WBS: Delays Pay in Lafayette Fiber Project!

What’s Being Said dept.

Friend of Lafayette David Isenberg comments on the latest in the Lafayette Fiber To The Home saga in the post: Delays Pay in Lafayette Fiber Project! In it he celebrates the silver lining of the dark cloud of incumbent delay:

The kicker is that the cost of the delay, including $1.1 million in legal fees, have been more than offset by technology improvements in the last three years that lower the cost and make the buildout faster.

He’s got a point, I’ll reluctantly grant.

More, it appears that we didn’t pay a price in terms of the cost of the bonds over the years of the delay. Though the interest rate has steadily risen since the council voted the go-ahead in 04, the municipal bond market has not tracked that as I once mistakenly thought. The interest rates paid by municipal bonds were higher in 2004 than they are today. So, all things equal, we’ve saved money over the life of the bonds by the delay. On the other hand if we could have sold in 2006 we’d have got a better deal yet as municipal rates were lower then. (See munibondadvisor.com for revealing graphs.)

Isenberg does, however, correctly note the opportunity cost lost:

(Of course, we will never know the cost of not having the network in place three years earlier.)

But in terms of cash outlays, technology, and the speed of the build itself, the delays have not hurt Lafayette.

Lafayette’s Bus Routes to be Tracked Live

Here’s a little dream that you should see live by the end of the summer: A webpage that tracks the position of all the city buses in real time.

The Advertiser runs the story this morning. The gist:

“This allows us to give information to the public,” Mitchell said.

“They can go online and see where their bus is in relation to their bus stop in real time.”

Those who use the online service will be able to set an alarm at a specific point on the route, that will alert them when their bus reaches that point on the map in relation to the bus stop, Mitchell said.

Now that is nifty. There are all sorts of public safety, scheduling, and efficiency reasons to keep close track on the position of your buses. (The major package delivery corporations and many of the long-haul trucking firms and airlines already do this. —I recently was able to track a friends’ flight from San Antonio to Lafayette in real time on the carrier’s website. We left the house when the plane hit the parish line and met her coming off the breezeway.)

There’s not much in the way of a hint as to how this info will be provided. It’d be great if it could be provided in a format that would allow anyone to use it…for instance to provide a feed that would be usable on a cell phone or as a module on a community commons site.

(Google is testing a format for such….Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Here’s an example of how this works. The current iteration of the Google labs project doesn’t include a real-time feed that uses GPS data. But it is pretty clear that the right programmer could add that relatively simply using the Google API and tools like Gadgets to overlay the updated GPS coordinates. See Austin‘s implementation. (Hah!!! See update below, the overlay’s already been done.))

As fun as this is now imagine how useful it will be once the fiber-based wifi system is operational. Take your laptop, iphone, blackberry, cell or other net-connected device and track where your bus is now. No uncertainty, no trying to remember all the schedules for all the buses. You can be an occasional user. One of the differentiators for many people between large cities and small towns is how useful the public transit system is. Large cities like Chicago or San Francisco already use a version of this. Properly implemented this could go a long way toward making it practical — and comfortable — for people who do not have to use the transit system to do so. The folks downtown realize that:

Mitchell said the Web site combined with the GPS tracking is another method to make people aware of Lafayette’s bus system and how it works.

“This is another way we can get people to ride the buses and make it more convenient for our riders,” Mitchell said.

Good for the transit folks. Good for Lafayette. It will be a huge improvement over the current set of online pdf schedule maps which don’t appear to have been updated recently.

Update!!!.…in my poking about a bit more I found just what I want for Lafayette–Look at this google-based overlay of data piped through NextBus for San Francisco. It appears to update every 30 seconds or so. The google underpinning is free; all NextBus had to do was provide a java-based overlay of the current GPS reading for each bus. It works on my Mac, your PC, and any mobile device that can browse the web and play the java applet.

Creating a Lafayette Commons

Here’s something that’s worth the read on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It’s an inspiring essay titled “Reclaiming the Commons” by David Bollier. He bitterly complains about the growing tendency to allow our common resources and heritage —from concrete public property like oil or grazing rights on public land, to more abstract rights to goods created by regulation like the electro-magnetitc spectrum, to truly abstract (but very real and increasingly valuable) rights to common ideas and intellectual resources— those common resources are being taken from us and handed over to the few.

