Against the Grain

With the country sinking into a recession and the housing market collapsing nationwide it is somewhat comforting that Louisiana is going against the grain.

Loren Scott, the media’s go-to economist from LSU, predicts a continued strong economy and particularly a strong housing market in Lafayette according to an article penned by a local realtor in today’s Advertiser.

What did Scott say specifically about Acadiana? He noted many positive indicators including a low unemployment rate, a strong oil patch, a large number of building projects, LUS fiber system, hospital expansions, Acadian Ambulance expansion, Dynamic Industries contracts and discovery of more oil in the Gulf. In other words, Acadiana has a vibrant economy and an excellent housing market. They are predicted to remain strong for the next two years. (emphasis mine)

What’s interesting in the context of this site is that the LUS FTTH network has already graduated from a gee-whiz, that-would-be-neat-if-they-get-it status to an accepted, off-hand element in a list of strengths for the region.

Here’s to hoping that the lower prices, an amazingly advanced product, and better service that LUS Fiber are bringing will do its part in keeping the wolf from the door locally.

New Orleans’ Wi-Fi Gone

It’sa gone pecan….or less colloquially and jocularly: sic transit gloria.

New Orleans’ Earthlink WiFi network, launched with much fanfare as the leading edge of public-private partnership in muni networking in the days after Katrina is gone–completely. As Earthlink abandons its network of city-wide wireless networks New Orleans will not be left with even the truncated, city-services-only networks of Corpus Christi or Milpitas, Calif. In those cities Earthlink was able to give the networks to the city and cut its loses. But in New Orleans neither the city nor anyone else apparently was willing to take it. Earthlink will remove its networking equipment as it folds shop in the Big Easy.

This is the last whimper of a story that started out bravely. One of the shining moments of New Orleans municipal government after the storm (and there were shining moments) was the way it hacked together a working telecommunications system in the hours after the storm passed through by quickly repurposing a network of wifi connected cameras to serve basic police, fire, and emergency communications—long before BellSouth (now AT&T) began to get itself back together.

As the city stumbled to its feet it announced that it would use that network, expanded by volunteer workers and donated equipment, to provide basic voice and data communications for its citizens who BellSouth and Cox admitted would be without phone and data service for many months. (At right a Washington Post graphic from a story showing the core of the city unserved three months after Katrina.) For several months battered New Orleans could proudly claim to own North America’s only big-city wifi cloud. BellSouth and Cox ignobly objected, using as a basis Louisiana’s (un)Fair Competition Act; a law that BellSouth had recently pushed through the state legislature in an attempt to first prevent and then to at least cripple Lafayette’s plan to build a fiber optic network. (A plan which has since come to fruition.) The incumbents demanded that the city jump through a series of legal hoops meant to make it all but impossible to build community-owned telecommunications networks and, in any case, to delay ones progress indefinitely. New Orleans, lead by a former Cox executive, bravely refused to be cowed, cited emergency exemptions, and—backed by Governor Blanco—continued to provide the basic services private corporations were unable to quickly restore to the community.

BellSouth and Cox eventually, of course, got their way when emergency regulations expired and the Louisiana legislature refused to reform the law in light of post-Katrina realities. New Orleans turned its community-owned network over to Earthlink who had entered the municipal market aggressively. But then the public-private muni network bubble burst when the limitations of wireless networks in general and WiFi networks in particular became obvious.

The only large muni network still standing is, as far as I know, Minneapolis’. There the city owns the network and provides substantial anchor tenant fees to the locally-based operator and builder who, in exchange for a long exclusive lease shouldered the expense of construction. (Interestingly for close watchers of Lafayette’s network, the city started with a substantial fiber ring and factored in an extensive expansion of that fiber network as part of the bid specs for building the wireless network. Minneapolis owns a fiber backhaul backbone for its network–which may well be part of the explanation for its generally acknowledged above-par network performance.) Retaining ownership of the network was not a path open to New Orleans as BellSouth’s law forced an outright sale. For the same reason, New Orleans could not take the network back and run it or and lease it to a private provider as Minneapolis has successfully done. We’ll have to see if the lack of municipal competition will result in the bevy of new services for New Orleans and Cox and AT&T have claimed would result from eliminating “unfair” municipal competition or whether, just perhaps, places like East Ascension parish and Lafayette where small local providers –public and private– are going up against the big boys are the places where good deals and new services are rolled out first. Anyone want to bet on whose populace actually gets the better deal?

The last act for New Orleans brave WiFi experiment has now played out. In substantial part it ran aground on the implacable opposition of Cox/AT&T, the irresponsibility of the state legislature, and the poor business planning of Earthlink. Sic transit gloria

AT&T, Cox: Our favorite flavor is Cherry/Red

This week’s edition of the Baton Rouge Business Report contains an informative story about the spirited battle that EATEL is waging against Cox on the eastern edge of the privately-held cable giant’s central Louisiana market footprint.

