Blanchard (and John) on the Future of the Fiber Plan

Kevin Blanchard, writing as a columnist, has an interesting piece in today’s paper on the Naquin lawsuit’s possible outcomes. (A piece I would have missed if an alert reader hadn’t pointed it out…thanks!)

In it Blanchard lays out a series of possible consequences of both a favorable and an unfavorable outcome in the case now before its final board of review, the state Supreme Court.

If we win, he says, well we’re off to the races at full tilt. LUS is prepared to move ahead quickly.

Though Blanchard doesn’t characterize them this way he gives an examples of each of three large categories of possibilities for dealing with the (un)Fair Competition Act should we lose:

  1. comply
  2. evade
  3. fight

Here are his points (labeled with my numbers):

  1. One option would be to re-issue — for the third time — a plan in hopes of complying with the 2004 law being used against LUS in the courts. The easy money says that would prompt a third lawsuit challenge.
  2. A second option would be for LUS to partner with a private communications company…
  3. LUS’ only other option would be to approach the Legislature in an attempt to amend or repeal the Fair Competition Act.

While the neat alternatives are compelling–and regular readers will surely know that LPF will stand for fighting — I doubt that anything like that stark a choice will visible should we encounter the problem in reality.

Comply will merge with Evade: there are many nuanced possibilities. For instance, why couldn’t the “private” alternative be a local non-profit board, an alternative that would meet at least the spirit of local control that animated the successful referendum election. A local “cooperative” with an initial membership of the citizens of Lafayette should also fulfill the letter of the law while preserving the will of the people. We don’t have to hand over our system to some big out-of-state conglomerate to escape our current set of monopolists. Nor would we have to hand it over to a local cabal of “influentials.”

The real problem with both Comply and Evade is that they treat the symptoms, not the disease.

The disease is corporate arrogance and the presumption that public institutions exist to serve their profit rather than the public good. They will NOT hesitate to return to the legislature and outlaw any solution that we find that the court will accept. The idea that AT&T(BS) or Cox will ever allow us to build and control our own network because we meet some technical standard they set is a fools idea about how the world works. They’ll just change the standard, again and again.

Fighting is the ONLY cure for what ails us. A public thrashing is the only cure for bullies.

I can live with a principled evasion along the lines outlined above. But only if it includes a fight as well. A real fight, fought to vanquish our opponent, not one for show, or one calculated to extort a concession that allows us to go our crippled way deprived of the real alternatives we ought to enjoy.

LUS Fiber: Hurry up and wait

Taylor, over at the Advertiser, notes in the “Around Lafayette” section that the Naquin lawsuit didn’t emerge from the high court yesterday when other decisions were handed down. And the city isn’t looking for it right away:

City-Parish attorney Pat Ottinger said Wednesday he was not surprised the LUS decision was not handed down Wednesday. He does not expect a decision before the end of January.

Nobody expected any movement before six weeks were up. Since this is the seventh week folks are beginning to watch. With Lafayette successfully asking to submit additional written arguments after the oral arguments closed that time frame might well have been pushed back a bit. Still, the city is eager to hear.

The reason yesterday was significant was that the court plans dates on which to announce it decisions and January 17th was the date for this month. According to the Court’s plan for next month the date in February will be the 27th. I don’t know if they occasionally announce decisions between the scheduled dates but the next time you can mark your calendar to check for opinions with any assurance that the Court will have spoken will in late February.

Impatience is not the word.

LUS Seeking Wireless Bids

According to the Advertiser LUS is:

…is accepting sealed proposals from companies interested in supplying equipment for its proposed wireless service.

Lafayette Utility Services is in Phase 1 of a wireless network project that will allow LUS field crews to upload and update customer information and other data without returning to the office.

This makes good sense on its own. LUS is running a complex multi-headed business focused on businesses which require truck rolls and remote meter-reading. Getting out from under the connectivity charges of the majors and doing it yourself is the route that a number of such utilities have taken. (It’s a route that municipalities have taken as well; our EMS system, for instance, has an independent wireless network.) One of the dirty little secrets of the American telecom system is that it is much, much cheaper for even small operations to own their own networks if they can get hold of the airwaves to do it.–That should be proof that the big guys are seriously overcharging since there should be huge economies of scale in building and maintaining telecom networks.

But, of course, the good business sense this move shows is not the immediate interest for most readers of this blog: reading the tea leaves about a much-speculated-on wireless network to piggy-back on top of the city’s in-limbo fiber optic network is what most of us will be interested in.

