Choosing an Engineer

Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate published a story this morning on the selection process for an engineer for Lafayette’s fiber to the home project. The essentials:

LUS Director Terry Huval said the firm will design every aspect of the network, from the overhead and underground lines to the connections at the main facility and end users.

In addition, the firm will help LUS define the bid specifications to be followed by prospective contractors. After construction begins, the engineers will help monitor construction, Huval said.

A professional services committee will take LUS’s review of the applicants (there were thirteen) and choose three to pass on to Mayor Durel for his selection. The work load on the committee should be light: LUS says that only three of the applicants have the proper work history to qualify them for the job making winnowing down the list pretty straightforward. LUS also has a favorite: the Atlantic Engineering Group.

Atlantic Engineering is arguably the nation’s premier Fiber To The Home (FTTH) engineering and construction group and is certainly the leading such company in the South. Their projects map reveals that they’ve been involved in many of the largest—and most successful—FTTH projects in the nation. Those who have followed Lafayette’s progress closely will recognize Provo, UT (whose mayor has visited in support) and Bristol, VA (the city regularly maligned by Lafayette’s opponents where the current issue is beefing up the system to accommodate unanticipated levels of success). Regular readers will note that Kutztown, PA, the little town that could (1, 2) is also a client.

The CEO, James Salter, has clearly focused the company on municipal operations and is a fiber warrior in his own right having been president of the Fiber To The Home Council and a regular speaker at conferences where municipal fiber could be defended. I saw him present at the Freedom To Connect conference in ‘06 and wasn’t distracted by his “aw shucks” folksy Southern persona. Like sugar-coating on a bitter pill that persona did allow his message on the necessity of dense, municipal fiber to any robust local broadband network go down a little easier with a crowd enamored of “public-private” wifi networks. In the end he received a standing ovation. A later hallway conversation revealed that Salter was just as savvy about the way that the private incumbents blocked such projects and made it clear that he understood how to deal with such obstructionism.

AEG would make a fine choice. Things proceed apace…

“Broussard Council renews Cox’s franchise”

The Advertiser updates the story of Broussard’s good-deal renewal of Cox’s cable franchise. They got both a tighter build-out requirement and a governmental wifi net out of the deal. On the build out:

The new contract stipulates that the cable company will provide service to areas with 30 residences per linear mile, replacing the previous requirement of 40 per linear mile.

According to an earlier story Langlinais was pressing for 25 residences per linear mile. He apparently got thirty. That’s a substantial improvement.

The new wifi deal was reported as sparsely as you could imagine:

Governmental agencies, such as the police, fire and public works departments and Broussard City Hall also will receive access to wireless Internet service under a separate agreement, Skinner said.

Though wifi is apparently not incorporated in the franchise agreement itself it is hard not to see it as anything other than a part of what Cox gave up in its negotiations. Especially if the price was really as “nominal” as Langlinais earlier claimed. The franchise ordinance and wireless side agreement are not yet up on the Broussard website. The details, especially on the wifi end, should be interesting…just how robust–and thus how useful–the wireless will be will depend largely upon how well the city specified the contract–and how long it lasts. (Points I made in last week’s post on this topic.)

Broussard, it sounds like, cut a good deal. Congratulations to the city…and a tip of the hat to Lafayette’s fiber project which surely provided much of the needed leverage.

Competition, Market Penetration, and the Digital Divide

The International Herald Tribune carried a story not long ago that lead to a bout of reflection about LUS’ telecom utility. It made me wonder: is there a point where marketing and digital divide issues come together? Can serving the common good also be smart marketing?

The Tribune story recounts a situation emerging in France that bears watching here in Lafayette. The French Fiber to the Home market is in the midst of a major expansion and, at least in a few places, these new networks are competing with each other. That is, for the companies, a potential problem. Competing networks must gain a minimum number of paying subscribers per mile (or kilometer) in order to make back their investment. With only one network building itself up it is pretty easy to get the minimum number of subscribers… but with two it is twice as hard….and with three or more there simply may not be enough room in the market for all to survive.

