Now for Something Entirely Different

The posting found here have a narrow purpose. I discipline myself to try and stick to local, fiber-related events in this blog. I tried to not let Katrina and Rita take over this space during the time they took over our lives. That effort was mostly successful. I have also tried to keep my anger at the storms and the injustices suffered from New Orleans to Lake Charles from spilling over into anger at injustice done the people of Lafayette as they struggle to do nothing more than to take care of themselves. Arguably I have not succeeded quite so well there. All that’s by way of a warning. What follows has to do with fiber and Lafayette only tangetially. Read on so warned.

An article in the Los Angles Times, reprinted in the Advocate this morning, occasions such reflection. That article’s subject is the renewal of the Times-Picayune in the wake of Katrina. The paper has become a touchstone for those in New Orleans and its diaspora by taking on the role of a fearless advocate for the city’s needs and its rebirth. The people have responded: the Picayune has recovered 80% of its circulation in a city that is far from recovering 80% of it population and its website is running at twice the pre-storm hit rate.

The subhead in the LA Times is “Advocacy reporting is making an auspicious return in New Orleans.” The paper quotes LSU Journalism school’s Tony Perkins saying “Objectivity is a fairly new construct in this business that has little to do with the quality of reporting” and the story proves his point. Or at least it proves his point concerning what “objectivity” has become in journalism: a synonym for a neutrality so carefully executed that no reader could tell whether the reporter understands the meaning of what he or she reports. That’s a travesty of the real meaning of objectivity which has nothing to do with neutrality and everything to do with making sure that the real world, and not some fantasy is what gets reported. That sort of objectivity, to which real reporting should aspire, is a quality subordinate to the purpose of reporting. The purpose need not be brazenly partisan–it can and should include simply informing the public about what is objectively true on a topic of wide interest. But choosing what to report, out of the welter of things that could be reported, always implies a purpose.

The Times-Picayune has received a rare blessing: it now has a clearly understood purpose which objectivity can serve. It exists to serve its community and to help insure that community’s survival. It is no longer burdened by any supercilious inclination to view objectivity as a purpose in itself. It makes for good, meaty journalism, journalism that has been noticed across the nation; a quality of reporting the Los Angeles Times story struggles to explain. The Picayune’s desire to serve its community doesn’t involve putting aside objectivity but recognizing that objectivity is that quality which keeps purpose honest. The LA Times says: “The newspaper’s success in the face of disaster raises a question: Are objectivity and dispassion in journalism overrated?” That’s almost the right question. What’s overrated is dispassionate neutrality masquerading as objectivity.

The Picayune has pursued a fearless and objective reporting. It has “exposed poorly constructed levees, picked apart obtuse FEMA policies, debunked overblown claims of evacuation center violence, and traveled as far as the Netherlands and Japan to show how other communities have coped with flooding and disaster.” And it has shown no hesitation in going after irresponsible politicians, overreacting citizens, the federal government, and sacred cows of all descriptions in a new-found determination to accurately and objectively report on whatever is necessary to inform the public of matters crucial to the survival of its community.

It’s a lesson that Tony Perkins and J-schools across the country need to teach. And a lesson which local papers everywhere should take to heart. Stories are properly chosen by how much they could potentially mean to the betterment of your community. That does not mean reporting happy-making but insignificant fluff. It does mean fearlessly and accurately reporting on what is actually important–including that which makes for unhappiness and dissatisfaction–and making sure that the reader understands why what is reported is worth understanding. Good, powerful reporting flows from knowing why one writes and being fearless about pursuing that purpose.

Tidbits on Lafayette’s Legal Travails

In addition to this mornings extensive coverage in the Advocate the latest legal shenanigans have also been noticed in BayouBuzz and the Advertiser shorts.

BayouBuzz has two shorts, (first, second) and appears to be following the story pretty closely from a regional perspective. (It had a more extensive story on Christmas.)

The Advertiser has a short report today on the legal battle in “Today’s Briefing.” The Advertiser says we may have to wait till January the tenth to find out whether BellSouth has lost or won its appeal.

“Court hears LUS appeal”

We’ve got intelligent, educational reporting from Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate. The piece reports on the BellSouth/LUS case being argued before the 3rd Circuit Court in Lake Charles and does it well. No doubt it is the old teacher in me but this is what reporting about difficult and important topics should be–smart, careful, and explanatory.

