Eatel Plays Telco Game

I’ve lauded EATel repeatedly, both for its locally-owned fiber to the home project and for its (lost, lamented) inexpensive phone service.

But fair is fair. EATel has apparently decided that its role as a rural incumbent phone company should allow it to act like the big boys. Like AT&T everywhere little EATel is balking at cutting the same “serve the whole community if you want to use our rights-of-way” deal with the village of Sorrento that any other cable company would have to cut. From the Advocate story:

Town Attorney Greg Lambert told the council at its meeting Tuesday that Cox Communications, currently the only provider in the area, asked that Eatel be held to the same agreement provisions as Cox.

Lambert said Eatel has agreed to all of the same provisions except the density requirement, which requires Cox to provide service to any house within 300 feet of a distribution system, and any area that has 50 residences within one cable mile or 10 residences within a quarter of a cable mile.

Sharon Kleinpeter, a vice president at Cox Communications, told the council that Eatel and Cox should operate under the same standards.

A broken clock is right twice a day and Kleinpeter and Cox are right about this. And I was wrong to think EATel too local and loyal to try and run such a scam — though I was right to think that the Sorrento Council would resist. [It should be noted that there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about Cox’s objections: Cox’s late endorsement of the state-wide video franchise that BellSouth/AT&T proposed came about when they were included in the list of companies that could ignore a local community’s demand of service for all citizens in return for the use of those citizen’s property. Cox would have been wiser not to encourage the competion to cherry-pick then; they’d be more credible now.]

EATel already has to run its copper into every home and has been profiting off the people of Sorrento for generations…it is resisting upgrading a few people who have been loyal customers to marginally increase their overall profit in a new market.

Emulating AT&T is not the way to go for a progressive local firm whose greatest asset is the belief that it is more likely to care about the local community than outside monopolies. Stuff like this squanders their core advantage and is lousy business even if it weren’t unethical.

For shame.

Let’s hope the Sorrento Council holds firm and returns EATel to its better self.

VOE: Fixing What is Wrong with Muni WiFi

Voice of Experience Department.

[Lafayette’s decision two years ago in voting to build a Fiber To The Home system rather than a cheaper, less capable wireless system is being validated by current events and the emerging pattern suggests that local citizens might end up owning the nation’s most impressive model of a real, inexpensive, municipal network with modern bandwidth and workable mobility. Read on…]

Business Week picks up on current net buzz on the difficulties encountered by municipal wifi networks and the story does a good job in laying out the current unhappy state of such projects. It’s a sad story for a lot of people in a lot of places.

The static crackling around municipal wireless networks is getting worse.

San Francisco Wi-Fi, perhaps the highest-profile project among the hundreds announced over the past few years, is in limbo. Milwaukee is delaying its plan to offer citywide wireless Internet access. The network build-out in Philadelphia, the trailblazer among major cities embracing wireless as a vital new form of municipal infrastructure, is progressing slower than expected.

My friends in Philly say the network is pretty near useless where it is up—service is beyond spotty and it comes and goes unpredictably. The boards tell a similar story in Corpus Christi where Earthlink, a private provider, had bought the municipal network with a promise of upgrades. Google’s hometown Mountain View network isn’t anything to brag on either. The problem isn’t with public networks; difficulties seems to be hitting private and public muni wifi WANs (Wide Area Networks) pretty much equally.

There has been a lot of doom and gloom about the problems muni wifi networks are encountering (the Business Week article among them) and there has been the inevitable reaction to that on the part of advocates pointing out the immaturity—and naivete—of the original business plans. Business Week does, at the end of the story, note that a more mature business plan relies on the local city government being involved:

To make the business more profitable, Wi-Fi service providers are trying to pass more of the cost to the cities. “There’s no one that I am aware of right now who’d build a network without the city as a paying customer,” says Lou Pelosi, vice-president for marketing at MetroFi, which six months ago stopped bidding for projects unless the city agreed to become the network’s anchor tenant.

Advocates imply that a naive business plan is all that is wrong with the current crop of wide area wifi networks. Would that it were so.

The doom and gloom is overstated. But the truth is the version of muni wireless that emphasized cheap (or free) residential service using a wireless mesh to minimize costs was always a castle built on shaky technical grounds. From the beginning the fundamental concept was that you’d take a single expensive connection to the net and divide it up like the loaves and fishes between many users and still end up with sufficient connectivity to feed the masses. Thinking that way was hoping for the sort of miracle that doesn’t occur in our daily world. An analogy might be taking your home connection and “sharing” it with most of your neighborhood. That might work at times. But service could never be very fast or reliable. (Yes, it’s more complicated; I know–but that’s a fair analogy.) Additional problems having to do with the nature of the spectrum allocated to wifi (short range power and a frequency that has trouble cutting through vegetation or walls) added the limitations of physics to the questionable network design decisions.

