“LUS fights for acceptance”

Richard Burgess of the Advocate’s article is a good overview of one of the issues that have bogged down channel acquisition for LUS Fiber video offerings—a long delay in gaining membership in the cable purchasing cooperative that provides most small, local operators with reasonable wholesale prices for the channels they offer. It’s not just about getting channels at a reasonable price, it is sometimes about getting them at all. (In fact, getting its channel lineup in shape was so arduous that it was the factor cited in the late launch of LUS services in the first place…that, and not any technical or build issue, was the cause of the brief delay in launching the service from January to February of ’09.)

LUS has had an application in to join NCTC, the National Cable Television Cooperative, for a long time now. I had heard they were hopeful and that there was no legal way to deny their participation. There was a long period when the organization simply had a moratorium on new members that only “coincidentally” effected LUS. Other public power utilities with cable arms have joined the organization previously. The NCTC isn’t a small organization with little bargaining power; the alliance of generally small cable companies controlled what was the second largest subscriber base in the nation in 2004, ranking second only to market leader Comcast according to a public power white paper in 2004 (p. 29). The discount the NCTC can command has to be comparable to that which, for instance, Cox can command.

Cox….that brings up an interesting issue raised but not fully explored in the Burgess article. Cox is a member of the NCTC…but is most assuredly not a small operator of the type the coop was founded to benefit, being the third largest cable company in the United States. One would think that Cox would not be a favorite of the little guys…but Cox’s subscriber numbers surely dwarf those of any other member. And those subscriber numbers are an immense help in negotiating good wholesale contracts that benefit its smaller members. If Cox has threatened to withdraw it could be enough to seriously scare the coop. And that would, not incidentally, mean that Cox is seriously afraid of LUS’ competition and even more afraid of what the success of Lafayette could mean for other communities contemplating doing for themselves what the big boys refuse to do for them.

The article makes it clear that Cox is indeed the suspected villain in Lafayette’s version of this story:

City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger said in a memo dated May 21 to City-Parish Council members that the cable cooperative’s denial of membership to Lafayette seems to be “a conscious effort to discriminate against municipalities” that are trying to launch their own cable, phone and Internet services.

Ottinger also notes in the memo that Cox Communications, a competitor of LUS Fiber in Lafayette, is among the cooperative’s largest members and has a seat on the board of directors….

Ottinger, in his memo to Lafayette council members on the issue, said the cooperative might be reconsidering its denial of membership for the other two cities “but has continued to refuse to allow Lafayette to become a member.

“It is my understanding that the only distinguishing factor is that Cox is not the competing cable provider in those areas,” Ottinger wrote.

Burgess offers Cox a chance to reply which they decline citing pending litigation but nonetheless piously declare:

…Cox has always embraced competition in Lafayette.

Now that, at least, we know is a bald-faced lie. Cox did just about everything imaginable to keep LUS from starting a competing service—from writing laws to funding an ugly push poll. Cox is not your friend in the digital age if you hale from Lafayette.

WBS: “Fabulous Lafayette”

Francois Benoit, who works out of France and runs the blog Fibervolution blog, has posted a review of Fiber Fete—and Lafayette. Benoit was caught in the initial ash cloud shut-down of European airspace and missed the first half of the event. But he has caught the gist of the story told by that event. Perhaps because of that he’s created a very careful overview of the conference.

Some tidbits from the post:

Lafayette has understood and internalised the fact that they will only reap the benefits from the infrastructure they are building if they make it happen. Field of Dreams is just a movie…

More widely, ubiquitous very high speed connectivity is a game changer for business and society. David Weinberger did a very good speech exploring the implications of ubiquitous fiber on economy and society. The hurdles are not in deploying the infrastructure, they are in changing the ecosystem that currently relies on sub-par connectivity for its interactions…

All in all, this was a great event. It was also unique in that a lot of room was left for discussions, both one on one and collectively….I’m looking forward to Fiberfete 2011. Hopefully by then Lafayette will have some early examples of “cool and wonderful things to do with fiber”, other cities will have learned that Google didn’t pick them and look at Lafayette on what to do…

I found Benoit’s own talk—on the lessons to be learned from the success of Apple’s app store—very intriguing.

There’s lots to look forward to.

(What’s Being Said Dept.)

“Lafayette and a Level Playing Field”

Chris Mitchell over at MuniNetworks.org has an excellent post up on Terry Huval’s recent testimony before Senator Landrieu’s Small Business Committee. I’ve been swearing I was going to get to an extensive post of my own on this subject for a week but Chris has done a fine job with it. Mitchell is one of Lafayette’s national partisans, a major force driving muni networks nationally, and recently attended Fiber Fete here. He knows our project and knows the national scene. Go to the post, read it, and return here for some local color…

You did go, didn’t you?