If you care about Lafayette being allowed to build the system it voted for in the way the city-parish council that oversees LUS desires, the way that the author of the law restricting it apparently believes is proper, the way the PSC has argued is already settled, and the way the trial courts emphatically believed was appropriate you’ll have good reason to read this story carefully. The arguments are carefully explained and it appears that the court, or at least one judge, engaged the city in sharp questioning.

Be aware, as you read, that the real issue here is the ability of BellSouth to raise the cost of cable, phone, and internet that the people of Lafayette will have to pay to receive these services from LUS. The sole purpose of opposing the judgment of all the other parties involved is to make the interest rates on the loans as high as possible in order to raise the ultimate costs to consumer. The cost of the bonds is the single largest line item cost of the project and the only cost that is rising rather than falling as the months of delay roll by. If successful, this tactic will keep BellSouth’s profits as high as possible and preserve, as much as is possible, BellSouth’s market share.

It is profoundly and intentionally anti-competitive.

Ottinger, in the Advocate story, remarks:

The Legislature intended for Lafayette to be allowed to engage in “any other lawful business practice” that private competitors can — and the payback mechanism LUS plans to use is a normal business practice, Ottinger said.

Ottinger is right. No private company would be forced into default when other, more established, parts of the business had plenty of money. It would ruin the businesses credit rating for no rational purpose. Why is there even a question? Why is there any argument that LUS not be allowed to do what BellSouth can do without challenge? Because of BellSouth’s law..the “Local Government Fair Competition Act.” It is not about “Fair Competition;” it is anti-competitive and anti-consumer to its core. It must be repealed.

Write or call your legislators and argue for repeal–argue that LUS should be able to do anything BellSouth can legally do…Lafayette Coming Together is willing to help you out in the letter writing and calling. Jump to their “Repeal” web page.

Verizon Story Explains Why Muni-Broadband Bans Need to Go

The New York Times ran a story in Wednesday’s paper that explains why communities must be allowed to provide their own telecommunications infrastructure and deliver their own services.

The story focuses on the performance of Verizon’s stock but, in so doing, looks at the hard financial choices Verizon is going to have to make in coming months. It’s all about resource allocation. In this particular case, Verizon may have to curtail their fiber optic network build out in order to afford buying out their partner in Verizon Wireless.

While the focus is on the choices the company faces, the fact is that viewing the choices solely from the corporate perspective hides the true economic implications of those choices, particularly in communities where Verizon operates.

If Verizon does have to scale back its fiber rollout, that will have direct economic impact on the communities that will suddenly find themselves off the fiber path. But, nowhere in the article (and, probably, nowhere in Verizon’s own discussions of the company’s options) is the impact of these decisions on communities mentioned.

The facts are that no company or combination of companies has the financial resources to deploy fiber to every home and business in every community. Verizon can’t do it in its own service area. Neither can AT&T (formerly SBC), nor can BellSouth, Qwest or any of the cable companies.

It is in light of these facts that restrictions on the ability of communities (cities, parishes/counties) to provide their own infrastructure and even deliver services to their own citizens must be viewed.

The clear impact of these municipal bans (or, in the case of Louisiana, sizeable hurdles masquerading as protections for ‘free enterprise’) is to relegate communities to the far side of the digital divide until further notice.

Think about it.

BellSouth is deploying fiber in the New Orleans area now only because flood waters from Katrina destroyed their copper wire infrastructure there. Lafayette has moved to deploy its own fiber optics network. But, what about Baton Rouge? What about Lake Charles? What about Alexandria? Shreveport? Monroe? Houma?

They are supposed to wait how long? Until some catastrophe hits there? Or, until a certain very warm place freezes over?

The odds are that AT&T will buy BellSouth within the next two years. While that will make it a much bigger company, it will also saddle it with a lot more debt which will, in turn, further restrict the company’s ability to upgrade its infrastructure. The proof of this? Look no further than Verizon and the choices it faces now.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is getting fibered up. What will that do to the economic prospects the aforementioned Louisiana cities and with them our state?

