Joey’s Washington Talk

I’ve posted an (audio-only) “movie” of Durel’s remarks at the House hearing on broadband and wireless networks to YouTube for your listening satisfaction.

It’s a very Joey Durel speech. There’s a touch of humor, some testiness, some pride, a bit of anger, and a dash of drama. You heard it during the fiber fight and you can remind yourself how hopeful that sounded back in the day by listening to this latest installment.

And it’s worth the listen. Tidbits to whet your appetite:

He emphasized the purpose of keeping our children home…a central, perhaps the central theme, of the fiber fight.

About Lafayette’s network:

We’re going to have something—and I think this is a strong statement—we’re going to have, that you are probably not going to have in Washington for 20-25 years from now…. And I think that is a sin for America… And when I say that, and I’m not just stressing the fiber optics….We are going to be able to provide our citzens, peer to peer, customer to customer, a 100 megabits for free.

Later he corrected himself to say that you’d have to buy some level of service…but that your insystem, “intranet” bandwidth would be that fast and wouldn’t cost extra. That wowed the committee and they asked about it later.

About the digital divide:

People on our system will be able surf the internet from their television’s with a wireless keypad and a wireless mouse.

That is the really new news from this session. I know what folks have been talking about and I am not positive what this refers to but I suspect that what Durel is referring to is a settop box arrangement where you can surf and work email from the same box that decodes your cable signal. I like the idea—if it is done right and it would be easy to get very wrong. ….More when I know more.

On Congress acting to protect municipal broadband— With tongue firmly in cheek Durel said:

I hope 49 states outlaw doing what we are doing….What I would tell those states is: “Please send your technology companies to Lafayette and we’ll welcome them with open arms and a gumbo.”

The point he was making was that he really hoped was that the Congress would pass the law they were discussing at the hearing and give other communities the right to follow Lafayette’s lead.

Mr. Durel Goes to Washington — updated

Joey Durel presented Lafayette’s case for municipal broadband to Washington this morning. He spoke today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The committee hearing was in reference to a proposed new law called the “Wireless Consumer Protection and Community Broadband Empowerment Act.” Most attention on the net and in trade news has focused on the first section of the bill which focuses on making wireless networks more consumer-friendly. Some articles have suggested that such a law would result in open, unlocked cell phones. The iPhone, for instance, couldn’t be locked in to only AT&T. Others would force companies to provide more transparent and accurate information on coverage and terms. All that, of course, would be a great thing.

But the primary interest of those of us in Lafayette, and the reason our Mayor showed up on capital hill, lies in the second part, Title II: Community Broadband Empowerment. That portion would prevent any state forbidding municipal networks—something that lobbyists have successfully promoted in a number of states…and something that they tried to do in Lousisiana where only Governor Blanco’s clear signal that she’d veto anything that both sides couldn’t agree to lead to a compromise that allowed Lafayette to proceed, though with significant unfair restrictions on its ability to compete. The gist:

No State or local government statute, regulation, or other legal requirement may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting, any public provider from providing advanced communications capability or service to any person or to any public or private entity.

Now that leaves significant wiggle room for endless litigation. (Lafayette knows well the danger of laws being used to simply delay a local project. We lost years going down that path.) Louisiana’s (Un)Fair Competition Act significantly cripples the fiscal operation of any municipality in the state that wants to offer its citizens a cheaper, more competitive deal—large swaths of the law incongruously force the state regulators to raise (not lower, raise) the price they offer their citizen/customers based on expenses that municipalities do not have. (NO portion of the law sets an upper limit on prices….this is “regulation in the public interest” where the public’s interest is scarcely served. Clearly no one thinks the citizen-owners will overcharge themselves. So all that is left is to protect is…the enormous corporations??? AT&T don’t need to be protected from Lafayette, quite the opposite is true.) Sadly, Lafayette may prove that such laws, as unfair as they are, do not “prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting” an exceptionally determined municipality. It would be unfair to the nation as a whole if Lafayette’s unusual energy and determination had the effect of barring communities across the nation from safely following its lead.

A good federal law would not leave such large loopholes–states ought also to be prohibited from enacting laws that would make local communities labor under regulatory disadvantages that do not apply equally to their large, corporate competitors.

I didn’t hear about the session until it was already underway but thanks to the miracles of the internet was able to tune in to session then. I missed Joey’s initial remarks but captured most of the discussion that followed. That went as you might expect: Representatives reperesented the interests of their state (or corporation). The representative from California was worried that strong California consumer guarantees not be diluted–while the speaker from the industry clearly hoped it would be. The senator from AT&T’s San Antonio hometown insisted that “government” had some unfair advantage—completely ignoring how crazy was the idea that Lafayette’s little power/sewer/water utility could ever operate at anything other than a huge competitive disadvantage to the immense monolithic power of AT&T.

