Durel’s State of the City: Fiber & Wireless

I sat through the “State of the City” address this afternoon. The headline in tomorrow’s papers will doubtless be about “Safe Lafayette” plan (which, Joey hastened to say, didn’t mean that anyone should think that Lafayette wasn’t safe now). That and plans to increase funding for roads received top billing in the addresss.

But if that was what you wanted to read about right now you wouldn’t be reading Lafayette Pro Fiber. So yes, the mayor did talk about fiber and even mentioned LUS’ recent wireless RFP.

“Let’s talk Fiber:” was the way that part of the speech started. Laying into “obstructionists that don’t care about Lafayette or the will of the people”–by which Durel meant Cox, AT&T/BS and their legal minions–he said that they had forced Lafayette to spend the better part of the $3.5 million that Lafayette has laid out so far. But the cost was money well spent according to Durel:

Based on cable rate increases in Baton Rouge that we didn’t experience here for two years, we saved this community $3 million. That is a savings all cable customers enjoyed, even if they voted against our initiative. Competition is good for the consumer and we have proven it.

Durel’s right there–and also mentioned in the rest of the Acadiana region had benefited as well since they were locked into pricing structures based on Lafayette’s. (That has since changed–Lafayette is now yoked into a Baton Rouge-Acadiana framework and it will be hard to raise or lower prices in one municipality without pulling all the others along with it.)

He also touted the job-creating capacity of the city demonstrating its progressive side saying:

We have already created jobs. I mentioned NuComm earlier. 578 new employees are already on board, with an average pay + benefits of $18,000 a year. That equates to $10.4 million a year economic impact without using any of the usual multipliers.

I said earlier, the CEO told me that our fiber to the premise initiative played a huge role in their decision to locate in Lafayette. When I said that we didn’t even have it yet, his response was “the fact that your community is embracing technology so aggressively was important to us.”

The mulitiplier effect is real and has been an issue on the forum before. In the spoken version of his speech Durel mentioned that taking the mulitipliers into account would up the total to “30, 40, 50 milllion dollars.” That’s in line with conventional wisdom though I’ve seen higher ratios numbers used to justify the public subsidy of some private enterprises. It’s worth spinning out the math: a 10.4 million payroll plus a 3 million savings to city residents alone yields a minimum of 13.4 million additional dollars circulating in Lafayette. Take a modest multiplier effect of 4X and you get $54.6 million dollars a year as a rough estimate of the yearly wealth increase of the local economy.

$54.6 million dollars. Every year. Add it all up and pretty soon you get real money. And that is before we’ve actually got a strand of fiber in place. Imagine what real competition will do toward lowering prices and staunching the wealth drain to Atlanta that every AT&T or Cox bill represents. Imagine what a few more businesses that make use of high-grade telecommunications would do to that figure. And that is all before we get to quality of life rewards, digital divide benefits, educational benefits, or the entrepreneurial potential of a full-fledged fiber system.

Durel claimed:

So, just the hope of our bringing fiber has had a tremendous benefit to our community. The legal battle has been some of the best marketing dollars we could have ever spent.

Here applause started to drown out his speech and he slowed down but the Mayor had in mind a more rousing close to this section of the speech. He pushed on:

The money we have spent is an investment in our future! So, I ask you today: Should we continue the fight for Lafayette!?

He got the applause he was looking for even though the timing was a bit off and closed with:

Thank you, I have my marching orders!

Not bad.

The mayor mentioned one silver lining to the long legal delay: Durel said that the cost of the project had fallen by 8 million dollars due to “the maturing of the industry.” It’s been clear that equipment costs are falling and some claim installation costs are falling as well so it’s interesting to see a number put to projected savings. Eight million, that’s nice; it amounts to something in the neighborhood of a 6.5% savings.

Wireless? Oh yeah, wireless. It got mentioned but only in the context of LUS operations, governmental efficiency, public safety, and first responder issues. No hints on the possibility of a public wifi network. Oh well.

(If you’d like to look at the written version of the speech in its entirety you can find it at the LCG website.)

Action item: US House, the FCC, & Lafayette

Here’s another chance to show some good citizenship moxie. Write or call your Federal House member and urge them, not the FCC bureaucracy, to make federal telecomm policy. Louisiana even has an “in” on the subcommittee overseeing the FCC’ s behavior: Charlie Melancon. And, of course, urge your representatives to vote against the phone companies’ attempts to federalize cable franchising and for bills that would forbid states outlawing municipal broadband networks.

