Open Systems, Muni systems, and Lessons from Singapore

A Problem
Advocates of muni telecomm are often met with the blanket, essentially ideological, claim that municipal plans will fail because “everyone knows” that government-run enterprises will always lack the competitive advantages of private businesses. It’s hard to greet such claims with anything other than exasperation: anyone who thinks that the duopoly represented by corporations like AT&T and Cox has produced efficient pricing or any sign of innovation just hasn’t been paying attention.

Customers of telecommunications companies simply haven’t seen the benefits of “free enterprise” that competition is supposed to bring. The telecomm market looks like market-segmented, minimally competitive duopoly and produces results that look a whole lot more like staid, expensive monopolies than anything that might result from a real competitive marketplace.

Lots of folks have noticed this painfully obvious fact about the current telecomm market and in some places are even trying to do something about it. Lafayette has one solution. Singapore is trying another.

Singapore Tries Honest Problem Solving
Singapore is about to invest in a truly radical plan to build a world-class, high-speed network and to do it by encouraging real competition in the telecommunications market. (See 1, 2) Naturally they start by mandating and subsidizing the construction of a fiber to the home network. Beyond that it gets really interesting. Their plan takes yet another stab at inducing competition in the fundamentally natural monopoly wireline broadband market. Competition—when it works—provides cheaper prices and drives innovation. Lot’s of country’s have tried for that golden ring—and failed. (The American FCC’s attempts have been particularly laughable.) What is interesting about Singapore’s design is that it might work.

It is worth noticing how far they had to go to have a hope of developing real competition. Consider the starting point: Most networks world-wide are fundamentally vertical monopolies. One company owns the physical network, manages it, and sells retail services to end users. Think about your phone or cable company and you’ll get the basic idea. The minimal competition between phone and cable companies over the new internet services should not be allowed to obscure the fact that they are both basically monopolies with only a sideline internet business that has, at best, only one competitor—not nearly enough to develop a competitive marketplace that would yield the benefits of innovation and low prices. As digital services converge over integrated data networks it remains to be seen whether even the current inadequate level of duopoly competition will be maintained…and a lot of history that argues that it will collapse back into a simple monopoly.

But everyone wants competition and its benefits. Singapore wants competition. But Singapore wants it badly enough to try and get it realistically.

Being realistic involves admitting that the basic fiber, the physical network, is a classic natural monopoly. But beyond that evidence of clear-headedness Singapore also seems to recognize that operational layers of the network determine what sorts of application services can be offered at retail and that retail providers need to be able to count on a responsive middle layer provider.

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A typical large-scale network is built up of multiple, but integrated, levels. One way of looking at that is to see at the “bottom” a hardware base built up of the actual fiber and low-level switching. Up from that you have protocols and translation devices/routines that knit together the data from the low-level physical layer. Both of these are pretty much invisible to any end-user. On top of that you have applications that show their face to users of the network. Let’s call that 1) the physical layer, 2) the network operations layer, and 3) the applications layer. (This 3-layer description, as forbidding as it might seem, hides an awful lot of complexity. The canonical way of looking at network design is the 7-layer OSI description. That hides less of the complexity. Sophisticated readers should feel free to substitute OSI layer 1 for “physical;” layers 2-3 for “operational” and 4-7 for “applications.”)
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Singapore is separating the physical and operational level into two different, unrelated monopolies committed to selling the same services to all retail providers at the same price. The retailers would then be in a position of making all their profit from the quality and the quantity of services they could convince consumers to buy.

Structural Separation: Keeping the Monopoly Owner Honest
Singapore is structurally separating the physical, lower level from the upper operational and application levels by creating a completely independent network company to build and manage the physical network (cleverly called NetCo). That sets things up so the only way the owners can make more money is by providing more value to the wholesale renters of their physical capacity. If you can offer more value more efficiently you can sell more capacity for a better price. And that, to repeat, is the only way to increase your take. This is a simple, reliable, structural solution to the problem of a monopoly owner using their control of the medium to eliminate or forbid competitors. The physical network owner cannot be motivated to manipulate the network to benefit its particular set of retail services if it doesn’t own any such services….it will not be allowed, for instance, to sell phone or video services to end users and so has no motivation to structure its network to favor, for instance, cable TV at the expense of DV (Downloadable Video). By making the monopoly network owner’s profits depend solely on motives that are aligned with the public’s interest the task of regulation is much easier. All you have to worry about is enforcing rules that require everyone to be charged the same for the same service. (This is much of what lawyers mean when they talk about Common Carriage rules.)