Ok, since you’ve already seen Mitchell’s take on the trials and travails of “probably the best citywide network in the US” and the national implications of the battle I’d like to focus on some points that will be especially salient to a local audience…

First, notice that the battle isn’t over. Huval reveals that Cox continues to try and undermine the local community:

“Cox representatives were recently active in attempting to undermine the future of the city’s century-old electric, water and sewer utility system. During a recent rate increase effort for these traditional utilities, Cox representatives were lobbying Lafayette council members to oppose the rate increase in order to adversely affect the utility system’s future viability. All of these examples indicate an underlying strategy to hurt the city simply because the city voters dared to choose to authorize the building of their own telecommunications system.”

During the referendum battle a new saying grew up on several local blogs including this one: “Never trust a word they say.” I hope the current crop of local politicians has learned that lesson. These guys are NOT “your friend in the digital age.”

Both written and video versions of the Huval’s testimony before the hearing “Connecting Main Street to the World: Federal Efforts to Expand Small Business Internet Access” are available. Though I appear to be assigning a lot of work today, both are essential reading/viewing for those that might want to understand Lafayette’s role in the current national debate over broadband as well as the history of the project.

The written version, the “for the record” version is, as is common, much more extensive than the three minutes that the LUS director was allowed before the panel. What is revealed there is a blow-by-blow history of the conflict with the incumbents. The dust has settled enough now that it can be read with a fresh sense of outrage—and a definite sense of pride for city’s accomplishment.

Two points found in the written testimony are worth underlining here: Twice Huval takes the opportunity to say that internet portion is the main emphasis of LUS Fiber and makes clear that Lafayette anticipates a single converged service: True Broadband which Huval defines as symmetrical service of 100 Mbps and above. That shows a clarity of understanding that few in the private sector can afford. Lafayette understands that in the end what the public wants and needs from our data utility is carriage; separate services will be allowed to die when their time passes.The second notable point takes Washington to task: “It is unfortunate that the national policies of the past have failed to even approach a world-class broadband system.” It is perfectly possible to build exemplary world-class networks in the United States. If it can be done in Lafayette it can be done anywhere in the US and the community’s accomplishment is, in this context, an indictment of the political will of the rest of the country.

The video record, as short as it is, is also entertaining. There are three parts worth reviewing for current purposes: 1) The three minute testimony, 2) Huval’s response to Landrieu’s question regarding the role of municipalities, and 3) The “free shot” closing remarks Landrieu granted Huval and the other participants.

The makeup of the panel on which the LUS director appeared was interesting in itself…two of the participants were a former Senator (who got to speak long) and a former Representative (who was cut off). They now “represent” the broadcast and wireless industries respectively. Also included were a representative of CenturyLink, the Monroe company which recently purchased Qwest and a representative of wireless broadband ISPs.

Huval is called at minute 117 of the video and opens his testimony by briefly addressing his salutation to Landrieu in French—to considerable amusement. His comments on the path he hopes the federal government will take are worth repeating:

“We believe that the simple measure of trying to get complete shackles off local governments to provide these services will have the greatest impact on getting broadband out…We have a solution to this problem.”

The senator responds by exhibiting her pride in project and making the point that Huval was testifying at her request in order to provide a place at the table for municipal services.

At minute 136 Huval is given a chance to extend his testimony to the point of allowing local governments to play a role in providing competition.

In his closing remarks near the end of the session the director explains the value of symmetrical upload speeds as a particular advantage for small businesses who can get into the game affordably if a local provider will offer these services affordably, citing Lafayette’s surprising commercial prices and terms. A company like Golfballs.com has “a huge entrepreneurial opportunity.” He closes, though, by returning to the attack on the incumbents, saying that those who would “play games with the system…that shouldn’t count anymore.”

At minute 140 or so the guy from CenturyLink talks about Qwest’s long-haul and the ability the new Centurly Link now has to support small places with middle mile backhaul, data hosting, and web-based services. The representative of the company made it clear that his corporation was willing to deal aggressively to offer local ISPs and video providers backhaul on Qwest’s national fiber backbone. To show his bona fides he revealed that the new company was planning to use CenturyLink’s policy of setting local bandwidth managers in place to try and replicate the success the company has had reselling fiber-based capacity. Because that backbone is so widespread—it goes to many places where CenturyLink does not have a competitive business—having local, aggressive managers on the ground in small localities could be a major factor in giving local communities and small ISPs access to affordable backbone. And, yes, CenturyLink now has major backhaul through Lafayette…both over the basin toward Baton Rouge and south to New Orleans along the railroad tracks. Maybe Huval caught Mr. Gerke for a chat after the session?

City, LUS Fiber marketing to unincorporated areas

Hmmn. According to the Independent blog Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) is undertaking a marketing campaign on behalf of the City of Lafayette and LUS Fiber.

