“Big Easy WiFi to Go Dark “

A bit more on the premature withdrawal of the free city-owned WiFi system in New Orleans in favor of private provider Earthlink is provided by the industry magazine “Light Reading.”

The fact that, in the long run, the city has no real choice but to pull its system down if Earthlink doesn’t choose to integrate it, doesn’t make the story. But this one does make the obvious tie to New Orlean’s CIO/tech-hero -of-Katrina’s Greg Meffert’s stepping down last month. Meffert had promised that the city’s network would remain up and free under an arrangement with Earthlink. That commitment has vanished.

What this story adds is a bit of an update on the commercial ambitions of Earthlink and how Earthlink intends to use its wireless network to promote proprietary services. There’s a national-level story there for someone who wants to follow out the commercial side of Earthlinks widespread support for municipal wireless….the plot thickens.

Decker (?!) Opts For Government Fiber

Bill Decker watched the Moyers “Net@Risk” show recently and came away from it convinced of the necessity of fiber–so convinced that he is now willing to endorse the government doing that providing if that is what is necessary.

That Lafayette has to build a fiber system for itself, since the incumbents refused to do so, has been the bedrock position of the pro-fiber majority in Lafayette for a couple of years. It’s nice that the man from the show-me state has been shown.

Welcome aboard Bill!

It is an index of how public opinion has solidified in Lafayette that Bill Decker is now firmly settled on the side of light. Seasoned veterans of Lafayette’s fiber fight will recall the day when Bill’s position on government-provided fiber was a dismissive reference to “What’s next? A five-year plan? A hall of socialist labor heroes?”

Decker does throw a bone to the corporate incumbents; he allows that they might be justified in their disinclination to build out fiber networks by the “fiber-optic bubble”–a period of time at the beginning of this decade in which fiber was overbuilt and the value of long-haul networks crashed. ‘Tis true, that did happen. But it is an open question as to whether the teleco’s hesitation to build the promised “last mile” fiber to homes wasn’t more a cause than a consequence of that crash. Bill Moyers show explores the promises the telecos made so Decker has seen much of this complaint. Part of what happened back then was that new technologies (in particular DWDM) appeared that increased the practical capacity of a single strand of fiber from 10 Gbits to 1 Tbits. But another thing that happened was that the builders of the new long-haul pipes were counting on increased usage by people in homes and small businesses–places that they anticipated would be served by fiber the telecos had loudly promised. When the phone companies didn’t come through neither did the increased usage. The phone companies were, at least in some part, the cause rather than the victims of the fiber-optic bubble.

At any rate it is good to see the community still united on the basic question of a municipal fiber network. The only question now is how to get it.

Broussard’s Wireless Redux

The Advertiser’s weekly local mag covering Broussard and Youngsville repeats a story today about Broussard’s prospective wireless project. (previous coverage) There’s really not much of anything new in it–save that reading between the lines of the reporter’s confusion makes one believe that what they are really contemplating is a form of wireless known as WiMax.

Still no acknowledgement from the Advertiser that the implicit assumption that the basic public safety wireless system be as easily opened up to public use is wrong. Like the New Orleans system public safety system that the city recently announced it was taking down, a public system with any usable speed would be illegal under the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act. This is the same incumbent protection act that is being used to block Lafayette’s fiber system. It’d be nice if the residents of the Broussard and Youngsville were apprised of what they are getting into. But, sadly, the reporter at the Advertiser seems unaware that there is a connection between the fiber story that dominated discussion in Lafayette last year and a proposed wireless system in Broussard.

I understand that the chief purpose of such weekly broadsides is to prevent little local weeklies from cutting into ad revenue for the Advertiser. No one should expect award-winning reporting. Still it’d be nice if something as obvious and important as the illegality of the plan Broussard is promoting were mentioned.

New Orleans will end free wireless service

According to the T-P New Orlean’s is going to loose its free muni wi-fi service. Probably this was inevitable from the day that the city failed in its attempts to overturn the restrictions placed on it by the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act during last year’s emergency session of the legislature. We were initially told that Earthlink would continue to provide free WiFi and that the city’s free system would continue to operate — both for as long as the city was in recovery. Since I don’t know of anyone who thinks that blessed day is coming in this decade most of us assumed the hour was comfortably far off.

Surprise. Apparently the city has made a miraculous recovery: New Orleans will be standing down its system as Earthlink stands up its and Earthlink will consider dropping its free portion next year.

Next year? My that was a fast recovery.