Operational Separation: A Balance of Powers
The most unusual (and least clearly specified) part of the plan is separating out the operational division of the network into its own independent company. Most structural separation schemes make this the property of the network owner or allow retailers to install their own equipment at the operational level. The problem with the first solution is that investing all the control in the conservative utility would make it less likely that unproven but potentially innovative middle level equipment would be installed, lessening the hoped-for benefit from innovation. On the other hand letting the retailer install whatever equipment they want on fiber strands they have rented virtually ensures that incompatibility will emerge on the network and pretty much ensures that some classes of equipment will be wastefully duplicated—lessening the hoped-for benefit of lower prices.

Singapore’s solution is to provide for a monopoly operational company (cleverly called OpCo) that must maintain a separate existence, board, and identity but which retail owners can own pieces of. Presumeably the Singaporeans, being committed structuralists, think that such an ogranizational schema will eliminate wasteful duplication and will tie OpCo to the more innovative retailers. Now this isn’t nearly perfect: it would let powerful incumbents on the network control the provision of new middleware and help them keep out smaller new competitors that would threaten their developed markets….but while imperfect, this is a solution that at least makes a stab at controlling the worst defects of previous attempts to foster competition and encourage both lower prices and innovation at the middle level.

Retail: The Evolutionary Melee
The hope, of course, is that by minimizing costs at the physical layer by putting a free-to-be-careful and conservative utility at the physical level, and by structurally maximizing low pricing and innovation at the middle level the crucial retail applications level will attract many competitors who will have no choice but engage in a ruthless evolutionary melee in order to survive. Consumers would reap the benefits of low prices and innovative, powerful services.

It Might Even Work—At a Price
It is clever. It might even work.

In Singapore. As a National policy. And anywhere that the national government is willing to subsidize a full new fiber network to the tune of 25% of its total costs. Anywhere where it can dictate the terms of the new networks operation in order to ensure the incumbents don’t kill competition in its cradle. (The incumbent phone and cable companies are among the bidders for the new network.)

Notice that this plan involves the people paying a substantial subsidy for the development of a system that private corporations will end up owning. And those corporations will reap all the eventual profit.

That’s a deal only a authoritarian, corporate state like Singapore could love. It’s a high price to pay.

What people are seeking when they try something so draconian is to realize the promise of competition in a framework that has been fundamentally hostile toward competition. (And well, maybe, to provide a little grease for their friends…but let’s try to be generous). The hoped-for benefits are lower prices and a high level of innovation. Both are presumed to emerge “naturally” when you structure a natural monopoly so that the owners’ self interest is deployed in the service of the eventual consumers.

But there is another, simpler, surer, way to align the owners’ self-interest with that of consumers.

Lafayette’s way

You could make the consumers the owners, by the simple and time-honored device of making the natural monopoly a public utility. Then the owner-citizens would have no motivation at all to exploit the consumer-citizens…since they’d be one and the same. They could ask themselves for, and expect to get, lower prices and the sorts of services that appeal to them.

I can’t fathom why that can’t be a national policy as easily as giving away the farm.

“Cable TV may go à la carte”

There’s a little surprise for media watchers in today’s Advertiser: a media story that appears to have no immediate hook or sensational event to drive it to print. —A media story that seems simply to educate about an issue that consumers care about. And since Lafayette consumers will soon have a say about just how we structure our own cable offerings this is one of the few places where such an education might have practical consequences. Good for the Advertiser.

The issue is à la carte cable programming—the idea that you should be able to choose individual stations from a menu of choices instead of being forced to buy your cable programming in bundles determined by the seller. A short excursion into the phrase “à la carte” should be helpful in giving the cable story some context.


