“Hearing slated today in LUS complaint” (Correction)

Mea Culpa: an earlier version of this post contained a major misinterpretation of the Advocate story. In it I was working from the mistaken reading that the hearing was before the Judge….not so, as the story clearly states. The hearing was before the LPUA. My apologies for spreading my poor reading far and wide.

The Advocate carries a story this morning about a new hearing slated for today in the class action lawsuit directed against LUS’ fiber optic project.

The LPUA has expedited pleadings on the issue at the direction of Judge Rubin. Tomorrow’s stories should be interesting.

Update 4:00: The Advertiser is running an brief on this hearing in preparation for a fuller story tomorrow.

Cable Franchise Bill in Senate Commerce Tomorrow

HB 699, the state-wide cable franchise bill, will be heard tomorrow in the Senate Commerce Committee tomorrow at 9:30.

It’s bad law and deserves to be voted down there. Concerned citizens can still contact the members of the committee; the commerce committee maintains a page providing links to the members’ data.

At the most basic level it’s bad because it takes local control and local sovereignty and transfers it to the state level because it would be more convenient (that is, more profitable) to a single large corporation if local governments could be neutered. Local control threatens the size of BellSouth’s profits because local people normally require BellSouth/AT&T to offer cable TV services to everyone in exchange for renting the community rights-of-way to the corporation. BellSouth feels like it would make more money if it could only offer it’s service to the wealthiest neighborhoods–and, not coincidentally, they could at the same time stick Cable with the more expensive-to-serve customers. So they go to the state legislature to enhance their bottom line.

Enhancing BellSouth’s (soon to be AT&T) profits is not the legislature’s job.

And it’s certainly not the legislature’s job to pass laws that impoverish local communities. But that is exactly what the legislature is considering according to local government organizations across the state. They say that, contrary to what BellSouth/AT&T lobbyists are claiming, BellSouth’s bill leaves a loophole for the company to escape paying any fees to local governments. That would leave a gaping hole in many communities’ income.

The bill has already passed through the house. Tomorrow’s hearing in the Senate Commerce Committe will be one of the last chances to stop it before it becomes law. Contacting the committee members could make a real difference. It also wouldn’t hurt to copy Kathleen Blanco with your concerns. Just in case it ends up on her desk.

(To watch the show, follow the link on the Legislature’s front page that will go live a few minutes after 9:30)

“Fastest Internet Ever…”

The academic internet is about to be upgraded by a factor of 80….from a 10 gbs backbone to an 800 gbs one according to Sci-Tech Today. Now 10 gbs per second is pretty impressive–that is the speed of the current, famous “Abiline” research backbone so taking an 80X leap is a little breathtaking–and inspiring. Two points come to mind almost immediately: First, it’s a demonstration of the oft-repeated and oft-doubted thesis that fiber optic installations are “future proof” and, second, that there are exciting ideas out there on how to use big bandwidth; exciting enough that people are dramatically improving their networks to accommodate them.

Future Proof
The idea that fiber optic based networks are future proof is regularly dismissed by folks who aren’t technically inclined. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that this claim is most often originates from the least likely source: engineers. Engineer types are seldom seen touting products, much less touting them with phrases like “future proof” that sound like marketing-speak.

But the engineers are really making a fairly limited, relatively technical claim. They are not saying that network upgrades wont’ be necessary, a claim that some appear to think they are making. Instead they are taking almost the opposite position: that upgrades are inevitable and that installing fiber optics now make the inevitable upgrades–whatever unpredictable form they may take in terms of specific protocols–easy and cheap compared to all alternatives. They are saying that installing the fiber-optic hardware is a one-time affair. You won’t be tearing out Fiber to install some new network in order to accommodate the unforseeable specifics of inevitable upgrades.