Those problems can be overcome. It’s not even a twelve step program. Two will do

Step One is to abandon the idea that a wifi network will ever work well as a person’s primary, reliable, home connection to the full richness of the network.

Rock solid reliability is not in the cards for wifi–and affordable access to a reliable always-on connection is a prerequisite for full participation in the emerging digital culture.

You will need a hardwired, preferably Fiber To The Home connection if you plan to make full, reliable, consistent use of downloadable video, cable TV, Voice over IP, security alarms, medical monitoring and the like. With a fiber connection every individual can easily and cheaply provision their own in-home wifi network if wireless suits their style.

Any community that takes that stand abandons at one blow all the unrealistic demands that wifi technology simply cannot fulfill. Concentrate on ubiquitous local coverage, emphasize mobility and help people understand that cell phone levels of reliability is the best that can be hoped for. (That level of service would be a huge boon even without the unrealistic expectation, with ubiquitous coverage I could get a connection anywhere while on the go. I might not be able to do everything with it I could do at home–but I could do almost anything I can imagine that I would want to do on the run. Including in the best case, which I’ll get to below, mobile, albeit cell quality, VOIP.)

I do understand, and deeply sympathize with, the hope that cheap wifi could help close the digital divide. There still may be a role for it there if the bandwidth issues can be overcome (again see below). —But the reliability issues, arguably, are fundamental and the hacked-up solutions necessary unstable and too technically exacting to expect large populations to manage on their own. Pretending that wireless connectivity is the same as wired connectivity is profoundly misleading—and is a recipe for creating a second-class version of net usage where poorer users simply can’t rely on the net being there and so aren’t able to trust it fully enough to make it as central as their better-off brethren. Imagine what would have happened to telephone usage in our culture if the well-off got good, reliable, always on wired phone service. But “other people” got cheap, spotty, poor “radio” service on “garbage” bandwidth that might or might not work on any given day or location. That is the sort of divided service model was avoided in our phone history and if we try it today it will cause trouble downstream that I, for one, would rather avoid. The real solution to too expensive wired network connections is cheap wired network connections. And that is the solution that any conscientious community should seek. [I am grateful that that is the solution Lafayette has sought—LUS proposes to narrow the digital divide by making service significantly cheaper.]

With cheap, wired, reliable, big broadband available in every home the threshold moves to making some form of connection available on every corner (ubiquity) and making it available while you are on the move (mobility). That’s what wireless networks are good for—and why cell phones, as unreliable as they are, remain useful and hence popular.

Step Two is to abandon the the belief that wireless mesh networks can be used to turn an expensive wired connection into many cheap wireless ones.

It can’t; only Christ could manage the miracle of the Sermon on the Mount.

Build, instead, on the real virtues of wireless networks: ubiquity and mobility. Do your absolute best to minimize its weaknesses by making it as fast and reliable as possible within the confines set by physics and federal regulation.

Abandoning the idea that one connection the wired broadband internet can serve many users over a broad area well is the key to succeeding. Instead of designing the wireless network so that each wired connection feeds five, six, or more wifi access points, limit the ratio of access points to internet connections to 1:1. This makes for much less sharing of limited bandwidth among users, greater reliability, and dramatically reduced “latency” (the lag caused by mulitple jumps that makes VOIP phones impractical on most muni networks).

Better yet, attach your wifi network directly to a full throttle fiber network. Fund the entire capacity of wireless protocols. (Outside of a few University or corporate campuses very few of us have ever used a wireless network that worked the internet as fast as they could. The usual limiting factor is the wired network that supplies bandwidth to the wifi. If Cox or AT&T only gives me 5 megs of wired bandwidth to my access point then the theoretical 54 Mbit/s that is theoretically possible is limited to at most 5 Mbit/s. You’ll never see the other 49 Mbit/s no matter what it says on the side of the box.) A fiber network can easily supply a minimum of 100 Mbit/s supplied to the wifi access point; split that 100 once to a second wifi access point and something close to the full 50 megs of bandwidth that wifi is capable of could actually be seen on the street. Even split among a sizeable group of users on two nodes that would be plenty fast enough to support excellent quality VOIP with no discernable lag, great data connections, and many, many extras. Even if turned out to be less reliable and a bit slower in use than its wired counterparts the virtues of ubiquity and mobility would be there and our willingness to use cell phones proves that we find this trade-off acceptable.