Á la carte comes from the French, and the restaurant trade there. It means “on the card”–on the menu. The contrast is between à la carte and prix fixe. The “fixed price,” prix fixe, is a full, usually multi-course, meal. There is no menu of choices. In the pure case all patrons eat the same meal and it is inexpensively priced for the courses offered. Some restaurants only offered fixed price—fixed choice menus. This option is rare in the states. Tujaques in New Orleans serves the same five course meal to all comers and is the only prix fixe restaurant I know of that survives—and it was an old institution when people now old were young. American’s don’t go for fixed price/choice restaurants when they have a choice. What American restaurants from McDonalds to Galatoire’s share is the à la carte menu format.

That contrast makes it easier to see why the current prix fixe cable programming model offends people. And it makes clear why the cable people’s objections don’t seem very important to most US citizens. Cable providers say, as the story demonstrates, that allowing people to construct their own cable “meal” from a menu of choices might end up causing their customers pay more.

They claim to object to that.

Sharon Kleinpeter, vice president of public relations for Cox Communications’ Greater Louisiana Region, says it may do more harm than good in the pocketbooks of cable companies and customers.

While it’s pretty much true that an à la carte menu means less income for cable companies like Cox it is also pretty clear that it does NOT mean more costs for most consumers. Fixed price formats make it easy for the seller to minimize the costs for a deluxe meal…you can buy only what materials you need in quantity, and waste, server, and cook time is all minimized. A huge pot of a savory soup costs little to prepare and keep ready. Keeping five soup choices ready for the 5% of people who order is considerably more expensive. Galatoire’s is understandably more expensive than Tujacques for the “same” meal.

But we don’t all want the same meal.

If we don’t want a desert or a soup we don’t want to be forced to buy it and watch it go to waste. That is the real trouble with current cable business model and the cable companies are in the position of the old fixed price restaurants. They know that they can’t provide the same fare they’ve been providing without charging more if people are allowed to refuse to pay for the soup or the salad course or the drink. And they can’t charge enough more for the main course to make up the loss from selling far fewer high-margin salads and drinks. It is true that a change is not a good deal for those few patrons who continue to order the five course meal; those patrons will pay more. But most, history shows, won’t. And the average customer will pay less and cable companies will have less income–and have to work harder to get that income. In fact the average cable customer watches just seventeen channels, according to the FCC, the article says.

What is revealed is that the folks who want to eat cable modestly have been subsidizing the patrons who want the deluxe version. Those who would order all the fancy trimmings get it for the cheapest possible price. But those who only want a quick sandwich at the end of a hard day pay more. The many have been subsidizing the appetites of the few.

Consumer advocates have noticed:

Consumer Federation director of research Mark Cooper points out that the current system forces subscribers to subsidize channels they don’t watch.

“The current system requires everyone to subsidize ESPN viewers,” points out Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation director of research. “Why is the cable company making these choices for people?”

Well, the short answer to Cooper’s question is the same as it is for prix fixe restaurants: They can make more money with less effort off a large volume of business, much of which is low cost, than they can if most of their clientle is transformed into price-conscious consumers of only the products they like best.

The equasion is pretty simple and the same, both for the cable companies and for consumers. Where they differ is in what they want out of the relationship. And in cable, restaurants, and marriage that makes all the difference in the world.

Something for us to think about here in Lafayette where the owners of the restaurant are the customers. How do we want to arrange our video world?

Lagniappe: If you’d like to look at the article in Gannett’s “The Tennessean” that apparently inspired this story you’ll find some interesting details about federal policy, the role of advertising in this game and other fascinating (to a few) bits and pieces neither I nor our local reporters bothered with.

They want Fiber in the Wilderness…

I spotted this during a weekend drive in the country with out of town friends. It’s on Wilderness Road (aptly named) in the extreme northeastern corner of the parish. I’m pretty sure the sign is one of those Robert Dafford, the muralist, put out on his own dime during the fiber fight.

No, this house, won’t be among the first to get served by LUS…in fact it will probably be one of the last places in the parish to get it, even presuming (as I tend to) that one day fiber will blanket our area. No doubt the owner of this house knows that—and supports the idea anyway.

But the desire is clear. We all share it. We all should get it.

Signs of the Times 1; LUS prepping poles

Signs of these Times Dept. — Poles being prepped for Fiber

LUS came yesterday and reworked the poles and electricity on my street; ostensibly to fix voltage problems. –They did put in 3 transformers to handle the load formerly carried by one and said that would help stabilize voltage and make it easier and faster to repair damage after a storm. But more interestingly for our readers: they made room for the upcoming fiber in the middle of the pole by moving three wires and the street light currently in the middle to the top of the pole. That consolidated the electricity near the top. So now there is ample room for fiber between the electricity on top and the the cable/phone wires below. (No doubt, a survey of the poles I mentioned in an earlier post found they needed more space on my block. I didn’t get my hopes up then.)