Joey acquitted himself well; insisting that we were doing for ourselves what corporations refused to do for us and had done so with the uniform support of local business and local bipartisan political endorsement. Not to mention an overwhelming vote of the people. That seemed hard for the opponents to respond to—as well it might. The contrast between someone whose first interest was his community and someone who was trying promote corporate interests instead was, I am sure, uncomfortable for the representatives who are hoping to prevent the passage of such a law.

Some fun sound bites:
Durel was talking about taking the fight all the way to the state supreme court. He commented:

“those were probably the best marketing dollar we could had ever spent. It was great publicity for us.”

Now thats a bit of bravado. It might even be kinda true.

Several times Joey was challenged with some industry rhetoric—mostly about promises that the incumbents made or didn’t make. Several times he answered:

“Smoke and mirrors.”

That’s the Joey we know and remember from the fiber fight. There was little such bluntness in the rest of the discussion.

Some of the questioners seemed to be suspicious of the very idea that the community might offer a product for less money than the amount they were paying to buy their service from private providers. Durel was ready for that one. He said that he’d tell them what he told his own community:

“You’ll still be able to have less quality for more money.”

And the room erupted into laughter.

NOTE: My thanks to the alert reader who pointed me to this event!

Update 10:20 PM: The archive for this meeting is already up. I’m happy since I missed the first of the live meeting. You can get the written version of Durel’s remarks and stream or download an audio of the meeting. That’s pretty impressive transparency…and a pretty nifty use of the internet to make government accessible. Durel’s set-piece talk starts at 28 minutes. He deviates significantly–very significantly, it is almost a completely different speech from the written remarks and the spoken version is much more interesting, emphasizing keeping our children home, development, that we’ll have peer to peer 100 megs for “free,” and about the digital divide: “People on our system will be able surf the internet from their television, with a wireless keypad and a wireless mouse.”

With tongue firmly in cheek Durel also said: “I hope 49 states outlaw doing what we are doing. Please send your technology companies to Lafayette and we’ll welcome them with open arms and a gumbo.”

Clarksville Servers First FTTH Customer

The Clarksville FTTH project is serving its first customers! Congratulations to the good folks in Tennessee.

We’ve been following Clarksville here at LPF (coverage) because the Clarksville project is very similar to our own but is somewhat ahead of our schedule. The stories about Clarksville are like a little peek into our own future.

It will be awhile before Lafayette gets our version of the feel-good story about the first fiber customer that citizens in Clarksville recently found in their Gannett newspaper, the Leaf:

This week the new network went live, as the first public residential customer was connected and immediately able to utilize the utility’s cable television and Internet offerings…

“You can’t understand the concept of what this means to my son,” Berardo said. “He is so advanced beyond my time.”

Berardo signed her 15-year-old son Zachary out of school early Wednesday so he could be around while their home became firmly wired into the 21st century.

“He wanted to be in the whole thick of things,” Berardo said.

Zachary does not claim to be an avid video gamer, but was nonetheless wide eyed talking about the prospects of a new Internet connection of 10 megabits per second.

“That’s fast,” Zachary said, with a grin that bordered on mischievous

Indeed, that is fast—and that is the lowest, indeed, the only, speed that CDE offers. Zachary will be getting a symmetrical 10 megs. That level of service costs only $34.95. Ahwoogah! Actually Zachary’s mother is shelling out no more than $30 dollars extra for her son’s 10 megs since she’s also buying cable. If she’s getting phone service as well (and why not?) only $20 dollars on top of the first two services buys her son some of the fastest symmetrical bandwidth available in this country. —And you’d never heard of Clarksville, had you?

In comparison: 7 megs from Cox is $41.95 in Lafayette so Zach is getting 10 megs for about 20% less than I get 7. (Is that %20 a familiar number?) 20% less cost for 30% more service? That sounds pretty good all by itself. BUT: the upload speed in Lafayette is only 512 k— only 5% of the speed young Zachary is getting!

When LUS launches here I expect a 10 mbps symmetrical tier to be their lowest offering. It’s gonna be fun.

Cox to Raise Prices

Cox Communications has announced a plan to raise prices this coming April 1st according to a business brief in this morning’s Advertiser. As far as I can tell from the brief article it means between a 3 and 10% jump for most subscribers depending upon services taken.

Most video subscribers will see a bump of between 2-3 dollars according to the article. The basic cable package (channels 2-20 in analog) which has had channels and services removed recently, will not experience the same increase. Internet subscribers will also be hit with an increase in the 3 dollar range. That makes for around a 6 dollar jump for those folks who buy both services from the cable company.

Cox claims this is the first price increase in 19 months and claims it is made necessary by channel costs. That makes surface sense of a kind but isn’t easy to reconcile with the fact that the number of bandwidth-eating HD programming channels included in the new packages is slated to increase. —Channel costs increase independent of pricing if you provide more channels and use more of your resources in doing so.