And there is an historical pattern here that would lead anyone who has closely followed the path of the city’s fiber optic development to wonder. Lafayette’s fiber-optics hopes were substantially aided by the fact that LUS had already built a set of fiber-optic loops around the city connecting its electrical substations that proved its competence and provided a substantial in-place backbone to build on. Like wireless networks for EMS building a fiber-optic network to support load-balancing and other issues is something that forward-looking electrical utitlities have been doing pretty widely. What made LUS’ network a little different was that it had a very large capacity. Putting in more strands of fiber optics than you need while laying down the network made sense. Very little of the expense was in glass cables themselves. Almost all of the cost was in the construction and electronics necessary to make the glass useful.

Putting in extra capacity to expand was almost free and making sure that there as plenty of available capacity just made sense. For one thing, having the extra capacity made it possible to offer to wholesale bandwidth to resellers–something that it was hoped would both help pay for the network and would serve as an additional incentive to local development. (That’s worked out pretty well even if the hopes that someone would resell to the public, an idea LUS encouraged, were never realized.)

But the extra capacity also made a lot of sense to the incumbent telecom providers in Lafayette. Both Cox and BellSouth opposed Lafayette building that backbone with Cox making its objections at city council meetings and BellSouth withdrawing from the local chamber over the issue. That opposition was a preview of what the community could expect during the fiber fight. Few in government or the utility were surprised at the depth of opposition to municipal fiber the incumbents showed. That, it was clear, was what they most feared from the beginning.

So if we want to learn from history we will pay close attention to the details of the Request For Proposals (RFP) that LUS uses to define its project. Some questions to ask:

  1. Does it include a very strong backbone “supply” element?
  2. Are upgrade “hooks” part of the proposed deal?
  3. Does it assume ubiquitous fiber?
  4. Does it use owned spectrum for local backhaul? Or open? Or fiber?
  5. Does it use open spectrum for the final connection?
  6. What technologies are specified….WiFi, WiMax, etc…?
  7. What applications are supported; either explicitly or through the specification of indicative standards?

At any rate, we should all be pleased to see LUS building a wireless network. It augurs well for a future wireless network we all can use.

For my money Lafayette should have a wireless network built on and integrated into our prospective fiber network. LUS is the place where this integration can happen. It’s looking good folks.

Lessig ties Net Neutrality and Muni networks

Net neutrality warrior, constitutional scholar, and copyfighter Lawrence Lessig endorses municipal networks as part of the larger battle to preserve freedom on the internet. (Lessig is something of a hero of mine.) Lessig salutes the work of the developers of the free and open source Linux Operating System (OS) and compares their work providing competition to the Microsoft monopoly to resistance to AT&T by those hoping to provide last mile access.

The core of this resistance comes from municipalities. Local governments are building neutral infrastructures that allow anyone, from ISPs to community networks, to use and extend blisteringly fast broadband networks. At the end of its first year, a project in Sandoval County, New Mexico, for example, already provides many in the area with more than 10 times the capacity than anywhere else in the US.

Lessig is right in seeing that the struggle to sustain freedom in our day is not limited to the net neutrality fight–and right in his insight that ownership of monopoly last mile resources broadband resources by the public is absolutely crucial to that freedom.

These activists recognize the basic truth of what I call the McAdams theorem: Monopolists, as Cornell economist Alan McAdams puts it, don’t monopolize themselves. If the monopoly-like asset is owned by the user, he has little incentive to exploit himself. Put differently, private ownership by users creates its own business model.

I’ve made this same point, at some length, on this site.

It’s good to see a leader in the net neutrality debate affirm the muni cause. But its sad that he doesn’t quite seem willing to grasp the full implications of the logical position he takes. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that think Lessig is showing a sort of ideologically-based naivete that I often see on the pro-corporate side of this issue. Those folks exhibit what is charitably called a naive faith that “free enterprise” cures all ills. –It doesn’t and anyone who has had to deal with companies like Cox and BellSouth knows that faith is misplaced.

Lessig here exhibits a similar naive faith in the open source movement. Granted, the Linux project has proved that the model of free, community-built software can be used for even the most complex and critical software, the OS. But he is, in my judgment, seriously and dangerous mistaken if he believes a useful last-mile broadband infrastructure can be built solely with free labor, however dedicated and noble. Software is unique in that it can be built solely with donated labor. There is no material cost. Last Mile Networks are different. The network cost real money to build and maintain, the connection to the larger network that usefully connects the last mile network to the outside world is also expensive (and increasingly owned by the same few monopolists that currently own the last mile). Further, all credible networks, wireless as well as wired require access to property in the form of public rights of ways, poles and towers.