One comment that immediately jumped out was that the competition between EATEL (with its superior fiber network) and Cox (with its very deep corporate pockets) has prompted an in-your-face element of competition that neither the locally-owned phone company (EATEL) nor the Atlanta-based cable company (Cox) is accustomed to using:

Brad Supple, the director of sales and marketing with EATEL, says the ads represent the first time they’ve countered the competition in such an aggressive fashion. Cox says it’s a first for them, too; the companies have battled for customers for nearly three years.

EATEL’s most aggressive move (detailed in the BRBR article) was the running of ads in Lafayette informing Cox customers here about the special bargain rates Cox was trying to limit to the market in east Ascension Parish, where it competes head-to-head with EATEL.

The ad has been discussed here before, but there is news in the article and it deals with the flavors of the video franchise bills up for consideration in the current session of the Louisiana Legislature.

For starters, it quotes Cheryl McCormick of the Louisiana Cable and Telecommunications Association (LCTA) for noting that one of the three bills up this session dealing with video is actually the LCTA’s bill (HB 869); the other two (House Bill 1009 and Senate Bill 422) are AT&T’s bills and would create the statewide video franchise.

The real news, however, comes from a woman who once held McCormick’s job but now works as Cox’s vice president of government and public affairs, Sharon Kleinpeter. Commenting on AT&T’s push for passage of statewide video franchise legislation here, Kleinpeter confirmed a point made here recently — specifically, AT&T and the state’s largest cable provider are engaged in a carefully choreographed effort to relieve both elements of this communications duopoly from current legal requirements to serve all segments of the communities where local franchise agreements now exist.

Here’s the money passage:

While AT&T’s earlier efforts to get statewide authority have failed, Kleinpeter says Cox doesn’t oppose it as long as it can also get options that would free the company from 55 20-year and 30-year franchises it has in 13 parishes, which have more stringent provisions. So far, AT&T hasn’t agreed to the move, which she says would otherwise give Cox a competitive advantage. Talks are under way on this issue.

This is the Cherry/Red flavor of regulation they love.

That is, both AT&T and Cox (and other Louisiana cable providers) want the ability to provide services only in those neighborhoods where they believe they can make the highest rate of return and not have to provide services, say, all over Lafayette Parish as would be the case under the terms of the current franchise agreement here (and in, the article says, 55 other parts of the state).

They want to be able to legally cherry pick what they consider the best neighborhoods and legally redline those that they want to ignore. Thus, Cherry/Red.

Stunts, Scams & Sirens

The recent — but thus far not detailed — franchise agreement the AT&T signed with Baton Rouge is a public relations stunt, coming as it did on the heels of the recently-announced Cox rate increase. If the statewide video franchise legislation passes, the Baton Rouge/AT&T agreement will be meaningless. The statewide video franchise legislation would lift all local requirements included in that mysterious document before any of it took effect — and, I’ll wager, before AT&T spends a penny on new services in the Baton Rouge market.

This clever dance that these two corporate giants are staging for us is an elaborate flim-flam. The fact is that this legislation will not bring new competition to Louisiana. How do we know this? Because similar legislation has not brought competition to Texas, North Carolina or Ohio.

But, the Louisiana version of this legislation will do long term damage to at least the 55 communities with franchise agreements by allowing companies like Cox and AT&T to discriminate against low- and middle-income neighborhoods in the delivery of modern network services. For that reason it is particularly disheartening to see the head of the Louisiana chapter of the NAACP fall for the competition scam at the heart of this legislation.

The Louisiana Legislature is being bamboozled by AT&T and the big cable companies which are acting in concert to get legal permission to leave significant portions of this state on the far side of the digital divide. “Competition” is a sirens’ call that is only being used to convince our tech-illiterate legislators to sell out the hopes and aspirations of Louisiana citizens and communities to become full participants in the network-dependent global economy.

This legislation serves no other interests but those of the phone and cable companies. It is terrible policy for Louisiana citizens, consumers and communities. Rate relief will not come, but a widened gap between the tech haves and have-nots will.

Count on it.

ALERT: Call or Email Your Legislators

Please begin the process of defending Louisina’s local communities by calling or emailing your legislators with your objections to the “Consumer Choice Television Act.” It is lousy law intended to benefit a single large, out-of-state corporation whose burden falls especially hard on Lafayette and small communities across the state. This will be a long fight in our legislature with the opening shot fired tomorrow during the Senate Commerce committee’s initial hearing.

The Story:
The Louisiana Legislature is about to make a mistake….one the state avoided in 2006 when a smilar law was rejected a law that was also supposed to promote cable competition. That year a similar bill became law in North Carolina. The effects have been disastrous.

Back in ’06 BellSouth, already in the midst of being sold to AT&T, lobbied hard for a bill that would have moved control of the rights-of-way that belong to local communities to the Louisiana legislature. AT&T told legislators that they were so eager to bring competition to the cable industry that they needed the legislators in Baton Rouge to relieve them of the “burden” of negotiating contracts with local communities to use the public’s property for their new business. They assured the legislators that their law would would not hurt customers or communities but would instead provide wholesome competition.