The argument is that we are all poorer for it. And that society would be richer if those things remained in the public domain. He convincingly argues that undue private ownership of ideas stifles the invention of new variants and new ideas.

The point for Lafayette is that we are about to create a new common resource: the Lafayette fiber intranet, and we are creating it as a publicly-owned resource. If Bollier is right then we have a real responsibility to make sure that our common property serves the common good and that it not be “enclosed” by the few.

We here in Lafayette will be in the nearly unique position of commonly owning a completely up-to-date telecommunications infrastructure ranging from a fiber-all-the-way-to-the-home network, to a wifi network using the capacity of that fiber. A citizen who wants to will be able to get all of his telecommunications needs met using local resources, resources that are owned in common.

A lot of what is missing on the web is access to local resources-the church calendar, the schedule for the shrimp truck, what vegetables are available at the farmer’s market, specials at the local restaurants, nearby childcare, adult ed resources, local jobs…and much more aren’t available or are the next best thing to impossible to usefully gather in one place. We could, by acting together, fix that.

Creating a thriving network-based commons is the task that is set before us. Bollier gives us some insight into the magnitude of what is at stake. We can, by the way we participate and what we create, create a truly common and truly valuable resource.

Give the Bollier article a look. Then think a bit about what we can do to make ours a transparently valuable network–one that will encourage all to participate fully.

(Hey, we can be idealists if we want. :-))

AT&T sez: “Your Network Are Belong To Us”

The “Lafayette did the right thing on July 16th 2005” department:

AT&T has reasserted its intention to dig through every packet you send over the internet to decide if it (not a court or a policeman) thinks that your content should be blocked. It boils downt to this: they think that, if on the balance, they would benefit financially from blocking your content they should be allowed to. And they are willing to say so straightforwardly.

Anyone who thinks the Net Neutrality wars are over has got another think coming. And, as before, AT&T (nee SBC & BS) is leading the way in demanding a newly privatized, corporatized internet. Connoisseurs of net history will recall that AT&T Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre kicked off the net neutrality wars by asserting the right to overthrown the common carriage rules that are in place and to establish fast, privileged lanes for special (read: large, wealthy, paying) purveyors of content. Their stuff would go to the head of the line. Your stuff would….wait. Last winters’ net neutrality battle that raged over the internet and in Congress and which eventually killed what seemed at one time a sure-thing telecom “reform” bill was a direct result of Whitacres impolitic utterances. (If you think that Big Ed’s recent retirement changes things you might want to read Mike’s recent post on his successor: it’s not Ed, is not his clone Stephenson, its not the senior VP whose interview kicks off this review–it’s the corporate culture of AT&T.)

Here’s the gist of the story from the LATimes:

In mid-March, executives at Viacom and the Motion Picture Assn. of America separately approached [AT&T senior vice president] Cicconi with the idea of a partnership. Content providers have long looked for a network solution to piracy, but no operator had been willing to join with them.

AT&T thought about it and:

The company’s top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.

Leading to a summit of sorts:

Last week, about 20 technology executives from Viacom Inc., its Paramount movie studio and other Hollywood companies met at AT&T headquarters to start devising a technology that would stem piracy but not violate privacy laws or Internet freedoms espoused by the Federal Communications Commission.

Now that’s a misleading “but.” The current FCC’s position is that everything the Telecoms want to do is hunky dory from refusing to investigate illegal wiretapping to allowing the reconstitution of the nation’s largest telecom monopoly: AT&T. Really, the spectacle of AT&T getting pious over Hollywood’s piracy laws is really smoke and mirrors. After all AT&T has been totally uninterested in helping prevent piracy when piracy was a profit center for them–when it helped them sell broadband. What has changed is that AT&T has decided it wants to be in the good graces of the Hollywood moguls who control the video content the company will have to buy in order to offer cable-like IPTV. To wit:

As AT&T has begun selling pay-television services, the company has realized that its interests are more closely aligned with Hollywood, Cicconi said in an interview Tuesday. The company’s top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.

Now people DO notice when this sort of shuffling is going on. Gigi Sohn of Public knowledge remarks:

“AT&T is going to act like the copyright police, and that is going to make customers angry,” she said. “The good news for AT&T is that there’s so little competition that where else are the customers going to go?”

Just for the record, not every corporation is a craven as AT&T:

Verizon Communications Inc., which has fiercely guarded the privacy of its customers, has refused so far to offer a network anti-piracy tool. It defeated in court the recording industry’s demands to reveal names of those allegedly involved in downloading pirated songs.