One of the linemen explained it all to me. He also said my North Lafayette neighborhood (off Louisiana near Hwy. 90) would be included in the first area built. (Wahooo!!!) From there, he claimed it would go out as far as Pont des Mouton Rd. and, after I queried further, out Johnson to near Don’s.

That’s a huge chunk of the city…I hope he’s right. (At least about my little block. I’m gonna burn a candle…) Now I’m looking forward to an announcement. I speculated earlier that LUS might bite off a big chunk initially based on the way the budget was structured. This encourages me to think I might have been right.

Langiappe sighting:

While doing final Christmas shopping yesterday I saw an Atlantic Engineering truck with magnetic LUS and “Utility survey” stickers on the side tooling down Johnson. All the signs are good…

(If you have a construction sighting you’d like to report, just drop me a line. I’d love to hear about it.)

Net Citizenship and You

Food For Thought: Wouldn’t you rather your master be you?

I’m going to have to lay out an unfamiliar thesis: You, fair reader, are almost certainly not on the internet. Not really. You are a second class citizen who is not allowed to make many of the most basic decisions that full members are free to make; you are a dependent of your modem and the wireline owner it is connected to. Generously: you are a client of AT&T or Cox or ____ (your local duopolist here). Less generously: you are a second class citizen of the internet allowed only the access that Big Daddy allows you. And Big Daddy, as in Tennessee Williams’ play, is more interested in wealth and power than he is the welfare of his dependents.

Full citizenship on the web can be defined simply enough: full citizens can use their connection in any way that they want. They are independent actors who are free to make available or view anything.

That’s not you.

Take a look at your TOS (Terms of Service). Cox and AT&T’s, for instance, do meaningfully differ. But they agree about the essentials that concern us here:

1) You are the client, clients of clients are forbidden; you may not distribute service to others,
2) You can’t talk bad about Big Daddy, (e.g.: Customer is prohibited from engaging in any other activity, whether legal or not, that AT&T determines in its sole discretion, to be harmful to its subscribers, operations, network(s). This includes … or which causes AT&T or the AT&T IP Services to be viewed unfavorably by others.)
3) Free speech? No sucha thing. They get to say what you can say. (e.g.: “Cox reserves the right to refuse to post or to remove any information or materials from the Service, in whole or in part, that it, in Cox’s sole discretion, deems to be illegal, offensive, indecent, or otherwise objectionable.
4) No Free Enterprise. You can’t sell things, for that you need the master’s special permission and a (higher-priced) service, regardless of how much traffic you use,
5) It’s not your connection. “Unlimited, always-on” connections are both limited and subject to an abrupt end. AT&T is bizarrely vague while Cox gives clear limits–which are seldom enforced. It’s not your connection; you need to remember that.
6) Your client status is a privilege, not a right. They can kick you to the curb at any time using whatever rationale seems most useful at the moment. (e.g.: Customer’s failure to observe the guidelines set forth in this AUP may result in AT&T taking actions anywhere from a warning to a suspension of privileges or termination of your Service(s). …AT&T’s decisions with respect to interpretation of the AUP and appropriate remedial actions are final and determined by AT&T in its sole discretion.)

7) Lucky 7 Laigniappe clause: Masters don’t have to follow the rules, only clients. (e.g.: AT&T reserves the right, but does not assume the obligation, to strictly enforce the AUP.)

You are in a master-client relationship with your network provider. You are NOT a full citizen of the internet. Your “location,” your IP address belongs to someone else. They have an assured, static IP. You do not. As long as they own that property you are dependent upon them and they can dictate the terms of that use.

Be aware that this is not the way it was supposed to be. The internet, right down to its IP core was designed around your freedom to connect.

One way of looking at network citizenship is through the lens of internet protocols and the operation of “the end to end principle.” From wikipedia:

The end-to-end principle is one of the central design principles of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) widely used on the Internet as well as in other protocols and distributed systems in general. The principle states that, whenever possible, communications protocol operations should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resource being controlled.