The new entrants are betting that they’ll get a big enough market share to survive. There are only two basic strategies: 1) take established subscribers from the incumbents and 2) create new subscribers. A smart new competitor has a clear strategy for doing both.

In Lafayette
The situation in Lafayette bears a interesting resemblance to the one in France: In short order there will be three networks vying for subscribers in the wired telecommunications market. Cox is and AT&T is preparing to invade its opposite numbers’ monopoly market. LUS will come on the scene with a high-powered, low-cost alternative to both. It’s success will depend upon taking subscribers from the incumbents–and on creating new subscribers.

The basic strategy for taking subscribers from the old incumbents is straightforward: offer a better product for a cheaper price. LUS has made it abundantly clear that it intends to do just that–and with a home-town, voter-approved alternative it should do well on that score.

It isn’t so clear that LUS has a well thought-out strategy for creating new subscribers.

The French Response
French purveyors of high-speed internet are faced with a market in which only 60 percent of the country’s households have computers. Creating new subscribers will mean convincing folks that don’t have a computer that they ought to get one in addition to purchasing the service.

“If one-third of the people in a building do not own a computer and see no reason to get broadband, it becomes a serious financial issue,” Fogg said. “Some Internet companies have offered incentives for people to buy computers, but Neuf has taken it to the ultimate level in offering the computer themselves.”

Neuf (one of the triple-play video/phone/internet providers) is now offering a package called “easygate” which includes a Linux-based computer stocked with open source apps. It is, with inimitable french styling, a handsome box. Flicker user nitot’s caption accompanying the CCed image at left describes its functionality:

“A DSL modem plus a low-end PC in a single box, running Linux, Firefox and a few apps, leased to subscribers of the Neuf Internet broadband service. “

The idea is easy to abstract: reduce the hardware barrier to as little as possible. if a major impediment to selling your internet service is that a large portion of your potential customer base doesn’t want to buy your modem service because they don’t have a computer then put the computer in the modem and lease it along with the modem. They can try it without making a big-ticket computer buy. Neuf isn’t going the pure route, though. If you want to use it like a regular computer you’ll either have to supply the “peripherals” yourself or pony up separately for a monitor and a keyboard/mouse/video camera packages. (See the photo at the top.) To sweeten the pot the computer comes equiped with several specially skinned version of Linux (designed for differing levels of expertise) and an open source browser, word processor, and spreadsheet.

An all-in-one package—cheap and convenient. And designed to grow a new market segment devoted to its supplier, not just to battle for a group of established users who already have equipment and a provider.

With the coming era of convergence the basic impulse represented by the Neuf Easygate package could easily be extended. Settop DVR boxes are rapidly becoming the standard among digital cable customers. What you have with one of those babies is a hard-drive equiped computer with enough firepower to drive digital video—no mean feat. For a minimal amount more that same computer could be equiped with Linux, a bit more ram, another few cheap I/O interfaces and, presto changeo, you’ve got: ……a Tivo. That’s precisely what TiVo is and with several of the major cable companies having cut deals to put TiVo software on their boxes (including Cox (yes, our Cox) and Comcast) TiVo has already designed cable-box software.

TiVo’s settop box deals are proof of concept: you can marry a Linux computer and a settop box. The final step could be LUS’ to take. Why not liberate the computer side of that sort of box? With special software and the coming wave of new, digital TV’s the screen could be the TV and all you’d need in addition would be an inexpensive wireless keyboard and a the purchase of the internet subscription to be online. Putting your internet computer inside the settop box would sneak internet-capable computers into the maximum number of households possible and lower the barriers to entry to the bare minimum.

It’s hard to think of another strategy more likely to grow the market for LUS’ product–nor one more likely to bridge the digital divide.

Maybe smart marketing and pursuing the common good need not be too far apart.

