AOC & LUS’ Franchise

This morning’s Advocate has a story focusing on one benefit from Tuesday’s approval of the LUS’ cable franchise: Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) will benefit to the tune of $50,000 dollars and a new capacity to offer on-demand programming.

As Blanchard points out, most of the franchise agreement is, for legal reasons relating to the (un)Fair Competition Act, a clone of Cox’s 2000 agreement.

There are some differences, however, including the way the LUS agreement deals with the Acadiana Open Channel:

Each year, the Cox franchise agreement requires Cox to pay $50,000 to the open channel to run a public access channel, although that figure can go down if the city-parish doesn’t match funds up to a certain amount.

The LUS agreement calls for the open channel to get a flat $50,000 regardless of any conditions.

While there is a dark lining on this silver cloud, my guess is that Ed Bowie over at AOC’s Lee Avenue offices regards this as a good thing. After all, the perennially cash-strapped organization is getting a new, solid, continuing funding source for the next 10 years. With new federal regulations threatening to further erode the principle of local control of cable media by telling localities that they can’t demand much of anything other than cash for letting cable corporations rent their rights-of-way all public access groups are facing a bleak future. Likely LUS’ commitment will make it politically difficult for Cox to back out of its commitments just because the Feds say they can renege. Cox appears to have a good relationship with AOC. The corporation recently extended AOC’s reach into the surrounding communities recently (you can see AOC’s programming throughout Cox’s Acadiana footprint now) and provides AOC with net connection. (LUS should certainly match that.)

Even as AOC programming has solidified—it now really fills the two channel slots it has been allocated—and in part because of increased demand for its services AOC’s staffing problems have increased. This is especially true in the critical technical area that will be its future and the additional shot of money will no doubt be helpful there.

But there is a downside to the LUS’ unconditional gift to AOC. It’s unconditional. That means that should the council decide it doesn’t want to match LUS’ contribution in the same way it matches Cox’s then their decision to be chintzy doesn’t let LUS off the hook. With the Cox money the local government has to continue to support AOC or let Cox walk away with money that could be returned to the community. The way LUS has set up its contribution the city is freed from that responsibility. Of course that doesn’t free it from the moral obligation to help pay for valuable community resources. AOC is a magnet for creative types and AOC’s broadcasting of public meetings is an essential public resource. The city-parish should do the right thing.

The LUS contribution will give AOC a nice boost on becoming a next-generation public access institution. The addition of a video-on-demand (VOD) capacity is a window into that new world and LUS will be smart to put lots of local programming into its VOD library. LUS wants—or should want—VOD to be become very popular. It is by far the easiest way to get long tail content and very local content onto any network. Satisfying the actual desires every ecclectic and very local taste rather than forcing them to watch lowest-common-denominator stuff that is popular in both Peoria and New York is the best way to satisfy video customers and build market share. Beyond actually serving your customers encoraging VOD use makes a lot of sense for LUS because, frankly, Cox is going to have trouble competing in that arena. It’s current implementation is just plain klutzy and it stresses the network. At least at my house it is possible to try and log into that function and to have the network tell you that it is busy. Their network is already oversubscribed and they’ve not allocated the bandwidth to keep it flowing smoothly at times of peak demand. So to try and match LUS in encouraging a larger percentage of its subscribers to use VOD would mean investing more bandwidth in VOD–and without a system upgrade that means reducing profitable services elsewhere.

But VOD is only a hint of what is possible. Just on the other side of the closed system of downloading video from your cable company through your TV’s settop box (which is what VOD is all about) lies the unconstrained land of real “Downloaded Video,” DV (See “Die TV, Die!, Die!, Die!”). DV replaces the broadcast model based on limited bandwidth and the desire of broadcast networks and cable companies to profit off every minute you spend watching the boob tube with a system that allows you to download video you care about (instead of what some “average” American doesn’t dislike too much) video you want (and only video you want) at any time (instead of on their schedule). Setting up a download server on the LUS intranet would be the next really big leap into the next era for Lafayette and AOC. From there you could download HD versions of the city-parish show (look at the grimace on your councilman’s face in excruciating detail), or your kid’s latest soccer match, or that Monday night political show or last Sunday’s homily. Even better, download the version of the meeting your councilman commented and submitted. Or the edited version by your favorite local cynic. Or a compendium of Mr. Benjamin’s funniest remarks updated with bits from that last meeting. Those outside the intranet would get the YouTube version. (Or they could move to Lafayette.)