That’s a mouthful. Translated: The internet is designed as a transmission device that is supposed to be controlled by those on ends of a communication. You and the person at the other end. A request from one end is simply passed on to the other end—no single positive, centrally-controlled “circuit” exists. No controller stands in the middle. This is in contrast to the underlying design of the phone network with its centralized circuit switching system that designates a circuit for you and holds it open. (We’re talking about protocols, now….not physical implementation or the practical experience of users.)

Net neutrality battles are raging around the edge of this nascent war. We want to be full citizens of the new order. The incumbents would prefer that we be clients, vassels, and that they be the masters. Right now they are winning. Right now few of us even realize that current order is not necessary or natural—it was arranged for somebody else’s benefit; not for ours.

It really is that simple.

What we need to recognize is the nature of the war. What we need to be fighting for is ownership of our own connection. For full citizenship. To kill the Master-client relationship that constrains our current access to the network.

Ownership of the network is the most complete solution. Any limits we impose on ourselves are limits that we impose; they are not the dictates of the master. We may start out copying what we know in some ways. But that won’t last.

Lafayette, with its community-owned, fiber-based network utility is a good example of how that will work. From the begining things will be different here. We’ll have static IP addresses…and a lot of potential will flow from that. We’ll have full access to the speeds and capacity of our own network–that is what the 100 meg intranet is all about. As it becomes more and more obvious that many of the limits imposed by the current owners are not natural and not in the interests of users we’ll change those aspects as well.

That’s the real value of the battle fought and won here in Lafayette.

Worth thinking about…

“Winning LUS bids set to be revealed”

Lafayette Utilities System will announce on Tuesday the apparent low bidder on two contracts to run fiber-optic lines in front of each home and business in the city.

…There are actually two construction contracts, one to run fiber-optic lines over existing utility poles, the other contract to bury lines where no poles exist.

That’s the latest construction news on Lafayette’s fiber network as pulled from the Advocate’s story.

The article also reviews the head-end contract (this version comes in under-budget) and the Alcatel-Lucent electronics contract. The fiber itself, according to the Advocate, will be bid out separately next week.

The main import of all this is not so much the particular contracts, their terms, or who wins them. Our interest lies in the progress they represent: The project is moving forward. The day when the first truck rolls begin is nigh. Presuming the schedule continues to hold we should have a nice New Years present early in January.

Lafayette is getting its fiber.

“Laptops key in students’ learning”

Mike forwards the URL to an Advocate story that adds some meat to yesterday’s excursion out to the intersection of Educational Theory, Ubiquitous Computing, and Interface Design. The article, Laptops key in students’ learning, looks at the “Turn on to Learning” program that has seeded laptops in 54 school districts.

Louisiana’s laptop initiative, “Turn on to Learning, Critical Learning Tools for the 21st Century,” was funded by a $5 million legislative appropriation and has put an Apple MacBook computer into the hands of more than 3,500 sixth-graders and 150 teachers across the state.

One of the more interesting things about the program is that it isn’t focused solely on laptops; it also included digital tools that offer a more robust way to interact with the world using the computer:

Each classroom also gets supporting equipment and software valued at almost $3,000, including a storage-battery charging cabinet, wireless access station, printer, data projector, an external hard drive, digital camera and a digital microscope.

The wireless access station, coupled with the built-in WiFi N that built into macbooks emulates the connectivity that the OPLC laptops discussed in yesterday’s post offer. (The macs could even more closely emulate that model by flicking a switch in its WiFi preferences that would make each laptop to also function as an access point the way OLPC computers do by default. The kids could then remain connected to each other via an ad hoc network while doing fieldwork at a museum, for instance.)

The projector makes it easy to cast a screen image big enough and bright enough to be used as a common teaching tool; the equivalent of the blackboard. Providing such analogs to established practice are essential to the benefits of teacher’s existing teaching skills. Good for Apple and the Lousisiana program.

The camera and microscope are nice additions and its easy to see how a sixth graders could use them. (In the realm of capturing images, each macbook has its own built-in video camera, low res admittedly, but more than adequate for the sorts of video-enabled interaction that I dreamed about in yesterday’s post. I once helped work a fun project in a community center in Delaware that used cheap digital cameras to help tie school learning to the life kids live at home. Some amazing stuff is possible using such tools.