Headend Facility to be in Interstate Park

Lafayette’s “headend” facility will be located at the junction of Interstates 10 & 49 according to a report in this morning’s Advertiser. LUS is going to the LPUA (the city subset of the council) this evening to introduce an ordinance that would authorize the purchase of the land from LEDA at a cost of $375,000; the building will come in at another $900, 000 or so.

The headend will house the bulk of the technical equipment necessary to offer services, content, and interconnections for the new network. This will be the “heart” of the network with the satellite downlink for the cable services, a processing center for things like making phone connections, and, the setup for making the link to the backbone internet carrier/s. It’ll be a big facility housing a buncha of nifty things. This would be a natural place to house the server and online storage facilities necessitated by some of the services LUS will be offering.

It’s location in LEDA’s Interstate Industrial Park (image via LEDA, click for a big version that shows LUS’ 8.59 acre lot in the back) is a natural in that it is located at the intersection of the big backbone fiber that runs besides both interstates—backbone fiber to which LUS will need to connect. A close peek at the map will reveal that “Level 3,” a major internet backbone provider, is also located in the park where it has a regeneration operation. Level(3) is one of the most important internet companies of which you have probably never heard. From the wikipedia entry:

Based on the amount of Internet traffic on Level 3’s IP backbone, Level 3 is among the largest Internet carriers in the world. Through Level 3’s dial-up ISP customers, the company’s dial-up infrastructure is accessible to approximately 90% of the U.S. population. When a typical Internet user at home dials the Internet using a modem in the U.S., there is better than a one-in-three chance that their call is being completed within a Level 3 data center.

Not a bad next-door neighbor to have.

Perhaps a bit oddly, people here in Lafayette are reassured when LUS goes out and spends money on this (a lot of people were thrilled when architects were chosen recently). Spending money is solid, boots-on-the-ground evidence that we are actually going to get what we voted for.

Things are begining to happen and I, for one, am thrilled.

(Thanks to Mike for the heads up on Level(3).)

Cox Small Business “Deal” No Deal

Cox has been rolling out business services in Lafayette recently and if you are a small business owner you might have seen a large glossy postcard like the one at right recently. (Click for a larger image.) A friendly downtown businessman passed me this one not too long ago. He was pretty dismissive—and was right. It’s way too early to take the paltry offers Cox is currently making very seriously.

Cox has been vigorously promoting its small business services recently. Compared to BellSouths’ (oops, AT&T’s) traditional offerings their sales force is no doubt are a welcome competitive sight for most small business folk. Small businesses have had no practical alternative to the phone company’s lock on the telecom market in both data and voice and Cox has moved aggressively into that space. —By all accounts its been successful as well, which is no surprise considering the way the phone company has exploited its monopoly in this market. (If you think America’s residential broadband is irrationally costly….)

But Cox’s recent mailer doesn’t make much of an offer—if you stop to read the small print. Cox is offering you a free month of service. If you lock into at least a 3 year contract. With installations fees, availability restrictions, and no service guarantees….

3 years! That works out to less than a 3% break in return for locking a business into Cox as a provider while all the real price breaks are being offered. Three years takes you into 2010, and LUS will be offering competitive services via a fiber to their clients door in by the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. It’s hard to believe that LUS won’t provide more for less–just as they are doing with their residential service. But whether you agree with that judgment or not it is a lead pipe cinch that this little offer is the smallest discount that Cox will offer over the next three years. As soon as Cox makes real strides locally you can count on the ponderous AT&T beginning to offer discounts of its own. Cox will have to respond. And as LUS’ launch looms the deals will start getting really good.

Small business owners ought not let themselves be played by this offer. Ask for a real discount. And don’t agree to any terms that extends your obligation beyond the date when the real price cutting will commence.

Real competition is coming. But it is not here yet.

Cox to build Broussard’s WiFi?