This upgrade is a good example of why they think upgrades are not an issue; they can squeeze almost two magnitudes of speed increase out a strand of fiber simply by upgrading the electronics/photonics at each end of the fiber. Metaphorically (the actuality is a little more complex) what is being done is that each fiber that formerly carried 10 gbs over light is having new electronics installed that will use 8 different wavelengths–that don’t interfere with each other–to carry 10 gbs each. Said that way it’s easy to see that Dense Wave Division Mulitplexing (DWDM) can make it possible to subdivide the wavelengths being used to achieve dramatic raw speed improvements coupled. The electronics to achieve that can be imbued with whatever fancy new algorithms emerge to make things more efficient. So a huge amount of new upgrade capacity is possible before you ever has to commit to the expense of running more fiber.

For all practical purposes the fiber that gets pulled is all but future-proof. It’s the electronics that get upgraded.

Exciting Ideas
Most of the Sci Tech article is devoted to how folks will use the new capacity–and that’s where the fun really is. With Lafayette getting a shiny new fiber-optic system that we’ll control it behooves us to think about how we’ll use more capacity than most folks can dream of. That’s real fun.

Here’s the way the Sci Tech author finds his way into the question:
Someday, we might conquer the vast distances of space and visit the stars. But right now, on this planet, we are on the verge of eliminating distance itself. And the vehicle for eliminating distance is the next generation of the medium you are now using: the Internet.

The current Net has little to impede you as you search for information…

But if you want to have a live conversation with someone standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, at night, as if they were on the other side of a clear window — with the tower shimmering in more realistic detail than you can absorb — you have two choices. You can either fly there right now, or you can use a PC hooked into the next-generation Internet.

The article emphasizes “telepresence” applications: surgery, virtual travel, advanced cooperation between scientists, access to rare tools, and other forms of “being there.” It closes with:

Even when physical distance is dissolved by bandwidth, we’ll likely find new reasons to get together in real space. As the New World Symphony’s Shook notes: “We’ll never replace live interaction in the same room with other people.”

But we’re getting pretty close.

Telepresence is hardly the end of it…the potential for grid computing, massive multiplayer gaming, and changing our relationship to television or government is enormous. Accessing and manipulating huge data sets may one day be enable each of us does to compose personalized weather predictions keyed to our locales over the course of the day. Or to “look ahead” and help determine the best route for our daily commute dynamically. Each of us could, for the price of a cheap web connection, be our own broadcasting station. Making movies or shows might well become a home craft. A lot of things could change. By far the biggest limiting factor will be imagination.

Give it some thought: what could you do in a community where everybody had a 100 meg connection?

“Earthlink to build wireless Internet system in New Orleans”

The AP reports Earthlink won a franchise from the New Orlean’s City Council yesterday. The franchise covers the entire city. The highlight reel:

Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. has won approval for a wireless Internet network in New Orleans that will be built around a free city-owned system that made its debut last fall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina….

Initially, EarthLink’s system will cover about 15 square miles of the 181-square mile city, including the downtown business district and the French Quarter…

The company also said it would allow competing Wi-Fi providers to use its network for a price…

The city is not taking down its system. In addition to continuing its current operation, it will provide a dedicated network for first responders to disasters…

EarthLink said its free service would operate at up to 300 kbps and its high-speed service would be 3 1/2 times faster. Tolpegin said the free system would operate “as long as the city is rebuilding and it makes sense to offer the service.”

Good for New Orleans. I was really worried that the legislature’s shenanigans would completely torpedo the project. What seems to be happening here is that the city’s current infrastructure and free service will remain in place indefinitely. The description of where the new Earthlink network will debut is in the same area that the city’s network already operates. That only makes sense if the play is to fill in the gaps in current coverage with Earthlinks new service before moving on. That, in its turn, is probably left-over from what seems to have been the earlier plan to build an integrated network. What New Orleans has sacrificed to Baton Rouge’s subservience to the incumbents is ownership of the network that serves it citizens. This is no longer a partnership–it is a straight franchise deal. Earthlink is doing a good and risky thing here and I’ve no desire to denigrate them in any way but the truth is that in the long run the new network will now have no more allegience to the citizens of New Orleans than does Cox’s or BellSouth’s. The citizens will have no real handle over how it is run or who it benefits. Profit and control will flow out of the city and into the hands of absentee owners. It could have been different.