That year the law was turned back in Louisiana. But succeeded in North Carolina. The Tar Heel’s experience tells us that North Carolina did NOT get more competition. Two years later AT&T has still not applied for a single state-wide video franchise. Just as in Louisiana, prices continue to rise and no new cable service was deployed by the phone companies in rural parishes. But it did make a difference in NC–just not the difference AT&T lobbyists told legislatures it would make. Though AT&T did not use their law to get into the cable business the cable companies used them to get out of their contracts with local communities–117 at last count had switched to the state franchise that was more “generous” with the rental of local communities’ land.

The state collected only 62% of the rental that corporations had formerly paid local governments for the use of public land. That shortfall in revenue had to be made up locally. In spite of lobbyist promises PEG channels (like Acadiana Open Channel) were no longer fully supported. Without a local contract citizens with a complaint were told they should talk to the secretary of state–or sue some of the nation’s largest corporations.

Lafayette is the largest city in the state of Louisiana that will be effected by this law. New Orlean’s, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Shreveport, and Lake Charles will all retain their rights to control their own property. Only the smallest communities — and Lafayette — are being asked to take this risk to placate a corporation which, frankly, does not need give-aways from the state of Louisiana to profitably conduct its business.

North Carolina’s legislature got taken and the customers and communities of the state bore the brunt of that mistake. Please spend a moment to encourage your senators and representatives not to follow in that path. The first hearing (but not the last!) on this bill is scheduled for tomorrow. A quick phone call to the office to leave a message or an email to your legislator will let them know the public is waking to the problem.

How To:
Your most effective contacts are always your own legislators. They represent YOU and generally do listen to constituent voices.

To find your legislator, email, and phone number jump to the legislative search page; enter your address and use the resulting links to jump to your Louisiana House and Senate representatives.

Consider letting the senators and house members who will recommend or not recommend this bill to their colleagues know your opinion of this legislation.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s members are – Sens. Duplessis (chair), Crowe (vice chair), Alario, Nick Gautreaux, Marionneaux, Michot, (Lafayette) and Scalise. The Senate switchboard is (225) 342-2040.

The House Commerce Committee
Arnold, Jeffery “Jeff” J. Chairman
Waddell, Wayne Vice Chair
Badon, Bobby G. Lafayette Member
Hardy, Rickey Lafayette Member

The interest of communities in Louisiana and the interest of huge telecommunications monopolies are not the same and our legislators should be encouraged to vote in their constituents interests, not the interests of a single company that would rather change the rules than play by them.

Jobs with LUS

Looking for work? LUS is looking for workers.

Lafayette City-parish Government (LCG) has posted job opportunities for those wanting to work in the utility system’s now-building Fiber To The Home (FTTH) network. You can scan through the listings on the LCG website—where you’ll have to go to download the PDF application forms should you decide to apply. A quicker way to get a sense of what is being offered currently can be found at careerbuilder; they’ve pulled together most of those that seem to have something to do with fiber or technology. (But the master list is at the LCG site.)

Some examples:

SYSTEMS ANALYST (FIBER)…….$3,569-$4,647/MONTH/DOE Responsible for project management, cost analysis, implementation, upgrades, and troubleshooting of information systems, server software, and other network related system software such as OSS, BSS, DNS, and network management systems. Will serve on multiple projects as team leader. Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science or related and considerable experience with software applications required.

CHIEF COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS OPERATOR (FIBER) …….$3,404-$5,098/MONTH/DOE Responsible for supervision and participation of technical operations and maintenance of a communications center which include plant, equipment, antennae, power supplies and all other network, video, and data equipment and operating systems required to deliver telephone, video and data services. Vocational technical training electronics and telecommunications. Experience with Cable TV head end, high speed Internet, or telephone switch operation required.


Also accepting applications for Equipment Operator IV (Backhoe, Motor Grader, Excavator, Gradall, Dozer), Engineer II (Electrical & Civil), Power Plant Machinist, Power Plant Technician, Engineer III (Electrical & Civil), Engineering Aide II (Rodman), Equipment Operator II (Tandem Dump Truck), Planner II, Network Administrator, Programmer Analyst (GIS), and others.

It looks like they are looking for experience more than for certificates…and it looks like they’re hoping to hire from the competition.

Working for LUS, by all accounts that I’ve heard, is a good experience. But beyond that working for your community carries its own satisfaction. One of the reasons that we can still fill jobs for teachers and policemen is that there are still folks for whom that matters. Most of us get to the point sooner or later where what we do and why we do it becomes more important than how much we are paid or how comfortable a job it is. If you’re working in an allied field and would like to get a job where you could learn about the latest & coolest AND get a job where you’d be working for your own community this is your chance.