A wifi network built this way would be as much superior to its wireless competitors as the fiber network would be to its wireline competitors.

But getting to that dream requires abandoning unrealistic expectations…and starting with a fiber network running down every street.

Lafayette is positioned to realize the ultimate dream: a cheap, blindingly fast, reliable, fiber-optic connection made available to every home and, based on that, a solidly architected, cheap, uniquely fast municipal wireless network that is demonstrably better than any muni wifi network in the nation.

Living large in Lafayette.

(Thanks go out to reader Scott who forwarded the story.)

A Little Panicky in Seattle

There’s an odor of panic out the world of American broadband advocates and it even extends even to places like Seattle (home of Microsoft)–where a broadband panel has been making achingly slow progress toward creating a fiber plan.

An impatient Seattle Times columnist, Brier Dudley, announces that he’s changing his tune on municipal broadband. He had held out for the city to build a fiber network itself. But he’s getting a little panicky. He’s worried about two things: weak-kneed politicians and malevolent incumbents. A fatal combination.

Dudley worries that the politicians haven’t been able to pass a net neutrality bill and they don’t even seem to realize that universal service ought to be national policy—as is universal phone service. And he’s noticed that incumbent AT&T (yes, our AT&T) recently decided to censor a Lollapalooza web broadcast containing lyrics that attacked George Bush’s political policies by Seattle homeboys Pearl Jam. (Didn’t hear about that? Still thinking that maybe the “broadband monopolists” wouldn’t dare censor the internet? Let MTV disabuse you.) But the offense that pushed Dudley over the line was having a friend that used too much bandwidth and had his Comcast broadband terminated. Apparently cable company Comcast didn’t like the number of movies he was downloading. But it wasn’t willing to tell him, or the reporter, how much was too much.

So, apparently people are starting to get a little panicky about the state of US broadband, even—or especially—in tech meccas like Seattle. And they are beginning to be willing to do previously unpalatable things to get out from under a regime that does little to rein in monopoly power and a set of monopolists constitutionally unable to stop abusing their position.

Dudley hopes that:

If Seattle isn’t led astray by its broadband partners, it could build an island of neutrality that would attract Internet companies and set a precedent for universal service.

That’s a big “IF.” Dudley needs to not give up on public provision and purely local ownership. Making the broadband provider directly responsible to the public is the only reliable path toward freedom… and reasonable, powerful, service…in US broadband.

Seattle needs to follow Lafayette’s precedent. The “Lafayette solution” is the last, best, hope for a free internet in the US.

Fiber Brief: Council Approves Fiber Funding

KLFY briefly covers Tuesday’s council meeting approval of the funding plans for the fiber build in print saying that:

The plans include covering the estimated expenses of the 110 million dollars project for the next five years.

That includes about 85 million for most of the large construction needs to get the fiber optics network in place.

It also includes 20 million for equipment and construction at the main control center and other hubs throughout the system.

Other spending in the five year plan deals with the running of fiber lines and maintenance costs.

The system is expected to be up by early 2009.

Not news exactly, but a comforting confirmation that things are happening as they ought.

(There is video on the site–or so they claim–but the antiquated system they use to hide serve their online video makes it impossible for me–and other mac users I’ve asked–to access the video story. And before you ask: yes, I am technically proficient, have the MS software they require and it works perfectly everywhere else that I need to access windows media. When I can puzzle out the URL, as I have at times, the actual video plays fine. It’s the creaky system that refused to let me get the video that is at fault. Our two local stations need to find someone competent to provide this service that doesn’t eliminate the going on 10% of the online market represented by Mac users. And that’s without worrying about Linux users whom, I suspect, also face difficulties visited on them by broken proprietary systems.)

“Sorrento might OK Eatel fiber”

Sorrento is about to get a locally-owned fiber-optic network. Rural telephone provider Eatel, who Lafayette readers may remember fondly as one of the businesses that used to offer cheap phone service here, is now bidding to extend its fiber-optic network to the town.

EATel, no longer known as East Ascension TELephone, is based in the parish of the same name and is bidding to extend cable and high-speed internet service to this town in its already-existing footprint.

From the Advocate story:

The Town Council has agreed to consider a proposed ordinance that, if adopted, would provide residents with a choice of cable television providers.