The economic fate of communities is too important to be determined by the narrow financial judgments of corporations whose focus on shareholder value leave no room for the interests of communities into the essential economic infrastructure deployment decision making process. Yet, this is precisely what is happening in those states where municipalities have been prohibited or restricted from entering the telecommunications infrastructure and services business.

These muni-broadband bans transfer sovereignty out of the community and into corporate board rooms where make communities are valued solely as revenue streams.

That the interests of the community don’t make it into the corporate equation is bad enough; add to that the fact that the telephone and cable companies couldn’t afford to deploy the fiber even if they genuinely cared about the communities only compounds the injury of these prohibitions on communities.

Be it resolved that in 2006 that we should all work to remove these municipal prohibitions from the books where ever we live. We’re going to work to do that in Louisiana by working to repeal the so-called Municipal Fair Competition Act of 2004. This bad law works against the economic interests of our communities and our state.

PSC defends LUS

The Advocate carries the story of the PSC rising to the defense of its rules by filing a friend of the court brief in BellSouth’s appeal that will be heard today in Lake Charles. The introduction lays out the issue:

BellSouth should not be allowed to use its appeal of the bond ordinance used by Lafayette Utilities System to fund a new communications business as a ‘collateral attack’ on the rules passed in October by the state Public Service Commission, the PSC’s attorneys said in a brief.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles is scheduled to hear arguments today on a BellSouth appeal of a lawsuit, dismissed by a state district judge, that sought to invalidate LUS’ plans to borrow up to $125 million to get into the telecommunications business.

The PSC filed a friend of the court brief in support of LUS and in defense of the rules commissioners passed twice in October.

I speculated earlier on the possible consequences of this move by the PSC in political rather than legal realms. Legally, the PSC is defending the issue that is at the heart of BellSouth’s suit. If the court takes the PSC’s position to heart and refuses to deal with issues which might effect the unchallenged rules then much of the substance of the BellSouth lawsuit is gone. We’ll know in about a week.

Christmas Carol Spinoff…

Bunnie Riedel, in her widely-read blog, notices and is inspired by Lafayette’s Christmas Carols. She posts her own remake of a traditional favorite. I repeat the last three stanzas.

(To the tune of “Auld Lange Syne”)

The cable rates go up and up
And the service it gets worse.
The Bells say that they’ll do better
If we remove the franchising curse.

But who will protect consumers
And the precious right of way?
The Bells say they’ll police themselves
And in Hell there’ll be a long cold day.

So as the New Year comes again
Get ready for the fight.
They got the grease, the money too
But it’s us who’s in the right.

Fun!! And while you are there take a look at the rest of her postings. The voice is pretty unique and very much to my taste, anyway.

Wow! “PSC sides with Lafayette against BellSouth”

The Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) has filed a friend of the court brief in support of LUS with the judicial panel that is to hear BellSouth’s appeal this Thursday, reports an article in Telephony Online.

It is real news the PSC has lost patience with the incumbents. I’m happily shocked.

The basis for the Commission’s annoyance is BellSouth’s decision to use rather than respect the regulatory apparatus of the state. BellSouth’s arrogance is costing it its reputation in places where it can ill afford to be seen as acting in bad faith. Here ‘s the way the PSC sees it:

“The Commission has a direct interest and duty to preserve and defend its Order, which is binding law,” the brief states. Noting that BellSouth fully participated in the PSC’s rulemaking process, the brief said that the “legal delays for any appeal of the commission’s order have passed…” “The Commission’s General Order dated 10/4/05 and 10/28/05 incorporating the Commission’s decision were not appealed and are no longer appealable,” the PSC states. “This court should reject any arguments that have the affect of collaterally attacking the rules.”

The PSC seems to understand that BellSouth, having not gotten what it wanted from the PSC, has decided that it will overturn the Commission’s decision by trying to hoodwink the courts. The PSC, in its friend of the court brief, objects to this end-run.

Bad Faith

The PSC is effectively accusing BellSouth of “Bad Faith.”