For the more technically minded Sabludowsky over at Bayou Buzz also covers the deal and has a bit more detail on the network hardware–Tropos nodes and software with a Motorola “Canopy” backhaul system. Unless I’m mistaken this is pretty much the setup that the current New Orleans-owned network uses, so they ought to “mesh” well.

Sadly, no one seems to have the details on the deal itself. (Does the T-P really not cover city council meetings? I find that hard to believe. But I’m not able to find the report.) Is the deal exclusive? How long does it run? In other places that Earthlink is building systems there are citizens panels and discounted service for low-income neighborhoods. Will New Orleans get any of that? Will schools be served? Will first responders be able to pull needed bandwidth in times of emergencies? Is there a public service/police element to the contract?– That could save New Orleans a bundle.

Regardless of questions: Good for New Orleans and good for Earthlink. They’re both sacrificing the easy path–and what would have been the less risky path–to serve the people of New Orleans. It’s sad that the incumbents, and a subservient legislature, forced them to take additional risks and sacrifice any element of community control.

Endless Lawsuits parts 25 & 26

My mother used to call things “kooky” when she was trying hard not to use more colorful language in front of the children.

The latest developments in our legal battles are kooky, damned kooky.

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate run stories attempting to make sense of the latest developments in the legal case brought by a batch of class action lawyers from Plaquimines on behalf of two mysterious clients that are supposed to be from Lafayette.

Here is, if I’ve got it right, the list of developments:

  • The Lafayette Parish Utility Authority (LPUA) met and passed new rules governing the appeal of rates changes.
  • Members of the LPUA expressed a desire to be shown the extortionists plantiffs Matthew Eastin and Elizabeth Naquin; apparently some doubt exists that they exist and have standing to sue.
  • LPUA chair Marc Mouton calls the whole affair: “some net-dragging class-action lawsuit.”
  • Lawyers for Lafayette ask Judge Rubin to follow the intent of the bond law and not “suspend” a court hearing for 21 days that is required by law to be decided in 10 days. (uh…duh)
  • Lawyers for Lafayette ask Judge Rubin to find that the LPUA can’t rule on bond issue questions because state law defines rigid ways that involve him ruling quickly and exclusively based on that law on any matters concering bond issues.
  • Lawyers from Plaquimines get around to a formal complaint against the bond issue with the LPUA.
  • In the same filing where they ask for bond relief lawyers from Plaquimines ask the LPUA in to recuse itself because it is the agency responsible for making decisions about utility matters, including rate increases, and because the larger council of which the LPUA is a subset passed the laws governing, well, the LPUA. (Recuse yourself from deciding on the request we just made because you are the decision-makers. How Kooky is that?)
  • Lawyers from Plaquimines also ask for the lawyers for Lafayette to recuse themselves. Because they are also lawyers for the city. Wait, won’t that be the case for any lawyers that defend the city? Wouldn’t that logic that make it impossible for the city to defend itself against “net-dragging” lawsuits? …Oh! Clever boys! (Kooky? Kooky.)

I think that’s most of it. Read the articles for details.

I saw a show last night in which an actor said he’d never want to be a lawyer because the work was “too much like doing homework for a living.” This morning I think I understand what he meant.

Shreveport editorial urges caution on franchise bill

An editorial in the Shreveport Times urges legislators to be cautious when considering House Bill 699, the state-wide cable franchising bill.

Whether it’s “cable competition” or a “sweetheart deal,” the legislative proposal to give BellSouth a leg up into the world of television delivery service appears to be a case where technology again outstrips both the law and the public’s ability to comprehend.

The author tries to balance the competing issues of technology, fairness, and concern for the future of local government income and confesses some personal confusion on these fronts. (Some of that caution is justified–remarks in the story indicate that he or she thinks that the technology involved is fiber to the home. It is not; it is a brand of DSL.) It was particularly heartening to see the poorly covered issue of lost franchise fees revenues and the importance of universal service make it into this editorial.