The full local community must be involved and it must be involved as a political community to at least the degree that it grants access to its publicly owned rights of way. There really isn’t any practical way a noble band of soldiers can do this without government help–and really there is no reason why they ought to try. Providing necessary infrastructure, particularly in natural monopoly situations, is a perfectly legitimate and time-tested role of government. The implication that the model that has worked for Linux and open source software will work in the last mile is dangerously naive and suspiciously ideological.

Afterthought: Lessig’s agrument is implicitly premised on the idea that Linux has succeeded in breaking the Microsoft monopoly. I don’t see where that is even close to true. Certainly the sorts of control that the regulators were concerned about when they succeeded in their antitrust suit against Microsoft remain problems. The Justice Department was in part concerned that the market power that MS had was sufficient to allow it to determine which technologies succeeded and failed and to secure its future monopoly by making its proprietary technologies standard. It’s pretty clear that, Linux or no, Microsoft still retains this power. Witness, for only one example, TiVo’s recent announcement that addition of free, streaming movies and TV shows to already established accounts will only be available to users who happen to use late versions of Windows and Internet Explorer. Why? Because MS has leveraged its near monopoly of the OS market to make its proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM) “solution” for video the one that TiVo must use to succeed in the marketplace.

Linux has not, and shows no signs of, solving the problems that motivated the Feds’ successful antitrust action. It is a great thing–but it is no substitute for enlightened public self-interest even in its areas of greatest success.

Dreaming: Costs: How Low Can It Go?

Here’s something to think about on a cloudy and cooling day in Lafayette: Just how cheap can full-throated modern computing go?

I’m beginning to think it can be damned near free…I’d like to know how close one can come.

I’d like to hear other folks speculation on this…both in the comments and if you’d like on a shared google doc.

But first some context and some ground rules:

I’m hoping to hear (soon) that Lafayette has succeeded in its appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. In that happy event we’ll all have some scrambling to do. They’ll need to be some decisions made about things like system architecture, system governance, ground rules for businesses that want to use the facilities and–most cogently for this post–how the public will be served. What Lafayette voted for in July of 05 was a public utility and the presumption was that a public utility will serve the community better than a private one. (That didn’t necessarily have to be the point of the vote but that was the way the referendum battle played out.) The basic benefit was to be lower costs and better service. What I’m interested in speculating on here is: What would the best service LUS could offer to its citizen-owners and the community? What course of action would yield the best return for the money invested?

Ground Rules for the “How Low Can You Go” Game, Lafayette Edition
1) Hardware: How cheap can the hardware component be?
2) Software: How cheap can the software component be?
3) Ubiquity: How close to providing these services to all can we come?
4) Sophistication: How many of the “standard” workaday functions can a minimal cost system provide? (e.g. email, browsing, calendaring, address books, write, spreadsheet, ……?)

5) Special Lafayette edition condition: you can assume a publicly-owned fiber to the home network whose goal is to promote the public good.

The ideal system would be cost nothing and provide all the standard amenities to all. How close can we come?

I’ve talked with a good number of people about this question. (e.g. 1, 2) So I know that there are some very interesting ideas out there and I’d like to gather the insights into one place. You can drop any brief thoughts to the comments. If you want to share a more extended response jump over to Google docs and edit the collaborative document I’ve set up there.

PS..accessing the the Google doc can be done with any browser. If you’d like to edit you will have to have, or sign up for a Google account. It’s free, and the services it offers will serve as a good example of the sorts of apps people may no longer have to buy or maintain.

Coda: Food for Thought:
100 dollar laptop
Cosmopod (free hosted linux desktop with apps)
Google Docs and Spreadsheets, GMail, Google Calendar

Pandemic preparedness

The Advocate carries a story about a pandemic flu seminar at the Petroleum Club yesterday. The gist was that there is no vaccine for the strains the epidemologists are most worried about and that more general antivirals are of limited use and availability.

The question: What to do if a flu epidemic hits?

The advice of the smart guys: Stay home.

The big hole in this “plan,” of course, is that people have to go to work (and school, too, I’d think). Since a lot of the larger institutions appear to have plans in place the emphasis was on getting businesses to “prepare.”

For those that can, the answer will be to work from home. It won’t be a week-long vaction. A flu epidemic will come in waves, each lasting 6 weeks are so. The economic loss will be huge and the more people can continue to work from home the better.

Schools will likely close. Some parents will simply have to stay home with children. Some businesses will shut down as well or voluntarily let their employees stay home. In an extreme situation there might even be forced closures.

