Settop Boxes: Politics, Economics, and Possibility

Settop boxes are the maligned stepchildren of the digital revolution. When you hear about them it’s mostly complaints. And yet, treated right, they just might be the key to making everything work.

Here’s the key: that digital box is really a stealth network computer. We seldom think of them that way but they have the same digitally-based flexibility that any computing machine has. I’ve got two in my house. One from Cox and Motorola (which I totally ignore) and one from TiVo (which I love). The TiVo is a straight-on linux box. Entire user communities exist to “mess” with its software. It’s currently a a top-notch Digitial Video Recorder (DVR) but there is no reason to think that’s all it could be.

There is some current, locally-relevant news on TiVo’s boxes–that’s what touched off this Sunday morning ramble. It beginning to look like TiVo might cut a deal with Cox, or at least that’s the way some TiVo fanatics read the tea leaves. That’s good local news, I’ve written a bit about why you’ll like TiVo and why DVR’s are the leading edge of a new TV model. Being able to get it directly from Cox would be the proverbial very good thing. TiVo should also be available from LUS when the time comes. According to the story the people at TiVo also:

have a deal with the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC), a purchasing organization that represents over 1,000 independent cable operators, which collectively serve around 14 million subscribers.

The NCTC is the federally chartered organization that’s designed to ensure a level playing field in the provision of cable content to the little guys. LUS has said they’ll be using their service and picking up on the TiVo alternative would please the geeky sorts in town.

So it looks like you’re going to be able to choose TiVo from a cable provider in Lafayette. Preferably from LUS.

But back to the question of the settop box as a stealth computer. If LUS provides it, it could conceivably become the hub of a truly different community-based computing experience. And that’s well worth dreaming about. I want to be clear, however: this is dreaming. It’s the nature of settop boxes and the fact that TiVos are Linux computers that will be available in discounted bulk to LUS that inspires the dreaming. (Currently you can get a new dual tuner TiVo DVR/Linux computer for about 50 bucks up front plus a 17 dollar monthly fee.) But I’ve no indication that folks are thinking down this pathway. (But, hey, we could start that up!)

Any settop box that LUS provides will be, ipso facto, the default Lafayette computer standard. Its potential may go unused but it will sit out there as the single “best-selling” computer in Lafayette. It’s still unsettled what video technology LUS will use initally. Some choices, which were new when the initial planning was done, have matured and those choices would require a settop box. By all indications LUS is leaning toward a technology that doesn’t require a settop box. But in either case you can bet that there will be lots of LUS boxes in Lafayette; those are required for the more interactive, profitable services that evey cable company is pushing. LUS will be no exception to that rule.

But consider the potential of having a community-standard, probasbly community-owned computer sitting at the end of a big pipe in most households in the city. Once you wrap your head around that the possibilities explode. –ok, I’ve gotta run for Jazz Fest, but let me just toss some words out and let you chew on the possibilities and fill in the blanks:

(remember Sun) network computing,
Digitial Divide,
Grid Computing.
local portals
Distributed computing
Distributed storage
Big network caching
online ajax-powered (or similar) network applications
common community databases
common community calendars

All, all much easier, better, much cheaper, and more consistently implemented if we make good use of the settop box computers that we’ll have.

—more if I’ve got the energy when I get back from N.O. Otherwise talk it up in the comments and do the work of dreaming for yourselves.

Fiber-to-the-Home in Rural Georgia

Add to your list of forward-thinking telephone companies Wilkes Telephone and Electric. According to a story in the Lincoln County Journal they’re in the midst of a two stage fiber to the home buildout (see also accompanying brag ad). Never heard of ’em? That’s because they serve three counties in extremely rural Northeast Georgia. Fiber to the Home (FTTH) is apparently not too expensive to be deployed by small locally-owned telecos.

It’s also not too expensive in rural Louisiana: FTTH is being deployed by locally owned telephone businesses in East Ascension, Kaplan, and Cameron. In Louisiana, as in the nation as a whole, up-to-date telecom infrastructure is being spearheaded by locally concerned and invested business and municipalities. It it the big international companies that are dragging their heels and holding out their hand for public subsidies.