Tinkering with the current cable TV landscape could put a cloud over the future of franchise fees paid by cable providers to local government, which is a chief reason organizations such as the Louisiana Municipal Association oppose the BellSouth bill. Local government also would lose leverage that now ensures cable operators provide service to all residents.

In the end the editorialist decides to opt for caution. And this is indeed wise: the best action when you’re uncertain about how to proceed is often to do nothing and see if the situation won’t clarify itself. The legislature would be wise to do the same. Once AT&T is actually providing the service it now promises the issues involved and AT&T’s committments to local communities will be much clearer. That will be soon enough to decide whether special legislation favoring the corporation would be useful to the people of Louisiana.

BellSouth/AT&T, Bad Actor

My previous post reported on the responses of local government to HB 699–the state-wide franchise bill. Both the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Police Jury Association have recently issued urgent alerts to their members. I was struck by the prominence of the belief that BellSouth/AT&T won’t pay the franchise fees they are promising. That’s a little unusual. Thinking a law is a bad one for the people you represent is one thing. Telling those people you believe the proposed law is dishonest is something entirely different.

The local governments of Lousiana appears to have concluded that BellSouth, and its new master AT&T are bad actors.

One of the most striking and unique features of the battle in Louisiana over this issue has been that Louisiana’s local governments have clearly recognized the likelihood that AT&T (after it has bought BellSouth) will not pay franchise fees as the bill appears to promise–and regard the conciliatory phrases in the bill that indicate that the telephone company will pay fees as so much flash and noise. The corporation’s real object, they clearly understand, is to prevent local government from making service for all — and equal prices for all — a condition of AT&T/BellSouth using community-owned rights-of-way by moving control of the rules governing the use of local property to the state level.

The basis for thinking they do not intend to pay local communities a dime is clear cut: AT&T has repeatedly made clear that it considers its product an “information service.” It has written a clause into HB 699 that excludes “information services” from the definition of services for which franchise fees are owed. The conclusion is pretty obvious and doesn’t require an advanced degree in the law or technology–or experience in anything other than human nature.

In two separate negotiating sessions over the last weeks BellSouth’s representatives have pretended they did not understand the implications of the phrase “information service.” That’s just not credible and has to be seen as a sign of fundamental dishonesty. The FCC’s definition of this phrase is what allowed the phone companies to enter the internet business and is at the heart of their current DSL broadband business. It is impossible to believe that any executive or telecom lawyer is not familiar with the phrase or the way that their DSL business is dependent on the exclusive federal control the FCC established for that category. Similarly it is just not credible that any BellSouth executive does not understand that their new product is an xDSL-based product. They MUST understand what their counterparts across the table are worried about. The refusal to deal with that legitimate concern directly, and the unfulfilled promises to get their lawyers to “look into it”and “get back” with them are fairly interpreted as deceptive.

There is a cure: the phone company could acknowledge the central significance of the phrase “information service,” acknowledge its belief that its IPTV service is an information service, acknowledge the role of federal definitions in exempting such service from local or state control, and then explicitly and voluntarily give up exclusion for video services delivered by “channels” in Louisiana and agree to pay for the use of local property in the same fashion that cable companies do. That’s the sort of thing a corporation might do to clear up any uncertainty about whether or not it will actually pay what it is promising the people of Louisiana it will.

BellSouth/AT&T has not done anything like this–and has not even been willing to acknowledge the existence of the issue in a fair and open manner.

There’s a very rancid taste left by all this. What the people of Louisiana need to recognize based on this (and similar dishonesties in Lafayette and New Orleans) is that BellSouth simply cannot be trusted to negotiate openly and honestly. In our everyday business dealings we understand what to do when we come across people whose self-interest overpowers their integrity. We first try and exclude them from anything for which we have responsibility. And, if that is not possible, we try and hem them in with rules and watch them like a hawk with the plain presumption that they will exploit any opening for their own benefit. Finally we try and develop alternate partners for the future. Lousiana should do the same.