Broadband connections will be the best tool to use to keep at least a portion of the population productive. Trouble is, like vaccines and antivirals, there won’t be enough of it to go around unless we plan.

In Lafayette, with any luck, we are likely to have better tools than in most places. Mike has written about this before. An LUS fiber network will be capacious enough to bear the traffic and fast enough to make really useful virtual meeting places like video chatrooms practical. A suggestion: LUS could develop a plan that supports “telecommuting.” In a plan like that the company would pay some portion of the employee’s internet bill on a continuing basis. Participating corporations would set up their own VPNs (virtual private networks) to support regular telecommuters and folks who have to stay home with something contagious or with sick kids or family. During a declared emergency every company employee with a connection could be automatically switched in to the network and run at higher speeds. If set up beforehand turning everything on would be a mere flick of the software switch.

Schools could do something very similar. The difference is that schools will almost certainly be closed down completely and serving that population will mean serving some students who don’t have an LUS connection. Ubiquity–universal availability–is a hard question to address, especially during an emergency of this nature when rolling trucks to hook up new customers will be out of the question. This is the point at which having a citywide WiFi/WiMax system in place begins to seem like public safety issue. You can sign up for such a system from your front porch, or, during a real emergency, the network could simply be opened up to all citizens. With the coming of 100 dollar wifi-capable laptops connecting a whole population of students in this way might not be so fantastic. It’s not hard to imagine staggered two one-hour sessions a day for the little ones with parental at-home help. Assignments and projects could be widely used for older kids with a lot of online one-on-one help.

All of that would take planning. A lot of it. But at least Lafayette, with any luck, we will have the tools to begin that planning.

Uh, Duh…Dell Urges Fiber-Optic Links

Dell’s CEO used his keynote address at the yearly tech-fest CES to urge telecom companies to provide Fiber To The Home.

The missing pieces that will allow consumers to use their PCs as digital media hubs are fiber-based broadband links to the home and seamless integration of multiple devices, Dell Chairman Michael Dell said in his keynote address.

Uh, Duh…

Dell wants to make tons of money off new integrated convergence tools like its “Home Media Suite desktop PC.” Apple announced its bid in the home convergence race yesterday with Apple TV. Microsoft and Intel have launched major initiatives in the area.

So, Michael Dell is right, and it’s obvious that what is really needed is the bandwidth to realize those dreams, and, not incidentally, those profits.

It should be equally obvious that the only way to get there is to support–openly and consistently–muni broadband and especially muni fiber.

The companies that are currently “threatening” to provide the US with real broadband all have a financial interest in protecting their vertically integrated business model: they want to hog the bandwidth and route it through their set top boxes with their own proprietary DVRs, search systems, and extremely limited connectivity to the open internet or anyone else’s software. As long as companies like AT&T/BellSouth and Cox control the network connection into your home providing bandwidth for individuals who might buy these dream products will work against the financial best interests of the network providers who DON’T want you moving to Downloadable Video (DV). YouTube and iTunes does nothing for their bottom line even if you love it.

Sooner or later the tech mavens are going to wake up to all this. One can only hope that the current net neutrality dustup will alert the tech companies to the large war in which net neutrality is only a battle. The basic problem is not the rules governing internet traffic–the basic problem is the ownership of the means of getting bandwidth to the people by those whose interests are solely in making the greatest amount of money off the pipes in any given 2-4 year horizon. In a word: Greed–La Gourmandise.

Coda: Intel, in fact, has endorsed muni broadband in a pretty unambiguous fashion. Intel doesn’t sell directly to the incumbents and, being almost a monopoly itself, has little to fear from their wrath. In contrast Microsoft is providing both Verizon’s and AT&T/BellSouth with their (trouble-making) desktop box operating system. Narrow and short-sighted self-interest always explains more than it should.

LamdaRail Deal in New Mexico…& Lafayette?

The national LamdaRail has cut a deal with the community broadband provider in Sandoval County, New Mexico according to a report in the local paper. The deal, according to an earlier article in the paper, will cut backhaul prices by more than half. Dwayne Hendricks, the geek behind the deal explains:

Access to the rail also could drive down the price of Internet connections, Hendricks said.
Through “peering,” a trading system among networks that allows companies to use each other’s network at little cost, the price of bandwidth goes down, he said.
Before the county’s network was in place, the average cost of a megabit, the standard unit of exchange between network service providers and Internet service providers, was $125 a month, Hendricks said.
The current price for the county’s network is $50 per megabit a month, and Hendricks said he expects the price to lower to $20 a month by the first quarter of 2007.
“It’s all about horse-trading,” Hendricks said.