This week the news from Congress is all about every member’s five minutes of squirming as they stand before the cameras and try and articulate a position on Bush’s Iraq policy. But that thunder is all about a non-binding resolution that may (may) have symbolic value but certainly has no immediate practical effect.

But at the same time Congress members will speaking in nearly empty chambers actual work will be taking place in the back halls. One meeting that will be important for those of us in Louisiana and Lafayette will be a grilling of the FCC this Thursday by the House Commerce Committee. The list of national issues is long but locally we are particularly interested in the FCC’s recent attempt to take it upon themselves to reduce local communities property rights in order to benefit the bottom lines of 3 or 4 of the world’s largest phone corporations.

Readers will recall a similar Senate hearing recently for which LPF asked it readers to write and call David Vitter, who sits on that Commerce Committee and detail on this issue can be found in that post. In a nutshell: “At stake for you: millions of dollars in local revenues, access to truly local channels like AOC, protection against your neighborhood being “redlined” out of new technologies if it’s not rich enough, and the principle of local control of locally-owned resources.”

Lafayette’s congressman shows little interest or aptitude for technology issues but luckily for South Louisiana Congressman Melancon of the neighboring third Congressional district does and he he’s got himself a crucial vice chair position on the subcommittee oversees the FCC. When Commerce Committee Chair Dingell decides to go after the FCC (and all signs are that he will) Mr. Melancon will at the center of any ensuing battles. Here’s what the National Journal has to say about the new chair:

Last year, during the protracted battle over Republican-backed telecommunications legislation, Dingell came out swinging against AT&T, BellSouth (now part of AT&T) and Verizon Communications, as they sought to eliminate local franchise restrictions and prevent regulation of their growing high-speed Internet businesses.

In fact, that legislation failed, as Congress refused to pass such a bill. For a while there was a concern that a lame-duck Congress would try and push it through and its corporate backers and some Congressmen hinted that they would try that. But in the end the 109th Congress adjourned, having decided that such a bill wasn’t worth passing. The phone companies turned to the FCC and convinced that panel’s Republican majority to try and install by pure regulation what Congress refused to pass a law to accomplish.

Congress critters, Dingell prominently among them, were offended by the FCC’s presumption. This is from an interview with Dingell and was offered in response to a question on the FCC’s attempt to institute a national video franchise:

What I’m saying is that the FCC has made several mistakes. First, they have not had a proper list of findings about public interests and the public convenience and necessity.

Second of all, they have disregarded the law in asserting powers, which the statute does not give them. And third of all, they have not addressed the broader questions, which need to be addressed, about seeing to it that consumers of these services are fairly treated and this is a bit of an arrogance on the part of the FCC.

So you can expect some oversight of the FCC on this issue. And Congressman Melancon will play a crucial role in that oversight.

Let him know what you think. Urge your friends, neighbors and cousins that live in his district to do the same. Tell him that local property ought to be controlled by local folks and that you expect him to stand up for that principal. Tell him that you like the Lautenberg-McCain bill that kept the states from standing in the way of local communities that offered a little competition to the incumbents. Most of all let him know that some of us down here care about this stuff–and that he is being watched on telecomm issues

Send Melancon an email message.
Phone: 202-225-4031
Fax: 202-226-3944

Monopoly Thinking

The phone companies really don’t get it. Even when they are bragging on how competitive they are they still think like the monopolists they are at heart. Take Verizon. Verizon is the one telephone company that has the sense to build a fiber to the home network–they want to compete for video service with the cable companies and are doing what is obviously necessary. That shows they have some sense–about video capacity. But no less than Verizon’s director of internet and technology policy says:

“The speed we offer is based on competition from the cable sector,” says McKeehan. “If they offer 6Mbps, we go a bit better. We don’t see the need to ramp up the speeds just yet.”

There’s an internet and technology policy for you! Good grief, if you’ve got capacity that the other guy doesn’t have and could offer product people want you just go after it. Offer real speed–you know, like they get in Korea or Amsterdam. Build a little customer enthusiasm. What you don’t do is let the other guy stay within striking distance.

Here’s what Verizon would do if it had a lick of sense: offer really big bandwidth for just a cut above the carriage costs. Make everyone think you actually are on their side. Offer them real value where it costs you little. Get a reputation for advanced technology and earn customer loyalty. Encourage you customers to think that you wear a halo. Then sell your video product against the cablecos for just a tad less than they do while that nice healthy halo is hovering overhead. Eat their video lunch and make yourself absolutely dominant on the IP side–and IP-based services are the future.