You would have thought that it’d be the big boy Bells (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth et al.) that would have the technical capacity and the financial resources to roll out FTTH. After all they’ve been telling small towns and cities all over the country that they’re the only ones competent to do it–and that it was too technically difficult and expensive for those little communities. At the state and national level the tune was a little different: the big Bell phone companies have been promising fiber for at least two decades in return for federal deregulation and massive state-level subsidization. Neither produced the promised fiber-optic based last mile networks and the lack of any follow-up on those promises by either legislators or the press is a major national scandal. The question of how much to trust these guys is especially relevant as we gear up nationally and in Louisiana to pass “cable” franchise laws that will strip local communities of the right to control contracts that lease public rights-of-way to telecom companies.

WBS: Lafayette consumers think they are Citizens!

What’s Being Said dept.

The battle in Lafayette has symbolic of whats’ wrong with telecom incumbents in the United States. The city’s travails are being mentioned as an example wherever folks are particualarly mad at the Bells. One example is Herold Feld over at WetMachine who has a series of posts dissecting the ugly beast that is the senate draft of of the rewrite of the telecom act of 1996. The bill is complex and he’s split his comments up into several parts. If telecom policy is your thing you should travel over and read them all. But if you’re interested mostly in muni broadband and especially Lafayette’s muni broadband there’s a bit you really ought to read. It occurs midway in the piece when Feld is working up a good head of steam about the author, Ted Stevens of Alaska, and portraying him as a paternalistic “Uncle Ted” whose real interest lies in protecting corporate profit centers.

[Excuse me for a moment while I am briefly possesed by the spirit of Stephen Colbert.]

And lets face it, “Uncle Ted” has a point. I mean, look at what happens when you let voters decide on whether to set up competing municipal systems. Those stupid consumers actually want to have a say in what services their local governments provide! I mean, look at Lafayette, LA. Bellsouth and Cox already provided service to Lafayette. How much competition do those people need for gosh sakes? And, when Bellsouth and Cox got a court order forcing Lafayette to hold a public referendum on whether to finance the system, those stupid consumers still voted 2-1 to build the municipal system anyway!. After Bellsouth and Cox Cable spent over a million dollars, engaged in push-polling, used all the right words like “competition” and “socialism” and “limited government,” and did everything companies are supposed to do to corrupt democracy, THEY STILL LOST! I mean, what the heck do those consumers in Lafayette think they are, CITIZENS?… (–Note: this goes on for another two paragraphs. Click through to enjoy.–)

[Back to Harold again.]

(Don’t know what that ‘Stephen Colbert” thing is about? It’s a reference to Colbert’s recent performance at the White House Correspondents dinner where he roasted the president pretty much to a crisp. If you’ve not followed it you might want to check out the video. A lot of the langauge in Feld’s rant is drawn from Colbert’s. The video is available in a stream from ABC, or via bitorrent)

It’s clear that Lafayette’s fiber fight has become symbolically important. But what it will finally mean isn’t entirely clear yet. Was the battle of Lafayette the telecom corporation’s Waterloo–a surprising defeat which proved decisive–or a telecom version of the Battle of New Orleans–a major defeat which no effect on the outcome of the war?

In either case the idea that Lafayette is the city where telecom consumers first realized they were citizens is something of which we can be proud.

“Free Wi-Fi Aids New Orleans Recovery”

For those following the saga of wifi in New Orleans will want to puruse a story that appears in Datamation, “Free Wi-Fi Aids New Orleans Recovery.” It documents the utility of the wifi system during the immediate aftermath of Katrina and the role it’s played in recovery. People talk about how much easier these networks are to get up and going and how much easier they are to expand as needs expand. You get a pretty good feel for how these factors work in a real situation by reading through the story.