The West Feliciana tech director mentions the differences that such technology can make in the way we teach children. Changing the assumptions that drive educational practice has proven hard; technology’s greatest gift may not be anything intrinsic to the technology but that it provides the excuse to begin teaching the way that we have known we should for more than a century.

“This whole process is going to change the way we go about educating children,” West Feliciana Parish school technology Director Jerome Matherne said.

“Under the one-to-one concept, the teacher will no longer be the ‘sage on the stage,’ dispensing information. The teacher will be more of a facilitator because students now will have access to the information themselves,” Matherne said.

“You may have heard the saying, ‘We’re drowning in information, but starving for knowledge.’ That’s going to be the (teacher’s) challenge,” he said.

It’s all very interesting and Lafayette’s participation in such program still seems to me like one of the more obvious ways to leverage the integrated fiber/wifi network that we are currently building. We’d be smart to encourage the kids to learn how to use our shiny new network fully. They’ll figure it out a lot faster than us old fogeys (by which I mean — roll eyes — the over 12 set). Once they get it, they can teach us.

It’s an interesting world we live in.

Laptops in Schools: A tale of two cities

The Gist: Regional cities are getting laptops to school kids. Both in Birmingham, Al and in Alexandria, La. I’m envious.

If you are interested in the intersection of computers and education the big news this week is that Birmingham, Alabama has announced its intention to buy 15,000 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) computers for its elementary and middle school students.

That’s right, the struggling steel city a few states to the east.

The Dream — OPLC and Birmingham
The OLPC program, attuned readers will know, is a product of the fertile imagination of Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. It’s the famous “$100 dollar laptop” that has been widely touted in the media. It’s been grandly promoted as a project to put a computer in the hand of every child in the world. The purpose laid out on the website is only a bit less grandiose:

OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.

It’s not just a nifty computer we’re talking about; it’s a nifty networked computer—which is an entirely different animal. Each machine is capable of using wifi and creating a node in a mesh network—the machines create an ad-hoc network that extends any user’s connection to all the other computers in the neighborhood. That opens up large areas for collaboration with local users and potentially with any internet user world-wide. Spend a moment thinking about that. Of course the reliance on ad hoc mesh networking introduces both speed and reliability issues that the OPLC people don’t talk about. But the integration of networking into the core makes applications which were previously impossible to consider because of the lack of infrastructure pretty easy. Kids won’t need to go offline to work together.

Negroponte’s TED talk is worth a watch if you’d like to get a flavor of the project..and the man. While the ideal of building a machine for every child is a bit grand, less grandly, the OLPC laptop is a tour de force effort to make networked computing technology affordable, durable, power efficient, usable and cheap. In a phrase: a cheap utilitarian commodity. The computing industry hates it. They’re too close to a commodity already.

OLPC also offers a frontal challenge t0 both the software industry and the educational community. The radical software innovations start with the operating system. In contrast to the “modern” desktop and document metaphor popularized by the Macintosh the “Sugar” interface operates on a social-activity metaphor (see guidelines) where the central visual organizer is organizing ongoing activities around the child. (Literally central–the image at right with the child in the center of their ongoing set of activities is the equivalent of the desktop in the Sugar interface.) The challenge to the educational community is embodied in that metaphor—the organizing principle of the educational arm of the project is that learning consists not in storing facts but in successfully joining ongoing activities. (Just for the record: this is NOT far out; Most modern educational frameworks for learning theory since the the 1890’s take a version of this stance. It’s practice that has lagged.)

Looked at in that way one has to wonder whether the florid global ambitions of the OLPC aren’t, in fact, a way to distract observers from the really ambitious project that lurks in the background: to transform modern computation and software so as to drive a fundamental change in educational practices–in learning– in the 21st century. (Now there is a really grandiose, if noble ambition. If that is the hope, then putting the idea that they want to give every child a laptop front and center is a way of being modest.)

That’s what the city down the Interstate is getting into.

The Dream—Alexandria
Now laptops in the schools are not new…Apple, in particular, has a long history of pretty aggressive marketing into schools and once produced a set of rugged laptops (example, emate 300 at right) tricked out with kid-driven software and extensive online support. Maine was an early adopter has had a successful laptop program for years. (Negroponte was associated with it in the early years.)