But Verizon doesn’t get it. And you can bet that if fibered-up Verizon doesn’t know how to use its advantage then AT&T/BellSouth, which hasn’t even bothered to develop any advantage, certainly isn’t capable of beginning to get it.

Nationally stuff like this makes it obvious that the incumbent providers — and especially the phone companies — should be written off. That sad fact leaves most of the country looking at a pretty bleak picture in regards to getting real broadband.

In Lafayette we have reason to hope that LUS won’t use its fiber network so ineptly. Incrementalism prolongs the battle in dangerous ways. Offering real, fast broadband service at rock bottom prices is the way to develop customer loyalty and a reputation that will spill over into more conventional (and more profitable) video services.

Durel Focuses on Fiber

If you had three goals you want your administration to accomplish before the end of 2007, what would those be?

There’s no doubt, and it’s kind of out of our control, because it’s occupied so much of our time, energy and vision of our future, is that we’d be in the process of getting fiber-to-the-home.

That’s the way that the Durel interview in this week’s Independent begins. Before anything else Durel wants to get the fiber to the home project going. He goes on to tell editor Scott Jordan that Michael Dell’s recent attempts to chivvy the telecoms into building fiber to the home networks providing at least 100 megs of connectivity validates Lafayette’s plan. (See LPF’s recent take on Dell’s remarks for a little background on that point.)

Down the page we get this note about the Supreme Court case currently holding up the fiber plan:

If the Supreme Court rules in your favor regarding the fiber-to-the-home project, do you think that will be the last legal challenge?

What I have been told is that if the Supreme Court rules in our favor, there are no more legal challenges available to stop the project. We expect, after a year or so of doing fiber, that there will be those that will still try to give us headaches and challenge things. But there should be nothing else that can stop the project from moving forward.

If the Supreme Court rules against you, what next?

We’ve already had discussions about that. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Finally, Jordan asks him about the recent WiFi RFP:

You just put out RFPs for a wireless network. Is this the first step toward building a wireless network in Lafayette that the public could tap into?

The RFPs that went out are to ramp up communications for LUS. I think that the very next step for us is get that up and running for LUS and make sure it’s working properly and get the bugs out of it. Then the next step will be to make that available to our emergency services personnel — policemen, firemen. We’ll see from there. The good news is that the infrastructure is going to start getting into place.

On that score LPF has its own take on the Wireless RFP…take a gander.

There’s more of course (some people are actually interested in things like roads and crime) so take a look at the full story.

“Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers”

Ok, Ok, I’m on it….

I just received my 4th and 5th emails pointing me to the recent NYTimes article “Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers.” Thanks! That’s ample evidence that readers are interested in a topic I would have thought was off the beaten path here.

What motivates that interest is probably the prospect of a solution to the fabled “last mile” connectivity problem that relies on the “bottom up” efforts of individuals. That always attractive, at least ideologically, and when coupled with the promise of being radically cheaper to implement excites people.

Problem is, the writer’s enthusiasm for individualism, dislike of municipal efforts, and perhaps a bit of naivete regarding points of physics and economics leads him to push a story about a system that can’t be sustained and to miss the real story hidden in the hardware/software combination examined.

First, the naivete: The author, Stross, is touting a wireless mesh system. All such systems start from a connection to a network backbone that supplies bandwidth. Data is handed off between closely spaced access points whose coverage overlaps enough to provide redundant paths to downstream access points and to user’s computers or other devices. The result is area-wide coverage…in theory. Stross is right that this “area” system isn’t working all that well, and that part of the problem is getting the signal inside the house where most use occurs can be spotty. Where he goes astray is in assuming that the network that he proposes can work even this well.

The Stross-proposed system implicitly starts from the interior of buildings with individuals or a small service provider making the intitial point of contact. The problem is that wifi signals have at least as hard a time getting out of house as getting in–and that relying on voluntary subscriptions and the resulting in randomly spaced nodes will make it irrational to expect that there will ever be enough nodes to mesh together effectively. Also, unhappily, it violates most bandwidth contracts to share bandwidth in this way. This really is not going to work as any sort of substitute for metro/area networks and implying that it might is misleading.

But there is good news. The story he misses is almost as interesting, and considerably more viable: As it currently stands this sort of system would be good alternative in apartment buildings. It could effectively deal with data and VOIP needs for apartments and dense public projects (but not video). In that situation a small ISP could provide legal bandwidth and control a stable, adequately dense, placement of access points at a minimized cost.