Very clearly the ad hoc wifi network was one of the success stories in New Orleans’ response to Katrina. Credit where credit is due: In its construction New Orleans, in at least one area, showed an ability to deal creatively with immediate disaster and to minimize the costs to citizens of recovery. That BS or Cox oppose this network and the investment it could bring to the recovery, is difficult to understand if you don’t take into account that all they really care about is their own bottom line. The incumbents tried initally to legislate the possibility of municipal broadband out of existance. Their behavior in Lafayette, with push polls, economic intimidation, and delaying lawsuits demonsrated that their income was the real issue as did their earlier attempt punish New Orleans by playing politics over N.O.’s wifi with a proposed gift to the police force. BellSouth continues this tradition with a state-wide video franchise bill that would exempt itself from paying the franchise fees to provide video that cable companies already do and put current franchise money under state control. None of this demonstrates anything but that the incumbents are “bad actors” who can’t be relied upon to act with any other interest but their immediate profits in mind.

I’m at a loss to understand why BellSouth or Cox should have the right to tell any city how they can use their own property and what benefits citizens of New Orleans are allowed to have from a network their city already owns. That it’s “a law” isn’t enough. Legislators should be encouraged to repeal bad laws–if they did a little more of that more citizens would respect the office they hold. The Local Government Fair Competition Act should be repealed. And failing that wireless networks, which have proven vital in hurricane preparedness and recovery should be exempted.

City-Parish Council Opposes State Franchise Bill

The first order of business at Tuesday night’s Lafayette City Parish Council meeting was a resolution opposing the HB 699 the BellSouth/AT&T bill that would create a state-wide franchise that would cut local governments out of the loop on cable franchise fees. The law amounts to an expropriation of locally-owned rights-of-way by the state for the benefit of a BellSouth (soon to be AT&T).

Naturally local governments are opposed.

But the story here is that that opposition is beginning to be made public. That doesn’t begin to happen until a coalition has coalesced around a consensus position. Lafayette’s resolution is one sign that local governments are aware of the danger the bill represents and have decided to simply oppose the bill. That’s smart; there’s no real way to compromise on sovereignty and that is what is at stake for local governments.

The resolution is also a sign that the deal recently cut by Lafayette is a truce, not a peace. That’s smart too.

BS and Cox Stand in the Way of Earthlink Investment in Free N.O. WiFi

New Orlean’s City Business breaks the general media silence to cover the story of BellSouth/ATT and Cox’s opposition to municipal wifi in New Orleans. The wifi network was a rare upbeat note of success and ingenuity in the first days after Katrina. It came back up long before any other means of communications and the city’s command and communications relied on it to communicate–Nagin talked to Bush in the initial days on a VOIP over wifi setup cobbled together from equipment “appropriated” from business supply stores and the city’s existing security camera network. It’s been a source of conflict before, with BellSouth holding the donation of a building to the city’s police force ransom to express their displeasure.

The heart of the article is that Earthlink is willing to invest big bucks in expanding and running a free WiFi network for New Orleans. It offers to invest 10 to 15 million over the next year upgrade the telecommunications infrastructure in a city where huge swaths of the city still don’t have dialtone. But they’re willing to do that only if BellSouth and Cox step out of the way and allow WiFi networks to be exempted from the strictures of the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act.

BellSouth and Cox?

You guessed it: no way. But to add insult to injury they give excuses that are so transparently silly that you get the feeling that they are treating this as some sort of absurd game.

According to the weekly:

The state Senate is expected to vote Saturday on a bill by two New Orleans senators to allow the city to provide free wireless Internet to the metro area.

But telecommunication companies are crying foul over the possibility of government competing with private companies.

Sounds familiar, no? Sounds familiar, yes. The same ridiculously aggrieved tone is being used against New Orleans that was used in Lafayette:

“Unlike companies, governments can cross-subsidize,” said BellSouth spokesman Merlin Villar. “They can take revenue from another source to maintain low prices if they want to. This is unfair, and this kind of situation was the genesis of the (Louisiana Local Government) Fair Competition Act.”

That’s absurd, absurdist, even dadaist in its glowingly painted nonsense. BellSouth/AT&T and Cox draw revenue from 3/4s of the other states in the union to “cross-subsidize” their competition against New Orlean’s cobbled-together wifi system that currently operates in two commercial neighborhoods of the city. Cox owns media and newspapers across the country. Do they segregate their profits from cable and newspapers and never fund the one business from the other? Don’t be silly. Can you imagine the hysterical objections we’d hear if “the government” so much as hinted they couldn’t use their profits to expand whatever business they decided they wanted to get into next? Did BellSouth/ATT buy its way into the cellular business by starving the wireline networks of reinvestment capital and using the profits from telephone ratepayers to buy its way into a business the initially spurned? Damn right they did–and they and countless analysts are proud of it. “Cross-subsidization” between the very different areas of their business is EXACTLY what allowed these multinational corporations to become big enough to piously kick New Orleans when it’s down and then justify their behavior with transparently absurd claims like “Unlike companies, governments can cross-subsidize.” Shameless.

