Credit Where Credit’s due: Cox & Privacy

Credit where credit is due: Cox Communications, according to an entry Wired’s “Threat Level” blog, is doing as right by the public in regard to their protecting their privacy from illegal government intrusion as is permissible.


Currently in Lafayette, and much of Louisiana, the choice for telecommunications services is between Cox and AT&T. If protecting your privacy from illegal government surveillance is important to you it appears that you’d be well-served to switch to Cox. (AT&T has been nailed repeatedly for complying with illegal requests.)

The blog entry is pretty much a set of reporters notes on a story he wrote for Wired, “Point, Click, Wiretap: How the FBI’s wiretap net operates.” The main story documents a pervasive network of surveillance with the FBI constantly tied into private providers communications centers across the country using a network physically separated from the regular internet. That network, according to the illustration from Wired at right must run through Lafayette on its way from New Orleans to Beaumont either on I-10 fiber or up US 90 along the railroad..

The FBI has quietly built a sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device…

The surveillance system, called DCSNet, for Digital Collection System Network, connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It is far more intricately woven into the nation’s telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.

It’s a “comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS and push-to-talk systems,” says Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor and longtime surveillance expert.

DCSNet is a suite of software that collects, sifts and stores phone numbers, phone calls and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping outposts around the country to a far-reaching private communications network.

The backstory is that during the Clinton administration federal law enforcement agencies complaining that digital communications made wiretapping increasing ineffective asked for a law that would force network providers to only install hardware and software that allowed for easy, centralized, information capture by all private network operators. That law, commonly labeled CALEA, passed and was augmented post 9-11 by the Bush administration. An FCC ruling this year extended CALEA compliance rules to all VOIP providers, facility based like AT&T or independent, like Vonage. That, in conjunction with elements of 911 compliance ensures that constant monitoring is possible. (You can, however, personally encrypt your communications though few do. Carrier-provided encryption must, by law, be trap-doored and that trap made available to governmental agencies that legally request them.)

What the story documents is just how the FBI has implemented this law and just how easily it can be and how extensively such monitoring is done.

It’s not news that the large telecom corporations, intricately dependent upon federal regulation to protect their competitive positions, extensive subsidies, and spectrum “property” are pretty cravenly submissive to whatever the Feds ask of them. What is news, in a sort of man bites dog sort of way, is when one of the resists giving the administration anything they want. Qwest has earned kudos in the past and now it appears that Cox has also done “the right thing.” From the blog:

Cox Communications lawyer Randy Cadenhead was also key to the story. Among the things that didn’t make it into the final piece is that Cox is the only major telecom company to publicly publish its forms and fees for wiretaps. That documentation, which doesn’t reveal any national secrets, should be on every telecom’s website, in interests of transparency. Unfortunately, none of the largest wireless carriers do so, nor they, with the notable exception of AT&T, responded to requests for comments on the story.

Cadenhead also noted that Cox Communications did not participate in, or have any knowledge of, other wiretapping programs that have recently been in the news (read: warrantless wiretapping).

Now it should be noted that this leaves open the possibility that Cox simply was not asked to join the cabal. But as the third largest cable carrier and a VOIP leader in their field that seems unlikely. Nor does it mean that Cox hasn’t complied fully with CALEA requirements. They surely have. Now it could be that once locked into an aggregation point on Cox’s network they wouldn’t have to ask Cox to do anything in order to “wiretap”—illegally or otherwise. In which case Cox’s denial would be disingenuous. They’d have a warrant for legal wiretaps and wouldn’t have, and thus wouldn’t “know about,” any illegal ones.

But that caveat aside it does appear that the reporter and the Cox representative believe that Cox is not cooperating with illegal wiretaps. And we know that AT&T is. One more reason to not hang up the phone when that annoying guy from Cox calls trying push VOIP during dinner.

(And, oddly, one more reason to be eager to see LUS enter the market. As a public agency LUS will be no less obligated to obey the law than any private corporation–but they are also, by law, will be unavoidably much more transparent than any private corporation. Public agencies can be required to submit records that make much of what they do visible (rightly so). But what that means to black hat operations like those we’ve seen recently is that those running them would be wise to avoid trying impose their illegalities on utilities like LUS which cannot hide their interactions from public scrutiny.)

More on Lafayette’s WIFi “Feature”

Blogging over at TheIND, Nathan Stubbs has announced Huval’s “announcement” of a WiFi “feature” for Lafayette’s fiber-optic network. As we covered here Huval’s mention of wifi at Tuesday night’s council meeting was pretty casual: he was responding to a question from Mouton touching on digital divide questions and worked the mention of wifi as a “useful addition” to the fiber-optic network for consumers. He also allowed that it might be useful as a lower-priced addition for some users.