In the long run DV is where video is going. Lafayette could be far ahead of the curve if we invest just a little bit in a fat connection for AOC and a minimal investment in a couple of fast servers and a dozen inexpensive terabytes of drive storage. The future is cheap and available at Best Buy. It’s the vision that we’ve got find.

LUS Franchise Agreement

Kevin Blanchard over at the Advocate reports that a franchise agreement between LUS and the Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) will be introduced at this Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting.

While it is 1) technical, 2) presented as an uninteresting “me too” copy of Cox’s, and 3) no doubt a terminally boring read this will be extremely important to Lafayette consumers and citizens—try not to let this slide by you. To understand why the franchise agreement is big deal and what shapes it I’ll have to provide some background from both the state and federal levels. Stick with it: It will have a lot to do with how much you pay for cable and internet—and it will have a huge effect on City-Parish revenues with an indirect effect on how much tax you have to pay for basic local government services. (This document should every bit as important to you as a sales or property tax ordinance–and will probably have a bigger effect on Lafayette’s future than any single tax ordinance ever has.)

As Blanchard points out, the oddity in this agreement is that it will require LUS to pay itself (for attaching to its own poles) and to pay its parent organization (LCG) a fee to access its own customers over the rights of way LCG owns.

That does sound a bit strange doesn’t it? Why bother? Doesn’t this just introduce odd inefficiencies and distort costs?

Yes, it does — and it is intended to. On to the story behind the story.

Some State of Louisiana Background:
Loyal readers will recall (1,2,3) that BellSouth (now AT&T) and Cox pushed a law through the Louisiana legislature back in ’04 shortly after LUS announced its intentions to build a fiber-optic network. That law was intended to stop Lafayette from building a network at all. That story is a long and ugly tale of corporate lobbying and legislative foolishness that LPF covered extensively. Luckily Governor Blanco forced a compromise on the legislature that let Lafayette go forward — but the rewritten-by-committee bill left Lafayette open to legal challenges and imposed a minefield of restrictions and regulations that apply only to municipal telecom utilities. Regulations, that is, that apply only to Lafayette.

Flying the flag of “free enterprise” the two enormously powerful wireline cable and phone monopoly enterprises played the poor-me role of disadvantaged competitors who needed protection from the competition threatened by the city of Lafayette’s local electrical, water, and sewer utility. Lousisiana’s legislature rushed to protect them from this threat. Prior to this law LUS and Lafayette could have simply started up a utility in this area–as it can in electricity or sewerage or natural gas–without any heavy-handed restriction by the state. There would have been no legal basis for a lawsuit to try and prevent it and no way to impose special costs or regulation only on a utility owned by the people of Lafayette. The Louisiana “Fair” Competition Act changed that.

The law provides for a way to drive up the “paper” costs and a regulatory mechanism for ensuring that those higher costs are actually paid by the customers of LUS’ Fiber division. LUS is required to, for instance, pay itself a fee for the use of its own poles and the rights of way that the community owns that is the same as it or the city would charge private companies. (Note that LUS already bears the real cost of building, maintaining, and replacing that property and that those costs are not subtracted from these state-imposed fees. We, and only we, pay twice.) These pay-it-to-yourself “costs” would merely be the silly imposition of a paper shuffle if the state had not required that those costs be passed on to the customer. But that is what the law does.

What is interesting is that the state constitution specifically outlaws using the Public Service Commission (PSC) to regulate publicly owned utilities. (Based on the presumption, I assume, that we as both owners and voters can do that for ourselves.) Since using the PSC to regulate public bodies is illegal, the tortured solution was to place the supposed responsibility in the hands of the state legislative auditor, who has neither the expertise nor the staff to do the job. Recognizing that “problem,” the (un)Fair Competition law directs the PSC to both suggest rules to the auditor and to then enforce those rules. This is pretty transparently an evasion of the state’s basic law but, hey, they write the laws, right?