That is all sorts of interesting… The implication seems to be that marketing campaign will be used to promote annexations by the city by using LUS Fiber as the focal point for a campaign that touts the advantages of joining Lafayette rather than one of the smaller cities in the parish. That makes sense…and it doesn’t.

It makes sense to regard LUS Fiber as the easiest, most immediate, and most obvious municipal service that Lafayette can offer…and that the smaller cities cannot. LUS water, the last generation’s trump card, has long since been distributed out into the parish via long-term contracts. LUS’ electrical division would almost certainly be an improvement over Entergy…but only in degree. Better fire ratings, property values, and other city services are nice but not the sort of “point of purchase” incentive that move most buyers. The offer of a competing, local, technically superior, cheaper fiber to the home service on the other hand is unique to Lafayette. So promoting LUS Fiber to envious parish residents makes sense.

What makes less sense is the idea that LCG is going to enter into a contract to promote Lafayette against the interests of the other cities. Admittedly the consolidated in LCG only stands for Lafayette and the unincorporated areas since the smaller cities chose not to follow Lafayette into full consolidation, but the residents of the cities are also citizens of LCG in addition to their towns and I’d imagine that they and their representatives will look askance at this new LCG policy. The tension here underlines the question of sovereignty for Lafayette: If LCG cannot act on behalf of Lafayette’s interests then who can?

It’s also not clear that this plan is in the long-term or even middle range interest of LUS Fiber. Contrary to Broussard Mayor Langlinais’ petulant remark recently that LUS “needs” the expansion, LUS is most definitely not particularly best served by expansion into the least densely populated areas of the parish. LUS is doing just fine in the city proper, its take rate, and the average billing per customer are both higher than they need to make the current plan viable. The narrow passage that LUS Fiber is currently navigating is that of the initial years when large upfront investments in plant and in the initial cost of bringing each customer online for the first time vie with the costs of repaying the bond schedule. The first several years are crucial. A misstep now could unfairly trigger elements of the so-called fair competition act and lead to a forced sale of a perfectly viable service. Oddly it is perfectly possible for there to be too early and too sudden a success…putting costs that would be easily managed if taken over the years into the dangerous first years of operation and producing a paper “loss” that the incumbents would use to force closure.

Given LUS Fiber’s current success this may not be an issue but nonetheless the safest way to add new customers would be by taking in the members of the more densely settled inner portions of the smaller cities.

In the long run it would be best if all the citizens of the parish could join LUS Fiber’s network but it’s pretty clear that the annexation issues will need to be settled before that process can begin.

“Bridging a digital divide”

Richard Burgess has a piece up in today’s Advocate that offers an excellent overview of Lafayette’s digital divide efforts. I’ll review the highlights and offer some comment here but you’d be well-served to go to the source.

The story lists the most active digital divide efforts in the city, including efforts associated with the Heritage School program & KJCB, the Housing Authority of Lafayette, Vision Community Services lab, and the Lafayette Library.

Je’Nelle Chargois and the Heritage school:

A program that Chargois coordinates called the Heritage School of the Arts and Technology began providing computers and training last year to students at J.W. Faulk Elementary.

The students are selected by school staff based on need and given donated computers on condition they and their parents attend computer literacy workshops.

That program is the primary recipient of one of the two digital divide grants from recent stimulus funds applied for by LUS and LCG. If won the grant would provide 3.9 million for the expansion of the program, training, and free internet for the pupils’ households.

Walter Guillory and the Housing Authority:

Chargois is already working with the Housing Authority of Lafayette to provide computers for three planned computer labs at public housing developments.

Housing Authority Director Walter Guillory said the first lab is planned for the Simcoe Street Development in a retrofitted apartment that will be filled with 20 computers with access to LUS Fiber.

He said the lab, which is set to open as soon as it can be stocked with donated computers, will be staffed and also available to residents in the surrounding community outside of the development.

This program is actually a recreation of a lab setup first developed during the runup to the fiber referendum in 05. At that time and for a couple of years afterward it was staffed by Americorp volunteers. When that organization developed other programs and withdrew support the centers languished and were closed. Staffing and maintenance will be an ongoing issue. The provision of reliable human support is by far the biggest barrier to many programs.

Sessil Trepagnier and the Vision Community Services lab:

Trepagnier said the lab is open on weekday afternoons and offers computer access and training on how to use and build computers.

“We focus on technology, but we also teach them leadership skills,” he said.

Trepagnier’s center is a one-man labor of love. That’s both its strength and the model’s weakness. Lafayette, as blessed as it has been with people willing to sacrifice to see the right thing happen, cannot count on there being enough such people to fill the need—especially when they essentially labor alone. Folks like Sessile need a strong support system.