Huval tells Stubbs that “marketing” is still to be worked out. Indeed—My guess is that LUS is adverse to marketing wifi as an alternative to its central, costly, vastly more capable network. His remarks are directed toward positioning wifi as an addition, a feature, of LUS’ retail network. It is, Huval says, “a convenience.” for customers. As such it would be offered at a minimal additional cost for users and postioned as an enticement to join the network. (And, not incidently, to block any attempt to outflank LUS by the incumbents.)

None of this is as a new as it might seem (I called it “the biggest story barely told” back in 05). As far back as October of 04 Lafayette official were talking about building a wifi network—”also.” Hopefully this time it will penetrate the consciousness of the public and the reporters that inform them: we are going to get wifi too. This is going to be bells and whistles, gold-plated, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink public network. (That’s not only a promise; it’s also a threat: now we have to find good ways to use all that capacity.—Didn’t you always feel just a little threatened when you got a good, really useful gift?)

The newest thing in the blogpost is the way in which the wifi network is made subordinate to the fiber network. Huval has told Stubbs that it just isn’t up to snuff as reliable network alternative:

Huval says that the difficulties associated with wireless almost always result in spotty coverage for city networks. Walls and even moist vegetation can block signals. “To sell a service for wireless without having some degree of assurance that customers can really enjoy, that is not something that at this point we would want to do,” Huval says.

I think he is right about that.

He adds that LUS’ city wifi will be more of a hotspot versus a mesh network. While there won’t be blanket coverage, the network – tied directly to fiber – will provide up to 1 megabyte download speeds in certain areas.

I’d take that hotspot metaphor with a grain of marketing salt. In order to serve his own people and the police and other public servants reliably the network will have to blanket the city and cover every street eventually. The economies that come from the investment in wifi for the city won’t be there if that doesn’t happen. The city will want to be able to cut itself loose from its expensive cellular and data connections and supply those services for itself at a considerable savings. And it will as soon as the system is up and running reliably.

What probably is true is that they know they don’t want to mess with trying to push the wifi signal into houses or through a lot of vegetation away from the street. That’s been the downfall of most city-wide wireless networks. What LUS is willing to commit to up front is wifi in public spaces, especially around the downtown core and they won’t say it is “officially” available unless they are confident they can offer the gold-plated experience of about a meg of connectivity. That way nobody will get the impression LUS is offering a “junky” service. I’d hope they’d leave the rest of the network open but not officially supported —a sort of “no promises outside our approved zones” sort of approach. That would mean that you’d be able to connect pretty reliably on the streets, as reliably as the police and the LUS workers find necessary. That might not be the 1 meg of the official zones but considerably less bandwidht would be usable for email and light browsing on the front porch. If you want to download a movie quickly you go indoors and use your “real” fiber connection. Not too shabby.

A handle on the digital divide angle might be got by keeping the “add-on” price very low, say a 5 dollars addition, to ANY LUS bill (including water and electricity at the most extreme.) That’d make really, really cheap connectivity available easily to anyone in the city whose current economic straits didn’t leave them homeless.

Should be interesting to watch all this marketing mature.

The trial network is up and in testing stage right now according to Stubb’s interesting post. That, you will recall, was to be built based on a wireless RFP issued early this year. That RFP called for a limited number of test points to be built out, presumably along the route of the already-existing fiber ring. Anybody seen any of these Tropos access points in the wild?

Digital Divide at the Council

Item 14 on last night’s City-Parish Council agenda was a “Digital Divide update.” Put on the agenda by Chris Williams, the update had been scheduled for last month but was delayed to accommodate an out of town conference appearance by Huval.

Last night’s short slide show reiterated the ideas of the digital divide committee’s “Bridging the Digital Divide” document and recounted the (slow) progress toward fulfilling the commitments LUS, and LCG made when it was approved by the city-parish council. The presentation was broken up into three logical parts (we are dealing with engineers here): 1) the committments, 2) progress to date, 3) a timeline for completing planning.