The Times Picayune broke the story. In that article the Picayune quotes the new CIO as saying that taking down their system would “avoid overlap.” I’m not sure what that could mean as the original idea had been to run the networks concurrently and for Earthlink to build out from the already established core. You avoid physical overlap by not overlapping new construction. Possibly they are worrying about or trying to imply they are worrying about interference. But that really isn’t a credible issue. There’s more than enough spectrum for two large-scale networks and modern digital wireless routers are pretty darn sophisticated about dynamically avoiding interference if there is any room at all in the spectrum.

All that raises the question of what is the real reason for taking down New Orlean’s public network. The answer almost certainly is to bolster the future income of Earthlink, the city’s private “partner.” It hands over the wifi-using community the city built directly to the new Earthlink network. This will increase the chance that Earthlink’s books will look good. Next year, not too long after the Earthlink system goes up (recall that it is not yet in place) and with the public alternative already gone, the company will reassess its commitment to a free tier. It isn’t hard to see that Earthlink will find it difficult to resist charging for the service.

The promise of free service during the recovery? Gone. The illusion of a public/private partnership? Similarly vanished. Vanished with it is the dream of re-imaging New Orleans technological future around a community-controlled communications network. In the place of that dream is another city-granted franchise similar to the cable franchise already in place. A private company will have different goals for its services than will the city.

A city-run wifi project would, inevitably, be run like a public utility. It’s goal would be be to offer reliable service at the lowest possible price. That’s not the goal of private providers who, quite reasonably, hope to maximize profit. In the long run these goals are not compatible and one or the other of them will be the one to remain standing. The New Orleans network, this news makes clear, will be controlled by the values of private corporations.

This can make a lot of difference. Bandwidth, like water and to a lesser degree electricity, has costs that lie mostly in the building and maintanence of the network. Water is almost free to pump out of the ground. It’s getting it to you that is expensive. Similarly, information is mostly free. The costs all lie in getting it to you. In the natural course of events this would result in “commodity pricing.” Commodities are by definition low-margin products. This doesn’t upset the utility model–they are not out to make a large profit anyway. But it does distress private corporations who will do almost anything to avoid their product being “commodified.” In the world of communications networks this means that they attempt to refuse, as much as they can, to sell you raw, commodified bandwidth and use their control of the provisioning network to offer you unique, monopolized services. Current networks spend most of their available capacity on either analog phone service or cable video. If they were forced to commodification, they’d instead have huge amounts of raw bandwidth to sell you cheaply and you’d use VOIP and download your video for much less expense than under the current “differentiated” system.

The current network neutrality fight is, at its root, really about the phone companies trying desperately to avoid the commodification of their bandwidth as they shift toward selling IP-based products. They want what the cable companies already have: the right to monopolize lucrative “products,” to devote almost all of the available capacity to products that they can sell you at a premium by denying any competitor a similar ability. In the end that is what prioritizing bits boils down to.

The dynamic that drives private corporations in this direct is understandable–product differentiation and monopolization leads to higher profits for its owners and huge wealth for the bureaucrats that run the companies. But it is not what is best for the consumers or communities these corporations serve. The wisest solution for communities is to become the owner themselves–and allow, nay encourage–commodification. Prices fall dramatically, much more bandwidth is made publicly available, and enormous shifts take place in that put more control in the hands of users (no longer simply consumers) than our Republic has seen in generations.

The possibility that New Orleans could be one of the places that pioneered that future is what was lost when the public network was handed over to the private corporation that is Earthlink.

GigaOm, commenting on the news, provides a crucial piece of the story:

“Our business model is a paid service,” says Roscoe, pointing out that the partnership with Google to unwire San Francisco is an exception. Earthlink needs the subscriber numbers to make back its investment in muniFi. Earthlink’s recent earnings show that the company gained 47,000 net broadband customers, and a third quarter loss of $3.2 million. No wonder free isn’t in the works.

Earthlink’s presence in New Orleans will not be driven by the needs of New Orleanians. It will be driven by the needs of Earthlink’s bottom line. It is a testament to the power of the economic logic of private profit that the promise to put New Orlean’s needs high on the priority list during rebuilding probably won’t outlast the opening of the Earthlink network by even six months.

It is also a testament to the poverty of the idea that public/private partnerships can balance the needs of public good and private wealth. If ever there was a situation where the morality of public good should have had a strong influence it is in post-Katrina New Orleans. The public/private model has failed the test.

It’s not that an Earthlink network won’t be good for New Orleans. It will be a wonderful and useful addition to the city that will put New Orleans in a relatively advanced stance. But it will not offer the city local control over its own future and the possibility of a new network designed to serve its people and their future first.

It is hard not to see it as a sad day.