That legacy lives on. Now it has come to Alexandria, Louisiana.

A recent Town Talk editorial lauded a Louisiana/Apple program that has put Macintosh laptops in local schools:

“Turn On” has put laptop computers into the hands of children in 54 of the state’s public schools. In Central Louisiana, Bolton High School students received laptops at the start of the school year. Now Cottonport Elementary School and Mary Goff Elementary School sixth-graders have received them.

Twenty years ago, computer literacy was optional. Not any more. Today it is fundamental to the working world and to an individual’s ability to succeed.

…It is no surprise that Gov. Kathleen Blanco has helped to get the “Turn On” program going in Louisiana. Blanco has been out in front of significant technological initiatives during her tenure, including the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise Center.

The Problem
Lafayette prides itself on being a progressive city…going for something like this seems an obvious addition addition to a city-wide fiber and wireless build. Programs like Maine’s, Birmingham’s, and the one in Louisiana use laptops because they give each child learning tools both at school and at home. Apple’s program requires that schools have a good internet connection in order to be considered—one of its few real requirements. Where these programs run into trouble is with having easy, fast access at home. No school system can mandate that homes have an adequate connection; there is not only the cost, but some homes or apartments in every district simply cannot buy, at any price, a reasonably fast connection.

But bandwidth is essential to the vision. And not having a fast connection available in every home has been THE major stumbling block in pushing the use of network-based learning.

Nation-wide folks like Apple have simply had to compromise the vision. No comprehensive assignments can be made for completion at home. No teacher can assume that learning, practice, and reinforcement are available anywhere but in the school itself. That limitation keeps anyone from seriously designing programs that really encourage the habits of life-long learning that a dynamically changing society has come to demand.

Testing the idea of pervasive, always-on learning hasn’t been possible.

OLPC’s ad-hoc mesh networking comes as close as anyone has to proposing a viable solution to the lack of universal, always-on broadband service. A laptop taken home wouldn’t be assured of a connection to either their fellow students or the internet. Mobile Ad hoc mesh networking only works even half-reliably in the confines of a small area–like a school. Because it implicitly relies on one connection to the larger internet it is limited to dividing the available bandwidth (usually a small fraction of wifi’s potential bandwidth) it is, on its best days, slow. Video “show and tell” using cheap, built-in cameras like those found in Alexandria’s Macintoshes isn’t possible–and a whole range of program and screen sharing capacities are but theoretical dreams given those limits. But the OPLC implementation of networking is the best solution for collaboration that I can imagine without comprehensive support from the surrounding community. After all the OPLC was designed for use in third world countries where the village simply doesn’t have any way to provide connectivity. Some of the laptop’s most widely praised features result from its not being able to count on reliable electricity; in those places local networking can only come from the computers themselves.

But here, in these United States, electricity isn’t an issue. We could provide robust pervasive wireless access. If we had the will. That is what the wireless municipal dream has been about. (While I have critiqued the simplistic version of that dream it was never the dream I distrusted—only the suitability of the tools to realize it and the unwillingness of some promoters to deal with the weaknesses of their plans.)

A Solution; The Dream — Lafayette
Lafayette will soon have a functional fiber-optic network in a every corner of the city. A wireless network hooked into the fiber at every other node will closely follow that build. At the end we’ll see the nation’s first integrated fiber-optic/wifi network with speeds on both sides funded by 100 megs or more of bandwidth. Each wifi node could, if we chose, distribute 50 megs of bandwidth to its local area. That’s enough to provide more than enough bandwidth for all the kids on the block to use good quality mpeg-4/H.264 video for their collaboration–even at home. Lafayette’s kids could do screen sharing and use whiteboarding applications.

It would be easy to lock a code into the laptops that would give them special speeds and access privileges to school-provided programs. The school system and even individual classes could tunnel their own VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) to provide tools and security. None of this is technically difficult. Access control and provisioning have all been more than adequately developed on university and large corporate campuses.

There’s grant money going begging and imaginative projects that lack grant support only because no one can imagine where the bandwidth to use them will be widely enough available to justify helping out.

With the essential, fast, universal infrastructure in place, the only limits for Lafayette would lie in our imagination and in our willingness to boldly use public assets for the public good.