There’s interesting by-play being reported in the Advertiser today. The town of Broussard, just south of Lafayette is set to renew its cable franchise with Cox….and install a government-use WiFi system there. Anybody besides me think this is the opening move in a years-long chess match between LUS and Cox in Lafayette Parish and Acadiana? From the short story:

The cable company has agreed to provide the city with wireless Internet for the police and fire departments and city administration. “We’ll pay a nominal fee for the service,” said Mayor Charles Langlinais shortly after the March 28 City Council meeting. “Whether they expand city-wide will be dependent on them.”
One point under negotiation has been the fact that the company is not required to provide service in rural areas, unless there are at least 40 residents per linear mile, Langlinais said.
Langlinais recommended lowering the number to 25 per mile, which he estimated will provide the opportunity for cable to most residents of the Broussard area.

There are at least three pieces of context that a reader should take into account.

  1. Cox does not, anywhere to my knowledge, do municipal wi-fi.
  2. Langlinais has been a very vocal supporter of the LUS project and
  3. Broussard has talked about putting up its own wi-fi system; a system which would have run afoul of the anti-Lafayette “Local Government Fair Competition Act.”

Juxtaposing those three reveals a nexus of conflicting interests and local politics. What’s going on? What are the interests of Cox, the city of Broussard, and local citizens?

Why would Cox offer a totally new service to a small town in south-central Louisiana? In doing this Cox is substantially adding to the list of things a local community can demand in its franchise agreements. Every city wants wifi. The cachet of being a wireless city is being pursued by cities ranging from tier 1 cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco to tiny places like Chaska, Minnesota. The idea that just any little city can forgo all the pain of building its own wireless net or enticing a commercial entry with tax funds, tax givebacks, or exclusive contracts in order to get them to do so is just stunning. If Broussard can just attach wi-fi to its franchise agreement upon renewal why can’t anyone? This is a big deal–perhaps a bigger deal nationally than it will be locally.

That Cox is willing to go this far reveals some things: This offer reveals that Cox takes widely-speculated-on elements LUS’ expansion very seriously and feels compelled to respond.

  1. They believe that LUS will build a wi-fi network as part of its fiber-opitc build. (I am confident they are right—but no such announcement has been issued.)
  2. They believe that LUS is poised to extend its retail telecom presence into the parish outside its traditional city footprint. (I think they are right—but no such announcement has been made.)
  3. They are terrified that the addition of wireless services will give LUS a large advantage. So large that they believe that Cox can’t afford not to respond with a preemptive product of its own even if it has to offer it out of sequence with its national plans. (Which, they have hinted, will someday include their own wireless product.)

As a consequence they are willing to use Broussard to place a roadblock to LUS’ expansion to the south even at some risk to its larger corporate interests. The City of Broussard won’t be available as an anchor tenant on any LUS system.

I won’t be shocked if Cox tries to launch such a system in Lafayette proper. But I will be surprised. Competing with LUS’ wireless system will be very hard: LUS will be running off a dense fiber network and that will enable it to run a system that will be as far ahead of other wifi networks as its FTTH system will be ahead of other wired competitors. I expect 30 times the bandwidth provisioning of conventional muni wifi networks. Entering into competition with that could be embarrassing.

Broussard & Langlinais
If Cox’s interests are clear, so are Broussard’s—and Langlinais’.

Municipal wifi is almost universally a mayoral project. Securing a major, new, hot, “visionary” service for its citizens (at no cost) has got to look good to any mayor.

That aside, Broussard is, I strongly suspect, playing a smart game with its franchise agreement. Typically municipalities have NO leverage come franchise renewal time. In the normal course of events the cable company knows that there is no practical chance a competitor will enter the fray and give local citizens choices. Given its practical monopoly status, no city council will dare endanger their citizen’s cable television shows. (You think potholes are a big local issue? Try disturbing a man’s Sunday afternoon football game. Or access to Opra. NO way.)