There’s more:

“We don’t want to be obstructionists but there are parts of the Fair Competition Act that are imperative to companies,” said Sharon Kleinpeter, a Cox lobbyist.

Villar said illegal competition is the point of BellSouth’s protest.

“We’re not preventing New Orleans from running WiFi as long as they comply with the law,” Villar said.

Sharon Kleinpeter, Cox lobbyist, (yes, the same we recently heard talking nonsense in Lafayette) and Villar of BellSouth/ATT are happy to cast a surreal aura over the discussion. What they are trying to say is that they’d be happy-happy to let New Orleans have its wifi network if they just complied with their law. And New Orleans could: at the absurdly useless speed of 144 k…. It’d be A-OK, okie dokie with them if the city would invest a bunch in a useless network. ?? –Honestly, there’s no need to take these folks seriously–it’s like a bunch of bobble-head dolls. You’re not supposed to take it seriously; they’re just there for distraction.

If you read on down into the story there is some information that’s actually useful:

Meffert says Earthlink, an Atlanta-based Internet service provider, has agreed to invest $10 million to $15 million in free wireless equipment over the next year if the bill passes. Earthlink would then be the service provider for the foreseeable future.

The plan in other cities that Earthlink has promised to provide with free wifi has been to support it with advertising. Its not all that new an idea: is the model that supports broadcast TV to this day. I don’t see why New Orleans should not be allowed to try.

BellSouth and Cox should be ashamed.

You, on the other hand, ought to let your legislators know that you don’t think that letting these corporations stand in the way of New Orlean’s maintaining and expanding a successful wifi system as hurricane season bears down is a something they should be doing.

BellSouth & Cox Let Suit Die

The Advertiser reports today on the legal death-by-neglect of the BellSouth/Cox lawsuit. The lawsuit filed against LUS and the city died last night as a consequence of the 11th hour filing not being followed up. Claire Taylor retells the story:

City officials announced April 25 that they reached an agreement with BellSouth. The company reportedly agreed to drop its latest lawsuit if the city drops proposed legislation that would repeal the Local Government Fair Competition Act, adopted to prevent municipally-owned telecommunications companies from having an unfair advantage over private companies like BellSouth.

One proposed bill, which would amend the act to avoid frivolous lawsuits, will not be dismissed, Ottinger said.

City-Parish President Joey Durel said he hasn’t yet asked local legislators to drop any of the proposed legislation.

“We’ll live up to whatever the agreements were as long as everybody lives up to all aspects of the agreement,” he said.

Another lawsuit, filed Friday by Elizabeth Naquin and Matthew Eastin, remains. A hearing is set for 10 a.m. May 22 before Judge Edward Rubin in Fifteenth Judicial District Court in Lafayette.

There are strange and interesting things buried in that fragment.

First, the lawsuit was filed by BellSouth and Cox; not BS alone. (well, BS and the LCTA, which amounts to the same thing.) By identifying the lawsuit solely as BellSouth’s the story lets Cox off the local hook at a time when the corporation is doing everything in its power to present a new face to Lafayette. (Save for the little bit of old-style deception published by the Advertiser in its letters section by Sharon Kleinpeter, Cox PR person out of Baton Rouge.) Is that oversight due to sympathy for Cox, inattention to details, or did BS abandon the suit without Cox’s agreement? If you take a look at what folks are saying that the deal consisted of it’s hard to see what Cox got out of it.

Also strange is the continued reference to some sort of supposed “advantage” that little Lafayette was supposed to have over giants BellSouth/ATT or Cox by virtue of being publicly owned. Surely we’ve been through enough now that such a characterization of BellSouth’s law is understood to be inaccurate?