—There are, if the server stats are too be trusted, a lot of folks who read this blog, as determinedly local as it, even though they don’t have a direct interest in Lafayette’s struggle. (Thanks, incidentally!) Maybe you, or someone you know would like to come and live in city where community is still a palpable thing, where culture exists outside of museums and performance halls, and the foodways are firmly planted in the local landscape. It’s a community that is willing to stand up on its own two feet and fight for the sort of network it wants. If you’re sympathetic with that impulse maybe you’d like to live somewhere where it is possible. Lafayette is an exciting place that is only going to get a lot more interesting for people committed to tech and community life. If you’d like to contribute we’d love to have you.

Video franchise bills all take; where’s the give?

The statewide video franchise bills up for consideration in the Louisiana Legislature are, in fact, bad news as John and the LMA (pdf) have made clear. But, based on the 2006 experience where only Governor Blanco’s veto prevented a version of this legislation from becoming law, I also believe it is clear that some form of this legislation is going to pass again this year and Governor Jindal will sign it into law.

First, let’s make clear that while AT&T is the prime mover of this legislation, the cable industry is on board. That’s because this legislation or a subsequent package will ultimately give cable companies the same freedom to cherry-pick and red-line neighborhoods that the phone company is seeking with these bills. They’ll demand a level playing field.

It was no accident that Cox Communications announced its latest rate increase just as the Legislature was heading into its Regular Session. That enabled the various astroturf movements to begin flooding newspaper editorial pages with letters to the editor, condemning the cable companies and singing the praises of competition.

Think of this as a choreographed fight for the benefit of the viewing audience, rather than a brawl. The cable companies and AT&T are partners in this dance. Cox stepped on a lot of consumer toes in order to make them receptive to the competition paeans that the phone company allies would produce.


That ability to selectively deploy new network technology is the heart of the issue.

How do I know this? Because John and I sat in on the 2006 negotiations on that year’s version of these bills when the phone company (still called BellSouth at the time) flatly refused to deal on offers that did not free them from community-wide build-out obligations.

What does this mean for communities? It means, for starters, that the State of Louisiana will become the official enforcer of the digital divide in our state; that is, enforcing that divide will become official state policy codified in the law.

Under current law, local governments have been able to require community-wide build-outs in their negotiations over franchise agreements. Under the three bills being offered in this session to create the statewide franchise, there will be no community-wide build out obligation.

That means that AT&T (but more likely, cable companies) will be able to deploy their new network technologies only in those neighborhoods that they believe will be most receptive to using it. Yes, I think cable companies will be the primary beneficiaries of this legislation because AT&T is not going to be making huge new infrastructure investments in Louisiana. They are carrying a heavy debt burden now and expecting things to slow down as the national economy moves into recession.

But, cable companies are already pretty well deployed across the state. Look for them to work to amend the legislation to allow them to selectively deploy new network technology in the communities where they are already in business under existing local franchise agreements. This will be a particularly attractive path for companies like SuddenLink that bought older networks in slower growth markets from Cox (Lake Charles and Alexandria among them) shortly after the Atlanta-based media company went private.

Consumers As Shields

AT&T and its allies are using the well-being of Louisiana consumers as the poster children for their argument to be relieved of the onerous burden of local franchise agreements. But, those are crocodile tears. In fact, most consumers will be losers as a result of this legislation.

How so?

It flows from the freedom phone and cable companies will have to bypass those neighborhoods that they deem not sufficiently attractive to them to warrant their network investments. When the insurance industry did this, it was called red-lining. When only the best neighborhoods are targeted, it is cherry picking. It is the preferred corporate way.

The fact is that there is no commonality of interest between these companies and most Louisiana citizens — or, for that matter, the best interests of the state. AT&T, Cox and others are focused on return on investments. Which is all fine and good for their stockholders. It is the American way.

But, there is a divergence of interests between the profit motives of those companies and the best interests of communities, particularly when it comes to the issue of access to modern network technologies. Access to those technologies is essential for the economic success of individuals, businesses and communities. With the video franchise legislation, the Legislature will be saying to the phone and cable companies that it is just fine with them if those companies want to exclude certain neighborhoods and communities from access to these technologies.

Combined with the burdens and limitations imposed on communities to act in their own interests on the matter of network technologies via the Municipal Fair Competition Act of 2004, the Legislature (and presumably Governor Jindal) will be handing over control of the economic fates of communities and neighborhoods to companies like AT&T, Cox, SuddenLink and others.

Where on the hierarchy of priorities — for investment, for deployment of new technologies, etc. — of those companies does the fate of those communities rank? With the limits placed by the so-called Fair Competition Act, this is a vital question because communities will have little or no recourse to the decisions that these companies make on matters about access to advanced to technologies.

Where’s the ‘Give’?

The statewide video franchise legislation would give the phone and cable companies everything they want. What are they giving up in exchange for this largess? So, far, nothing.

