are willing to at least talk about continuing to pay fees to local governments but are not willing to brook discussion of universal service. That, my friends, is the point. In relatively homogenous communities as I understand the Tri-Cities to be that may not be a large practical issue. But in cities like our own with large historically and politically significant difference between neighborhoods it will be a huge step backward.

If the Batavia City council can vote to support the municipal franchise I don’t know why Lafayette’s city council can’t make itself heard as well–a resolution condemning the Ensign bill and urging that our representatives in Congress protect municipal property rights and self-determination could prove very useful.

*(It is an index of the poverty of what passes for conservatism these days that there is no echo of the outrage over the recent eminent domain issue–which really only acted conservatively in refusing to insist on a federal power to overturn local decision-making–when it comes to a massive federal taking of property rights from municipalities–the branch of government most responsive to local concerns. It’s not about individual rights and freedoms anymore, if ever it was; its about corporate interests being served.)

“BR needs broadband in every home”

Aside from Baton Rouge’s unaccountable Austin envie Charles Hall’s letter in todays Advocate is a model of clear thinking about broadband and community issues. My honest recommendation is to go read it and only bother with my commentary if you’ve got a little extra time on your hands this Saturday morning. Hall says it all very well.

He points out several really salient points, not all of which are obvious to all: Hall realizes that broadband is a modern necessity for development, that most of that development should be expected to be in small businesses, and that attracting large business has mostly failed (not saying that it has proven an unproductive race to the bottom with local and state giveaways diluting its positive impact). He’s smart about pricing, noting that with computer cost dipping below 300 dollars the real barrier to wider adoption of new technologies is in monthly broadband costs, (something we get here in Lafayette) and that locales like Austing broadband is significantly cheaper broadband that helps fuel new economy growth.

Hall mentions Lafayatte’s path as one solution but lists others, including EATEL’s example, oft praised here like our own local Kaplan Telephone, and WiFi/WiMax –a last mile solution which depends on a second mile backhaul solution that Baton Rouge also lacks. Lafayette’s advantage, as always, is LUS and its infrastructure.

Go give it a read. Good stuff.

“Muni nets step forward in Louisiana, step back in Congress”

An article from Telephony Online highlights the contrast between Lafayette’s success and the federal threats to local self-determination in the telecommunications sphere.

From the story:

In Lafayette, La., earlier this summer, municipal network advocates won a major victory at the polls, but those fortunes were seemingly reversed recently when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) introduced the first major telecom reform legislation, with provisions that would severely restrict the ability of local governments to build their own broadband networks.

And the author pointedly notes:

There is little doubt that the issue of publicly owned broadband networks will only get more controversial, now that both cable companies — and within the next year, telephone companies — can choose not to sell access to their broadband networks.

Go there and read on…the story is meaty and mentions continued opposition by the incumbents even after the impressive referendum win and competeing bills that favor or oppose municipal telecom builds of the sort Lafayette is engaged in. It’s a good national overview.

“Vitter visits chamber, vows to work to protect fiber plan from challenges”

In a welcome reaffirmation reported by the Advocate US Senator Vitter yesterday made it clear that he continues to support LUS’ fiber-optic initiative and will work from his seat on the commerce committee to make sure that federal legislation doesn’t damage Lafayette’s interests. Vitter was an early supporter–the only Federal level candidate that endorsed the plan during the last election (to my knowledge)–and has continued to evidence quiet support for the plan.

From the Courreges story:

Vitter was in town to talk to the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce about past and future congressional actions affecting the state and the Lafayette area.

He said that Congress will be working on a broadband telecommunications act in the next year or two, and his seat on the Senate Commerce Committee means he’ll be dealing with that legislation directly.

Vitter said he’s aware of the voter-approved plan to allow LUS to provide broadband internet, telephone and cable TV through fiber-optic lines to every home and business in the city of Lafayette.

The plan, fought in court, the Legislature and before the state Public Service Commission by telecommunications giants BellSouth and Cox Communications, had the backing of the Lafayette chamber, parish Republicans and Democrats and several other groups.

“I don’t want to do anything at the federal level to stop that,” Vitter said.

Good News; and important for the future of the venture that Lafayette has undertaken.

Now if only we can get him to co-sponsor Lautenberg-McCain…that bill, widely supported by municipal and, consumer groups as well as Intel would protect municipalities rights to serve their citizens without state or federal interference.

In the “I’m not sure what to make of it” department: the Advertiser ran two stories that featured Vitter and reported on his words. (1, 2) The sum total of Advertiser reporting on the topic of this post:

He will be involved in writing a new Telecommunications Act that he hopes will reward innovation and not become outdated as technology changed.

Without the Baton Rouge paper we’d have no sense of the tenor of those comments on the most contentious issue of the season. In fact we’d have no sense that Lafayette’s telecommunicaton project and the position of our US Senator even came up. That’s not right.