Even more interesting, the regulations that the PSC are required to enforce are designed to raise the costs to the consumer. If that seems to you like a funny role to ask a PUBLIC Service Commission to play, I’d have to say it seems odd to me too. I had thought the role of the PSC was to protect the public from being overcharged or taken advantage of in other ways. I was not under the impression that it existed to protect large corporations from competition. Silly me. My guess is that the folks over at the PSC aren’t all that happy about it either. It is not the job they signed up for.

The central mechanism that these PSC/Legislative Auditor regulations use to raise your rates is to tote up all the costs to LUS from equipment costs, to billing costs, to interconnection fees, to salaries, to taxes, to pole attachment fees, to franchise fees (the latter two are the elements being considered by the Council Tuesday). The will use a baseline industry cost based in part on what the incumbents say their costs are to establish a “fair price” that must, by law, include the costs to “rent” property they own and fees to use poles that they have already paid to install and maintain. They will then set a minimum price that LUS must charge. Slow down and read that again: they set a minimum price. They will NOT allow LUS to charge you the least that it could…they will force Lafayette’s utility to charge more than it would have to without a set of regulations that force false costs on it.

This is all transparently designed, not to force “a level playing field” or “protect the public” as the incumbent providers claimed in the legislature; it is designed to limit the price competition that LUS will provide AT&T and Cox in Lafayette. Cox and AT&T don’t want to be forced to lower their prices to compete in Lafayette. They most especially don’t want to be forced to lower their prices to compete ONLY in Lafayette. That would make it all too obvious that public utilities like LUS could be a success and provide real value to its citizen-owners. LUS would be a “bad” example for other communities; one that might encourage them to do for themselves what Lafayette has done.

And that would never do.

The Federal Regulatory Issue at hand:
Now all this messy state law and regulation might be preempted by Federal regulation — without the benefit of an enabling law. (I know this is getting convoluted. Stay with me for a while longer; it’s important. 🙂 )

The FCC just this past Wednesday gave “relief” to cable companies on the issue of franchising in a partisan 3-2 vote. This ruling is yet another extension of the FCC’s decision to insert itself into the national franchising issue. The ultimate outcome is pretty disturbing in that the ruling will pretty much will allow a cable company to quit honoring any part of its franchise contract it doesn’t like beyond the monetary fee. Look for support for AOC and governmental networks to vanish. Whether it allows any cable company to immediately quit honoring its contract is in dispute. (Didn’t know the FCC could abrogate contracts? Me neither.) Earlier remarks by the FCC chair had indicated that it wouldn’t void current contracts.

The History:
State and federal franchise issues are also topics that have been covered on these pages, but in synopsis: The incumbent phone companies, lead by AT&T, are determined to get into the cable business. It is easy to see why since estimates I’ve seen show the profit margin at somewhere between 40 and 60% and their own year-to-year reports show that their core business, landline phone service, is declining every year even with margins cut to the bone. But the old Bell phone companies don’t want to have to follow the same rules that cable did in developing this lucrative market: they don’t want to have to go to the public bodies who own the land and negotiate a franchise contract to use the public rights of way. Their first tactic was to go to state governments and get them to take over the localities property rights and establish a state-wide franchise that allowed the state to control the money and disburse it to the localities. Not surprisingly state legislators found shifting this power into their hands an attractive “pro-business,” “pro-competition” policy. This state-level tactic worked in the early rounds but then the municipalities began to unite in opposition and the laws were more and more often either vetoed (as Blanco did here in Louisiana) or defeated in the legislature.

With the preferred state-level alternative failing the phone companies turned to the federal government. They first asked the FCC to establish a federal-level franchising regime. (This is essentially what they have for phone service–the feds reached down and simply “took” state and local rights of way and allowed the phone monopoly to use them for free. This was in an earlier, less ideological, time and for the “good” cause of universal phone service and no one much objected.) The FCC demurred as the Congress was in the midst of gearing up for a major rewrite of telecommunications law. At that point in time no one had any trouble believing that the incumbent providers would mostly get what they wanted. But then AT&T’s CEO went and started the big war over Net Neutrality and the whole bill went down in flames. (Comcast has recently restarted the controversy.) Congress considered but was unable to pass a law that would have redefined franchising.

