“Hold the phone” in New Orleans

I’ve been thinking about New Orleans and technology lately; the issue of New Orleans’ metro wifi plan has brought that to the fore. A story in New Orleans’ City Business highlights another way in which Lafayette and New Orleans are running in parallel tracks. It’s a story which contrasts BellSouth and Cox’s recent behavior. In New Orleans this is all about the recovery effort after Katrina. It seems New Orleans feels Cox is doing a better job than BellSouth:
Frustration with damaged phone lines is off the hook among BellSouth customers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina…

“I hate BellSouth. I’ve had the worst experience with that company. The only two things at BellSouth that work are billing and marketing. I feel like they don’t care about the individual customer,” Loehfelm said.

BellSouth has restored service to 50 percent of Orleans Parish, Villar said. He would not disclose how many customers BellSouth has…

Part of the issue seems to be lack of communication more than anything else. Cox set clear deadlines in different parts of the city for turning on service–and met them. BellSouth has not set such public goals and apparently has disappointed people who were led to believe they’d have service back more quickly than has proven the case when they contacted the company individually.

The idea that Cox is capable of understanding at least the demands of public relations if not good citizenship is hard for me to grasp. It’s hard to forget the first months of the fiber fight when Cox representatives were by far the more obnoxious and BellSouth folks at least seemed dignified. I guess its time to get over that.

More on New Orleans’ WiFi

Today we see a bit more information emerging on New Orleans surprise WiFi network. Both the Advertiser and the Advocate carry the same AP story by Sayre, a regional business writer. Not much new emerges in that story but the city’s motivation, and the likelihood of opposition from Cox and BellSouth is clear:

Greg Meffert, the city’s technology director, conceded that private providers might have problems with the system.

“In the end, my job is to work for the city and what the city needs,” he said. “I’ll stand behind that.”

For those among us who crave a bit more detail I’ve been able to find a couple of articles with a little more than was in the original Washington Post. One is from CNet a techy forum, and the other is from NOLA.COM, the online face of the Times-Picayune. First, they are a lot clearer than earlier stories about what New Orleans will be first in: the first large city to offer city-wide, free wifi. It’s clear as well that the network is actually being opened up rather than built from scratch. A Tropos-based network that provided police surveillance and was used for city functions has been repaired and it is this network that provides the infrastructure for the service launched Tuesday. From NOLA:

The city service is running on the back of a fiber optic-based communications system that was created before the storm to operate city security video cameras on the tops of streetlights.

You’ll note, I hope, that even for this limited functionality (the system is severely throttled, be closed down to a small fraction of potential bandwidth) a fiber-optic backbone is considered essential. Funding the bandwidth for even them most sparse large-scale mesh network is inevitably bandwidth intensive.

If you’re in New Orleans hears how you’ll log on:

Network users must use computers that are equipped to receive WiFi signals. The network appears on the computer under the name CityofNewOrleans.

First-time users must register with the city and select a user name and password through a Web site that appears when a network connection is made.

With bandwidth throttled to 512 megs my guess is that the system will be most comfortably used for email. To get web access that doesn’t drive you crazy you’ll probably still need to drive around to find good signal. My guess is that New Orleanians will learn to recognize the boxes and that people will learn to park under those streetlights. (Warning: those are the same poles that are most likely to have surveillance cameras, so you probably shouldn’t do anything your momma would disapprove of while sitting there.)

Every story, and I do mean every one, notes the likely opposition from the incumbent providers. NOLA reports that:

Managers from both companies learned about the WiFi network only in recent days from media reports preceding Nagin’s press conference, spokesmen for the companies said.

The few comments the press has been able to pry out of Cox have been ambiguous at best and BellSouth has refused to comment in any way.

What is clear is that New Orleans is chaffing under the load of pricy wireless carriage from the incumbents and resentful of state roadblocks to serving the public with publicly-owned networks.

“We haven’t made a decision on whether we would bring someone else to run the network after it’s built,” said Chris Drake, project manager in the mayor’s office of technology. “We have to operate half the network anyway, so we will have to see how it goes and assess the cost and effort that goes into it.”

While I had hoped that New Orleans would be freed to install municipal utilities as a consequence of the storm it was only a hope. It’s great to see it happening. It’d be even better, at least in my opinion if they’d firmly adopt the Lafayette model of a publicly-owned municipality that returns value to the city instead of draining it to Atlanta. With Nagin the former head of Cox New Orleans I thought that unlikely. Now its just a small step away from reality.