Local Governments Oppose State-wide Franchise

Louisiana local governments are begining to trumpet the danger that HB 699, the state-wide cable franchise bill, presents to local communities. Alerts have been issued by both the Police Jury Association and the Louisiana Municipal Association.

It’s the “hot topic” on the Police Jury’s current legislative report where they debunk the idea that this bill will benefit rural areas. The Police Jury also has an information page which details their objections point by pont. Of particular interest is their conviction that this law’s build out prohibition is particularly bad for rural areas and the concern for the exemption from franchise fees. From the Police Jury info page:

2. HB 699 prohibits local build-out requirements.

  • Without this provision, local government will not be able to ensure service to the citizens in rural, less developed areas, or poor areas.

3. HB 699 specifically exempts “information services” from franchise fees.

  • AT&T/Bellsouth is litigating around the country that video programming over internet lines is “information services” which, under the bill, are not subject to franchise fees.

The Louisiana Municipal Association’s most recent newsletter has yet to make it to their online archive. Here’s their lead article on the franchise bill. It emphasizes even more strongly the hidden “loophole” that allows the phone companies to evade paying franchise fees:

House-Passed Telecommunications Legislation
Set for Senate Commerce Committee Next Wednesday
“A very real economic threat for municipalities, local governments”

The Senate Commerce Committee is the next stop for the LMA-opposed HB 699 by Rep. Montgomery, the “Competitive Cable Services Act.” The committee hearing will be held Wednesday, May 31. HB 699 proposes to allow providers, such as BellSouth, to enter the cable television business (with Internet Protocol Television, or digital television delivered through fiber optic service lines) in a municipality without negotiating a franchise agreement with the local governing authority or making franchise payments directly to the municipality or doing “build-outs” of services in rural areas.
On Monday, May 15, the House voted 73-26 to send this measure to the Senate. This bill poses grave concerns for LMA and local governments in Louisiana, and LMA and its allies have conducted several meetings with telecommunications and cable television providers to discuss concerns over HB 699.
The LMA, the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, and the cable television industry all oppose HB 699, which would create a loophole enabling telecommunications companies (like BellSouth and AT&T) to escape payment of franchise fees, a significant source of revenue for local governments. That loophole is created by exempting revenues from “information services” from the definition of gross revenues covered by the bill. AT&T, the company that will utilize the provisions of this legislation, has adamantly stated that its new video service is not a cable service but is an information service. By exempting information services from franchise fees, HB 699 would give AT&T sole discretion for payment of any fees to local government. What this means is that HB 699 would leave local government subject to economic threat and intimidation by the largest telecommunications company in the nation. This threat is very real and will leave local governments defenseless against AT&T/BellSouth.
A May 23 Shreveport Times editorial states that the broadband TV proposal raises issues of competitiveness fairness. According to the editorial, “Tinkering with the current cable TV landscape could put a cloud over the future of franchise fees paid by cable providers to local government, which is a chief reason organizations such as the Louisiana Municipal Association oppose the BellSouth bill. Local government also would lose leverage that now ensures cable operators provide service to all residents.” It advises lawmakers to tread carefully with HB 699, stating “They must keep an eye first on the short-term economic and governmental impact, as well as creation of a fair playing field. But they must also divine the long-term effects in making our state competitive for both entertainment consumers and industrial prospects.”
ACTION CALL: The AT&T/BellSouth alliance has a very strong and well-financed presence at the Legislature and has placed advertisements in many Louisiana newspapers urging consumers to contact their legislators in support of HB 699. The LMA and its allies believe this is an attempt to overhaul the Local Government Franchise Act, and mayors and other local elected officials should demand fair play and insist that the new video services be subject to the same franchise agreement and fee requirements that are imposed on telephone and cable services. Your presence at the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, May 31, would be a convincing demonstration of the importance of franchise fee revenues for all local governments in Louisiana, and the need for a level playing field for ALL telecommunications and cable operators in the state. If you cannot be present, please call or email your Senators immediately and urge their opposition to HB 699. The Senate switchboard is (225) 342-2040.

