“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.

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