AT&T is wondering if they can’t use Hollywood to get them permission to call the current internet broken and allow the the sort of deep packet inspection and content provder surcharges that they’ve been after recently. That argument failed last year in Congress because it failed so badly with the internet-using public. The potential new plan is all too transparent: Perhaps the “only” way to “secure” copyrighted works would be to make sure they are only downloaded from the owners’ websites and to interdict all other copies. AT&T would deep packet inspect all of your little bits and bytes…and Google’s…and anyone else who didn’t pay the vigorish to get put on the “pre-approved” list. Their (paid for) downloads would be fast, yours and other’s (unpaid) would get the slow inspection. Imagine waiting in line while some dim-witted mechanized inspector paws through your stuff and asks you if you really own your underwear…while a select few zip past “pre-approved” by virtue of having paid of the private security guards–legally, of course. (Does this sound utterly unlikely and too unnatural to be a real possibility? If you think so you’ve not been watching the parallel madness over “Goodmail” with whom our local “friend in the digital age” Cox recently joined. If you pay Goodmail, which pays Cox, you can bypass Cox’s spam filters….this is presented as a “solution” to the spam problem!)

Such stuff should be illegal; it is an abuse of the ownership of a vital transport utility. In our history railroads, canals, and shipping lanes were not allowed to establish “favorites.” That was the essence of common carriage. We shouldn’t allow the current robber barons to change that.

The solution for individuals is to move your personal accounts to a small, reasonably priced provider who is more beholden to you than to large corporate accounts. I recently moved my and my wife’s email domains to a provider who allows me to turn off and on their spam filtering after overly aggressive filtering bounced legitimate emails sent from both regional Cox and BellSouth servers as spam. With my new provider people no longer complain that my server is bouncing their legitimate mail back to them. My new provider gives me complete control. Frankly, most folks don’t want to have to go that far to protect themselves; they’d rather they had a provider they could trust. Unfortunately, in most communities as in Lafayette, the incumbents have demonstrated that they are not worthy of that trust.

The solution for communities is to own your own last mile. It’s not just that you’ll get a better price. (Though you will.) It’s not just that you’ll get better tech. (Though you will.) It’s that you’ll get a system owner that you can trust, one that owes its first allegiance to you and not to the cash flow your subscription offers distant, self-interested owners.

That is why Lafayette made the right decision on July 16th two years ago when it voted to build and operate its own fiber-optic network.

“All our networks are belong to us.”

Fiber Bonds Authorized

I attended last night’s “special and historic joint meeting” of the Lafayette Parish Utility Authority and the City-Prish Council and can report with considerable satisfaction that Lafayette’s fiber to the home project is now a done deal. With the now-ritual dual votes–first the LPUA votes and then the whole council votes on the same proposal–the official stamp of approval was put on the sale of bonds that was all but completed as the councilmen voted. That vote, as pro forma as it was, removed the last potential legal impediment to the construction of our FTTH network.

Both Blanchard of the Advocate and Taylor of the Advertiser have published accounts of the story they’ve covered since April of ’04. They’re both worth your read.

The executive summary on the story: only 110.5 million of 125 million authorized by the people was offered for sale and all but 20% of them were sold as of last night. They went for 4.9%–considerably under the 5.5% anticipated by the business plan. A successful sale…

From the Advertiser:

“Certainly this is a day we’ve all been waiting for,” said LUS Director Terry Huval…

The City-Parish Council and Lafayette Public Utilities Authority authorized the sale of $110.4 million in revenue bonds to build the much-anticipated, controversial fiber-to-the-home project.

Lafayette Utilities System received a favorable bond rating of A2 from Moody’s and A-minus from Standard and Poors, said Jerry Osborne, bonding attorney for LUS. The 4.9 percent interest rate is better than what was available two years ago but not as good as a few months ago, he said.

From the Advocate:

Low interest rates are the sincerest form of flattery,” Osborne said.

Three years ago, LUS presented a business plan as part of a required feasibility study that showed the project would be successful with 50 percent of the market, borrowing the money at a 5.5 percent interest rate.

The actual 4.9 percent interest rate is lower, meaning it will cost less for LUS to borrow money.

Additionally, in the three years since the project was first proposed, the cost of technology has fallen, LUS Director Terry Huval said. That will all make it easier for LUS to meet its goal to provide its bundled services at 20 percent below what its competitors charge, Huval said.