But Broussard has managed to get city-wide wifi (with a “possibility” of residential access). That alone is an amazing feat. Broussard is also negotiating with Cox for an expansion of its build-out. Changing from a density requirement of 40 per linear mile to one of 25 might not sound impressive to some. Such folks might want to take a good look a map of Broussard. Broussard—much more than any of the other communities surrounding Lafayette—has incorporated huge swaths of rural land with only the spottiest development. Some large tracts have no development at all. Changing this requirement will mean that many new areas will get service (and you can bet Mayor Langlinais knows just who should be grateful). Nation-wide the phone companies are driving hard to eliminate municipal franchising precisely so they won’t have to serve all parts of the community; especially poor and sparsely settled areas. Cable companies have mostly been going along, asking only for an equal ability to not serve whoever they don’t think will yield a large profit. What is not on the table is increasing build-out requirements during franchise re-negotiations.

Should this plan go through Broussard will have pulled of an almost unimaginable coup, getting governmental wifi, a potential retail wifi network, AND forcing Cox to serve a greater portion of its citizens. For this Langlinais and Broussard will owe the citizens of Lafayette who have created a credible competitive alternative to the local Cox cable TV monopoly a vote of thanks. (Eatel’s competition, those with long memories may note, did the citizens of East Ascension a similar favor.)

So the citizens of Broussard are in for what looks like a really good deal. At least in the short run. And for as long as neither the Feds nor the state of Louisiana succeed in stripping franchising power from local governments. But the citizens should be going down to the city council and asking some hard questions. Questions which will determine whether this short-term treat is a long-term good deal. I suggest starting with:

  1. How long will the new contract run? How long is the city locked into Cox as its wireless provider?
  2. Will Cox’s system have mobile capacity? (A huge advantage for police and firefighters.)
  3. How robust will the system be? (LUS’ will be huge–potentially running at 30 megs, a speed unheard of in muni wifi.)
  4. Is there any exclusivity element in the wifi agreement? Can others come in and compete?
  5. Does the city have any influence on what Cox charges its citizens in return for use of city-owned poles and rights-of-way?
  6. Is there any revenue sharing on the retail wifi end in return for the use of city property–as there is for Cox’s cable TV product?
  7. Just how “nominal” is the nominal cost for governmental services?
  8. Will citizens be allowed to access the system while on city property–say while doing research at city hall?

One question about LUS’ system is absolutely put to rest by this development. I’ve heard people ask what possible benefit LUS’ fiber-optic network will be to the rest of the parish. I’ve not heard this as much since LUS ran fiber to every school in the parish. But this development shows what an astounding benefit the tonic of even the threat of a little competition can bring to surrounding communities.

Saturday Fun: Google Maps

Google has just released a new way to have a little useful fun on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon: Google “My Maps.” Google is offering you an online interface to make your own map overlays and generously stores the information online so that you can share them with others.

Now if you first reaction is “So what?”–well you might be right but give it a chance; I think it is more useful than it sounds. An example is in order: Let’s suppose that you’ve got out-of-town friends coming in for Festival International in two weeks (who doesn’t?) and you want to throw a nice picnic lunch in Girard Park on Saturday afternoon. They’ll be scattered all over downtown Lafayette when the time comes. How do you give them a useful way to find their way to the park. (It’s hard for even locals to find a specific place in Girard Park–never mind visitors having to find the park!) Google “my maps” to the rescue. Send the the link to a map showing the relationship of the two venues you’ve built and let them find their own way. A different click shows where in Girard Park you are supposed to meet—and where to find parking.

Now that’s useful, isn’t it? And it’s easy enough to be practical. Try it out for yourself: Google up “Google Maps” in your browser (how else?). In the left hand box you’ll notice a new tab: “My Maps.” Click it. In the resulting new box you’ll see a “create new box” link. Click it. You will arrive at a new page that has all the tools you’ll need. It is pretty self-explanatory but help is available online. Come on, it’ll be fun. How about mapping out your favorite downtown bar-hopping route. Or making a good, clean, overlay that shows where all those obscurely numbered soccer fields are at Moore Park. Or locating your family’s RV parking spot for the Mardi Gras parades? Its great for any location where you’ve had a hard time describing how to get there over the cell.