There is something very weird going on over at the Gannett papers. Some sort of byplay resulting from the Benjamin Debacle? A sort of “If you can’t get it right don’t touch it at all sort of caution?” I hope the new editor straightens it all out.

By the way: Who is responsible for editorial oversight of Benjamin these days? The new editor? Ted Power? Is Benjamin responsible for supervising himself? Inquiring minds want to know.

Skirmish Over. War Is On!

The LUS fiber initiative has already succeeded in bringing large segments of Lafayette together in support of a vision of bringing new economic progress to the city via the 21st Century network infrastructure and the services that will flow through it.

For the most part, I think this unity will last. There will, of course, be exceptions.

The first break-up, though, is now official.

That’s right! Cox and BellSouth have broken off their strained alliance and the war for digital media dominance across south Louisiana is back on!

There was no official announcement, but (in a world where nothing’s considered real unless it’s on TV) Cox Business Services has a new ad that purports to show a businessman talking to a phone company rep. The ad opens with the camera on the businessman while he talks to the phone rep. When the camera cuts to the phone rep at the end of the ad, it’s a brick wall! The voice over says something to the effect that talking to your phone rep can be like talking to a brick wall.

The ad is not yet on Cox’s website, but this one is. Here are more of them.

Judging by what just happened in Texas, look for the next fight in Louisiana to be over relieving phone companies of the local franchise fees for video services.

As you know, cable companies currently pay franchise fees to municipalities in exchange for right of way access which enables them to build their networks to deliver service (now including phone and internet) across the community.

In Texas, SBC and Verizon convinced state government leaders that requiring phone companies to negotiate these local franchise were onerous and delayed their plans to build new networks in those communities. Critics, including the cable companies, say the phone companies bought this legislation. If true, it was a good business deal and a hell of a lot cheaper than paying franchise fees across the state.

If this is, indeed, going to be the next phone v. cable fight in Louisiana, it will require something of a change in mindset in BellSouth’s Atlanta headquarters. I still believe that the company’s Louisiana leaders have not been able to convince their corporate betters that making new network investments in this state makes business sense. The chief reason for this is Cox’s aggressive moves into phone and business services in major markets across south Louisiana.

As we heard ad infinitum during the recent campaign, BellSouth is a business and it makes investment decisions based on its best judgment of where it will get the best return. In Louisiana, BellSouth is in a bind. It is moving from somewhere in the 95 percent market share range to somewhere significantly south of that. Apparently, the powers that be in Atlanta won’t invest significantly new dollars here until they have a better idea of just how far south their market share will fall.

Will this paralysis push BellSouth’s marketshare beyond a tipping point where it begins to suffer major customer losses? It’s possible. I talked with a businessman from Hammond last week who was exasperated by the lack of responsiveness of BellSouth to basic service quality issues. He spontaneously volunteered this information during a conversation about healthcare and connectivity. Sure, not too much should be read into an anecdote, but that kind of customer hostility can’t be a good thing.

Fortunately for BellSouth, the State of Louisiana (rumored to be BellSouth’s second largest customer in its entire nine-state network) will remain a docile customer. So, there is an anchor for the company there.

Could getting the Louisiana Legislature to eliminate local franchise fees for the phone companies be the kind of incentive that could convince BellSouth Atlanta to make new network investments here? They’ve got a few months to figure this out. So, too, does the Louisiana Municipal Association, whose members would take a pretty fair financial lick from such a move.

But, keep an eye on bill filings when the 2006 session approaches. If this is the play, BellSouth will look to its stalwarts (1, 2, 3) to carry their water.

Unlike the marketplace (where it has shown itself to be both tin-eared and ham-handed), BellSouth knows how to work state government. This is a win-able fight for them. And they need a win.

Two Stories in One: Fiber May Go Statewide!

The second very interesting story in today’s Advocate article “City’s business appeal grows” is tucked under the headline story but may be, in the end, as important a revelation (if no more certain) than the one about a new business coming to Lafayette.

That second story sounds as if it is the result of one of the Mayor’s famous riffs. Durel apparently went off on a joking tangent about how Louisiana might benefit by other states outlawing municipal broadband which is pretty clearly a major development tool (as evidenced by the headline story). He then, acknowledges that this is a bad state of affairs for the country and slides into a proclamation concerning how good what Lafayette is doing could be for the state. That’s where the story takes a pointed and very interesting turn:

He said what Lafayette is trying to do could mean hope for the state in the long run, however.

“Lafayette has the license to provide this to the entire state,” Durel said.

He said that fiber-optic-based telecommunications does represent hope for small communities across the state, but he doesn’t want to give false hope.

Durel said Lafayette must get its own system up and running before seriously considering allowing LUS to branch out service to other communities.

He said that, while the day is far off, LUS could have the legal and technical ability to provide its telecommunications services to small towns in other areas.

