Jefferson Parish WiFi?

A couple of days ago City Business in New Orleans published a short piece saying that the Jefferson Parish Council had:

unanimously agreed to secure a wireless Internet communication network for parish residents from Lake Pontchartrain to Grand Isle…

Wi-Fi will allow residents to turn on their computers at any location within parish lines and immediately be plugged into the Internet.

Jefferson parish is uniquely varied–it stretches from Lake Ponchartrain to the Mississippi to the fresh-water swamps north of Barataria Bay to the classic barrier island of Grand Isle. That covers intensely urban areas that are part of metro New Orleans, large stretches of trackless swamp, and the blue-collar vacation homes on Grand Isle. Covering all that will be a major and varied undertaking.

The council is motivated in part by the communications failures following the storms—taking seriously the example of nearby New Orleans whose wifi system provided the only reliable communications venue in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Jefferson Parish attempted to attract a public-private ownership deal last year according to an article in the Times-Picayune. That was supposed to mature into proposals by the first of this month and since that idea is no longer being discussed, apparently no viable bids came in. Plans have now shifted to the current model in which the Parish will build the system.

At least part of the reason that battered Jefferson Parish couldn’t attract a public-private partnership to defray part of their cost is the (un)Fair Competition Act. That incumbent-protection bill, drafted by the current telecom operators, forbids local governments from offering services at any really useful speed without going through a long, costly, studded with—as Lafayette’s case has proved—ugly and baseless lawsuits. That law continues to impose hardships on local governments who really ought to be able to provide crucial services to their communities without interference by out-of-state corporations. I hope Jefferson Parish officials are talking to their legislators.

Fiber & the Mayoral Race

Kevin Blanchard, writing one of his occasional “Inside Report” columns, reviews the intersection of the mayoral race in Lafayette and the fiber-optic project Durel bet on early in his tenure.

The gist is that Durel’s gamble on fiber has paid off in the lack of any credible challenger emerging for his second-term bid.

Durel did take a risk. He had run, to put it bluntly, as the chamber candidate and as an business-like “reform” Republican. Taking on a costly project that was easy to paint as anti-business three or four months in to his term was pretty shocking. Durel was unwavering–even when his major supporters, both in the form of the chamber and the businessmen who had fostered his candidacy, couldn’t find the wherewithal to exhibit the most tepid support. He came out of the chute fighting and really never let up–to the extent of being willing to plainly say things that, while obviously true, distressed orthodox Republicans; for example, pointing out that Cox and BellSouth were “greedy out-of-state monopolists.” Without the Joey Durel and Terry Huval tag team’s aggressive stance it is doubtful that the campaign could have been won.

What was revealed in the course of the fight is pretty shocking: a blunt pro-community, anti-corporate campaign could win, and win big, even in “conservative” Lafayette. When Durel called himself a “progressive republican” on a PBS show last year he was claiming a category he’d created and made credible. Durel has, at least for the moment, remade Lafayette politics.

Interesting days…and I, for one, will be interested to see whether this leads back to a more familiar “big dogs” regime or whether Durel will pursue creating the broader coalition that he’s demonstrated is possible.

“LUS selects design firms”

The Advocate’s Blanchard reports that LUS has selected it architectural firms for a head-end building to house the technical equipment to run the project and a large warehouse to house materials during the build.

The head-end building went to Guidry-Beazley Architects, the same folks who designed the LITE center. The warehouse plans will be put together by Architects Southwest, the folks responsible for planning River Ranch.

Buildings have a long lead time and if they are to be ready in time for the launch of services LUS apparently feels that they need to start the process now.

As an adjunct to the awarding of contracts to two local architectural firms Blanchard also covers the local small/minority business issue that I alluded to in a post yesterday–and does a better job of explaining its intricacies.

Emerald Bayou Studios–Proof of Concept

Yesterday’s Advertiser carried a short article on Emerald Studios plans to move into the LITE center. It was presented as good news, but the story is, on reflection, potentially enormous. The studio will have to make good on its plans and survive for Lafayette to reap the full benefit but if that happens some of the community’s fondest dreams will be within reach.

