AT&T Wireless Call Center Helps Out

Here’s a good thing: the AT&T call center (the call center formerly known as Cingular) is helping a local church develop a community center by donating 13 computers and encouraging its employees to volunteer there. From the Advertiser article:

The new computer lab, donated by the AT&T Call Center of Lafayette, will help empower at-risk teens, ex-offenders and undereducated or unemployed adults.

“After you get their minds together, then you want to get them the skills,” said Phylissa Driver, area manager for AT&T. “There’s a real shortage of hirable people here for employers. We’ll take those who aren’t hirable and make them hirable.”

Free computer access is there for people to develop job-search skills, résumés and career goals. Driver will teach free classes about interviewing, dress and mapping out career goals. Other AT&T Call Center staff also will teach on their own time, Driver said.

This is just the sort of thing that demonstrates some real concern for a company’s neighbors just down the road. Hats off to the AT&T call center.

Cox Talks to the Trade Press

Back in February, in a story I missed then, Cox’s Baton Rouge unit was treated to a profile story in Multichannel News, a leading industry trade magazine. (Baton Rouge Beefs Up To Meet Demand Surge). It’s a very interesting story in which Cox Baton Rouge–then recently merged with Lafayette’s Acadiana unit to form the new “Greater Louisiana” marketing unit–tells its own story to its colleagues in a sympathetic forum. It is revealing of how Cox wants its knowledgeable industry friends to regard it.

One thing that leaps out is that it doesn’t try to blow as much smoke about its network and discusses network upgrades fairly frankly. For instance, it notes that the local unit was participating in the Cox-wide program of expanding bandwidth from 750 Megaherz to 860 Mhz. Hopefully that will improve its Video On Demand capacity in my neighborhood. (1, 2) But the story also reveals that Cox has not, contrary to its vauge assertions and local rebranding efforts, been not building out fiber in Lafayette, apparently not even in its fiber backbone–but has in Baton Rouge. According to the story in the last year:

In response to the market’s growth, the system last year added about 130 miles of new coaxial cable and 65 miles of fiber in Baton Rouge, and 61 miles of coaxial cable in the Lafayette cluster.

Even sixty one miles of new copper is nothing to sneeze at but the copper coax portion of a hybrid fiber coax (HFC) architecture is mostly in the last mile–and one is lead to presume that this new coax is predominantly in new subdivisions in our “cluster.” But this does confirm that the local rebranding of Cox’s network as a “fiber” network is truly misleading…nothing is altering Cox’s committment to HFC and its disavowal of FTTH. (I’d be happy to be shown otherwise.)

However the article chiefly focuses on Katrina’s consequences and the merger of the Baton Rouge and Lafayette markets. Both lead to a much larger market with Cox adding more than 5000 customers post-Katrina. That brings its combined total to 291,551. A very respectable combined market. The story also makes it clear that the Acadiana unit was absorbed into the Baton Rouge one and not simply combined. (That was certainly the experience here where the distinctive local elements like lower pricing, and a French and weather channel on basic cable were “aligned” to the Baton Rouge pattern.)

The integration of the Lafayette system, which is about 50 miles southwest of Baton Rouge, has involved a number of initiatives. For example, Cox Greater Louisiana has aligned the channel lineups — and retail pricing — across the Baton Rouge and the Lafayette clusters.

More broadly, Cox has tried to more fully absorb and acculturate the Lafayette cluster, so that it conforms to the company’s corporate strategy: That its cable systems offer state-of-the-art technology, be perceived as doing so and be very involved in their communities.

The bit about being “very involved” with their communities was directly tied to LUS–presented as simply a “municipal overbuilder:”

There was a need to forge closer ties with the community in Lafayette, where Cox faces competition from a municipal overbuilder, Lafayette Utilities System, Vines said.

The overbuilder “was pushing that it was bringing fiber to the home, but there was really not a sense that Cox was doing that as well,” Vines said.

“Louisiana is very parochial,” she said. “It’s a very relationship-oriented state. So as we were integrating the Lafayette system we had to introduce ourselves, reintroduce Cox Communications … to make sure [customers] understood we had fiber and they didn’t necessarily have to go with our competitor.”

No mention, of course, that Cox fought a bitter, losing battle, much of it covered in the magazine, to prevent this “overbuilder” from building a competitive network. In truth, most of the need to repair its relationship in Lafayette was NOT due to our “parochial” nature but to Cox’s many blunders during the fiber fight—the first and most serious of those blunders being to oppose the clearly stated desires of the community for a fiber network. Vines is blowing a bit of smoke in implying to her fellows that their fiber was similar to LUS’. It isn’t of course; fiber “in” the network is universal–both AT&T and Cox have fiber cores–and so will LUS. What makes a network a fiber network in the usual usage is that it takes fiber all the way to the home. That is what Lafayette fought for and the people here understand (correctly) that that is what “fiber network” means. Changing the description of your network from HFC to “fiber” in order to pretend that it is the same as what LUS will be offering is a continuation of the deceptive tactics Cox used during the fiber fight. If Cox really wants to repair its relationship with Lafayette ceasing its attempts to mislead us would make a better start than helping pay for Chamber diners or being a sponsor of Festival Internationale.

There are other interesting bits of insight scattered through the article. Take a look for yourself if you are a connoisseur of all things telecom in Lafayette.