This is getting to be a refrain. Recall that this is what the City of Lafayette accused BellSouth of repeatedly during the referendum campaign. Most immediately, Bad Faith is what the City and LUS say BellSouth is doing by even pursuing the set of lawsuits we’ve seen. BellSouth made a deal in the legislature, a “compromise” which Lafayette feels took away local rights without asking the incumbents to give up anything in return except their hope of simply outlawing municipal competition. Instead of standing by that, BellSouth and Cox came back with the Broome bill in the very next regular legislative session, a bill which tried (and failed) to destroy the project. Bad Faith. Local governments “compromised” again, and a costly referendum was imposed on all municipalities which would follow Lafayette. BellSouth and Cox took many of the points they’d lost on in the legislature to the PSC and claimed interpretations that would have inverted the meaning of the law. The clearly stated intent of the legislation was to allow LUS to “pledge” its full assets specifically in order to obtain the lowest bond rates but the incumbent’s interpretations would have driven the rates sky-high by essentially forcing bankruptcy on LUS’ telecom division before it could use the full resources of its company. The PSC, with some exasperation, disagreed with the incumbents’ interpretation. Again, this whole line of attack showed Bad Faith. BellSouth well knew what it had agreed to in the legislative compromise sessions. But honoring your committments only matters if you are negotiating in good faith. Now the PSC, having watched BellSouth operate in its own offices, thinks they understand the latest ploy. And they are warning the Court that they think BellSouth is operating in Bad Faith –and that they intend to defend their regulations as settled and already having the full force of law.

Now, readers may recall that while the PSC may assume the appeals are over, I have my own questions about whether BellSouth will appeal the PSC ruling by using legal loopholes designed to aid those whose courthouses were destroyed by Katrina and Rita or whose clients or lawyers had evacuated. I’m still waiting til January 4th when that deadline hits. But by backing LUS in this way, the PSC is unmistakably taking a shot across the bow of BellSouth. The PSC is serving notice that it considers the matter closed and does not think BellSouth deserving of a hurricane extension. And it is willing to not only go to court over it but also to intervene in any ongoing court battle that BellSouth might want to bring against LUS that bears on its rules. Now if there was nothing else involved, BellSouth might not give a fig what the PSC wants–a legal fight about the hurricane extension is, after all, just another opportunity for a delay. But BellSouth has lots of other irons in the fire with the PSC . . . most certainly a raft of exceptions and rate increases it will desire as a result of Katrina and Rita. They have got to be concerned that a company which is seen by the PSC as acting in bad faith won’t be seen as trustworthy.

Somewhere tonight a team of telecom legal eagles and unhappy telecom execs is trying to decide whether the tactic of obstructionism is beginning to get too expensive. Bullying New Orleans turned into a disaster. The last two times they went to the legislature they came away with less than they wanted, and an open repeal movement challenging the gains they did make is finding some traction in both Lafayette and New Orleans. The PSC seems to be angry enough to step out and tell the courts they think BellSouth is acting in bad faith. The courts dismissed their cases, lecturing them on the law. Even the legislator who “authored” the original law on which all this uproar is based wishes those lawsuits hadn’t been filed, since he thought the issues raised had been settled.

The lawyers and the executives have to decide if this road is getting too dangerous. Between the debacle in New Orleans and the PSC’s belligerent attitude. I’d no longer be willing to take bets about how that decision will fall.

BayouBuzz picks up on LCT carols and muni-broadband fight

Steve Sabludowsky’s carries a story today about Lafayette Coming Together‘s use of altered Christmas carols as a tool for zeroing in on the obstructionist tactics being employed by BellSouth to delay the deployment of the LUS fiber system.

After commenting on the carols, Steve makes some observations that highlight the nature of the fight between municipalities like Lafayette and New Orleans are having with incumbent providers.

Telecoms have claimed that for the municipalities to get into the telecommunications business, it would be unfair competition and costly to the companies and against the system of free enterprise. Lafayette is not the only Louisiana city to compete with the telecommunication companies. Recently, New Orleans has unveiled its free wireless Internet to the city starting first with the Central Business District, French Quarter and downtown warehouse districts.

After New Orleans made the announcement of the free wireless Internet, the city alleged that BellSouth threatened to revoke an agreement by BellSouth to provide a building that the city would use for its emergency needs. BellSouth has denied that threat and those version of the facts.