The Advertiser:

Officials expect to close on the sale of the bonds June 28. Within 18 months, the first LUS customer should be receiving high-speed Internet, telephone and television service through the fiber optic network. Two years later, all LUS customers who want the fiber service should be receiving it, Huval said.

Customers may be connected faster than that since the technology for installing fiber and connecting homes has advanced in the years that the project was delayed by lawsuits, he said.


“This has been a long struggle, a very difficult journey,” [Bond Attorney] Osborne said…

“I think the next four years is going to be something to see around here,” Council Chairman Rob Stevenson said

Amen to those sentiments.

Update 6/13/07: My wife and I just put in an order for our very own “Communications System Revenue Bonds, Series 2007, City of Lafayette, State of Louisiana” fiber optic bonds. Call your agent and you too can own a piece of the future.

The INDsider: LUS sells fiber bonds


The bonds to build Lafayette’s Fiber network are being sold as we speak. LUS is moving ahead aggressively to get their money and to get going.

The scoop from the Independent Blog:

LUS’ long-awaited bond sale for its fiber-to-the-home project should be nearly wrapped up by the end of the day. The bonds were priced and put on the market yesterday and today.

On bond rating and pricing:

..Standard and Poor’s gave the project an A- rating and Moody’s awarded an A2. Both ratings are only one step below LUS’ regular bond rating of A and A1. But with bond insurance, purchased through XL Capital, LUS still receives a AAA rating with investors. This all translates into an interest rate slightly under 5 percent for the $110.45 million in bonds LUS is selling for the project. In its original feasibility study, LUS had projected having an interest rate of 5 1/2 percent.

“We were very pleased with those results,” Huval says. “We’ve got the best rating we could have hoped to have gotten out of this.” He adds that the bond agencies spoke highly of both LUS’ ability to handle large projects, such as the two new generating plants that were built on time and on budget, as well as the merits of the fiber initiative.

Those are great ratings and the interest rates are within the plan’s guidelines. Messing up the bond issue was the last, best hope of the incumbent opposition to inflict a little more pain on Lafayette before the build begins. That attempt failed. (But we should be mindful that the delay has and will cost the people of Lafayette real money in addition to the original offense of standing in our way. Holding a grudge, for at least awhile, is appropriate.)

—The train is picking up speed as it leaves the station. Alllll Aboard!


Update 6/13/07: This week’s issue of the Independent is out today and contains a longer version of this story.

Huval Reveals Plans @ the Martin Luther King Center

Terry Huval set down in front of a group of citizens at the Martin Luther King center last night, took a deep breath and issued a soliloquy on the Fiber To The Home (FTTH) project.

Councilman Chris Williams holds a monthly “Real Talk” meeting at the center on Cora that features local issues and worthies and the worthy last night was Huval and the topic: “Update on the Fiber to the Home and Utility Issues.” Much of it we’ve heard before but to get it all in one place and directly from the horse’s mouth was a treat that revealed how the head of the system is thinking about the project. But there was some pretty significant “new” news and a set of equally significant reaffirmations.

New News:

  1. Parallel deployment of a WiFi network. Previously I’d understood a “soon-after” deployment schedule. This will no doubt still depend on the initial testing working out well but this is now the plan. And it is MOST welcome news. Once it spreads into the national media we’ll get a lot of interested and envious comment. (I think this is the smart way to deploy wireless.)
  2. LUS will roll out fiber more quickly than originally planned: the schedule we’ve heard involved an 18 month wait from the bond sale to serving the first customer, that is, somewhere around the first of the year in 2009. (Someone is gonna get a nice Christmas present.) It was to take three years to complete the buildout city-wide. Huval is now saying that advances in deployment technology will allow him to cut that time by a third to two years making Lafayette a fully-fibered city by the dawn of 2011…
  3. Our slowest speed will be faster than their fastest speed;” and you will get what you pay for. The internet portion of the services LUS will offer will be faster than the incumbents’ current fastest speed which, when I checked the web, is Cox’s 12 meg “Premier” speed. That’s a bit of a surprise even to me–I’d previously heard that the lowest internet tier would be 10 megs and was plenty impressed by that. Huval also emphasized that LUS would make sure that you get the advertised speed. If LUS sells you 10 megs you’ll get 10 megs if you check a speedtest like the one at the Communications Workers of America site. —I just checked and I got about 3 megs download and 555 k upload on Cox’s 7 meg package using the CWA speedtest (@9:30 AM). I’d be interested in hearing your mileage in the comments. That is pretty respectable vis-a-vis the nation but it isn’t half of my package speed.
  4. 50-70 channels on the basic cable package. Contrast with 22 for Cox. This may not be new but I don’t seem to recall it from before.