Emerald Studios is a new film production company with a studio in an old cottonseed mill in New Roads. Emerald Studio’s addition to the growing stable at LITE has long been hinted at. They were featured at LITE’s opening. There they complained of having to courier massive amounts of film data on disks (those shiny physical things- ick!) to postproduction sites in California and the disadvantage that the process put them at competitively. Their solution: They reported on their test transfer of digital film data using LONI and the LambdaRail network from LITE’s LONI connection to a LambdaRail node in Georgia. Zippy. Flexible. Works. –Needless to say, they liked it.

Beyond the connectivity another thing that will be available at LITE is raw processing power, lots and lots of it. It is the combination of fat pipes and phat computation that makes LITE attractive. (Recall those parallel, clustered, supercomputers running the show there.) No doubt day-to-day the studio will roll its own computation…but when they need the horsepower it will be easy to get–and will rival anything available anywhere.

What this move by Emerald Studios means is that they are planning to do their post-production work not in California but here. And, with a planned hire of 77 people at an average of $71,000 apiece, they are anticipating working on more than their own few films. 77 people is a lot of people for this sort of enterprise.

What’s more 77 people is too many people to fit in the 3000 square feet of office space at LITE. They must be planning on leasing more space. 77 people times a pretty measly 20×10 space for each works out to about 15,400 square feet. (200 sq ft per person is a fairly standard way to estimate office space requirements.) So 3000 sq ft is about is about 1/5 of the total minimum required office space. This means two things: 1) Billeaud Properties and other large office space owners want to send their sales people over to New Roads to talk to these women. 2) The unspoken plan is to have satellite offices and Lafayette’s secret weapon is its fiber to the home (and office) network. That, on top of connectivity and processing power, is final piece of the puzzle that makes this deal make sense.

This is where the intranet bandwidth Huval discussed at the fiber forum shows its development potential. If all Emerald’s nodes are located on LUS’ network they will get intranet speeds of up to 100 megs or better between their locations–that is comparable to the 100 megs of ethernet connectivity that you have inside most offices these days. Emerald Studios (and other bandwidth-devouring businesses) can rent cheap office space and still get huge LAN-like (Local Area Network) bandwidth between their locations. A little VPN (virtual private network) and a location literally anywhere in Lafayette and you can have secure connectivity between your employees that in most cities would require you to lease a lot of space in an inordinately expensive, highly fibered up, specialty tech office park.

Doing business in Lafayette is gonna be a great deal for a whole class of new, high-paying, tech-oriened enterprises.

Emerald Bayou, with LITE, could easily be the core for the development of Lafayette as a regional rendering/3D powerhouse. These provide locations for interns from our high school and university programs. It is a sizable pool of jobs in itself and means animators and digital artists of all kinds can hope to find work here at home. Interested in parallel computing or next gen networking? There’ll be work for you too. No doubt there’ll be part-time work when the pressure is on. Once a specialized employee pool is available other companies will come here to try and poach — and if they discover local folks don’t want to leave the only way to take advantage of the personnel resource will be to establish a branch office. (And, since we’re located on high speed fiber, communications with the home office won’t be a problem.) There’s a potential virtuous circle coming and we should do everything in our power to encourage it.

Emerald Bayou Studios is proof-of-concept for the high-end development dreams of the city fathers and local fiber supporters just as NuComm was proof that fiber could bring many much needed entry-level jobs to the city’s north side. It will bring clean, high tech, high wage jobs to the city and develop a local pool of talent to fuel further, similar, development.

It’s big news. With potentially enormous consequences for Lafayette.

It’s working in Lafayette.

Digital Divide & More at Council meeting

I went to last night’s Council meeting as there were two fiber-oriented issues on the agenda: the digital divide and small/minority business participation in the buildout phase of the project.