There is some unexplained confusion between the information presented in the article and what is offered on Cox’s website. For instance, the basic tier is described as being channels 2-20 but the Cox website for acadiana describes that level of service as covering channels 2-23 plus access to 3 more digital channels if you pay an extra hardware fee. Are 3 more analog channels being silently eliminated, effectively but invisibly raising the package price? It sure looks that way.

Subscribers to internet services will get a bump with their price increase, though the Advertiser’s write-up is also confusingly written on this topic (though it may simply be following a misleading press release). Consider:

Cox is also boosting the speed of four tiers of its Internet service, allowing customers to connect and upload content more than twice as fast in some cases. Cox’s Value tier, it’s second least expensive at $26.95 per month, will now offer 1.5 megs per second, a 486 percent increase in speed, for $3 more per month,

There are only 4 speed tiers and the “value” tier (about which some detail is given in the Advertiser) is now $26.95 with download speeds of 1.5 mbps and 256 kbps upload. I don’t see how “now” offering “1.5 megs” can mean a 486% increase in either the upload or download numbers. My guess is that the upload speed, which at 256 mbps is pretty pitiful, is being raised substantially. But that is only a guess. If that is all that changes most subscribers won’t feel that is worth a 10% bump.

A new expansion is pointed to that might actually be worthwhile:

HD Free Zone OnDemand will go up, allowing subscribers to watch popular basic cable programs whenever they want.

If “basic cable” refers to the basic cable tier, as its context in this article might indicate, then that would be real news as it would indicate that local stations and AOC were going to archive their news and other locally produced shows and allow Cox to rebroadcast them on demand. That would be a great thing for Acadiana and worth applauding Cox for showing some real vision. However, if “basic cable programs” just refers to “regular, widely available on lower video tiers cable shows” then this isn’t very interesting and is just a continuation of what is happening without any special price rise. I have to suspect the latter but can wish for the former…..

In any case, this price bump will surely make it easier for LUS to keep its promises to offer a lower-priced alternative to Cox and AT&T. Prices for Cox are, in the end, driven by national factors and intra-company competition which don’t take into account local competition like LUS. The only way to compete on price with LUS will be to make the local Baton Rouge-Acadiana network the corporation’s least profitable division. Nobody, least of all local Cox officials, will want to let that happen.

New Orleans’ Wireless Network

Earthlink recently decided to pull out of the municipal wireless market and that decision has caused consternation in cities from San Francisco, which thought it had been promised a network, to Philadelphia, where one has already been built. Not getting the same media play is New Orleans’ wifi network which has been operated by Earthlink for a while.

The Times Picayune story quotes the company’s director of muni wireless indicating that if a free wireless tier exists it means that not enough people will buy the service to make it viable.

But that’s not what his vice-president said not long ago. The blunt explanation then was that “cheap wifi is too slow.” In fact the mesh network technology that promised to make the networks cheap has the side effect of making it slow. And slow, in communications tech is undesirable.

The knock that I heard on the New Orleans network is that it was slow and spotty–at any price. Cheap WiFi was too slow.

Earthlink’s decision to divest itself of its muni division means it will not be investing any more cash in remedying the defects in its design that it readily admits. Any new purchaser that comes in may get the network for cheap–but will have to retool it extensively and expensively to make it a viable solution for the people of the city. My guess is that it won’t happen. Instead, the network will slowly fray, go down bit by bit, and one day, as we saw happen in Baton Rouge, the final parts of a once-proud alternative network will be unceremoniously turned off and the people of the city told that the equipment that is still functioning is not worth salvaging.

That will be a sad ending to a network that was a bright spot in the city’s early recovery. Initially it was cobbled together immediately after Katrina out of a system intended to transmit video surveillance for city police by clever city techs. It was New Orleans’ most useful communications network during the initial chaos and its resilience added to the aura surrounding muni WiFi. Tech-oriented volunteers quickly beefed it up into a community-wide system using donated equipment while Bell-South and Cox slowly tried to get their systems back up. An inspiring story, bu the story from there was predictable: Bell South and Cox objected to the competition as soon as they had anything back up at all. New Orleans couldn’t get the support to change a Louisiana law initially aimed at Lafayette which forced it to provide speeds so slow as to be unusable. The city was forced to hand it over to Earthlink so that the network could offer something like usable speeds and now Earthlink is folding. The slow decline of a hopeful sign has been sad and depressing. I suspect the end is near. I hope I am wrong.

French on Basic Cable

Just for the record:

A letter in today’s Advertiser rasises, again, the question of whether the French-language channel should have been moved off of Cox’s basic cable lineup.

And the answer of course is “no”—it should not have. In a city where the census says 13% of the population speaks French in the home it should be. Communities that call themselves Cajun, Creole, and French all speak a unique local version of the language and ought to be served.