It’s the fundamental dishonesty of presenting a bill to the legislature that will allow the company to avoid paying local governments altogether while arguing to legislators that the bill might in fact increase their revenues that is so disturbing. Its hard to avoid the conclusion that BellSouth and AT&T are dealing dishonestly and are simply not to be trusted.

Neutered Wireless Bill Clears Committee

LaFonta’s wireless bill (HB 1188) made it out of the House’s commerce committee yesterday but was neutered to near meaningless by amendments offered by its sponsor.

Gone are clauses that would have repealed the Local Government Fair Competition Act for wireless technologies which was the cause that was at the heart of the original bill. What has been substituted is a one-year extension of the right of disaster-stricken communities to run a wireless network for one year after a declared state of emergency is lifted–but only if it is free and unsupported by advertising. It extends the life of New Orleans’ WiFi network.

Gone with the hope to free cities from state interference, one has to assume, is the millions of dollars in investment in infrastructure that had been promised by Earthlink. (That investment, which was to fund a free, ad-supported wifi indefinitely, will not be legal.) Microsoft’s promised support was to have integrated wireless capacities into its mix. That portion will no longer be worth investing in either. You have to ask yourself what high-tech companies must think of a state who refuses their attempt to provide New Orleans with free recovery infrastructure and resources in order to protect the profits of incumbents–especially when those incumbents aren’t offering to do anything remotely similar to help out.

There is a silver lining: The current version of the “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” allows a municipality to offer any service it wants to the public if the speed is restricted to 144 k–an effective ban since that speed is basically useless. The new law, if adopted unchanged, would raise the number to 512 k. That’s the current speed cap on New Orlean’s free network and the provision will presumably allow that network to continue to operate at that speed even after the ban is reinstated. That’s a real value. For New Orleans. But only if the city can afford to support it without the fees or advertising that would have kept it from being a drain on the treasury. New Orleans may well decide to do so–chiefly because a skeleton of the network is already paid for and because large swaths of the city remain without phone service. (Ironically, expanding the current network to included underpopulated areas of the city as was recently planned will directly benefit BellSouth by lessening the pressure on it to provide its traditional services.)

For other communities–the new speed is not much of a concession. 512 K is simply not a fast enough speed to justify building a new network. 512 k, even reliably provided, is slow under present conditions. It would be a waste of the public’s resources to build a network with no possibility of expanding to meet the needs of the public that would be solely responsible for funding it.

Even with all the reservations noted this bill, and more pointedly New Orleans, still deserves support. It’s passage will allow the city to continue to serve its citizens in some fashion and in Louisiana these days we can apparently hope for little more.

LPUA rule-setting meeting Thursday

Just so you know: The Advocate reports that the LPUA will meet Thursday night to approve rules for appealing LUS rate increases.

On Monday, Rubin ordered the authority— which governs LUS and is made up of the five city-parish councilmen who represent mostly city districts — to decide the plaintiff’s complaint within 21 days.

Rubin said he will take up the matter again once the authority has decided.

It’s more than a little hard to understand what Rubin is up to here. A ruling on the merits of the extortionist’s plaintiff’s case has no logical connection to whether or not the bonds can be blocked. The bond question will have to be decided regardless of which way the LPUA rules and does not depend on the findings of a hearing; in addition, the delay Rubin imposes appears to ignore the clear mandates of the law that governs bond issues.

It’s hard not to wonder if this is one of those cases where the judge has overstepped his bounds in order to realize his personal vision of what the case should be rather than decide the case set before him. What’s Lafayette’s real alternative to doing as he asks? To appeal? That would delay things even more. And it would offend the judge who still has standing to hear the case. Being the one who decides what a law means gives a judge power beyond applying the law to the decision at hand. But applying the law to the case at hand is all that is supposed to be happening.