The FCC then stepped in, and in the face of a obvious lack of Congressional support for the idea, decided to do for the phone companies what they had previously directed the Bells to ask Congress for: they instituted a regime that removed much of the control of rights of way from their local, municipal owners. As you might imagine, lawsuits are underway that argue that the FCC has overstepped its boundaries and is attempting to legislate by regulation. The FCC ruling forbade local governments from requiring cable franchisees to serve the whole community (“buildout” requirements); and basically it forbade municipalities from asking for asking for much of anything beyond money—which was already strictly limited by federal law. As a consequence all sorts of contracts between local governments that cut deals for schools or police or government office, and deals that supported local media like AOC with funds and channel space to provide coverage of city-council events and locally produced programming are all now on the chopping block. Those contracts, by federal fiat, don’t have to be honored. And the city cannot try very hard to negotiate a better deal (not that much is left to “negogitate”) since the FCC imposed a “shot clock:” if the city and the corporation cannot reach an agreement within 90 days the corporation can simply go ahead and provide services without finalizing a contract. (The room for abuse ought to be obvious–localities will have no leverage whatsoever and could easily be reduced to agreeing to whatever the company decided to hand out. Remember, generosity is not a trait of these fellas.) It goes without saying that without any real leverage the local clauses that insure that providers meet service requirements to customers goes out the door.

So does that mean that LUS could decide not to honor its contract too? No, there is no practical way that LUS is not going to meet the obligations it makes with the people of Lafayette…it is a public body and it will not desire to and will not be allowed to simply stiff the city-parish. But Cox, who you will recall, suggested the legislature fine the citizens of Lafayette $900,000 if they had the nerve to vote for fiber, is surely resentful enough to pull back from any contribution to our city that does not look good on a sponsorship form.

So that, as Paul Harvey might say, is “the rest of the story.”

LUS is going into the Council on Tuesday to discuss a franchise agreement for its fiber-optic based cable system that will be shaped by the requirements of a state law that was initially designed to kill the project. Instead of being a document that we could proudly point to as a one which sets out the unique and forward-looking obligations of LUS to the community and its customer-owners we will likely get a defensive document that promises no more than what the city fathers could extract from Cox in the last contract round. The strange franchise and pole attachment agreements that LUS will sign with itself are by-products of the (un)Fair Competition Act and its resulting, anti-consumer regulations that are designed to drive up the price of LUS’s services and so minimize the competition it can offer its citizens. To add insult to injury, federal intervention may well result in Cox deciding to abandon most of the very franchise agreement that LUS will be imitating while LUS will, regardless of federal “relief,” will be obliged by its ownership and the aforementioned law to fulfill its contractual obligations regardless of the competitive disadvantage at which it is put.

I think that’s all pretty sad and more than a little sick. I hope you do too. We’ve earned better than a me-too franchise with our local communications utility.

Welcome to topsy-turvy world of American Broadband Policy as it plays out in real local communities.

Follow Up: The 100 meg Intranet & Innovation

Thursday’s press event announcing the hiring of Alcatel to provide electronics for the Lafayette Fiber To The Home network touched of some thoughts that didn’t fit into yesterday’s media review post… Here are a few on the 100 meg Intranet & Innovation

The Advocate quotes Durel as saying:

Having such a unique capability in Lafayette could help drive innovation, Durel said.

Durel is right; it is hard to adequately imagine what could be done with 100 megs of intranet bandwidth.

A first stab at thinking about it suggests that

  • transferring HD video of soccer games and birthday parties to grandma’s TV screen would be trivial. Given the plummeting cost of hard disk storage there’s no reason that items of general interest couldn’t be stored in an online archive.
  • A Second Life (a simulated world—described) outpost on the LUS intranet could be photo-realistic and stunningly intricate. A version could be drawn on top of the geography of Lafayette. A version for high school students might start in 1821 and student could draw lots to be founder Mouton…and slaves. A ULL design and planning class might want to launch a version that starts with the present real world as the starting state and games out the effects of various smart growth plans.
  • Suppose communication were easier, richer, and cheaper? What could you do that is hard, or expensive now? How ’bout interactive online boutiques? Not today’s virtual warehouses—basically only catalogs, more or less attractively presented, of goods. Instead we could have stores where an actual, knowledgeable person could show off products, talk about the choices intelligently and interactively, helping people find solutions to the problems they have. This needn’t be about high-end goods. The value of local hardware stores lies in the expertise of the floor staff. (Think Guidry’s Hardware.) A lot of today’s buying decisions are made without adequate help–from car stereos, to home networking to which flat screen to buy for which purpose, to finding a tailored suit for a family member’s wedding. Full screen video and virtual displays coupled with competent help that is cognizant of the local context could make a big difference–and pretty cheaply once the network infrastructure is in place.
  • AOC‘s homegrown TV could take on an entirely new cast and develop in amazingly rich directons: imagine news shows where the “anchor” tosses icons of articles, online resources, interviews, additional, detailed video footage, links to older shows, and relevant speeches by public figures onto the screen as they present the 40 second version of the news story. Since the show is an IP data stream (like YouTube’s) it can be paused by users interested in the more detailed story and those additional resources viewed or saved for later use. The technology to do that is available today and is little more complicated than the spinning logos you see between every TV news story to execute. What doesn’t exist is the bandwidth to make them useful and a critical mass of IP-based viewers. Lafayette, as the largest fiber build will have the size and it will have that bandwidth in-system. The potential for innovative use is endless–what is out of reach in other place will be available here.
  • Your idea here: _______________. Or in the comments.