Recognizing the political reality that a few hundred dollars in campaign finance contributions from the phone company buys a lifetime of loyalty from legislators, I don’t believe there’s much chance to defeat this legislation. Some form of a statewide video franchise will emerge from this session and Governor Jindal will sign it.

Viewed from that perspective, what can communities take away from this battle? As matters stand, there is nothing in this legislation that benefits communities. As the record in North Carolina shows, consumers are not going to get benefits of competition that is, supposedly, at the heart of this stuff.

Legislators need to take their eyes off the corporations for just a few minutes and think about their constituents. The statewide video franchise will consign some number of citizens — primarily in middle and low income neighborhoods, to second class digital citizenship by relieve phone and cable companies of the obligation to include those neighborhoods in their new network build-outs.

This is a public policy disaster in the making that runs against the efforts of the state to upgrade the quality of the workforce here. The network tools needed for workers to fully participate in the connected workplace and the global economy will not be available to every one, only instead of a market failure, it will be the direct result of public policy.

The Fairness Doctrine

There is a way to lessen the negative impact of the statewide video franchise legislation. That would be to restore to communities the right to act in their own self interests in matters of network technology access.

That is, those interested in closing instead of widening the digital divide in Louisiana should move to amend this legislation to include a repeal of the Municipal Fair Competition Act of 2004.

The logic of this is rooted in the points made earlier: the interests of the phone and cable companies are separate and distinct from the interests of communities and, indeed, the state.

The only entities that are obligated to act in the interest of all citizens in communities are local governments.
As Lafayette has demonstrated, local governments have the technological skills and the financial means to act in their own self interests in the arena of network technology. LUS is in the process of deploying its fiber network now. By the end of the year customers will be able to sign up to get levels of network services that no other community in the state — and only a handful in the country — will be able to access.

Other local governments must have the freedom to act in the interests of their own citizens rather than be forced to stand idly by as these network builders shunt aside the interests and aspirations of large segments of their citizens.

The Municipal Fair Competition Act is a relic of a soon-to-be bygone era when phone and cable companies proclaimed that they sought to serve entire communities. Local governments should be freed to act to respond to the needs that these corporations are fighting for the right to ignore.

Repealing the ‘Fair Competition Act’ is a fair trade off for passage of statewide video franchise legislation. Doing so would free local governments to act on the interests of the community that the phone and cable companies do not share.

Amend the statewide video franchise bills to include a repeal of the Municipal Fair Competition Act. It’s in the best interest of Louisiana.

ToDo: Google Sky

Saturday ToDo…

Here’s the latest in the occasional, usually Saturday, “ToDo” series: Google Sky. It’s been awhile, I know.

We all know Google Maps are among the greatest things on Earth—if you want to find anything (except Dick Cheney’s house) or fly through the Grand Canyon the internet cognescenti click over to Google Maps. But until recently I was only vaguely aware of Google Sky.

If you liked having the whole earth available at the click of a mouse button you’ll love Google Sky. It’s utterly nifty, completely addictive, and well worth poking around some. Traveling the universe with a 12 year old has got to be one of the most gratifying things around. If you don’t have one of your own go out and adopt a niece or nephew.

Here’s a place to start: Kepler’s Supernova Remnant, aka SN 1604…The Kepler’s link takes you in at a starry sky with a brilliantly colored dot in the center. Fly your spaceship toward it in a couple in a couple hyperspace jumps (or just mundanely click into the location as you would in maps…) and a gorgeous cloud of gas emerges. If your 12 year old (or inner child) wants to know more Wikipedia will provide a simple explanation (and is the source of the image pictured). But you can also get a dramatic rendition…and the electric explanation for the irridescent colors.

Should the vastness of space prove a tad disorienting you could always take the kids to Mars (and if you thought flying through the Grand Canyon was grand, try a canyon as deep as Mount Everest and so long that it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York [available in HD–I want my fiber])…or excite them with the human drama of Apollo 14; people walking on the moon.

The net is a pretty neat place to play. It’s too nice outside today to justify playing this way today in Lafayette—these cool days won’t last. But after night falls and the mosquitoes come out I’ll see what else I can find.

“Vehemently Opposed” To AT&T’s Law

As you were warned on these pages AT&T’s state-wide video franchise bill is back again. The title: “Consumer Choice Television Act” is as deceptive a label as the infamous “Fair Competition Act” that the same corporate players used to attempt to kill competition from LUS when the network was little more than an idea. The idea that any law that the state legislature could pass would change the fundamental economic situation so much that AT&T would change its investment plan for rural Louisiana as consequence is a dumber idea than most that come out of the capital building.

The Louisiana Municipal Association (LMA) has come out as “vehemently opposed” to the proposed law. (They’ve issued a dramatic alert to their members calling for local officials to talk with their senators in advance of the Senate Hearing on the 23rd.)

They are right to do so.

It is an astonishingly bad idea.