Digital Divide
Terry Huval’s power point presentation on the digital divide went off smoothly. The first part of that report focused on reminding listeners about what had come before–it’s been a long time since people have had cause to look back over the entire story. Early slides evoked memories of enthusiastic first council meetings where the idea was brought up and numerous benefits were suggested in the areas of jobs, development, cost savings, education, and the possibility of addressing the digital divide. The chief digital divide benefit anticipated was the promised 20% cost savings that would allow more people to afford services–or, alternately, to add access to the internet while not increasing their total outlay for communications services.

Most of the rest of the presentation focused on the recommendations of the original digital divide committee. Mention was made of interim efforts by locals that included Lafayette Coming Together’s projects: the Cajundome effort after the storms, the collection and disbursement of refurbished computers, and work on issues like free software. The kicker was in the final slides where LUS promised to reconvene the Digital Divide Committee and complete an implementation plan based on the recommendations approved by the council in the same eighteen month time-frame during which the fiber network will be working to serve its first customer. (Remarks indicated that the 18 month period will apparently start this coming July, which is when the bond sale is currently anticipated.)

Walter Guillory, chair of the committee, gave a brief speech in which he indicated that he’d like to see more computers installed at housing projects and community centers. He also said he’d be looking to get the committee together in perhaps a week or two.

The Digital Divide Committee’s new task will be very different from its original charge. Then it was tasked with coming up with a state of the art plan to encourage wide . The new issue will be how to implement those ideas: how the task will be broken up, what organizations/s will be responsible, and how it will be supported.

The presentations were well received. Both Benjamin and Williams proffered thanks and made supportive remarks.

NOTE: Terry Huval made a call for volunteers–if you’re at all interested please put your name in the pot.

Small/minority business participation
If the digital divide report went smoothly the discussion of the participation of small businesses, minority businesses, and minority hiring was more contentious. LUS’ basic position is that their hands are tied by state bid laws which brook no exception for such considerations. LUS would like to keep more of the construction business local but state law mandates a strict lowest-bidder selection process. They offered a plan to work with the general contractor to define areas where local businesses and workers could participate, to divide the jobs up so that these areas were conveniently joined and then to hold education sessions with local folks to help the learn how to qualify for those positions.

Chris William (chiefly though not exclusively) pushed for more, claiming that Shreveport, for instance had been considerably more successful in achieving minority participation and suggested a study of it and other cities that had achieved these goals.

Keeping local monies local was always a big part of the motivation for having a telecom utility. It only makes sense to try and keep as much of that money in the community during the build stage as well.

It’s Working in Bristol carries an article today on the business customer end of Bristol, VA’s fiber to the home network. Most FTTH articles focus on on the benefit to consumers so this one’s emphasis on business applications is intriguing. It all amounts to cheaper, faster, and more services. That’s pretty much the story for consumers as well but the way it plays out on the business end is intriguing.

Bristol is apparently doing well:

After less than four years in business, competing with heavy-hitting incumbents, BVU now serves 65 percent of the homes and businesses in its service area – and this in a metropolitan area where, according to Nielsen studies, only 65 percent of the population subscribe to any form of cable television.

Now Bristol doesn’t serve its entire metropolitan area so the numbers aren’t parallel. But a 65% take rate is stunning. They’ve got to be doing something right.

WBS: Public Telecom & Net Neutrality

WBS dept:

Another man called from Lafayette, La., which has been battling Bell South and Cox Communications for years over the city’s attempts to provide municipal broadband to its residents. “An effective broadband strategy must allow for public ownership of the networks,” he declared angrily. “There’s a distinction between the interests of these corporations and the interests of communities. It became very clear in the fiber fight down here.”

Damn right. That quote is Mike’s and can be found in In These Times’Not Neutrality” article. It was uttered during a conference call focused on state video franchise laws and how those laws should be dealt with. As the article and Mike’s remarks indicate, some issues including net neutrality and encouraging rather than discouraging municipal participation weren’t dealt with adequately.

