“Rebuilt New Orleans could be cutting edge”

In one of those perverse moments that seem to accompany great disasters BellSouth is now hinting that it might rebuild New Orleans’ aging copper plant with new, state of the art, fiber.

Assuming New Orleans rises again, a city rebuilt from the ground up could boast the best voice, data and video communications infrastructure in the nation, says Bill Smith, BellSouth’s chief technology officer…

To turn New Orleans into a state-of-the-art showcase, BellSouth would have to replace its 120-year-old copper phone wire with sleek fiber-optic lines that have far more capacity. Fiber offers mind-bending speeds on the Internet — 100 megabits per second or more. Copper delivers a fraction of that.

This would surely be a “good thing” for a struggling New Orleans as an analyst remarks.

Assuming New Orleans rises again, a city rebuilt from the ground up could boast the best voice, data and video communications infrastructure in the nation, says Bill Smith, BellSouth’s chief technology officer.

Tech types agree:

Hossein Eslambolchi, AT&T’s chief technology officer, says BellSouth would also be wise to take advantage of Internet Protocol (IP) technologies, which are becoming the favored technology of businesses around the globe.

“They’re going to have to dig up the street anyway” to make extensive repairs, he says. “So why not just go ahead and install fiber” and IP?

Ahhh… but the kicker (you knew it was coming) the problem is that New Orleans’ might not be hurt bad enough to make it economic (for BellSouth that is–it is clear that it would be economic for New Orleans.) So why not?

The short answer: money.

If BellSouth’s wiring — called “plant” in the industry — “is in good working condition, we will repair it,” Smith says.

If that isn’t possible, he says, “We would likely demolish all plant and facilities and rebuild with state-of-the-art equipment.”

He says it may be awhile before BellSouth can make decisions. Owing to dangerous conditions in the city, crews haven’t done inspections yet. It is trying to gauge the damage by looking at photographs.

So here’s the perverse part: we have to hope that New Orleans’ telecom infrastructure is effectively totaled. Only if New Orleans is considered a greenfield situation will BellSouth build out a modern network.

A couple of caveats here. Corporate economics will drive BellSouth’s rebuild in all areas. BellSouth is already up to its neck in debt and the larger Gulf Coast rebuild will be hugely expensive. Much of the coastal infrastructure of Mississippi is, obviously, totaled. Rationally it, at least, will be rebuilt with fiber–fiber optic builds in new (greenfield) areas is already not significantly more expensive than copper and long-term maintenance of fiber is significantly less expensive. Also it is not clear that even if the system is rebuilt that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will get fiber to the home. A “short run” XDSL solution may be a way of lowering the install costs of a mostly fiber network since a significant portion of the installation costs are in the electronics that translates light into electronic signals. In a Fiber To The Home (FTTH) situation that electronics has to be replicated at every door. BellSouth could conceiveably go with a system where one pylon with the electronics served out copper to relatively small number of houses–that is its current residential greenfield model. Such a model would not deliver the long-term benefits of a full FTTH model but would allow some of the immediate bandwidth benefits to be realized.

My strong suspicion is that we won’t see FTTH offered unless some level of government subsidizes it. The feds could just pay for the build and then turn the value of it over to Bell’s monopoly. That’s the most likely way, the Halliburton way if you will, but as you might imagine I find significant problems with that path. The other governmental way is if New Orleans were to make truly large concessions to BellSouth on the order of what BellSouth Louisiana’s President Oliver asked for here in Lafayette (in exchange for serving 80% of us with ADSL). Doing that would further beggar the tax base of a city that was already beleaguered and on her knees before Katrina wandered ashore.

Allow me to suggest the radical third governmental alternative: Let’s call it the “Lafayette solution”–since landline networking is a natural monopoly that really should belong to no private entity anyway help New Orleans put in a state of the art fiber-optic based public utility system. Let the federal monies that might otherwise be diverted to “aiding” BellSouth create a solution that would instead 1) pump construction money into New Orleans, 2) provide a solid basis for future development, 3) staunch the unfairly large outflow of wealth that monooply profits ensure and, 4) give the city a real revenue source for the future. Surround it with any sort of safeguards you want, but put the resources into the city and leave them there. Don’t hand all of that cash to huge corporations whose whole raison d’être is to give the least for the most. Instead reserve some small portion of it to develop a resource for New Orleans as a city; to hand some of the benefits from the resources that will serve to enrich the few into the hands of the people of the city. Just reserve a little bit of the immense resource that will mostly enrich others for her future. Develop New Orleans new, shining, state of the art communications network as a public utility.

2 thoughts on ““Rebuilt New Orleans could be cutting edge””