“If the day comes, it may be that we represent their best hope,” Durel said.

That’s a new level of ambition. I think a lot of us have always assumed, given the early endorsement of other Lafayette parish mayors and the way the debate on the council developed that an extension of services outside LUS’ home in the city was contemplated. I’ve always been aware that legally the parish line wasn’t much of a barrier and partnering with other locales, chiefly New Orleans, has occasionally been alluded to in the press. But this is a creative thought indeed…Acadiana, at least, certainly doesn’t need a lot of redundant and extremely expensive back-end equipment. And the larger the Lafayette-based system is the stronger it is both financially and, crucially, politically. Offering services like this would be very, very smart not only financially but in building a constituency for local control of telecommunications in all areas of the state. And therefore in the legislature.

But this is good in another way as well. When Durel says: “If the day comes, it may be that we represent their best hope,” his words can also be applied to concerns that come down on us from the federal level. Recent Federal Court and FCC decisions have had the consequence of tightening monopoly control of the phone and cable duopoly. That rising monopoly power, coupled with a lack of any regulatory control that would keep the network owners from favoring content they own over content owned by competitors all but assures that we’ll see a slow but consistent closing down of the open internet that we’ve come to assume is just part of the way the internet is… In the future internet access could come to look more like your cable “network” in the future with the network owners dictating what content is available–and owning, as the cable companies do now–much of the content that they make available for their customers to buy.

In concert with losing federal protections new federal legislation threatens to take even the local municipal and county-level influence represented by franchise agreements away by a huge federal “taking” of the cities ability to control the use of their own rights-of-way. Traditionally, cities have used the control of city property to force quality of service and the provision of service to all areas, be they rich or poor. If proposed laws take away that control the result will be that private company will, quite sensibly, choose to serve only the most profitable neighborhoods.

So Joey is not exaggerating when he says that Lafayette, with its legal ability to serve all of the state, may well prove to be a huge benefit to smaller communities. If nothing else Lafayette could provide the threat of real competition, keeping the monopolies from behaving too badly for fear that the local government will partner with LUS. (This is not too far-fetched, when Eatel begin offering video services over its new fiber-optic network the Ascension parish governing body was emboldened to demand that Cox actually meet its contractual obligations…Competition is not only good for prices.)

If things continue to go badly for American citizens on the telecommunications front Lafayette may well be one of the few centers of “free” networks available. And should that happen the nation’s unhappy circumstance will be Lafayette’s gain.

It’s not something to hope for. But it is a reason to vigorously protect what we’ve gotten started here.

Two Stories in One: Fiber May Attract Business!

Today’s Advocate carries two very interesting stories under a single headline, “City’s business appeal grows.” The headline signals the first—a claim by Mayor Durel that a company is seriously considering Lafayette as a location:

He said he met recently with a site selection group for the company, and from that meeting learned that the potential new company is looking to employ about 1,000 people, with most making $10 to $12 an hour, and that the LUS fiber-optic plan could be a difference-maker.

Apparently the decision has come down to Lafayette and one other locale. It sounds great.

The information on this possibility is very thin with the Mayor even claiming that he doesn’t know the name of the company after meeting with the site committee. I’d at least like to have some idea of what industry the company is in and what use it would have for advanced communications. But, in any case, it’s great news for Lafayette. We await with baited breath.

Snake Oil: This Space For Rent

Snake Oil comments today on the ongoing Eric Benjamin story–a story which, if we are unfortunate, will be with us for awhile as successive layers of his claims turn out to be unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable. (click on the image to get a readable picture) Today’s Benjamin piece will only add fuel to the fire with his refusal to deal with the now publicly documented problems with his first story and his leveling of new charges attributed to unnamed sources.

Now what can Snake Oil do with the claim that some employer is intimidating its employees? Who was it that issued its employees anti-fiber petitions to carry around in their trucks? (And then quietly backed off when they didn’t partictularly like that.) And who was it that threatened the jobs of Cingular employees if Lafayette was to get in the way of maximizing its profit? And which corporation was it that brought the president of the Louisiana company in to talk to small groups of its employees, demand 5 names and the home phone numbers of friends and family who would vote against fiber and pass out fiber 411 propaganda? I know what I could do with that and I don’t have half the artistic talent of Snake Oil.

Oh yeah…Snake Oil did do something with at least the Cingular threat, in his “Suspect Device” series once…try panel three. Now imagine that he could devote all four panels to good ole BellSouth’s beneficent ways of treating its employees. Or imagine that Benjamin were to add a little context or balance to his storys…No, don’t bother–go back to imagining a 4-panel Snake Oil on BellSouth’s treatment of it’s employees. That’s something that is imaginable and would be take some of that sour grapes taste out of your mouth.

(And what’s really wierdly ironic: the cartoonist piece would be truthful.)