Significant Reaffirmations:

  1. Intranet speeds, aka peer to peer speed, aka full insystem bandwidth, aka cool. Too new to have a settled name this is the greatest, least understood feature of the new network. It embodies Internet equity: Every Lafayette internet subscriber will, regardless of how much they pay for their connection, be able to communicate with anyone else on the network at the full speed available at that moment. Citizen-subscribers are equals on the Lafayette network. This policy underlines the difference between a community-owned resource and a for-profit company. With it Lafayette becomes the ultimate testbed for new big-bandwidth services like video telephony and sophisticated conferencing setups that require large numbers of diverse users with ultra-highspeed, symmetrical bandwidth for a honest field test. This will allow our citizens’s tastes to help shape the future of the net. And it will shape our own future as a democratic community as we move forward together into an age where digitial communications shape our interactions.
  2. Retail WiFi. We will get a chance to add city-wide WiFi to our LUS telecom package. Can you say “Quadruple Play?” I’ve long hoped for this. Yay! Now what we need is a contract with a major cellphone carrier that will let us use WiFi phones in-city and their cell network outside.
  3. No hookup fees; no contracts. Go with LUS and you’ll never feel “trapped” in your contract because there will be no contract. The no hookup fee is a significant concession considering that Huval mentioned that he thought the cost would be 6-700 dollars per home to pull service from the street.
  4. 20% savings on the triple play. That’s still in place; I’d worried that in the years of incumbent-caused delay a lot has changed and that keeping that committment might be harder—but the promise is still in place.
  5. Symmetric Bandwidth. You buy a 12 meg package and you’ll get 12 megs of upload and download. Contrast that with my current Cox package: 7 megs down and 512 k up. Thats about a 14:1 ratio. LUS will charge me less, give me more speed down and much, much more speed up. I’m in. (I wonder if now is the time to start lobbying for static IP addresses?)

It’s coming folks. It’s coming.

Council to Approve Fiber Bond Ordinance

It took three years to get here, but the Lafayette City-Parish Council is expected today to take a big step toward making the fiber-to-the-home project a reality.

The council and Lafayette Public Utilities Authority are scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. today to adopt an ordinance authorizing the sale of bonds to build the fiber project. The meeting is at City Hall, 705 W. University Ave.

That the news as the Advertiser represents it. If things go true to form both the LPUA and the council itself will vote to approve sale. The LPUA, a subset of the council made up of city-of-Lafayette members, is the official governing body of LUS and hence the new telecom utility division but the approval of both bodies has been sought in the past, “just to make sure.”

It will be an historic vote that will clear the way for the bond sale. After tomorrow all that will be left is proceeding to the actual sale…and building the system.

ToDo: LibraryThing

Today’s ToDo: Go to LibraryThing and poke around. If you want to know what the web will be good for in its next cycle this is a place to visit and reflect upon.

If you’re a book geek you’ll have found a new home. If you’re social networking type, a natural extrovert, take a look–you can hang out with the sorts of folks who read Socrates….or Rowling (or, hey, join both groups). If you’re a web entrepreneur this is an absolutely grand place to take a close look at how to leverage user input into a real, paying business. It’s web 2.o in all its senses. For a site whose major hook is the utterly banal one that it will help you build a catalog of your books this is a wide range of appeals. But we all have our interests and LibraryThing manages to be attractive to a wide range of those interests. But don’t take my word for it, go and poke around. (The quickstart page would be a good place to go early.)

Book Geeks
I am a book geek. Even online I go for the printed word. I’ve got books on my walls. I’ve got (many) more books in boxes. I’ve got book boxes I haven’t unpacked in more than a decade. If I don’t have at least one book “going” I get uneasy. I have a pile that are as yet unread. I have a mental list in several topics of books I’d like to order when I clear out my current pile. I like books….It’s not all my fault. My mother was a librarian. I blame it on her. (She is also the reason I still have trouble writing in books.)