The issue is not only about bandwidth. It also involves community sovereignty. That is, do communities have the right to provide the infrastructure and services needed to provide for the development of their community at large and their economy? Historically, communities have had that freedom. The incumbent telecommunication companies have been actively working to deny communities that option through the FCC, through the Congress, through state legislatures and through the courts.

Steve also includes a link to an earlier story on the New Orleans Wi-Fi controversy with BellSouth that includes some great quotes from New Orleans’ Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert on the role the city sees their Wi-Fi network playing in the Crescent City’s recovery.

In that piece, Steve makes another on-the-money comment:

BellSouth can be a partner in this rebuild and if it is saddened by the City’s free Internet by threatening to renege on an offer of substantial importance to the city, then it should state its position as clearly and as transparently so all of us know exactly where the company stands on this issue.

Of course, BellSouth could do that, but that would imply that the company has some interest other than its own at heart. It doesn’t. It won’t.

As folks in Lafayette have known; as folks in Alexandria have known; as folks in Houma have known; and as folks in Lake Charles and New Orleans are now learning, BellSouth serves only its own interests. When the interests of the company and the interests of the community diverge, BellSouth must choose to act in their own interests.

Fine. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when BellSouth actively works to prevent communities from acting in their own interests — as the company continues to do in the case of Lafayette and New Orleans.

This obstinate obstructionism to communities acting in their own interests would seem to contradict what the company claims to be their corporate values. Among them are:

Our Customers: We are driven by the needs of our customers. We understand our customers’ needs and deliver innovative products and services to meet those needs.
• • •
Our Communities: Everywhere we do business we strive to make our communities a better place to live, work and grow.
• • •
Integrity: Every action we take reflects the highest ethical standards. We interact with our customers, our employees and our shareholders with honesty and integrity.

BellSouth’s actions in Lafayette and in New Orleans fly in the face of those declared corporate values. Either the statement of values is a sham or BellSouth Louisiana is operating in bad faith.

I’ve been working on information technology issues in Louisiana since 1997. I’ve had the opportunity to observe BellSouth work to stifle competition in this state throughout that time. First, they worked relentlessly to eliminate competition from the competitive local exchange carriers. Then, they worked to drive independent Internet service providers (ISPs) off of their networks. They have a captive customer in the state of Lousiana, which is (depending on the source) either the largest or second largest customer (roughly $60 million in taxpayer dollars annually!) BellSouth has in its nine-state service area.

When Bill Oliver was a member of the Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education, the company tried to capture the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI) Project, the scientific research network the Board of Regents is creating, in part, out of the fiber network assets the state has obtained along interstate highway rights of way. Let none call that using a public position for private gain!

At every step along the way, BellSouth has fought change, fought innovation, fought to preserve its dominance. That might be good for its stockholders, but it’s been bad for Louisiana. Their tactics in Lafayette have been bad for this city. Their tactics in New Orleans are, again, running counter to the interests of that city.

The last bastion of the company’s hold on Louisiana is the Legislature where legislators know a hell of a lot more about getting re-elected than they do about the role of technology in economic development.

Katrina and Rita shattered the status quo in Louisiana. I believe the impact of those storms was so powerful that they even shattered the bubble that has protected BellSouth in Baton Rouge. That’s why John and I and the folks at Lafayette Coming Together have decided to join with LUS in working to repeal the so-called Municipal Fair Competition Act that BellSouth has used as a tool to block progress on the LUS fiber project.

LUS negotiated that law with BellSouth believing they were dealing with an honorable opponent that would abide by the outcome of the negotiations. They were not. It’s time, then, to dismantle the legal structure that was built on that false premise of good faith bargaining. It’s time for New Orleans, Lafayette and other communities to stand up and say to BellSouth, “Enough is Enough!”

“LUS Fans Take Seasonal Swipe at BellSouth”

The Advocate had a good story on Lafayette Coming Together’s satirical Christmas Carols from the North Pole Saturday. The Advocate occasionally misses posting one of the Acadiana Bureau’s articles to the web; an email usually brings it online. So far not this time–Christmas eve might have found the staff elsewhere when the request came in. Fear not inquisitive reader, with the help of a friend with a functioning scanner I’ve got a PDF file of the image for you to read.

The article gives some background on the organization’s genesis in the referendum fight and gives the reader a good sense of what the carols say and why LCT is pushing for repeal of the Local Government Fair Competition Act.