Worth thinking about, don’t you think?

LUS accepts bids for fiber head-end facility

The Independent blog carries a short, LUS accepts bids for fiber head-end facility, that lays out the details of the new head-end facility. Alert readers will have encountered this issue before (1, 2) but he gist is that LUS had to withdraw its original RFP for the construction of a custom headend building and substitute a call for a smaller prefab building. From the INDsider:

The total bill of approximately $957,000 is well within LUS’ $1.4 million budget for the facility. LUS recently re-bid the project as a smaller, prefabricated facility after original bids for a custom building came back more than 100 percent over budget.

It’s disappointing that we’ll not have the larger, custom building to work with…expansion and long-term durability in hurricane country are both desirable. Of course the legal climate engendered by the (un)Fair Competition Act makes keeping costs down in the initial phase imperative. (That law mandates that the network has to be continuously self-supporting even in the first years while it is working without income. That foolishness can be dealt with but tools to insure that LUS stays within a punitive law means opting for longer, larger loans—and the subsequent expense in interest—than would otherwise be prudent. Yet another way that our legislature has allowed itself to be used as a tool to stifle competition with the incumbent providers by raising the costs of runnig Lafayette’s system.)

On the other hand, it’s encouraging that the headend cost has not only been brought in line with the budget but has come in substantially cheaper so that there is now a bit more breathing room in the early cost picture as a result. All dark clouds have silver linings.

Dreams Realized

Lafayette’s Fiber Faithful will recall that during the referendum fight the slogan of the pro-fiber citizens group Lafayette Coming Together was : “For our Future, For Our Children” Artwork, bumper stickers (at left), guerrilla video, yard signs, and billboards all bore one or another versions of this sentiment.

The most effective argument for building our own network turned out to be the most basic: family. People want their children and grandchildren to be able to remain in Acadiana and not to be forced to move away from hearth and home in order to get a decent job in a field they love. That, simple civic pride, and a streak of contrariness moved more votes than any combination of rationalistic economic, business, or technological arguments—however valid those might have been.

It appears that the hope is being realized.

Saturday’s Advocate ran an interesting article in the right hand column of the Acadiana section. “Unemployment rate hits bottom” the lead-in paragraph tells the basic story:

Lafayette Parish’s unemployment rate in October dropped to the lowest level since at least 1990, continuing what’s been a historic, almost two-year trend.

Given that those encouraging two years have been posted following the regional devastations of Rita and Katrina which left Lafayette the only untouched metropolis south of I-10 I’m not yet ready to call them historic. But it is undeniably good news.

But what might interest the folks interested in seeing our children able to stay here after school is:

City-Parish President Joey Durel said Lafayette’s position as a technology leader in the state is helping show the rest of the country that Lafayette is “forward-thinking” and a “very progressive community.”

… as the economy is expanding, especially in technology-related fields, there is growing anecdotal evidence that young people who left Lafayette or the state for work are now coming back home, Stanley said.

“That’s almost a dream come true for this administration,” Stanley said. “It’s a real exciting time.”

Indeed, it is almost a dream come true—and not only for this administration but for the vast majority of the city who expressed their support of that dream on July 16th, 2005.

Operational note:

Readers who conscientiously click through to the Advocate article will notice that it does not link to the Advocate site, a result they will surely have grown used to. Instead they end up at NewsBank open url that has the archived story. The Advocate site is not carrying the story online and, as far as I can tell, a new site redesign incorporates a policy of not carrying all the stories published (and making it impossible to easily tell which were published today). I consider this bad policy, bad design, and ultimately bad business. A newspaper’s strong suit is its role as the provider of comprehensive, daily, local, news. It is, ultimately, all they have to sell. Compromising this by making their web offering 1) incomplete, and 2) confusing as to what is current minimizes their few natural advantages.

On the other hand it is great that the State Library and the local libraries have cooperated to make a stable, comprehensive archive of the state’s dailies available to the public. It makes sense, of course, since there is little that they are uniquely situated to do that would more directly address what has to be the central reason for having public libraries: providing for an informed citizenry. If you’ve got a Library card from a Louisiana public library you can use to gain access to these files. (And if you don’t have a card you should. So saith the son of a librarian. 🙂 )