It is also my mother’s fault that I like catalogs of books and actually have a preference in cataloging systems. (Dewey Decimal just makes more sense–to me.) So naturally I like the LibraryThing. It makes it easy to keep track of my books. All it takes is the ISBN number. (If you don’t know what that is you are not a book geek; you are, at most, merely a lover of books.) The International Standard Book Number is a book’s unique identifier. Every edition has its own number. Give LibraryThing that number and it will go out onto the net and patiently build up a complete standard reference–and more. For instance, for most books, you can get an image of the cover of your edition. This is a verry nice thing for me since for a big chunk of my live while I was a grad student and professor I had a personal book and article database that included the ISBN of books. Built in HyperCard, it fit me perfectly…but it no longer runs on my latest machine. I keep it on an older ‘puter that I use as a server and kids machine but….the end is in sight. Presto! Export the ISBN numbers and upload them to LibraryThing and the basic reference data is preserved. I can then export them to various flavors of basic database files and I’ll have a nice, clean, vetted set of personalized references.

And yes, this is a good thing.

As lagniappe, it will use Amazon-style algorithms to suggest new books I might like based on my current library. It goes in and looks for similar patterns in other users’ libraries and recommends “missing” ones to me. Even with the random 35 ISBN’s I uploaded to test the system it was frightening just how accurate these recommendations were. I owned a majority of the top 10 and was familiar with all but one. (And I really ought to look into that one. It sounds very interesting. (Oh, of course, the recommendations link to reviews and all that…)) It will even toss your recommendations or library up on your net-enabled mobile phone for you to puruse at Barnes and Noble. Nice. Actually useful.

(You say you find typing in ISBN numbers tiresome? and can’t imagine typing in those arcane numbers for boxes and boxes of books?…you can scan in your ISBNs using a 15 dollar barcode scanner you plug into your computer. Zip, Zap, upload. Really. There’s a page on it.)

Social Networkers
It’s got all the social networking goodies. Groups for every genre, subgenre, author, and whatever category you’d like to start up a discussion around. You can publish your library, or not. You can tag your books and share those tags. Review books…argue with reviews. A real community of interest would be the basis for any communication you might have. You can find other users whose libraries have the most overlap with yours. (So, you are into Education, Social Cognition, Connectionism, and hard Science Fiction? There’s probably somebody out there whose interests overlap with your oddest obsessions. Write ’em.

Web Entrepreneurs
One of the most intriguing things about LibraryThing is the pretty clear monetary value the data you gather would have. It’s web 2.0 to the nth. ALL you ask your users for in exchange for the site and all its goodies is a list of their ISBN numbers. Given a large enough database you can predict users’ future book purchases. That is the most commercially valuable bit of information in the book (or any) trade. I am utterly confident, given how accurate they seemed to be for me, especially given th tiny set of titles and the oddities of my tastes, that other users will find their recommendations on target. Since you can click through to Amazon and buy the book every purchase originating from an accurate prediction of their users’ interests will feed this site a little money. There’s real gold in those finders fees. But it goes beyond that — Random House, one of the biggest publishers around, has made a deal with the site to offer free books for review to users whose library indicates the kind of interest in the topic of the new book they want reviewed. That kind of early feedback from potential buyers (not professional reviewers) could tell you how to best market that book to multiple audiences–and which audiences not to bother with. If the publishers of LibraryThing are not charging a healthy fee to put the publishers and their certified potential audiences together the ought to be. It’s a win-win all around.

Oh, they’re marketing their engine, the user review framework, data, and software to real, physical, libraries as well. They hope users will find it a more interesting and useful card catalog. Sure. But I bet there real money lies in having a handle on their users’ future purchases.

All in all a neat place. Useful, easy to use, powerful, and interesting. It hs something for everyone–including its originators.

Meet the new boss . . . Same as the old boss

Common Cause does its best to disabuse anyone of the idea that Ed Whitacre’s retirement as head of AT&T will bring a change in the company’s approach to network neutrality and the Internet.

According to Common Cause, Whitacre’s successor Randall Stephenson is (if anything) just as bent on laying a proprietary claim to be able to control and price what travels over AT&T’s network. With the former BellSouth now included in AT&T’s service footprint, the company now is the primary telecom provider in about 22 states. It also owns the ‘old’ AT&T’s national data network and the former Cingular wireless network. The company is the largest communications company in the United States and, any way you cut it, a force to be reckoned with.

So, who leads the company has a material impact on the lives of a large number of businesses and consumers starting with AT&T’s customers.