CNet says:

The city is already planning to challenge the new law, Drake [project manager] said.

That’s what needs to happen. Not only for New Orleans and Lafayette. But for Lake Charles, Alexandria….and all of Louisiana’s hard-pressed municipalities. Louisiana will be struggling to make ends meet for years. What we can do for ourselves we should do. And politicians at the state (and federal for that matter) should leave us alone and let us do so.

Third Lawsuit Goes Down

Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate covers the (tentative) resolution of a third lawsuit against LUS. This lawsuit was actually brought first, by the same people who filed the lawsuit dismissed last week:

Lafayette Utilities System won another victory in court Monday when a judge dismissed a suit brought earlier this year alleging the municipal utility has been overcharging customers for years.

This attempt at a class action lawsuit was actually filed during the election fight earlier this year and had the likely purpose then of giving BellSouth an opportunity to try and blacken LUS’ reputation with charges of overbilling the public. Like a lot of the more obvious ploys tried by BellSouth this one didn’t get much traction but it still hung around in the legal system. The grounds for its dismissal yesterday is revealing of the insincere nature of these lawsuits:

Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque agreed Monday with LUS’ attorneys arguments that it wasn’t proper to file suit against LUS without first going to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority.

Oh. Well, uh, sure…maybe you should have actually tried to use the actual, legitimate method for dealing with such issues before you run off and file a class action lawsuit. Of course if winning for your clients wasn’t really the point of the lawsuit maybe following the legal procedures weren’t considered important. I suppose its a good thing these lawyers don’t practice in Lafayette. Such obvious “mistakes” might effect their reputation…someone might get the idea that they weren’t really acting in the best interests of their clients of record but had something else in mind–like benefiting BellSouth.

Probably the best thing about the dismissal of this lawsuit is that it undercuts claims made by the same group of lawyers in the case dissmissed last week (I know this is confusing, stay with me here). In that case the Plaquimines lawyers claimed standing based partially on the lawsuit dismissed yesterday. They said that the “overcharges” they claimed to want returned to customers shouldn’t be available to LUS to pay off the bonds. With the first, “overcharges” lawsuit dismissed the part of their second lawsuit that differed most from BellSouth’s almost identical lawsuit no longer has any basis.

With each of these losses it becomes more apparent that BellSouth doesn’t really have a valid basis for legal action; they are merely trying to delay, and are hoping that the bond market will rise (as it has–each day of delay does make the project more expensive).

Enough is enough. BellSouth needs to compete and stop this obstructionism.

KLFY: “Durel Fiber Letter” with Saloom

Here’s a KLFY story that I almost missed. It lays out the story behind the letter published in the Advertiser Sunday. Even better it links to a video that features Kal Saloom talking sense.

Saloom tells Eyewitness News what he hoped letters and e-mail would achieve. He says he wants BellSouth to hear from its customers. He says he wants BellSouth to understand that delaying the fiber project is hurting the community.

Worth the click.

“New Orleans’s New Connection”

The Washington Post gets a jump on the news by posting a story datelined Tuesday Monday night. And it’s good news. New Orleans has deployed its own municipal internet utility and is switching it on tomorrow.

From the article:

Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans will deploy the nation’s first municipally owned wireless Internet system that will be free for all users, part of an effort to jump-start recovery by making living and doing business in the city as attractive as possible.

Well, it’s not really true that New Orleans will be the first city to do this…maybe the first really enormous city but there are ton’s of other projects out there in towns and small cities.

It should be a real boost for the city. Of course, if Lafayette’s experience is any guide they’ll have to look out for BellSouth. BellSouth is bound to object; their one bit of bragging rights in what has generally been an uninspiring and uninspired rebuilding effort has been to provide New Orleans with a rudimentary WiFi setup. You have to know that this news is causing Bill Oliver, who is headquartered in New Orleans as the president of BellSouth Louisiana, considerable heartburn. Between Lafayette and New Orleans it can’t have been a good week for Oliver.

I wonder if BellSouth will really have the nerve to object to New Orleans showing a little spunk and self-reliance. In point of fact, New Orleans’ deployment is illegal. But excused under emergency rules:

Louisiana is one of those states, prohibiting any locality from offering Internet connection speeds of more than 144 kilobits per second, about twice the speed of dial-up but one-tenth to one-twentieth of what is typically provided via digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable-modem services.

The New Orleans system will feature 512-kilobit-per-second speed, which city officials said is the most the network can handle efficiently at first. Because the city is under a state of emergency, it can skirt existing law.