This is all part of the much-heralded “Web 2.0” which doesn’t seem to have much of a fixed meaning but which does always seem to have something to do with one set of users providing content that other users need. If you make your new map “public” it can be found during a google search. (Searching on “Moore Park, Lafayette, map, and Soccer fields” might actually turn up something useful.)

It’s stuff like this that will be crucial in making the web more useful at the local level–and enourage more folks to see the value of all this “fiber and internet stuff.”

Lagniappe: Try pulling up a close-up of the Festival area. Then search parking “Parking Garage.” …Nifty, hunh?

“Panel to offer solutions for crossing ‘digital divide’”

The Advocate this morning carries a short story on the reconvening of the digital divide committee that submitted its ideas to the council two years ago.—The plan was the endorsed by the council in an ordinance. The basic idea is pretty straightforward:

The plan is to have the committee come up with concrete ways to implement some of its prior recommendations, LUS Director Terry Huval said at a Lafayette City-Parish Council meeting last month…

It likely will take 18 months for the first customer to receive service, LUS officials have said.

The digital-divide work will follow that same 18-month timeline, so that those plans will be rolled out at the same time as service, Huval said.

He said the committee will update the council on its work in July.

It’s worth emphasizing that charge in this round will be to come up with concrete ways to implement the points in the original plan. It will mean getting down to the nitty-gritty of who does what–and where any necessary money will come from.

It won’t all be administrative work, however: considerable thought will also need to be devoted to thinking about ways to implement the report’s principles. The original plan established a series of “core principles” and suggested examples of ways to enact those principles. In the two years since the report was issued several of its more futuristic suggestions have actually become fairly commonplace. For instance, suggestions that the speed of Lafayette’s system would make it practical to put basic programs like word processing or spreadsheets on servers to cut down on the costs of participation sounded a little like science fiction. In the subsequent two years several major players are providing such services cheaply. Indeed, Google has a whole suite of such online programs. The passage of merely two years makes this particular attempt cut down on the costs of entering the digital world a foregone conclusion.

It should be very interesting and well-worth following.

How Video Franchising Works

They’ve got some experience under their belt with state video franchising in Virgina and, according to an article in the Newport News paper, some of the opponents’ worst fears are being realized. Verizon, who is building out a Fiber to the Privileged (FTTP) network (If this is unfamiliar territory drop to the bottom and read up on the background to this story.)

The map submitted to the city of Newport News also leaves out the greatest concentration of poor, black residents in the Southeast community. This map is supposed to include the plans for the first three years of service.

No surprise, eh? But it is interesting that nobody wanted the public to know:

When asked by the Daily Press, both Newport News and Verizon officials initially denied that they had a map of the service territory.

Of course, these guys have to have maps of their service area. How else could they possibly roll trucks to install service or tell customers whether or not they can have the new FTTP service? Why not just say so? Well part of it is that it is embarrassing for both–the phone company doesn’t want to admit to doing what it promised the legislature that it wouldn’t just last year. The city doesn’t want to admit that it doesn’t have the power any longer to force the company to serve all of it citizens in return for using their property. But their common interest is in keeping the new map secret from the cable company. The new state law requires equal treatment (of corporations, not citizens, mind you):

Part of the compromise from last year’s legislation means that existing and new cable companies must be treated equally. If the city grants a new competitor such as Verizon more favorable terms than those put on Cox, they must also allow Cox to switch to the new agreement.

So Cox could use that clause to back out of an area that it no longer wanted to serve–if the phone company wasn’t planning to serve it–and state law says that a municpality can never require more than 80 percent coverage. That 20 percent that was to be permanently left out? As we’ve already seen: the poor, minority areas. That’s fair, right? A level playing field?

That’s the way state-wide video franchising works.