In a nutshell: 1) It’s astonishingly bad policy, 2) such laws don’t work, and 3) there’s no need in Louisiana anyway.

1) ASTONISHINGLY bad policy:
The state legislature proposes to take local property—our rights of way—from the governments that own and maintain them and substitute the Louisiana legislature’s idea of what would be good for each community for what the people of the community have decided would be best.

This is plain flat bad policy and the law should be defeated for this reason and this reason alone: the guys in Baton Rouge should NOT be deciding what we do with our own property.

Even worse the plan is the “brainchild” of a single huge out-of-state corporation whose sole motivation in our state is find a way to get the most money out of our people while putting the least into building and maintaining their network here. Our state government should not be in the business of handing over local community assets to private enterprise.

The legislature overriding the will of local communities and telling them that they can’t use their own property in the way they see fit in order to benefit some private concern simply cannot be justified.

But justify it they do… or at least try to. Which brings us to:

(The Justification)
The justification for telling local people to “act right” is that big brother in the state house is just doing this for your own good….(You knew that, right?)

Here’s how it works: AT&T told their lobbyists to tell our legislators that keeping local governments from writing their own contracts about using Lafayette’s and Bunkie’s and Folsom’s rights of way along the roads and ditches they own and maintain will “encourage competition” in cable TV. The idea is that AT&T is just too big a guy and too important to ask to talk to the mayors of little Bunkie and Folsom if they want to want to use local property. It takes too much time and they’re busy. The AT&T execs flatteringly let it be known that they’d much prefer to deal with the “big boys” over in Baton Rouge and not trouble with all those tedious little people in backwoods. Dealing with the actual owners might have been good enough for all those cable companies who’ve been doing business locally for decades but it is beneath the dignity of the phone company.

As god is my witness! Really. They won’t tell the story just like that but the basic rationale for the whole thing is that it just takes too much time to go to all those local people and that they’re so anxious to give us competition that they just can’t stand to wait. (Don’t expect any legislator to notice that when they tried for this law two years ago saying they were just raring to go and offer every town and crossroads “competition.” They weren’t so eager that they used those two years to actually negotiate. Legislators should notice that they haven’t been so eager to compete that they have actually done any negotiating in any town that law would have effected.—That’s not what we call eager in my part of the state.)

What they don’t mention much while they are promising the moon of quick competition in return for imposing state control is that they’d also, just incidentally, like to see a few fine-print items included as well like to avoiding certain fees, paying for public access channels like AOC, providing services to the owner of the land (your local government), and having to deal with being brought to heel for lousy customer relations by those little councilmen and, most of all eliminating the requirement that if they are to use the people’s property to offer their product that they have to offer it to all the people–not just the most profitable few….they’d like all that eliminated while you’re at Mr. Legislator. (wink, nod)

What’s more: the legislators of 19 states have bought this sort of stuff. Starting with our neighbor Texas back in 05. So there is at least the beginning of the a record as to whether or not this thing works.

It doesn’t. At least not quickly. And, least we forget, working quickly was the rationale….

2) Such laws don’t work.
Some studies which have relied on asking the telephone companies whether or not they’ve rolled out more services because of these laws have, to no one’s surprise, found that the companies tell you that yes. Of course they’ve rolled out more services. AT&T says: “All the expansion that we’ve done is because of those nice guys in the statehouse. We’re mighty grateful, too.” These studies don’t ask about rollouts in comparable locales that don’t have such laws.

Note: Verizon, who actually was eager to build new Fiber To The Home networks and actually is offering advanced new services over much of the the Northeast lost an attempt to get the feds to pass a law similar to the one proposed in our state and (gasp) is actually negotiating, quite successfully, with the local owners of the land they want to use. Of course, the explanation might be that they are actually radically upgrading their system and want to use it to offer new services, and really can’t afford to wait. Unlike, frankly, AT&T. Who, on the evidence, just wants to slide by on the cheap and easy road.

If asking the phone company if they did what they promised they’d do when the solicited favors from state legislators resulted in “discovering” that they had kept their promises, studies which actually looked at hard figures had a radically different result. The whole point of competition is to lower prices, right? So if these laws work you’d expect lower prices…or at least no rise in prices. –Incidentally, not even AT&T is willing to say in public that it will offer video services in those rural areas that cable companies don’t currently serve. Extending service is NOT on the table…only, supposedly, “competition.”

But on prices, which is a nice hard measurable, Texans haven’t gotten much of that competition thing. Since their “Consumer Choice” law came in their cable prices did not fall at any point and have actually risen substantially. Keep in mind that the Feds year after year issue findings that document that in those rare places where real head-to-head competition exists between cable companies the prices for cable are substantially cheaper—and AT&T (then BellSouth) showed those statistics to legislators two years ago. If real competition was going on you’d expect cheaper prices. It’s just not true. If the law worked you’d expect cheaper prices.

But: Such laws don’t work.