“Basically, it will allow Eatel to run fiber-optic lines to provide cable services. Eatel will provide a competing service to Cox (Communications),” town attorney Greg Lambert said.

That’s good news for local consumers. Sorrento is lucky that its phone provider is Eatel and not AT&T.

Eatel is doing what AT&T refuses to do—actually competing against the cable company in small rural towns. And Eatel is doing so on a level playing field, paying the town of Sorrento franchise fees to use its property equal to those Cox pays. One assumes that there is no question but that Eatel will serve the whole town; the phone company network is everywhere and city council in a small town like that would get hung if it signed anything that allowed partial service. BellSouth/AT&T realizes that local representatives feel that way—and since they would rather serve the rich guys they went to the Louisiana legislature to get a law passed that would have forbidden a town like Sorrento from demanding that a franchisee that wanted to use the public rights-of-way would have to serve both sides of the track. (Blanco vetoed the bill.)

Good for Eatel. Good for Sorrento.

Slovenia Surges

Slovenia, the subject of sardonic commentary here back in early ’06 (US poised to drop out of top 20, Slovenia surges) has vindicated my faith in Eastern European get up and go. Their incumbent telephone company, Telekom Slovenije, isn’t playing any silly fiber to the (rich) nodes games. From the Light Reading article that occasioned these musings:

European incumbent operator Telekom Slovenije plans to spend up to €450 million (US$620 million) between now and 2015 on a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) rollout in an effort to deliver high-speed access capabilities to 70 percent of households in the small Eastern European country of Slovenia.

Now why can’t our incumbent telephone company do the same? (You might recall: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone! Talk about a first-mover advantage.)

Pitiful. Whupped by a country that didn’t exist a dozen years ago…..

Durel and Sticking Up for La. Cities

Joey Durel, as the newly elected president of the Louisiana Conference of Mayors, has declared the theme of his tenure in that position:

Durel said he intends on focusing on “working with the Legislature to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress.”

That’s pulled from this morning’s “Around Acadiana” feature in the Advocate. Now what “roadblocks” could he mean?

The fact of Durel’s election and that statement require some unpacking.

It’s got to be somewhat unusual for a mayor in his first term to elected to the presidency of that organization. It also unusual for a large city mayor to seek the position. It appears that big city mayors are, for the first time in memory, occupying leadership roles in the organization with the presidency, the vice presidency, and the secretary’s positions being held by Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria respectively. (Past presidents came from Rayne, Gretna, Bastrop, Woodworth, Ball, and Gonzales.)

What’s afoot? One conclusion is that more active days are ahead for the organization. Folks have complained that the LMA is that its not been very vigorous in pursuit of its members interests — and that when the Baton Rouge staff (headed by former Baton Rouge Mayor Tom Ed McHugh) does decide to go after an issue that the elected officers tend to hold them back. That’s what happened during the state-wide video franchise battle. The staff grew impassioned about the threat to municipal income and local control of municipal property. But at the crucial final moment, the elected officials, mostly from villages, allowed the incumbent telecom providers to scare them into reigning in their Baton Rouge operatives. A week’s fast “education” by the staff about what was at stake brought them back into the fold to (successfully) urge a Blanco veto but embarrassingly the LMA was nowhere to be found during the final vote. If the big guys are taking up leadership roles on the elected side we can expect that there will be smaller gaps between the “big city” professional staff and the League’s leadership and fewer such gaffes.

What’s important enough to draw the league out of its lethargy and get the membership more involved? What do Durel and the new cohort want to accomplish? Surely they’d like to avoid the state taking away their control over locally-owned rights-of-way and the revenue they produce; since the legislature made clear during the video franchise battle that they couldn’t be counted on to protect local interests if so much as one out-of-state monopoly wants a new law that wreaks havoc on local control and local revenue.

For Durel’s part he says that he wants to convince the legislature to give local communities more self-control. Municipalities are legally the creatures of the state and only get the freedom to run their own affairs that the state allows. Most states have “Home Rule” laws and Louisiana’s is written into the constitution. Home Rule guarantees give municipalities some protection from a meddling, know-it-all big brother in the state capital. The ’74 constitution weakened this protection and post-74 home rule cities (like Lafayette) have less defense. Lafayette, for instance, would have been subject to the video franchise law while Baton Rouge and New Orleans would not. Most municipalities have no protection at all from state meddling.

