Municipal Telecom in Louisiana has been mostly about Lafayette and New Orleans–and mostly about their fight with the cable and phone corporations. We’ve occasionally reported on other alternative local providers of telecommunications like Kaplan Telephone, EATel, or Cameron Communications and even more occasionally on various private wifi outfits. For my own part I’m a little hesitant to get to excited about private wifi groups with the aspiration to sell retail services to consumers. Both Lafayette and Baton Rouge have had experiences with private providers who announced grand plans that never really materialized in their announced form.
Baton Rouge’s much bally-hooed downtown wifi project is a case in point. I’ve never been able to get a good signal and a friend of mine who lives downtown says he finds it unreliable. The project just “shut down” for a month recently and didn’t come back up until they found a buyer willing to operate it.
(Timeout for a complaint: This is what is known as a business failure and you can bet that if it had been the city of Baton Rouge running the system it would have made the Wall Street Journal and been treated as proof positive of the incompetence of local governments. But the WSJ is not going to even notice this failure; heck the Advocate didn’t even notice until someone with connections bought up the hardware, presumably at fire sale prices. Are we going to see a spate of letters to the Advocate and two worried editorials suggesting that private enterprise is in trouble? That private entrepreneurs can’t be relied on to fulfill their promises to the community and that the customers left stranded without service should be compensated the way we would if the enterprise had been public? Nope, we will not…and no one but some lone blogger will ever notice the unequal standards applied. Thanks, I feel better now. Back to the story.)
While The Advocate found the connections of the new partners most interesting my attention was caught by the new firms ambitions. Some of them are fairly conventional as the firm switches to relatively proven business models:
[Partner] MacDonald … said that as the new company expands, JoVoGo will offer Wi-Fi to hotels, airports, residential areas, office buildings and other public areas.
And some of the ambitions reach out toward ambitions understood to be the province of wireline carriers. Ambitions that many doubt wireless carriers have the practical bandwidth or the consistency of service to provide commercially:
He also said that eventually, the company will offer “VoIP,” Internet-based telephony, as well as online video broadcasting, known as IPTV.
MacDonald acknowledged that by offering those services JoVoGo will go head-to-head with larger competitors such as Cox Communications and Bellsouth’s DSL product.
But final ambition seems most likely to be practically realizable–the company apparently has rural ambitions:
“Cities and towns want these networks, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop the process,” he said of Wi-Fi. “Our goal is to work with traditional telecommunications companies to get their customers on the Internet.”
Powers said that between all three founders, the company has a solid base of contacts both in and out of state, as well as a mix of expertise.
He said that MacDonald is familiar with the technical side, while Brewer “knows how to deal with local governments to hopefully bring Wi-Fi to other communities to use as an economic development tool.”
Meanwhile, Powers said his own role in JoVoGo is seeking government grants and other financial assistance to deploy the technology in other communities.
He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture in particular offers grants, low-interest loans and no-interest loans to develop telecommunications in rural areas. For example, he said, USDA has a program aimed at getting Internet connectivity in municipalities with less than 20,000 people.
“The government sees the need to expand the information network to rural and underserved communities,” he said.
Now if you listen carefully there’s a carrot being held out to both the telecoms and the municipals. They’re suggesting that they could be hired to provide services to both companies like BellSouth or Cox and local communities. It’ll prove hard to serve both masters.
BellSouth and Cox are both working wireless deals in various ways. BellSouth in particular has made claims about providing its IPTV service during the recent franchise debate that it just doesn’t have the capacity to carry off. Rural areas will simply not get the new services that BellSouth let rural legislators think was possible. But they might well, in some places find it feasible to rebrand a well-connected local wireless providers signal. Others of the telecos are already doing this in attempts to placate localities.
Even more promising might be to team up with some smallish communities that don’t have decent internet service now. That’s the (so far unproven, but promising) model the America’s big cities are trying out right now. It would seem a more promising business model for small towns, in all honesty.
This company, JoVoGo Communications, is worth watching. Even if it flames out as so many private providers in this field seem to do its ambitions are well worth watching and might actually benefit some communities that really could use a provider.