Lyrics from the article:

The election results were frightful
But our plan is so delightful
We’ll do what we always do,
We will Sue! We will Sue! We will Sue!

We have no intent of stopping
And the lies we tell are whopping
And congressmen we will woo,
We will Sue! We will Sue! We will Sue!

The carols, and Mike Stagg in the article, point out that earlier claims that BellSouth was willing to abide by compromises it made or merely wanted a vote were simply untrue:

“They demanded the vote; they got the vote; they lost the vote” Stagg said. “Bellsouth has proven consistently that they have operated in bad faith.”

Gobb Williams, of citizens for Common Sense, also got his licks in; he said, reported the paper that:

…the people of Lafayette spoke when they voted and their voices should be heard.

“The citizens of this community were trying to do this in a democratic way he said..”

An interesting story, told with spirit. It seems odd that one of the articles in the paper most likely to be interesting to local users of the internet didn’t make it online.

Durel, BellSouth lawsuits, Repeal, and New Orleans

Blanchard over at the Advocate lays out Mayor Durel’s thoughts on a wide range of topics from the possibility of new taxes to the ULL horse farm conflict. It is a thoughtful background story that is a oddly absent much context. Was this part of an address Durel made or an interview with the reporter or some combination? Regardless the story is intriguing and a nice change of pace from purely event-driven reportage. The aspect that interests us here, though is what is labeled in the story as the “telecommunications front.” That segment is short enough and rich enough to cite in full:

On the telecommunications front, a hearing is scheduled for Thursday for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal to decide whether or not to grant the appeal of a unsuccessful BellSouth lawsuit seeking to block funding of LUS’ fiber-optics based plan to provide cable, phone and high-speed Internet service.

Durel said he’s hopeful the appeal will be denied, the plaintiffs will decide not to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court and LUS can begin the actual work of building the network.

Last month, New Orleans began offering free, city-wide wireless Internet service to try to jumpstart communications.

When the state of emergency order is lifted, New Orleans’ plan might technically be against a state law passed last year that governs municipalities entry into the telecommunications business.

Durel said that’s all the more reason that law should be repealed.

Lafayette’s technology people have been talking with their New Orleans’ counterparts since before the storm — almost daily, Durel said.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin visited Lafayette and Durel early this year and spoke about municipal telecommunications networks.

While no plans are finalized, the two cities continue to talk about a ‘potential partnership’ between the two cities using LUS’ fiber backbone, Durel said.

That short extract covers a lot of ground. We all know about the endless lawsuits and the way the city feels about that but these are the first public remarks I’ve heard reported where Durel joins Terry Huval in calling for repeal of the “Local Government Fair Competition Act” of ’94. It’s the obvious response to the way the law has been misused so its good to know our officials are on the same page about it. I’ll be very surprised if BellSouth backs off its appeals and lets Lafayette sell its bonds; so, combined with outrage that New Orleans is being prevented from making its free wifi network a feature of the long-range New Orleans redevelopment plan, I expect a battle will be in the offing down the line in the March regular session. Lobbyists are powerful, yes, but chiefly in areas where the people don’t have a real opinion. Events are educating the people of Louisiana about just how much the telecom companies need the “help” of such a law–and how they will misuse the power it gives them to block the legitimate plans of communities to help themselves.

If my recollection is correct the first place where the New Orleans-Lafayette telecom connection was made was in one of Blanchard’s think pieces in the advocate where he speculated about the possibility of a cooperative arrangement. Durel had hinted at such from time to time before the storms but with New Orleans’ telecom infrastructure a shambles and its utility companies straining to restore old levels of connectivity it is surely a more pressing issue. The exact form that the cooperation would take is an interesting question. Lafayette will be buying “big iron” in the form of central office equipment for the phone, video, and data services it will offer. It will also need a nice big pipe onto the internet backbone. A cooperative agreement with New Orleans to provide services to the Big Easy would not only make good financial sense but would also make excellent political sense. To survive what promises to be an endless assault by the unrepentant incumbents in the state legislature what is needed is a solid, dependable, and self-interested voting block. For that to form up Lafayette must spread its good fortune around. A cooperative agreement with New Orleans would be an major coup in such a campaign.

Interesting Times…