Teleco Franchise Reform Dissected

Karl Bove succinctly slices and dices the state-level franchise reform packages pushed by the phone companies (most prominent among which is our own AT&T):

While phone company lobbyists couldn’t sell “franchise reform” on the federal level via Ted Stevens, they’ve had great success convincing state legislators (and the press and public) that stripping towns and cities of their regulatory authority will result in faster deployment of broadband and lower TV prices. While their lobbyists promise lawmakers cheap cable, the baby bells’ primary goal is the elimination of build-out requirements, allowing them to maximize ROI by deploying services only to the most profitable neighborhoods.

After running through the telco BS on issues like lower prices (hasn’t happened) and widespread deployment (not part of the plan) Bove closes with this:

The demonization of the local franchise system has been a multi-year, sophisticated public relations effort aimed at passing laws that will kill build-out requirements, eliminate local accountability, and create a one-stop-shopping lobbying point for the nation’s largest phone companies. The push is aimed at saving these companies money, and nothing else. The bills we’ve read offer no benefits to consumers. Don’t drink the phone company lobbyist Kool-Aid that suggests killing local authority will result in broadband utopia, increased deployment, and lower prices — because you are going to be disappointed.

Good stuff. Recommended.

While similar points have been raised on these pages it is nice to see national voices sounding the call. And we’ll get our chance again: it’s all coming to a legislature across the big muddy in April….mark my words.

On Last Mile Monopolies

A blip in Gerald Shields “Washington Watch” in the Advocate Monday morning sent me hunting back through my archives. Et Voila! I found the story behind the story and it is all about last mile monopolies–not the cyber age version this time, but the classic industrial age one involving railroads and echoes of the Robber Barons. Lafayette has decided on its own fiber-optic solution to the cyber age problem of the last mile and is, by a strange twist of fate, also a player in the current railroad version.

The Story: All this comes up now because Shields reports the unusual story of David Vitter, a conservative republican, co-sponsoring a bill with such folks as Russ Feingold that would rein in a monopoly corporation. The bill targets railroads and would remove some of their anti-trust exemptions, opening them to civil suit and standard anti-trust controls at the federal and state levels. What catches the eye of a Lafayette denizen is Vitter’s comment:

Lafayette electric customers pay $5 million to $6 million more a year, Vitter said, because there is only one 19-mile rail line into the city for coal.

“That absolutely and directly produces $5 million to $6 million more annually in rates for the city of Lafayette, and that’s wrong,” Vitter said.

Indeed, that is wrong.

The blip’s version of the story correctly identifies Lafayette and the cost to its citizens but misidentifies the locale: the problem actually occurs at the Rodemacher coal-fired generating plant near Alexandria (half owned by LUS) and the 19 mile spur that connects the plant to the major rail trunk. That 19 mile spur is owned by Union Pacific who has used its control of the last few miles of a 1500 mile journey from the Powder River Basin coal mining area in Wyoming to jack up prices about 50% over the price per mile where competition exists end to end. That adds up to an additional 5-6 million a year in unfair costs paid by LUS customers. (That is only part of the cost to Louisiana citizens–CLECO owns 30% of that plant and other LEPA public electric utilities own the rest…CLECO also owns 100% of another another unit of similar capacity at Rodemacher. My rough estimate of the electrical cost to the citizens of the state of monopoly control of this short spur: 20-24 million dollars. A year.)

The outline for both cyber and industrial last-mile monopolies are surprisingly similar. Both involve an effective monopoly on service based on the ownership of the “last mile” that connects the user to the larger transportation network. That allows the the owner to charge what economists call “monopoly rents” and what the rest of us call “absurd overcharges” and “greed.” In the case of coal that’s a 50% overcharge. Having a (rare) second cable company in an area lowers prices by an average of 17%. (Close to the 20% break LUS has projected–which would seem to demonstrate that they are just jumping to competitive pricing.) Collusion between supposedly competitive is also a common feature of such area-based monopolies. They do not “poach” on each other’s footprints. Huval has complained in testimony before Congress that this is true of railroads and anyone who has pondered why Comcast–which is a much larger company–doesn’t move down from Opelousas and invade Lafayette has come to the conclusion that cable companies don’t poach either. The same, of course, is true of telephone companies regardless off vain hopes the FCC has exhibited for years. Why not? Because poaching would be too much like competition–and would cut into their monopoly profits. Both companies make more money by respecting each other.