[Time out for Background]
The battle over state-level video franchising laws is spreading with Verizon and our own AT&T being the major proponents. While Louisiana escaped last year’s version of this law, with state-level video franchising still being pushed across the nation and a version being pushed by the FCC it’s worthwhile to notice how its working out in other places. Opponents have claimed that redlining out minorities and the poor in order to gain a competitive advantage over traditional cable companies whose franchise agreements with local governments have required them to serve all segments of the community. Phone corporations, they claim, have wanted to raid only the most profitable segments of the markets and leave low-profit neighborhoods to the cable companies whose past contracts had required them to serve the whole community.

State video franchising is a scheme pushed by the phone companies that allows those companies to enter into the business cable business without getting the same permission to use local municipal property for which cable companies have traditionally had to negotiate. (Without using local rights-of-way to run their cables companies like
Cox and Comcast would not be able to get their services to local residences. Traditionally contracts that allow the cable company to use municipal property in exchange for cash payments, in-kind provisions, and universal service commitments, are called “cable franchises.”)
[/Time out for Background]

Blueprint Bears Watching

John Hill of Gannett’s state bureau reports in today with a story that focuses on “Blueprint Louisiana.” Blueprint Louisiana is an organization of business leaders with a $50,000 buy-in fee that aims to effect reforms in Louisiana. The Lafayette hook is that the organization is reported to be the brainchild of Matt Stuller of Lafayette and his first powerhouse allies were associates Fenstermaker and Allen of the city.

The hook for readers committed to the success of Lafayette’s telecommunications utility is that both Cox and AT&T/BS have bought into the organization. Jaqui Vines of Cox Baton Rouge/Acadiana and Bill Oliver of AT&T Louisiana have had memberships purchased for them. And that’s worth worrying about.

Most of the members listed in the Gannetts’ story sidebar are Louisiana business owners. They can legitimately be said to be representing themselves regardless of whether they paid for their membership out of their own pockets or the resources of businesses which they own. The same is not necessarily true of members drawn from the banking and the telecommunications industry. Their membership is paid for by the organizations of which they are employees and their participation is reasonably construed to be as a representative of their businesses rather than themselves.

The most visible cause of the group is a worthy one: ethics reform. Businesses as well as citizens can be for good government. Long-time denizens of Louisiana will be forgiven for recalling the unhappy path that business reform movements in Louisiana have sometimes taken: one need only refer to PAR (Public Affairs Research council) for a lesson in how a strong reform organization can lose its punch and be reduced to churning out reports that simply oppose any and all taxes after its capture by a purely business-oriented board. It’s been a long time since PAR was viewed as an independent force–and Louisiana (and PAR) is weaker for that. This issue is raised forcefully in a recent Advocate article:

The emergence of one more business group to engage in politics raises at least two questions:

  • Are Louisiana residents mad enough — do they want to be saved from old-style Louisiana politics?
  • Is this the kind of salvation they want — an agenda written by business leaders?…

To win mass support for its list, Blueprint Louisiana might have to prove it’s out to help everybody, not just its members.

Blueprint is not limiting itself to ethics reform, even if that is what animates core members. But several reports (1, 2) assert that it will limit itself to good government and quality of life issues like education. That would be wise.

An organization like Blueprint, which intends to support candidates, write legislation, and support a cadre of lobbyists is ripe with potential for fudging the line to support the interests of its members over the interests of the state as whole.

The most immediate cause for concern is Cox and AT&T/BS who have shown that, without any doubt, they are willing to support measures which damage the best interests of Louisiana communities if there is advantage in it for them. The so-called “Local Government Fair Competition Act” which attempted to stop or at least cripple Lafayette’s project is one. Those corporations were unwilling to compromise on that law even after Katrina and Rita demonstrated the inadequacy of their own networks to serve the public good. Their (ultimately) joint advocacy of a state-wide video franchise law that shifts control over locally-owned rights-of-way essential to their businesses to a complaisant state legistlature is a textbook example of bad policy.

Blueprint would be smart to avoid any “development” issue, and especially any telecom-related issue if it wants to be a credible force for reform in Louisiana. With Cox and BellSouth on board Blueprint bears watching.