“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?

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