Lagniappe: Texas was first to the slaughter and our neighbor but, hey, these laws don’t work in North Carolina either. And the telecos aren’t even pretending to build out there.

But even if this lousy public policy could be justified, and even if these laws worked the truth is:

3) There’s no need in Louisiana anyway
If AT&T is being truthful when it says that it just wants to quickly be able to get services to the poor, suffering little people of Louisiana (without having to actually talk to any of them) then you’d expect that they’d be thrilled to have an easy, quick way to bring almost all of the people of the state under a quick and easy franchise. And the fact is that this law won’t speed up much of anything….

AT&T has made it perfectly clear that it isn’t about to roll this out to everyone that has an AT&T telephone in their home. That would be too expensive. In fact they plan to serve, mostly what they call “high value” customers. And to serve as few as possible of their “low value” ones. That’s what they tell their investors, and lying about investments can get you put in jail, while lying to legislators…well, that’s a sport in Louisiana.

All in all they plan to serve, eventually, about 50% of all their current customers…In individual states that are rich and densely populated that number will be substantially higher. But in poorer, rural states like Louisiana you can count on it being lower. They just don’t want to bother and when they have to be honest about this they say so.

So let’s generously say that they plan to serve maybe 40% of Louisiana.

Which 40%? Well the “wealthy cities” a reasonable person might guess. Densely packed, relatively wealthy cities are where major buildouts are occuring.

But, and here is the real kicker: Those cities aren’t available in Lousiana. New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Alexandria, and Lake Charles are all “old home rule charter” cities. The legislature can’t force any such law on them. Lafayette was also included in the exempted cities in the 06 law and you can expect our legislators to work for that again. Even if they don’t succeed this time (and I’d be surprised if they don’t) AT&T would be foolish to spend a small fortune to beef up its network so it could remain the least powerful network in Lafayette. (Both LUS and Cox will have much more capable networks than the one that AT&T hopes to upgrade to.) So the big cities of Louisiana, comprising 35-40% of the population will live in places where AT&T will have to deal with local governments anyway.

In fact Baton Rouge has already negotiated a franchise agreement already. (And did so surprisingly quickly and apparently painlessly…see the bottom of the linked post.)

That 35-40% of the population is most of where AT&T will want to build anyway. And the LMA has put together a simple model franchise, it has gotten over a 100 of the remaining cities and towns to invite “cable competition” from their telephone company and to promise a quick and easy deal. That’s a pretty credible invitation, if you ask me. I can’t imagine the local councilman, alderman, or police juror who could manage to be reelected if he was seen blocking competition for the local cable company!

No, there is no real need to run over the rights of local communities to accomplish the goals a state-wide franchise is supposed to serve. AT&T doesn’t need and probably won’t use state-wide franchises–just as it hasn’t used them in rural, relatively poor North Carolina.

But perhaps, as in North Carolina, the cable companies will benefit. Though the North Carolina legislators were assured that municipalities would not loose revenue, they did–they retained only about 62% of their former income from the lease of their land to cable companies as cable opted out of their contractual obligations to local communities and adopted the “good deal” offered by the legislators’ law—a law that was supposedly passed to encourage the telecos to offer new, cheaper services which, in fact, they have not. That didn’t work. No competition. Higher prices. Loss of local income. But the Legislators got the warm satisfaction of having been patted on the back by the big boys at AT&T.

North Carolina’s legislators were played for fools. And their people were the ones who suffered. I’d hate to see Louisiana follow that path.

You can do your bit to help by calling your legislators and urging them to oppose SB 422.

The LMA says it well:

There’s ample time between now and April 23 to speak to your Senators about this harmful legislation. If your Senator is on the Commerce Committee, please contact him or her to discuss the measure. The Senate Commerce Committee’s members are – Sens. Duplessis (chair), Crowe (vice chair), Alario, Nick Gautreaux, Marionneaux, Michot, and Scalise. The Senate switchboard is (225) 342-2040.

Lafayette residents, in particular should note that Michot is our senator and Gautreaux is one of the Acadiana caucus senators. Both should hear your plea. While you’re at it also oppose HB 869 by Rep. Arnold and HB 1009 by Rep. Ellington. Arnold’s bill focuses narrowly on giving control of local property to corporations. Ellington is a special case: this house member was term limited out of the senate where he was the guy who signed his name to the (un)Fair Competition Act that would have prevented Lafayette from building its fiber network had it passed in the form that Ellington submitted. To see him carrying AT&T’s water by introducing the house version of this franchise bill is completely in character.

It’s working in Virginia…& Tennessee

It has been a while since we’ve checked in with Bristol, Virginia’s Fiber To The Home (FTTH) Network. Telephony Online provides another encouraging update.