Dwayne’s project is substantially different from Lafayette’s–it hopes to cover a large, mostly rural, county with WiFi-based broadband dropped off a fiber optic based supply line–a situation that seems ideal for wireless. Where the two projects are similar is that they both seek to supply their citizens with the cheapest broadband possible. The part of that equation that is hard for the local provider to control is peering–getting from the local network to the vast internet backbone.

That interconnectivity is controlled by a small number of providers and Lafayette is exceedingly lucky that a majority of them have a point of presence in Lafayette. There will be competition for Lafayette’s backhaul dollar.

But the deal involving the LambdaRail and Sandoval County opens up new possibilities for driving down the largest uncontrolled cost in any community broadband project. The setup in New Mexico involves the local University in Albuquerque (actually located in the next county to the south) as the connection point–and perhaps as the contractual provider, the stories are unclear on this point. Lafayette, of course, also has a local University that could serve as a clearing house.

Sandoval County’s tying into the national LamdaRail offers new possibilities for holding down costs in Lafayette. Our leaders would do well to look into the possibilities that are opened up.

Telecom turf wars

As we wait for the outcome of our own Telecom turf battle in the Louisiana Supreme Court it is entertaining–and informative–to look at the situation in other states. The Chattanooga paper survey’s the situation in its Tennesee/north Georgia area and comes up with some very interesting situations. Some we are familiar with but others hint at battles to come in our state.

AT&T/BellSouth wants state-wide video franchising. The municipalities oppose the state taking and the cable companies don’t particularly want what they (rightly IMHO) consider the special interest giveaways the proposed laws involve. That’s pretty familiar to us here in Louisiana.

Municipal utilities want to offer services outside their footprint and are going to the legislature to secure the rights. Cable companies don’t like it. The phone company is not commenting. Probably because it is already using the “we just want competition” meme for video franchising and even state legislators would not miss the hypocrisy if they opposed municipal competition. (Bet that their lobbyists are working hard against it in the background.) Louisiana hasn’t seen a similar issue. There isn’t any impediment in state law to offering service anywhere, I believe. –But should Lafayette’s system start-a-building soon we’d better watch the lawmakers.

The issue arises in part because Eastern Tennessee has the rich legacy of Tenneessee Valley Authority (TVA) local electrical utilities that could play the role there that LUS plays in Lafayette. That history makes the utilities common and firmly committed to public ownership and low prices. The local communities rightly regard them as treasures and would surely support any moves against the cable or telephone companies their trusted local folks would make. So the incumbents, there as here, want to keep the small local guys out. Here’s a TVA utility in Appalacian north Georgia that embodies what the incumbents fear:

Dalton Utilities was among the early pioneers of adding telecommunications services to its water, sewer and power services. The city-owned utility in Dalton, Ga., invested $30 million to launch in 2003 its OptiLink family of services, which includes cable television, telephone, broadband and high-speed Internet.

“Our initial business plan was to obtain a 30 percent market share and turn a profit over a five- to eight-year period,” said Lori McDaniel, a spokeswoman for Dalton Utilities. “The acceptance of our services was overwhelming, and we now have a 60 percent market share in the city of Dalton with both residential and business customers, resulting in OptiLink achieving a positive cash flow earlier this year, at least two years earlier than projected.”

It’s working in Dalton. It will work in Tennessee. And it will work here.

The New AT&T: Where the Competition Went

Broadband Reports presents a striking rendition of the geneology of our new corporate Telecommunications overlord, AT&T. (Click the graphic for the full scale version.) In 1984 old AT&T was broken up into 14 (approximately–see the graphic) separate entities on the grounds that it was a monopoly with only a few independent regional quasi-competitors.

The breakup didn’t work because it was based on the assumption that it would foster competition by leading the new entities to invade each other’s territories. That didn’t happen. So competition never occurred and all we got were smaller, regional, monopolies. The painful truth is that nobody should have believed that this scheme would work. Ma Bell was a natural monopoly and the baby bells are too. Allowing the recombination of the Bell network into to monoliths (AT&T and Verizon) and one weak sister (Qwest) is an acknowledgement of that mistake.

But the central problem of monopoly remains to be dealt with. The history portrayed in this graphic proves that the solution needs to be practical, not ideologically driven, the next time. Frankly, we need regulation, real regulation from the FCC, not a continued subservience to the new nationwide monopolies from the agency whose job it is to protect the public.