So there’s a pattern here with which Lafayette, and certainly that LUS, is familiar. Over the years Louisana’s legislators have made several attempts to fix this in Congress–to no avail. The coalition looks broader this year; so perhaps honor and good sense will prevail. In any case, LUS has prior experience with the evils of last mile monopolies and that might well have made the cancer easier to recognize when they considered taking up the challenge to provide a little last mile competition for Lafayette’s cable, phone, and internet services.

We tend to think our fiber fight is a fresh new battle but in some ways it is a very old story; old wine in new bottles.

Lagniappe: To continue my new-found fascination with what we can glean about social issues from what we Google up: The classic USAToday article “Bells dig in to dominate high-speed Internet realm” that thrust Lafayette into the national discourse came up on the first page when I googled “robber barons railroad.” I smiled and went hunting for the reference, thinking I’d forgotten that it had been mentioned then. But, in fact, not one of those words is in the story. A little further rooting around reveals that: “These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: robber barons railroad” Hmmn…what should it tell the incumbents that the story of their treatment of municpalities is so widely understood as wrong that historical references to abuses almost a century and a half old are now linked to their name? Clueless.

How to Hit the Nail on the Head

Sunday is a good time for reflection and I try to put out a link to something thought-provoking on that day. This morning’s candidate is a solid set of articles by Bruce Dixon. He offers up some clues about how having a place to stand in the world makes a difference in how well we think about it. LPF, I’d like to think, has a distinct place–Lafayette–and takes a stand in favor of that place. Dixon does something similar.

Dixon takes a stand in favor of his community. He’s a writer at both the Black Commentator and the Black Agenda Report. The article that caught my attention was: Black Lawmakers Digitally Redline African American Neighborhoods. Finding that–and admiring it–lead to locating The Black Stake in the Internet. The articles cover the spate of state video franchising laws (like the one we barely escaped last year here in Louisiana) and the issue of net neutrality.

They’re both damn good on their topics. Better, in fact, than almost any article I could name. There’s a very clear depiction of the context, the basic actors and the basic facts of the matter. You know who the players are and what effect their acts have on people with whom the writer is concerned. As a reader you are informed. Cutting through the BS and getting down to the meaningful consequences for your and yours of public policy is the real point of covering politics.

Having “standing” makes a difference. Here are some teasers from the excellent redlining article.

On political malfeasance:

Last year big cable and bigger telephone companies deployed platoons of lobbyists and up to a hundred million dollars in an attempt to enact national cable franchise legislation. They greased its way through the House of Representatives, proving along the way that willful ignorance and lots of corporate cash could make two thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus vote for the digital broadband redlining of their own communities…

On the corporate FUD strategy:

Sometimes phone companies appeal to ratepayer dissatisfaction with the quality of cable service by appearing to campaign against cable companies, but it’s a good-cop-bad-cop kind of act. Cable franchise legislation has nothing to do with competition or lowering rates. The nation’s handful of giant phone and cable companies know a few things about their own business model and about the market that most legislators and ratepayers do not. They know that current and next-generation fiber optic cable systems are and will be for some time to come the only economical way to deliver telephone service, remote medical diagnostics, medical and resource monitoring, interactive on-demand video and the media-rich total presence advertising which corporate marketers are itching to bring you — all over the new high-speed broadband internet…

On the excuse that letting media corporations do what they please fosters “innovation”

Big phone and cable have never been about competition, fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, or any of that garbage. Like all media marketplaces, cable and telephony are characterized by government regulation of a scarce public resource – the public right of way along which network lines are laid in one case, or the broadcast spectrum in another.

That’s clarity of thought. And clear thinking is in short supply regardless of your cultural history. So take a gander, you don’t have to be Black or Left-wing (Dixon is both) to appreciate what he has to offer.

And for lagniappe: reflect a little on the difference that actually knowing who you are fighting for makes.