Followers of Lafayette’s saga will recall Bristol as the city that the “academic” astroturf organizations and Cox/BellSouth supporters tried to portray Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU) as a failure in order to discourage Lafayette’s citizens from considering building our own network. It was always a crock but the system has recently become such a roaring success that opponents of municipal networks have had to start simply ignoring it. But it’s not about to go away. BVU’s success has inspired its across-the-border sister, Bristol, Tennessee to do the same. The projects, located in economically struggling Appalachia, have brought much needed jobs to the community, saved their citizens money, and kept local dollars from draining out of the rural communities.

The story “Fiber beat still pulses at Bristol” is well-structured and I recommend reading the whole article. Here are some highlights that are sure to hearten muni fiber supporters:

On BVU’s home town success:

BVU has fought major regulatory battles along the way, at one point suing the state of Virginia and helping to push through a new state law. The company has faced its own critics down, including local telco Embarq, which claimed BVU was cross-subsidizing its telecom services with its electric and water revenues…

“We had two very good success stories that happened with Northrop Grumman and CGI, which brought in 700 new jobs with average salaries of $50,000,” said Wes Rosenbalm, president and CEO of BVU. “The average salary here is $24,000 to $27,000. And we have a couple other deals we are looking at internally.”

On the consumer side, BVU has a 65% penetration rate for its triple-play services inside the city of Bristol…

On neighboring Bristol, Tennessee’s following suit:

The Bristol, Tenn., City Council urged BTES to get into cable after it saw how BVU was selling cable service at lower rates than Charter Communications, the primary local cable operator, Browder said. After going through the process of becoming a CLEC, BTES added voice service.

“The local cable company, Charter, lowered prices in Bristol, Va., after BVU started competing with them, but they wouldn’t lower prices in Bristol, Tenn., so the city council sent us a petition,” Browder said….

“Right now, today we have almost 25% penetration, but we have areas where we have been out there a little longer that we have over 50% penetration,” he said. “We are quickly bringing up the distribution system. We have now passed 27,000 homes. The original plan was to pass 20,000 in four years. We are hooking people up as fast as we want to, based on the fact that we want to serve every customer really well. If we did some advertising, we could bring in a lot more customers in a hurry.”

On nifty-keeno services:

Both offer high-definition TV — Browder says the Tennessee side has more channels — and digital video recorders. BVU offers caller ID on the television via Integra 5 technology, and in February it announced on-demand video from Cisco Systems, to be available by July…

“A huge piece for us is what we can do with the electric system; we can read meters,” Browder said. “They do automatic power outage reporting, and it automatically reports to our dispatch. When we very first started, we had a lightning storm. Thirty-four customers were out; two were on fiber. We knew it right away. A lineman went and fixed it before we got the phone calls.”

“With this system, they can buy $50 of electricity, and when it goes off, it quits. It’s been a great service to this particular group of people that need that. Also we have 14,000 water heaters in one area that we cycle off during peak times to save electricity. We can move that to very off-peak time by monitoring them and leave them off much longer times. If temperature drops we can turn that one back on.”

The line the hacks in astroturf organizations have always promoted was that municipalities could never get an effective network built or run it well. Bristol should put a stake through the heart of that nonsense. Here’s to hoping Lafayette will will help finish that line of “reasoning” entirely.

Has Lafayette Found its de Tocqueville?

It seems that Lafayette, the city that honors the Marquis de Lafayette, might well have found its de Tocqueville in Geoff Daily.

De Tocqueville was the Frenchman who toured the newly sovereign nation and became our nation’s most insightful commentator. He came to the new United States to survey its penal system and came away an an ardent fan of the new democracy. A product of his own culture and station in French culture his judgments on the way the new nation was growing were oft ambivalent but his insight into the reasons for the growing differences between the old world and the new world aborning were and remain influential. He turned an outsider’s eye on something new and saw shapes emerging that were difficult for those participating to recognize. De Toqueville concluded that the free availability of enormous amounts of new land for every citizen —the frontier— made impossible the old world feudal relationship based on the nobility’s ownership of the land and the tenant’s dependent relationship. In the new world every yeoman could own his own land. And they did. The emerging culture of equality had much to recommend it; and, on de Toqueville’s account, much about which to worry. He was concerned that equality might too often become mediocrity and overpower the natural nobility he attributed to the founding fathers. De Toqueville remained hopeful about the American experiment and kept an attentive eye on its development.

Daily came to Lafayette to see a new fiber-optic network. He has repeatedly published his notes on our experiment. He appears to have found something more than just a network–just as de Tocqueville found something more than just a penal system. He finds a community-owned network and attributes much to the culture of the area and the nobility of its leaders. And he Daily has an advantage de Toqueville never had: he may have missed the revolution but is in a position to see the launching of the new network from the beginning and to see if the potential of enormous amounts of new bandwidth has effects on our community that are analogous to the frontier in our nation’s history. Like his predecessor, Daily, is already warning that our future is what we will make of it.

A sympathetic outsiders eye has come to Lafayette. That is a good thing, surely. It will be interesting to see if Daily proves as insightful about the cultural changes that follow as his predecessor.