The committees’ report focused on suggesting ways to overcome barriers to adoption and ways to check our progress. Barriers were characterized as structural barriers, motivational & historical barriers, and barriers to full participation. In the category of structural barriers Huval reiterated LUS’ commitment to universal service and 20% cheaper prices—making real broadband available to all for less. About the most contentious elements in that category—a refurbished or new computer program—little was said beyond emphasizing how quickly the area of lowcost computing hardware was changing and using the One Laptop Per Child program as an example of network capable laptop computers falling toward the $100 dollar mark. Many of the committee’s other recommendations in the areas of motivating use and encourage full use of the new network were mentioned as areas in which planning was still needed. The one solid committment in these area was the reconfirmation that Lafayette’s users would get full intranet speeds when communicating insystem with other users. No matter how much you are paying for your connection you will be able to connect to other users at the full bandwidth available on the system—and LUS is planning a minimum of a 100 meg system. The planning schedule for the larger digital divide project remains one of getting the plan in place and implementation begining by the time the first customer is served.

A few interesting points were raised in the presentation and the following brief discussion. Apparently the connections to the parish schools are still being finished up with 37 of 45 hookups completed and the rest scheduled to be done before the first of November. While that fits the original timetable of fall of 07 there had been some hope that they’d all be online for start of school this year but it appears that getting pole attachment agreements lined up delayed the project a bit.

In response to a question from Councilor Mouton Huval talked a bit about the wireless end of his system and said again that he saw it as a useful addition to the wired system for customers. He also glancingly mentioned that it might be a way to provide a yet more affordable alternative for some.

Dr. Williams closed the period by calling for plans to be carried forward in the 18 month time frame. He noted that Lafayette was receiving much favorable attention for its netowork and expressed the hope that we could be equally well-know for the way we handled the digital divide issue.

He’s right in that hope.

Vint Cerf on Downloadable Video

Vint Cerf, aka the godfather of the net, predicts the end of TV as we know it, saying:

“85% of all video we watch is pre-recorded, so you can set your system to download it all the time,” he said. “You’re still going to need live television for certain things – like news, sporting events and emergencies – but increasingly it is going to be almost like the iPod, where you download content to look at later.”

We’ve been saying that for a long time here at LPF but its nice to get somebody with a demonstrable track record for predicting the future to make the point.

All you need, Cerf says, is fast download speeds like those in Japan.

Coming soon to a Lafayette neighborhood near you.

Wi-Fi in Chicago’s Tri-Cities

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If you’ve followed Lafayette’s fiber fight you know it was guided by lessons learned in Illinois’ Tri-Cities region where a determined pro-fiber band was beaten down by an ugly and dishonest campaign by the incumbent providers Comcast and SBC (which became AT&T and then bought BellSouth). The lessons learned there convinced many that only a full-throated battle that inoculated the people against incumbent lies stood a chance of being successful. Lafayette proved that if both city officials and local community activists were willing to stand and fight without compromise the battle could be won. Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles showed the way. Their loss became our gain.

Now, the Geneva Daily Herald reports, Geneva and St. Charles will at least be getting a wifi network:

Computer users in Geneva could have access to free citywide wireless Internet access by the end of the year.

The city council Monday signed a deal with Meshlinx to let the Texas company put Wi-Fi transmitters on utility poles and public buildings throughout the city.

The company, which also signed a contract with St. Charles a few weeks ago, expects to begin surveying the two cities in a few weeks to determine how many radio-frequency emitting devices to install.

…Meshlinx approached the city. It is also in discussions with the city of Batavia.

Good, they’ve earned a break. And Geneva has negotiated a deal whereby the whole city will be served. No cherry-picking.

But Collins, Geneva’s information technology manager, isn’t completely satisfied what they’re getting:

“This isn’t as good as fiber to the home, but it is some competition,” Collins said.

Even as Chicago gives up on its wifi hopes it is good to see that the stalwarts in the suburbs are getting some of what they’ve sought.

“Speed up, with fiber”

They’re figuring it out in Minnesota….

“The focus has changed. It’s really all about speed,” Garrison said. “Wireless is the icing on the cake. It’s not the cake itself.”

Last year’s must-have, municipal Wi-Fi – a relatively cheap and quick-to-install way for communities to get a broadband fix – is losing some allure.

Instead, this year more cities appear to be asking: Got fiber?


Fiber is the undisputed future of telecommunications, experts say…

Broadband advocates nationwide are realizing that what’s really need is fiber; something we’ve already acted on here in Lafayette. It’s nice to be out front on something other than obesity and rates of imprisonment.

Read on at Speed up, with fiber” at the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Worth the click.

Clarksville Chronicles: 3 Points

I’m following the news on Clarksville (the Tennessee city whose fiber deployment rivals Lafayette’s in size) since they’re a bit ahead of us on their deployment schedule and their experience should help us anticipate our own. (LPF coverage) Today’s chronicle of their progress includes the selection of their marketing director, a map of their progress, and a few thoughts about their newspaper—and ours.