Finally, Durel’s enigmatic statement that Lafayette’s bills have not yet been pulled but that “We’ll live up to whatever the agreements were as long as everybody lives up to all aspects of the agreement” is suggestively non-specific. “Whatever the agreements were”? Hmmnnn. With BellSouth’s having let the lawsuit die it would seem that their side of the announced bargain has been fulfilled. Are there shoes yet to drop?

Alert: Franchise Bill Advances (Updated (twice))

Update2: The calendar has apparently changed again. I’m now told the franchise bill won’t make a committee hearing until the 6th. You can tune in at the hearing’s video page a few minutes before the action starts or navigate to the proper place from the legislative front page. This debate should be more interesting than the discussion over charges for setting graveyard tombstones that occupied much of Monday morning.

Update: The state-wide franchise bill was not considered today, Monday, May 1st. It has been carried over to Tuesday May 2nd in a hearings session that begins at 9:00.


With the Lafayette-BellSouth/ATT/Cox conflict suspended by the recent compromise bills in the Louisiana Legisalture that have been held up are likely to start moving. The first is a statewide video franchise. It is going to be heard in the House Commerce Committee on Monday.

This is one that Lafayette and the state’s municipalities seem to understand is a terrible bill for the people of Louisiana so the hearing should be at least entertaining. It is our state’s version of state and federal legislation that is being pushed with a vigor that only the phone companies are able to muster.

The Bell phone companies are pushing hard to overturn the current practice of granting local franchises for cable service in exchange for allowing the corporations to use publicly-owned right of ways. Such franchises yield substantial income for local governments, provide for local educational and Public Access channels like AOC, and often include services for local government. They also provide consumer protection, detailing quality standards and, most cogently for understanding the current push to eradicate them: include clauses that effectively force the cable corporations to provide access to service to all the citizens of the community. Franchises are the way that cable TV has been handled for years and are provided for in federal legislation.

The Bells have been telling legislators and the FCC that they’re coming asking for relief because, first, that it is a burden to have to go around and have to ask all those little people for franchises. Secondly, they claim that local governments have drug their heels and asked for inane things. The truth seems to be that the Bells have barely tried. Their buildouts necessarily stretch out over years but they only come asking for a franchise when the have already built the capacity to offer TV. That’s not usually considered prudent business practice. Regular businesses make sure that they can legally offer a service before they start to spend huge amounts of money investing in capacity. Only businesses that think they can get the rules changed to suit them act as if the normal rules don’t apply to them.

It’s pretty easy to see that local government’s inappropriate behavior isn’t the problem. The Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Police Juries apparently suggested that if speeding up the franchise process was a real problem they’d be happy to back an amended bill that would guarantee that the process could be made complete in 90 days if they’d leave control of local resources in local hands and be willing to adopt the terms and conditions of the existing cable franchise in the area they wished to begin offering service.

I don’t expect that BellSouth will take ’em up on that.

What the phone companies have fought for, at the state or federal level, is not speed–that’s an easy excuse–but for the elimination of “buildout” requirements. The real point is to allow the phone companies to only serve the most profitable few.

Beyond that after looking at the bill it seems to me that there are a couple of odd clauses that, taken together, will allow ATT/BellSouth to both take advantage of the portion of the proposed law that prohibits local governments from requiring that the whole community be served and to escape paying any franchise fees even to the state.

In a nutshell: one part of the law establishes that “certificate holders” cannot be required to serve the whole community. Another part of the law establishes the principle that “cable systems” can be required to pay franchise fees according to its gross receipts. A third spot in the law sets up conditions that allow a “traditional” telecom operator who delivers video via an “alternate” technology to become a “certificate holder” without being considered a “cable system” (recall, cable systems owe money). All you really need to know to connect the dots is that ATT has been insisting all over the country that its technology, IPTV, is not a cable system and is not therefore subject to laws regulating cable systems.

Put it all together and you get a free ride for the phone company: all the advantages of using local community property without having to serve the whole community and no responsibility to return any fees for the use of that property.

It’s a terrible bill crafted to shaft local communities for the benefit of a handful of multinational corporations. Let your legislators know that you’d like to see them oppose it.