Sona Dombourian and the Lafayette Parish Library:

The library system has about 160 computers at its 10 locations in Lafayette Parish, and computer use has more than doubled in the past five years, with the number of computer sessions rising to 411,000 in the fiscal year that ended in October 2009, said library director Sona Dombourian.

The library system also offers wireless Internet access for patrons who bring laptops.

The library system is doubtless the largest single digital divide resource in the parish. In addition to computers and free net access it offers classes in a wide range of programs and activities, serving all age groups. I’ve set in on two discussions with library staff recently and came away impressed with both the personnel and the activities they sponsor. The library has the advantage of being a stand-alone institution with a dedicated tax stream to support activities its leadership understand are in its area of responsibility. Lafayette is lucky to have professional librarians and support staff that see the need and go the extra mile. The second stimulus grant that Lafayette has applied for will be spearheaded by the library but funds will also support centers at the Housing Authority and senior centers.

There are, of course, other good projects in town ranging from the Boys and Girls club to senior centers.

But for all of these the issue is, as I tried to say the phrases the article quotes, that more and more the barrier to full participation in the web is being reduced to the irreducible human and cultural factors.

LUS Fiber rates are low and the price of computers keeps falling, meaning that financial constraints, though they exist, will become less of an issue in years to come, said St. Julien, who also runs www.lafayetteprofiber.com, a website that tracks issues related to LUS Fiber.

“I think the initial thought was that hardware was going to be a big barrier. Now that the day is here, that is not a big issue,” he said. “We have reduced everything, except the human part, to a minimum.”

My first computer cost more than my first car. Less than a decade ago I spent money on a second telephone line here in Lafayette in order to get somewhat affordable always-on access to the internet at my North Lafayette home. I paid a small fortune to maintain a stable of professional-level software. I now do a fair amount of my net work on my carrier-subsidized “palm top” computer and get 50 megs of symmetrical bandwidth to drive my in-house wireless network of computers and devices. Many of these are products I would not have anticipated at prices I would not have believed. Excellent open source on net-based software can be had for free. Times have indeed changed. The costly computer has become a commodity, a present from a vigorous marketplace. The network connection is world class and amazingly inexpensive, a present of a vigorous community. Software can be had for free, a present of ad support and the open software movement. The barriers that once appeared to be insurmountable mountains have become, if not molehills, at least readily surmountable hills that the motivated can be helped to climb. The final barriers are people—people to support computer and center maintenance; people to man help lines and support the inexpensive or free open source software; people to educate. People to help.

That’s the real challenge before the Lafayette community: finding a way to rally people who care in support of the effort to bring the entire community into the digital era on an equal footing. I’m convinced the ingredients are there: the talent and the desire to help is clearly there. What is lacking is, generally, a mechanism that will enable folks to use their talents and realize their desires to help.

Ideas? Lafayette Commons (which provides nonprofits with support for its education edition of Google Apps) could use folks in support—and would be willing to sponsor a mechanism for the support of a broader set of open source software if the human resources could be found. A clearing house for setting up people with powerful free software? A once-a-month computer rebuilding “fest” where the techisly inclined could test and install software on recycled computers? We need the social mechanisms to make this happen.

I’d be happy to hear of any mechanisms or projects that you think would help, in the comments or offline.

Bettter Business Bureau says “No, Not Fiber” to Cox, Time Warner Cable

Better Business Bureau says that whatever it is that Cox is offering it isn’t “Fiber” according National Advertising Division (NAD) of the BBB:

In two filings this week, NAD argued that both Cox and Time Warner Cable were misleading consumers, and ‘recommended’ that both companies discontinue ads that infer they offer fiber to the home technology. NAD cites several examples, such as Cox ads that claim the company is ‘the new face of fiber,’ and Time Warner Cable ads that insist the company’s ‘advanced fiber network lets you experience the web like never before.” (dslReports)

Spotted on Evangeline Thruway

We’ve seen such nonsense here, of course, and I’ve complained, but it’s nice to know the BBB agrees.

The BBB’s press release on the matter… includes the following:

The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus has recommended that Cox Communications discontinue certain advertising claims. The company has agreed to do so…

The challenged claims include the following performance claims:
• Cox Digital cable is “delivered through our advanced Fiber Optic Network.” • “Advanced Fiber Optic Network • “Advanced Fiber Network.” • Cox is “the New Face of Fiber.” [emphasis mine]…

NAD determined that at least one reasonable interpretation of Cox’s “fiber optic network” claim is that Cox offers its services over a network which solely consists of fiber optics and is the functional and/or technical equivalent of a telecommunications network where fiber does extend to the home, a claim which the evidence in the record did not support. NAD recommended that the advertiser discontinue its use of the phrase “fiber optic network” to describe its Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC) network.

So there you have it…