A Marketing Director
Clarksville, according the The Leaf, has chosen a Marketing Director with an interesting history in the cable business and, most recently, as executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce. She talks about her new job:

As the telecommunications marketing manager, I will be responsible for providing the management, direction and planning of the marketing and promotion of CDE’s services offered through the fiber to the home project.

This will include developing product strategy, product pricing, packaging, research and training of the products.

The biggest benefit for the consumer here is choice. CDE’s new fiber-to-the-home technology will allow them to offer services such as video, Internet and telephone. CDE has invested in the most up-to-date technology for the delivery of these new services.

With her history, she’ll likely also be the public face of the project. Given Huval’s high profile that part of the job description may not apply here. But we should look forward to the appointment of a person to manage the marketing of Lafayette’s system. The Lafayette system will have to be sold; this is a spot where LUS will be learning new skills. We may be thrilled to have a telecom company with the sensibility of a public utility (I’m looking forward to it!) but it will have to be sold vigorously and smartly—a skill that the wasn’t necessary for the old municipal utilities. The selection of someone to fill the marketing director’s job will be crucial.

A Contruction Map
They’re already building and have a nifty-keano map of the current build. I’m looking forward to a similar one here in Lafayette and to seeing my area of town turn green.

Gannett Newspapers
The Leaf-Chronicle, like The Daily Advertiser, is a Gannett newspaper. That means that the two largest cities in the country with municipal FTTH builds are both “Gannett Towns.” That opens up a pretty large opportunity for the media chain. The corporation is in a position to do itself a favor and come off like local heroes.

Its presence in these cities gives it a window onto a digital world that won’t exist in most places in this country for 20 years. If Gannett were to put some real resources into developing not just a state-of-the-art web presence but a cutting edge, research-driven project in the two cities it could learn something about how to survive in the emerging new network-dominated news environment. And it could do it in a way that teams with the local community; helping with the research, sharing data, and building applications that drive usage and celebrate the new ultra high-speed intranet connections of the Lafayette network. Thats the sort of thing that is really “local.”

Anyone who follows modern media at all knows that newspapers are seeing very troubled waters ahead and are floundering about how to survive, much less thrive in an environment where the news (and hence advertising dollars) flows outside their pages. No chain will ever get a better chance to learn in a relatively safe environment than Gannett.

In Lafayette and Clarksville Going Local means going high-tech on the local network…or going under.

Lafayette’s Age-based Digital Divide

Today’s Advertiser runs two stories (1, 2) that are both interesting and informative on the gap in computer and internet usage between seniors and the rest of the community.

The gap between seniors and the rest of the population is one of the most marked divides in internet usage—and one remarked upon by Lafayette’s own digital divide committee. Today’s article documents the divide and notes the narrowing of the gap over the years:

In a study conducted for The Daily Advertiser this spring, 36 percent of those over 65 who responded said they had accessed the Internet in the past 30 days. That figure was 33 percent for a 7-day period in question. Those numbers are significantly lower than any other age group, but even that represents a marked increase over 2001 (8 percent) and 2005 (22 percent) for the 7-day response.

That clearly documents a divide–and an improvement over time. What’s really great about this is that it is local data. (Something we very badly need.) Lafayette is unique enough that I’ve never been confident that the national stats applied very directly. National trendlines are easier to show confidence in but even that makes the old statistician in me a little uneasy—so it is very nice to get better data. The little bit of data given here documents a healthy change over time.

Interestingly this summer, PEW’s well-respected periodic surveys of internet usage documents a very similar number —32%—for seniors “using the internet at least occasionally.” That sort of phrasing is likely to overestimate usage; the Advertiser’s asking if a respondent has used it in the last week is a more reliable and tougher question—and it showed 33%. So while a completely parallel question would be ideal the Advertisers data is still a good indication that Lafayette’s seniors do not lag the national average and most probably are using the internet in a bit higher numbers.

We’re used to thinking of ourselves as behind the ball in Louisiana but apprently that isn’t true of senior internet usage. At least not in Lafayette. Why not? Part of the answer might be visible in the subtitle of the first story: Classes help some step into computer age.” Folks at the university and at the public library have been making education available in a consistent and useful manner. Some organizations that appeal to the elderly, like genealogical ones, are also touting the advantages to interested seniors. All that has to add up.