City officials said they will battle to overturn the 144-kilobit speed limitation that will take effect when the state of emergency is over.

Hey! Lafayette should join that battle. Nagin and Durel might make quite a potent team at the legislature and quite a photogenic pair for the national press. Nagin can brag about the self-reliance and willingness to try creative new things in the face of adversity that his system will demonstrate. Durel could step up and make a parallel speech. They could both complain about this state law that keeps them from promoting the interests of their people. They could happily demand “deregulation” and note that removing restrictions on who can enter the market could only help the long-suffering Louisiana consumer.

If you were a Louisiana legislator, desperate to find some way to help your hurricaned-ravaged constituents, smarting from the state’s image as a dependent step child and deeply resentful of the out of state corporations that are dominating reconstruction what would you do?

If we play our cards right this might turn out to be almost as good for Lafayette as for New Orleans.

KLFY “Durel Fiber Letter UPDATE”

Now it’s on the TV news. KLFY covers the Lafayette counterattack:

Huval says he’d like to challenge BellSouth’s lawyers to look at the constitutionality of a corporate entity in Atlanta, Georgia saying ‘no’ to the will of the people of Lafayette. He says there’s got to be something wrong with this. He says what BellSouth is trying to do is drag this out, cost LUS more money, and make it more difficult to go forward with this project. Huval says in the meantime, the will of the people is being ignored.

BellSouth is hunkered down and just isn’t talking. I think they are used to a lot more subservience in public officials in towns where they dominate the voice market. Good for Joey.

“Fiber war of words heats up’

Monday’s headline story in The Advertiser is “Fiber War of Words Heats Up.” We’ve got action again in the fight for fiber. The Advertiser followed up Sunday’s full page ad from Lafayette YES! with a call to Bill Oliver, Louisiana president of BellSouth and notoriously the prime mover behind BellSouth’s intransigent refusal to simply let Lafayette do as she chooses.

Oliver’s response was pretty tepid and, as usual, misleading:

Bill Oliver, president of BellSouth Louisiana, said Sunday he had ‘really no reaction’ to the letter.

‘From day one … we have continually stated that we are in opposition with a municipality competing with a private enterprise,’ Oliver said.

When asked, Oliver would not say whether the letter would change the company’s tactics; he instead reiterated that BellSouth has not changed its position on the issue.

‘We have not changed one inch since day one,’ Oliver said.”

That’s another bit of misdirection from BellSouth. The issue laid on the table is not their consistency. It is their behavior–something the Advertiser reporter alludes to when she tries to get the conversation back on track by asking about changing tactics. By two-stepping, fluttering their hands in the air and claiming to be acting on consistent principle, Oliver hopes to direct the public’s attention away from his anti-democratic unwillingness to let Lafayette do as it has chosen to do in an open election . . . an election that BellSouth demanded.

The trouble with the claim that BellSouth has not changed “one inch since day one” is that it is a lie.

At least it is a lie if you ever took their constantly shifting rationales seriously (I have to admit I didn’t). Actually, on “day one” they claimed to be piously acting in our community’s best interest. They said they just wanted to “inform” us of how municipal broadband had never worked anywhere and how competition with municipal broadband had never lowered prices. Both lies. Silly ones. But they brought in some kept academic types and thought we were rubes enough to buy it. Then they tried to take up the banner of calling for a vote, saying they just wanted the people to decide. You know how that worked out. We’ve not heard much from that rationale lately, have we? Then they went on a tare about how they were worried about our taxes. That was hard to take seriously but they did try it, you’ll recall. Actually none of the “We’re so concerned about you, you poor ignorant little people” arguments worked very well but it is what they led with–not some story about free enterprise ethics.

But the “it’s for your own good” series of attempts to hoodwink us is merely the most embarrassing attempt to foist off a misleading explanation for BellSouth’s behavior. Equally deceptive, on the evidence, is their claim to be some sort of noble fighter for the ideals of free enterprise and competition. The embarrassingly obvious fact is that this whole battle has been to prevent the entry of competition from the Lafayette Utilty System. (Oddly, you’ve seen no full page ads welcoming the new competitor and extolling the way competition will improve things for all Lafayette and all competitors–which is what you would expect if they believed, rather than merely wanted you to believe all their loose talk about competition.) Even leaving that aside, on some specious idea the idea that tiny, local LUS has some mysterious competitive advantage on one of the world’s largest and politically most powerful telecom monopolies, the “free enterprise” argument doesn’t work. It isn’t just LUS that BellSouth wants to exclude. They want to exclude all competition and if that doesn’t work they go straight to the national government and demand a competitive advantage.