Kleinpeter Wrong Says Karr

I reported recently that Sharon Kleinpeter, PR person for Cox Baton Rouge/Lafayette, had spent here time at the recent IndExpo denying that she’d ever heard from the crew that put together the recent Bill Moyers special that featured Lafayette’s fiber fight. –That film had shown on the local PBS station the day before and the producers had made a special point of saying that they’d contacted the two incumbent companies but had gotten no response. It made a big splash in Lafayette–lots of folks tuned in and there was a lot of talk on the street about it. But Cox and BellSouth came off very badly.

I contacted Karr, who was the reporter in charge of this for the PBS team, and told him of Kleinpeter’s semi-public claims. He stands by–emphatically I might add–the claim made in show: he contacted the local, regional, and national offices of both Cox and BellSouth. None of them ever got back.

Perhaps Kleinpeter was only trying to cover a little personal embarrassment. After all, knowing Lafayette’s mood, I’m confident that Kleinpeter did get some blowback from the show at her booth. It’d be natural enough (if not particularly admirable) to deflect criticism by trying to cast doubt on the fairness of the show’s reporters.

But I have to wonder if that is really all of it.

Corporations have developed a bad habit of saying in private and semi-private things that they couldn’t defend in public. The not so polite way to put it: Lying. The best example (though not the only one) came during the fiber fight was when BellSouth’s Louisiana President, Bill Oliver, made a tour of the state’s editorial boards attacking Lafayette and pushing the papers to take editorial stands in opposition to Lafayette’s initiative. He took umbrage at being accurately quoted by a reporter for threats he passed during an Advocate editorial board meeting to pull the Cingular call center in North Lafayette if Lafayette went through with its fiber plans. As in the present case he essentially accused the reporter of lying. The brouhaha died down quickly when the Advertiser follow up to the story admitted that he’d said pretty much the same thing to them and Durel and a former president of the Chamber of Commerce also confirmed that the threat had been made to them. The present case sounds uncomfortably similar: if you don’t like the truth being made public, claim the reporter is lying.

Kleinpeter Works the IndExpo

One of the remarks in yesterday evening’s excellent show that covered Lafayette’s fiber fight was that Cox and BellSouth had refused to be interviewed for the show.

We hear today that Sharon Klienpeter, Cox’s regional PR flack, made the rounds at the IndExpo today loudly denying that they’d ever called her. That might sound like a firm statement, but, like most Cox claims that touch on Lafayette’s fiber, isn’t quite. Maybe PBS called someone else? Governor Blanco’s daughter? Ms Vines? Some folks in Atlanta? Maybe. Maybe they called Sharon.

If Sharon wants people to believe that nobody called Cox then she ought to make that complaint clearly and publicly. And give the Moyer’s crew an opportunity to prove her wrong.

Da Bog: The fiber battle gets major airtime on national television

I just traveled over to the Ind’s new blog and found an interesting entry on last night’s PBS show that covered Lafayette’s fiber fight. (I’ve yet to develop the habit of visiting regularly. The quality is very uneven but Tutweiler and Jordan’s stuff is pretty consistently worth the click.)

Here’s the bit I found worth repeating here:

City-Parish President Joey Durel, LUS director Terry Huval and a number of principals of the Lafayette Coming Together pro-fiber community activist group (Don Bertrand, Stephen Handwerk, Gob Williams, Layne St. Julien) all got airtime and made reasoned, strong arguments for LUS’ fiber-to-the-home program. Huval was particularly compelling and detailed the all-out efforts of Cox Communications and BellSouth to derail the project. The most telling moment came in one sentence: when the reporter on the piece said, “Cox Communications and BellSouth declined to speak with us.” Why didn’t two nationally known companies defend their actions in Lafayette and promote their alternative plans on a national television forum? It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to answer that question.

(From my memory of the show I’d add Andre Comeaux to the list of LCT folks who got airtime.)

LCT received meager coverage during the fiber fight from local media even as it designed and ran the ground war “For Fiber” campaign. Those red and black “For Fiber” signs and billboards, the pages of endorsements, the canvassing, radio spots and the direct mail were all LCT projects–as was a series of clever viral email campaigns and the well-received “Fiber Film Festival.” In fact the only visible parts of the political campaign that weren’t LCT originated was some of the TV advertising in the last week or so. So it was gratifying to see Scott and LPB acknowledge the organization.

Beyond that is the very good question of why Cox and BellSouth didn’t defend their actions. The answer, of course, is that in any forum that is not controlled by their money or influence their actions are indefensible–as Scott intimates.