Americans generally distrust large institutions, ranging from government to corporations. AT&T and its new leader are apparently bent on ensuring that the fires for that distrust remain stoked.

For starters, Mr. Stephenson opposes the idea that if an AT&T (i.e., BellSouth/Cingular) customer that you can access video from non-AT&T sources via the Internet. Common Cause provides this bit of evidence:

In 2005, Stephenson was asked whether his DSL customers would be able to watch live video from any website. “Oh no,” Stephenson declared. “We’re going to control the video on our network. The content guys will have to make a deal with us.” That could leave all the other “content guys” who can’t afford to make a deal with AT&T – independent musicians and artists, nonprofits and charities, small businesses and entrepreneurs – locked out from reaching Internet users who use AT&T to access the ‘Net.

Think about that for a minute.

Left to the preferences of Whitacre/Stephenson, there would be no Google, no eBay, no iTunes. Why? Because AT&T would, first, require these services to be customers of the company and, second, then charge them a premium in order to ensure that their packets (all of these operations run over Internet Protocol networks) get express treatment. Oh, consumers would still pay their bandwidth fees as well, meaning that AT&T intends to milk providers, consumers and (inevitably) take a slice of the revenue stream for content as it tightens its grip on network infrastructure.

Did you know you can now pay bills using your cell phone (NYT archived $)? Here are some key paragraphs from that NYT story:

AT&T and several banks, including BancorpSouth, SunTrust and Wachovia, are working on a common banking application that can also be downloaded or preinstalled on cellphones. The company creating the software is Firethorn, which is based in Atlanta and works with banks and cellular companies to create a common interface. The idea is that customers will have a standard way of banking on their phones — leading to less confusion — and carriers like AT&T won’t have to design individual applications to accommodate each of the hundreds of different banks around the country.

I tried BancorpSouth’s service using Firethorn’s software on an LG CU500v flip phone. The experience was similar to that of Citi Mobile; it allowed me to view account information or make transactions, including last-minute bill payments. There were delays of 4 to 5 seconds in switching between accounts, but in many ways it was simpler and easier to master than online Web banking on a PC. The only drawback is that you have to be an AT&T/Cingular subscriber.

So, phones will be mobile ATMs. Do the words “transaction fee” come to mind?

So, Stephenson views AT&T’s network as an opportunity for the company to operate a toll booth on traffic and skim a percentage or charge an outright fee on commerce that happens to flow over the network.

As Common Cause correctly points out, AT&T will have most customers over a barrel:

To make matters worse, most Americans don’t have much choice when it comes to high speed Internet providers, so they won’t be able to switch to another company if their Internet provider starts blocking or slowing down certain websites. Usually the only options are the telephone company (high early termination fees if you cancel your service) or the cable company (often prohibitively more expensive).

Of course, we will have more choice here in Lafayette than most places thanks to the LUS fiber system which will undercut the sometimes cozy duopoly relationship that phone and cable companies frequently develop in markets they share.

But, what I find most disturbing about Stephenson is his membership on something called the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. Common Cause describe it this way:

The NSTAC is a secretive panel made up of industry executives who provide advice to the President on national security, emergency preparedness and other communications policy. Its meetings are almost always closed to the public for national security reasons. And its website claims that documents and records produced by NSTAC are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act because it is not technically a federal “agency.”

What immediately comes to mind here is the Bush administration’s illegal warrant less wiretapping program. AT&T has been sued over its cooperation in that program. Stephenson, as a member of the NSTAC board and as a member of AT&T’s leadership team was, no doubt, aware of the program and probably encouraged AT&T to cooperate with it.

What is known is pretty grim, from a Constitutional stand point but the program and AT&T’s cooperation may well have been much more extensive than what is currently known by the public. The hints came in the dramatic Senate testimony of former Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey about the race to beat Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to the hospital bed of then-ill Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The reason for the race was that Comey and apparently the head of the FBI Robert Muller and even Ashcroft threatened to resign if the wiretap program that they believed was illegal.

What was that program? And, how was AT&T enabling it to operate?

So, to sum up: AT&T is now headed by a man who believes network ownership is an excuse to tax anything that moves over it; that if you’re in business and your data crosses the AT&T network AT&T is entitled to a cut; and that this right of ownership also gives the company the right to engage in any kind of activity the president’s attorney says is legal.

Looks like Big Brother has got a friend at the head of Big Mama.