Of course, as nice as education is, it still leaves more seniors offline than any other category. Arguably seniors with limited mobility, a larger interaction with the trappings of officialdom, and a more persistent need for good medical information would benefit more than the youngsters from internet connectivity. It would be nice to increase their utilization. The second story, Why getting grandma online matters,” points to the more fundamental problem: showing people who’ve gotten along without the internet for the whole of a very fruitful life why they ought to want to bother. The story lists activities that make the value evident:

  • Sharing photos with family and friends.
  • Free medical information is available.
  • Shop without leaving home.
  • Apply for certain benefits.
  • You know, when you think about it those are the sorts of things we all find interest–that and staying in touch with friends and our community more generally.

    What would help seniors begin to take advantage of the resources are pretty much what would help us all. We ALL would benefit from being better connected to our communities. That’s what the idea of a Lafayette Commons, an online place that makes useful local information easy to access is all about. Worth thinking on.

    AT&T in South Africa

    A reader sends a link to a South African article on AT&T’s (nee SBC) behavior there. The gist is that AT&T’s leadership saw an opportunity to secure a (limited life) monopoly as part of the reform in post-segregationist South Africa, took it, reaped monopoly profits, did not complete its build-out commitments, and exited when its monopoly period ran out with pots full of money.

    It’s a rare moment when the monopolist mentality of our Telecom Overlords is clearly visible. From the article:

    …recounts the manner in which the new democratic government’s worthy intentions – to roll out telephone service to the previously disadvantaged and establish an independent regulator to oversee the reform – were thwarted by lack of trust in democratic structures outside of the ANC’s immediate control and the ANC’s inability to control powerful international players involved in privatisation. SBC, described as “congenitally litigious”, is said to have played a major role in the failure of South Africa’s telecoms policy to develop a competitive telephone service.

    Under SBC’s control Telkom not only failed to meet its roll-out obligations but behaved “as a tax on industry and a drag on economic growth”.

    One has to wonder if the US Telecoms aren’t exporting behavior they learned in dealing with the US states where their successful attempts to use state legislation to prevent the introduction of new competition was most recently expressed by phone company-written laws that forbid or crippled municipalities’ attempts to build competing networks. (See the endless coverage here on the (un)Fair Competition Act.) From further back, a summary of the problems pointed out in the “200 Billion Broadband Scandal” might be that the baby Bells hoodwinked state regulators and deceived state legislators to the tune of 200 billion dollars when they made bargins with the states build 45 meg (symmetrical!) fiber connections in return for the favorable treatment they sought and received. Needless to say those commitments weren’t honored.

    As Mike is wont to say: “It’s in their genes.” —It’s certainly and undeniable part of their corporate culture. You can’t trust them…and you can’t say you weren’t warned.

    AT&T $10 DSL Vanishes (Again)

    AT&T continues to hide its $10 dollar DSL program. The plan, mandated by the FCC when it allowed AT&T to merge with BellSouth was intended as a sop thrown to consumers for the loss of potential “competition” between the two monopolies. As previously reported here it is hard to impossible to find a way to apply f0r the “deal.”

    Now the Hear Us Now Blog (a project of Consumers Union–the one that doesn’t accept advertising) has a story detailing the difficulty a consumer reporter/advocate in St. Louis had in getting access to the plan. Apparently AT&T told the reporter that they’d “fixed” the website to make it more accessible. But, if ever really implemented, the web site changes vanished again. According to Consumers Union one person did succeed…but more than 20 were unable to make it work.

    Sounds like lawsuit bait to me. The law is also supposed to apply to large corporations…even if they do curry favor with the administration by cooperating in illegal spying on the American people.

    The $10 deal is supposed to be available to any new broadband customer that has AT&T service. I’d be very interested in the experiences of any local folks who’ve tried to get the deal.

    Update 11:51:
    Tennessee’s Regulatory Authority has some questions about it:

    Phone company officials also say they’ve made changes to make the $10 Internet easier to find on its Web site. Hicks explained the new six-step process of finding the offer online at Monday’s TRA meeting.

    Jones, the TRA director, asked Hicks, “How will citizens who don’t have Internet connections be able to take advantage of the offer if you don’t advertise to them in some medium other than on the Internet?”

    “I think there’s been a lot of media coverage about the $10 offer and they would have general knowledge of it,” Hicks said.

    He said customers who don’t have Internet access at home could “go to a friend or family member’s computer or the public library computer.”

    Cough, Coughsix steps? media coverage of an alternative you’re hiding? the only way to buy internet is to already have access to it? AT&T doesn’t pay hacks like Hicks enough; I’m certain. How much is your pride worth?