One final bit of fun: The story reveals that Jaqui Vines, the new head of the “Greater Louisiana” section is a Ray Nagin protege. Yes, the same Ray Nagin that is mayor of New Orleans and was General Manager of Cox New Orleans. He hired her away from Time-Warner during his tenure in the New Orleans’ Cox system. It’s a small world down here. Sometimes it is a bit “parochial” down here in the sense that personal relationships do count…at least who Jaqui Vines knew proved helpful.

Thinking in Tucson, AZ: Getting it Right

Muniwireless points to a study, meant to inform about how to write up a request for proposals for Tucson’s prospective wireless RFP that caught my attention. First, the extent of the research and the detail in the study far exceeds that which goes into most full proposals, much less the RFP. A large amount of information about broadband usage, digital divide issues, and market questions is in this study—enough to provide plenty of well-researched data to support both public purposes (like economic expansion and bridging the digital divide) and to support a strong marketing plan (it includes current costs of broadband and geographical usage patterns).

Lafayette needs such a public document. Without the baseline it provides it will be difficult to demonstrate the success of the fiber project. You need such a baseline to demonstrate the economic benefits and to document the effects of lower cost broadband on bringing new faces into the broadband world.

But if possible, even more impressive than the original survey research was the quality of thought exhibited. Doing a study like this is a job–and most folks are tempted to do the job to specs even if that is not what is called for by the reality of the situation. CTC, the consultants doing this study didn’t succumb to that temptation. The job specs, it is clear, were to tell the city how to write an RFP that get private agencies to provide city-wide wifi without municipal investment. Universal coverage, closing the digital divide and economic development were apparently important parameters given the consultants.

Trouble is, it’s become clear that the private sector simply won’t, and perhaps can’t, fill that wishlist. And CTC, instead of just laying out what would give such an RFP the best chance, more or less told the city it couldn’t have all that without at least committing as the major anchor tenet. That was responsible, if unlikely to make the clients happy. And on at least two other points (Digital Divide issues and Fiber) they pushed their clients hard.

1) Digital Divide issues:

The interviews indicated that as computers become more affordable, the digital inclusion challenge that needs to be addressed is not as much equipment-based but rather how to overcome the monthly Internet access charge. (p. 18)

Concentrate WiFi provider efforts on low-cost or free access – not the other elements of the digital divide. (p. 17)

Entering the digital community is no longer about hardware; it’s about connectivity. The hardware is a one-time expense that is getting smaller and smaller with each day. Owning a computer is no longer the issue it once was. Keeping it connected is the real fiscal barrier these days. As their survey work shows, the people most effected know this themselves.

A CTC review of Lafayette’s project would note we’re doing several things they say most cities neglect to do: 1) LUS has consistently pushed lower prices as it major contribution to closing the digital divide—(and we must make sure that there is an extremely affordable lower tier available on both the FTTH and the WiFi components). 2) Ubiquitous coverage is a forgone conclusion; LUS will serve all–something no incumbent will promise (and something they have fought to prevent localities from requiring). 3) Avoiding means-testing. Lafayette’s planned solutions are all available to all…but most valuable and attractive to those with the least. Means-testing works (and is intended to work) to reduce the number of people taking advantage of the means-tested program. If closing the digital divide is the purpose means-testing is counterproductive.

About hardware, yes, working to systematically lower the costs and accessibility of hardware through wise selection, quantity purchase, and allowing people to pay off an inexpensive computer with a small amount each month on their telecom bill makes a lot of sense and should be pursued. But the prize is universal service and lowering the price of connectivity. Eyes, as is said, on the prize.

CTC additionally recommends against allowing extremely low speeds for the inclusion tier and for a built-in process for increasing that speed as the network proves itself. It also rejects the walled-garden approach, an approach which they discreetly don’t say out loud, turns the inclusion tier into a private reserve that will inevitably be run for the profit of the provider.

Good thinking…

2) The Necessity of Fiber

CTC also boldly emphasized fiber, not wireless, as the most desirable endpoint for Tucson.

We strongly recommend that the City of Tucson view the WiFi effort as a necessary first step, then look at ways to embrace and encourage incremental steps toward fiber deployment to large business and institutions, then smaller business, and eventually to all households. (p. 19)

Although wireless technologies will continue to evolve at a rapid pace, wireless will not replace fiber for delivering high-capacity circuits to fixed locations. In addition, fiber will always be a necessary component of any wireless network because it boosts capacity and speed. (p. 20)

The report explicitly rejects the theory that wireless will ever become the chief method for providing broadband service to fixed locations like businesses or homes. Few in the business of consulting on municipal wireless networking are so forthright in discussing the limitations of wireless technologies and the role of fiber in creating a successful wireless network that is focused on what wireless does best: mobile computing.

Again, good thinking.

Communities would do well to think clearly about what they want, what is possible, and the roles of fiber and wireless technologies can play in their communities’ futures. CTC has done a real service to the people of Tuscon. Too much unsupported and insupportable hype has driven muni wireless projects. That unrealistic start will come back to haunt municipal broadband efforts nationally as the failed assumptions show up in the form of failed projects. But those mistakes were not inevitable. The people of Lafayette should take some comfort in the fact that we haven’t made the sorts of mistakes that Tuscon’s consultants warn against and are planning on implementing its most crucial recommendations.