If we look at their actions rather than listen to their rhetoric, we’ll find that BellSouth national spent the entire period of time Oliver was focused on excluding LUS in Lafayette focused on excluding as many other competitors at the federal level as it could. After a long lobbying effort at the national regulatory agency, the FCC, BellSouth and its fellow Baby Bells succeeded in effectively eliminating all competition from an entire class of companies known as CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carriers). If the reasoning was weak, the effect was not: remember when everyone from AT&T to local EATEL was trying to sell you cheaper phone service? You’ll see no such ads this Christmas. EATEL finally pulled out recently as a direct consequence of the FCC’s rulings. And your last chance for cheaper phone bill went with them.

BellSouth and the other Bell’s current project is a giant “taking” of the property rights of municipalities. They are pushing for a nationalized “franchise” agreement that would take control of rights of ways from local governments, reduce their income, and –most crucially for BellSouth and its allies–put the cable companies at a competitive disadvantage by freeing the Bells from any responsibility to serve the whole community, rich or poor, black or white, profitable or not. The cable companies, as a consequence of having to deal with real, local, communities have contractual responsibilities to pay back to the community for property it uses and to serve the whole community. BellSouth would rather not bother with all those silly little locals. BellSouth would rather not compete on an equal basis. And they seem to be getting their way. We’ll all suffer if they do.

Unless of course we here in Lafayette get LUS in to compete; LUS who will offer all of usservice and do it more cheaply if they are allowed to…I’m hoping you are beginning to see how BellSouth’s national policy and Bill Oliver’s local policy are actually the same, anti-competitive position. Greed, as Mayor Durel has correctly remarked, is what the evidence shows motivates BellSouth. Both nationally and in the person of Bill Oliver. That is what has been their position from “day one.” All that other stuff is an arrogant attempt to confuse the public. We are not so easily deceived–as the referendum should have demonstrated.

The Advertiser’s willingness to banner this story should serve as an index to the community’s frustration. A few words with Oliver on the phone blowing smoke wouldn’t normally be top of the paper, headline news. What makes it newsworthy is that the Advertiser is as aware as any other local agency of how much resentful attention people are giving the lawsuits. They want people to mention the Advertiser when they talk about the topic that they’ll be talking about anyway. And they want the people of Lafayette to feel like the Advertiser is on their side.

Would that BellSouth felt the same way.

Lafayette Yes! takes on BellSouth’s Obstructionism

If you don’t get the Advertiser, or simply do most of your reading online (guilty as charged) you will have found it easy to miss the full page ad on page A4 of the Sunday edition blasting BellSouth.

The headline:


says what a lot of folks have been saying recently…from big boys Durel, Huval, and Ottinger to the Daily Advertiser in last Sunday’s lead editorial, to bloggers Doug and yours truly, to folks muttering about picketing in digital divide meetings, to just plain folks grumping about it in CC’s–the tone is turning ugly for BellSouth.

The bulk of the ad is an open letter from Joey Durel to Duane Ackerman, BellSouth’s CEO in Atlanta. It accuses BellSouth of working to block the will of the people Lafayette, and notes BellSouth’s losses at the polls and in the courts. The letter suggests that in the wake of Katrina and Rita BellSouth invest in rebuilding Louisiana and not spend their energy standing in the way of Lafayette investing in itself.

The final paragraph:

In Lafayette it is time for you to acknowledge and allow new competition in the marketplace for telecommunications services. It is time to understand that your customers, the people of Lafayette, resent your interference and with a majority voice want you to know–ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

I think that Durel has it right. The fact that Cox has apparently decided it would rather compete than litigate makes for a contrast that exposes BellSouth’s positions as a choice they are making. –It’s clear that they could make other choices if Cox can.

With Kal Saloom joining the chorus of those expressing frustration with a splash you can bet that this sentiment is being heard in the boardrooms of Acadiana as well. The Lafayette YES! PAC he heads represented the business community’s contribution to the referendum fight and this ad serves notice that that portion of the community has not forgotten that the fight is still ongoing. The list of endorsers of the Fiber To The Home project makes that clear.

The ad suggest that people contact BellSouth’s Board of directors. I heartily agree. You can join the effort by writing:




Office of the Corporate Secretary
Board of Directors
BellSouth Corporation
1155 Peachtree St., NE
Suite 19A01
Atlanta, GA 30309-3610

Enough IS Enough.