The best news is twofold: 1) The hardware is really cheap in comparison with other outdoor equipment. 2) Open source mesh networking software is maturing. The software that the Meraki system discussed runs is based on an older MIT project, RoofNet. CUWIN software, completely open source, runs on the Meraki hardware. Both projects have been supported by Google to at least the extent of providing software-writing interns.

Both developments promise to radically lower the cost for mesh networks in the long run. And lower costs will do more to make networking widely and usefully available than any fantasy.

Update 4:01: Jim Baller’s always informative newsletter points to a muniwireless post that echoes some of the points made here, to wit:

The article, “Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers,” takes a roundabout road to discussing Meraki’s offerings, talking first about the challenges of hanging mesh access points off lamp posts – relatively expensive, easily blocked by trees and buildings, etc. But Meraki’s products today don’t really fix those problems; you’ll still need a street-based mesh, or some in-building Internet connection, to reach the wider Net. However, if you want to cheaply distribute a WiFi signal inside a building, this is a great solution….

It’s nice to know that my contrary reservations are sometimes shared by the big dogs.

New bid to close ‘digital divide’

Every so often I run across something that indicates that Lafayette is way out ahead of other communities in surprising ways. (We all already know about food and festivals. But did you know that the state-wide local library system has long been considered a exemplary model and that circulation figures astonish folks from other states?) Even that most progressive of cities, San Francisco, is only now stumbling toward the same conclusion about local telecommunications infrastructure that the people of Lafayette have settled on.

A storm has blown up in San Francisco over the best way to provide broadband to the city. One day after San Fran inked its agreement with an Earthlink/Google team to setup a wireless networks with a free (if low speed) component a report came out that further fueled concern over the deal and the city’s choice of technology.

Coming to a final agreement in San Francisco’s high profile wireless network has taken much longer than anticipated, partly as a result of criticism that implied the proposal was hastily done. Critiques have included concerns about the financial deal, how useful the particular network will be (especially for digital divide purposes), non-local ownership of the network, the effective monopoly granted, and security. The latest dustup had concerned allegations that the mayor had pushed the deal through without looking into alternatives–especially the fiber alternative–as the original authorization to pursue negotiations had required.

The upshot was that a new study was commissioned that was to explore the potential of fiber optics. A story in the Examiner titled “New bid to close ‘digital divide’” examines the tale:

Ammiano said the fiber network is not meant to compete or undermine the Wi-Fi agreement, but he did say the fiber network would truly close the digital divide while the Wi-Fi would not since it is an “iffy” service and may be hard for some people to draw the signal into their homes, particularly in low-income neighborhoods…

Chris Vein, head of The City’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, who negotiated the Wi-Fi deal, acknowledged fiber is a superior technology, but its drawback is that it costs more and takes longer to set up, whereas Wi-Fi is cheaper and quicker to set up.

It’s nice to see that some folks are beginning to give more serious consideration to dealing with digital divide issues than throwing “free” WiFi at it. Finding a sustainable way to make truly modern, truly affordable, real broadband universally available–and to make its utility easy to grasp–is a much harder problem than that. Making sure that a network penetrates to where it will be used, that it is fast enough to really enable folks to get up to speed on modern networks, and supported by a plan that is sustainable over the long run will take a lot of work. Gaining local control of the last mile, not offering it over to distant corporations is the first step. I like to think Lafayette has gotten out ahead of places like San Francisco and Philadelphia in treating the problem seriously. Once the courts approve the network plan here it will be time to think seriously about what the community wants to do with it.


Some backstory: SFBay Guardian Overview of objections to wireless plan; Silicon Valley Observer on local control and digital divide issues.


PS…for those who are gluttons for punishment: A PDF file of the San Francisco study which recommended a fiber-optic network to the city is available online. At 196 pages it is not a quick read. But for anyone who really wants to understand all the decisions that go into 1) deciding whether or not to install a municipal fiber-optic network and 2) deciding what sort of fiber optic network to install (there are choices to be made that effect what can be done with the network) and 3) understand just what would be involved in actual implementation, the study is just about the best introduction that I’ve found. The only caveat I’d make is that its strong point is also its weak point: it is about a specific, real, situation. On the plus side this means that there is little glossing over the hard issues with hand-waving. On the other hand not all San Francisco’s “hard issues” apply to Lafayette or other cities considering fiber and, of course, they don’t have some of our particular local issues with which to contend. That said, a review of the study teaches a lot. If you’re a patient sort–or one of the rare birds that actually like such study–I highly recommend it.