Lafayette on PBS–“The Net at Risk”

Don’t miss tonight’s airing of Bill Moyer’s new series On America. Tonight’s show is “The Net at Risk” and one segment, “Community Connections,” features Lafayette’s fiber fight. It is showing at 8:00 our time on KLPB–it’s don’t miss TV.

I was part of the group interviewed for the show but have no idea whether or not any portion with me in it onto the show. But I can say that the talked to the right people about this and have all the tools to tell our story well. The short teaser to this segment that is on their website hints at their doing an really good job of focusing on the community aspects of the story.

Moyer’s new series is focused on what I’d be tempted to call “citizenship” issues. It’s good stuff and he encourages people to act on what they’ve learned by examining the issues before the country. It’s interesting to me that a journalist of Moyer’s stature understands the importance of the net to the future of real communities. This whole area should be a much greater concern for national politics than it is.

You might also notice Mike Stagg in this piece–don’t know if his interview segments made it either but Mike (a principal on this cite) was also interviewed. Mike’s also running for Congress from the 7th District. Mike was a leader in the fiber fight and his toughness is in no small part of the victory there. When “smart money” was hanging back and waiting for the local “big dogs” to step up (they never did so usefully) Mike stepped up. In the end Lafayette did what few outside our community thought was possible: won against two of the nations largest and most politically powerful monopolies. That win was historic. If technology and net neutrality is your issue–or if you think the fiber campaign was a great thing for Lafayette, Mike should be your guy. You couldn’t want a better candidate in Congress for these issues. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a the best informed congressman on tech issues come from Louisiana? That’d confuse some people.

(Wanna know about other issues? See MikeStagg.com–and then hop over to Boustany’s site and see if you can figure out his position on any issue.)

Media Reports the Bond Appeal

Both the Advocate and the Advertiser noted the State Supreme Court’s decision to accept Lafayette’s appeal in the Naquin case. That lawsuit has blocked the bond issue necessary to begin building the fiber-optic network the community voted for last year. A summary pulled from the Advocate article:

LUS has asked the Supreme Court to expedite its decision.

“We believe that our bond issuance plan complies with the law, and it is our hope that, after hearing our argument for the project, the justices will agree,” Ottinger said.

Both article mention concern over rising interest rates. The concern is real and one consequence of the incumbent’s delaying tactics has been to raise the cost of doing business. But interest rates have recently peaked and few think they are going much higher in the immediate future. We’ve taken most of the damage we’re going to take in that regard. Earlier comments from LUS have indicated that the costs of the technology have fallen (and that it has gotten faster as well) at least partially offsetting the interest rate rise.

AT&T, Antitrust & Net Neutrality

David Burnstein over at the curiously antediluvian DSL Prime (it is presented as a mass of undifferentiated and unindexed plain text) has long been one of the most incisive and widely cited commenters on the the real-world implications of advanced communications technology. He points out that AT&T’s current business plan is fundamentally based on an antitrust violation and that it is a textbook case of the violation of the principle of network neutrality. AT&T will be using its monopoly or near monopoly status to prevent you from accessing the video content of your choice while exclusively favoring its own video product.

Bernstein’s most recent newsletter contains a piece with the following title: “The Imminent, Unnecessary Antitrust Violation by AT&T” and here is the meat of what he says:

Offering HD video while denying an “essential facility”
AT&T is about to provide what should be a clear test of “access to content of your choice.” They are going to start offering HD TV of Ed Whitacre’s choice on Project Lightspeed, but effectively prevent anyone who wants to watch any other live HD programming. Their own HD takes about 9 megabits according to the last official comment and they are blocking the customer from anything more than 6 megabits for TV from the net. Since there are typically only two possible paths from the Internet to consumers for HD video, and sometimes only one, this meets the traditional antitrust definition of an “essential facility” and a “bottleneck…”

AT&T is inviting this suit by refusing to let people buy the 20 megabits every Lightspeed line is designed to support. … The only logical reason for AT&T to maintain the 6 megabit limit is to protect their video program, and it just isn’t worth it.

There it is, plainly and simply: when Project Lightspeed is implemented by AT&T it will be not only an antitrust violation under reasonable interpretations of the standard rules but also an obvious violation of network neutrality. AT&T will NOT sell you the bandwidth that would allow you to replace its product with one which you prefer. This effectively shuts out all competitors.

So when the BellSouth sale to AT&T goes through Lafayette and Louisiana will be in a position to experience the most advanced forms of monopoly behavior and the most egregious examples the violation of Network Neutrality.

We can certainly be forgiven for thinking that it would be a very good thing if we had our own, actually competitive network in place before AT&T’s Project Lightspeed makes it to our small city.