We lost easy access to that channel when Cox decided it would be more profitable for them if Acadiana was made more like Baton Rouge. So they combined the two areas and aligned Lafayette’s channel offerings with Baton Rouge’s.

Unwise. And it is an issue that will not go away.

My guess is that this is not a mistake that french-speaking cajun fiddling Terry Huval will make. There is no reason why TV9 can’t be on channel 9…..except that Baton Rouge has a channel 9 on broadcast. But that won’t bother a local cable company.

Full Page LUS Fiber Ad

The Sunday morning Advertiser has a full page LUS Fiber ad…the first, but not the last, we’ll see.

At left is the page. The blue banner is explanatory—they want folks to know that they’ll be seeing “visible signs of progress” because the “crews will be working hard to bring you a fiber-fast, fiber-fantastic network.” (Whew!) “And with it , lighting-fast internet speeds an miles of expanded bandwidth. Plus crystal-clear cable TV and telephone service” Now that’s somewhat florid language but not inaccurate—we hope. You can get a larger picture by clicking on the one at left.

The pic below is a scan out of the ad… if you click it to get the big picture you should be able to read the ad text yourself. And for local fiberistas it is a lot of fun to read…and reassuring to see list of all the things we’ve been promised make it into advertising. It’s one thing to tell the loyalists what they want to hear and quite another to put into print advertising.

And the advertising is still more conservative than the talk…the promise in print is that the triple play will average 20% less than Cox (and AT&T if it every gets around to offering its cable package.)

The body copy opens with a bit of bragging: Fiber to the Home and Business Technology is the most advanced means to provide what is typically referred to as a ‘triple play’ of communications services—cable TV, phone, and high speed internet—directly to homes and buisneesses. There are no FTTH systems serving entire commuities in Louisiana and very few in the U.S.

Other bullet points:

  • will serve apartments (Happily for competitors like LUS the FCC is trying to outlaw exclusive apartment contracts—the cable companies are, of course, suing)
  • local programming and stations
  • advanced phone options
  • Video on Demand
  • DVRs–Digital Video Recorders
  • Channel guides

No Broadband Price War….elsewhere

One of the reasons that LUS has relaxed a bit about making its pricing commitments is that it is increasingly obvious that there will be no national price war on broadband. So LUS can confidently see that with its much longer pay-back time and with no need to chase large profits for impatient stockholders and investment firms it can easily undercut the pricing of corporations who have, essentially, decided to milk the customers of their established monopoly cows for the indefinite future. As AT&T and Verizion roll out broadband services that provide no advantage over cable for the same levels of speed it is increasingly obvious that the two industries have decided not to compete on price.

The latest in this “we-are-competeing-vigorously-but-not-on prices” noncompetition competition between the colliding telco and cableco monopolies in the broadband arena was AT&T’s decision to raise prices on its broadband DSL customers…except in former BellSouth areas where its prices were previously higher.

That wasn’t what “competition” between the cablecos and the telecos was supposed to bring. You may recall that when AT&T was trying to transfer local municipal property rights to the state level so it could get around the locals’ insistence that AT&T serve all of a community with their new services in return for using the community’s land they claimed that relieving them of that obligation would yield cheaper prices for the favored few that actually got “competition.” Even that half-a-loaf is NOT the way it is working out…and both the cablecos and the telecos like it that way. Two competitors are simply not enough to establish a competitive market and reality is taking its toll on that tale. A few are even noticing that we’ve been taken:

The announced price hike didn’t sit well with some observers.

Routers, modems and other equipment used to deliver bandwidth are dropping in cost as rapidly as bandwidth demands are rising, said Dave Burstein, who operates, an industry newsletter. “Total cost to the company for the bandwidth it delivers is about $1 a month per customer,” Burstein said. “AT&T is raising its rates because it can. It has the market power to do so. Increased costs aren’t the reason.”

AT&T still has to pay off the enormous costs of trying to absorb BellSouth, among others, a consolidation that our regulators allowed because it was also supposed to lower prices.

The only real price competition we here in Lafayette can expect to see will come from LUS. BellSouth and Cox exist to serve the interests of their stockholders and that means that we should pay as high a price as the company can extract from us. The industry is learning right now that they don’t have to compete on prices to maintain their margins–and so they won’t. Anything less would be irresponsible. LUS also exists to serve its owners…but their (our) intersts are best served by low prices for high levels of service. Both types of owners will, inevitably, get a company pricing policy based on their interests. But only LUS will actually be motivated to compete on price. (Six month specials like those you’ll see from Cox in both today’s Advocate and Advocate don’t count—that’s marketing, not pricing.)

2009, after the launch of Phase 1, will be an interesting and, I’ll bet, a satisfying year for Lafayette consumers of broadband.