The cities should have considerable political power. If all the municipalities and police juries would hang together and put real public pressure on any legislator that crossed them they could move mountains. But for the most part muni power lies unused. And power unused is power that no one takes seriously. And the local governments do not hang together. Just in the telecommunicatios arena that is the focus of this blog that has been obvious. When BellSouth and Cox aimed an arrow at the heart of Lafayette’s fiber project with the “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” no rallying of the cities was visible. The New Orleans delegation largely supported the bill with some saying that they wanted to make sure their city could never try such a thing! Lafayette had to rely on the veto threat of her daughter in the Governor’s chair to wring even the lousy compromise law they eventually accepted out of the legislature. (Blanco insisted on a compromise. Apparently an outright veto of any law–which was what was really needed–wasn’t an option she offered.) Lafayette, sadly, returned the favor after Katrina when New Orleans, whose free post-storm wifi network was in violation of the new law. Lafayette did not support their (admittedly selfish) bid to make an exception for themselves (New Orleans turned down overtures to collaborate on a broader bill also useful to Lafayette and the rest of the state.) Finally Lafayette introduced bills that would have ameliorated the law for all (and one version that would have repealed it). But then Lafayette withdrew those bills in a bargain with BellSouth where they killed their ameliorative bills in return for BellSouth’s promise to drop all the lawsuits against the fiber project. (We know how poorly that worked out–the Naquin-Eastin suit, clearly based on BellSouth’s logic and framework — and, many still suspect, money– went forward regardless. Lafayette got nothing but a trip to the State Supreme Court.) New Orleans had to give up its wifi system. And the rest of the state had to live with the law. I’ve already mentioned the mess that ensued when the LMA’s opposition the state video franchise law collapsed due to internal discord just before the final vote. Only Blanco’s veto following a belated unifed delegation saved the cities.

And that’s just telecom…the localities also had a lot at stake when they tried to get the state to leave more of the road/car tax monies in local coffers. That too went nowhere.

So a movement to unify the state’s municipalities and police juries makes good sense. In the words of Ben Franklin: “We must indeed all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

And I’m personally hoping that the phrase “working with the Legislature to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress” is aimed directly at the “Local Government Fair Competition Act.” It would go a long way toward repeal if just the cities that are on the new officer list, Lafayette, Alexandria, and Baton Rouge, could hang together on the topic. If, in addition, New Orleans has learned anything by losing its wifi system to corporate greed and also supports repeal of the law the most obvious roadblock “in the way of our progress” could be eliminated.

Here’s to hoping that they’ve all learned their lesson and will make up for prior bad behavior.

Follow Up: St. Charles Parish & Cox

The Times-Picayune reports on the latest St. Charles parish expression of discontent with Cox Communications. The parish council is asking citizens to show up at their meeting and let them know what they think of Cox. (Cox’s contract ends on December 31st.)

From the story:

The council, spurred by citizens’ complaints about the company, passed a resolution in February saying they want another cable company to apply for a cable TV franchise.

If Lafayette’s experience is any guide the council should expect the room to be packed with uniformed Cox employees who arrive in company trucks.

What the NOLA story does not mention is that back when this all blew up two of the council members were advocating municipal competition a la Lafayette and had met with represetatives from the city across the basin.

It should be interesting to see what comes of all this.

$10 DSL Revisted

New AT&T CEO Randall talks to the Atlanta Journal Constituion about, among other things, the “hidden” $10 DSL program that I’ve noted recently. The FCC required that AT&T offer this discount program—and an accompanying “naked DSL” program for a bit more—as a condition of it allowing BellSouth and AT&T to merge. As it turns out, in my experience and the experience of others, it is inordinately hard to find and order. Not a few people think AT&T is avoiding keeping its word.

Randall says that you don’t really want it. Is that true? If you’ve tried to get it I’d like to hear your experiences. (John2 “at” LafayetteProFiber “dot” com)

In his own words:

Q: Of all the things the AJC has written about AT&T lately, none has caused more reader irritation than AT&T’s $10 a month DSL offer, which was required by the Federal Communications Commission when you bought BellSouth. A lot of folks said they couldn’t find it. It was hard to find on your site. Why?

A: We haven’t made it difficult to find. To be honest with you, that’s not a product that our customers have clamored for. We still have $15 offers out there in the marketplace, even $20 offers, for 1.5 megabit speeds. Those are really kind of the minimum speeds that give a good user experience. So I don’t want to necessarily offer up a product where the user experience is not what I would consider really state of the art. That $10 product is kind of in that mode.”