If we sell this right creatives in many fields will flock to Lafayette. There are things right now that can’t be done without both big broadband and a large, varied population. Lafayette will be just about the only place in the US to try those things out. The temptation will be to go for the easy—and easily quantifiable—”big business” targets. Bringing one of those in validates an economic developer’s job. But the real future lies in 400 small business and 500 artists of various strips along with their supporting web design and network support cadres. For that we need articles in Time magazine and articles on slashdot…..I hope someone is pursuing those.

And, while we are suggesting: LUS and LCG need to develop home-grown talent. They need to recognize that they are not only competing in an established market. More importantly, if they are to realize their own dreams of making the network a unifying tool for economic devlopment and hopes of vaulting Lafayette into the the tech forefront they need to understand that they build a new market. There is no existing market built on a 100 megs of bandwidth available to a whole community. We will have to invent it here. What the market or old, established habits and skills do in a stable economy won’t be adequate here. LUS needs to be generous with and supportive of every Linux club, kids’ webmaster group, home networking business, and AOC (especially AOC) that even threatens to build new, socially sustainable expertise. It’s a bootstraping operation and in our situation the only institution with the “pull” to get those feet up off the ground is the network owner.

LUS-Alcatel Deal in the News

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate cover yesterday’s announcement that Alcatel will provide the electronics for Lafayette’s FTTH network. (I attended the press event and wrote up a piece yesterday.)

From the Advertiser:

Alcatel-Lucent was chosen from among six companies to provide the equipment – from the box on your house to the box atop your television set – that will bring Lafayette Utilities System’s fiber technology into area homes.

From the Advocate:

The system that the Paris-based company will install will be able to provide all the bells and whistles just coming onto the market — and be flexible enough to provide new applications in the future, LUS Director Terry Huval said.

“We will have the ability and capacity to do things in Lafayette that most of America won’t have for years,” City-Parish President Joey Durel said.


For customers, the system Alcatel-Lucent will provide will be able to provide both the most basic of services — such as traditional phone or cable services — as well as services “previously unimaginable in Lafayette,” according to a LUS news release.

Those services include Internet Protocol Television, or IPTV, which sends television signals in the same general manner Internet signals are sent.

IPTV allows for a number of customizable services for end users, Alcatel-Lucent’s Jennifer McCain said.

Users can create their own “home page,” on their television, customizing lists of their favorite channels, doing some limited Internet surfing, gaming, sharing photos or even, someday, shopping — all over their television, McCain said…

Because the box at a customer’s home that delivers IPTV is like a small computer, when new applications become available the computer can be reprogrammed, McCain said.

The potential of the set top box is all but unlimited–it is, as has been remarked on in these pages before (more), a media-ready computer that has been locked down to serve limited, revenue-generating purposes. The boxes are all much more powerful than they are allowed to be. The more we can unlock their potenial as a computer the better it will be for the people of Lafayette.

Finally, what I think will eventually prove the most “feature” part of the system—and a feature we are proud to have first promoted on Lafayette Pro Fiber: 100 megs of intranet bandwidth. The digital divide committee also made a strong pitch for this concept in their “Bridging the
Digital Divide
” document. The appearance of this on the feature among the RFP proposals that Alcatel and others had to respond to is evidence that LUS does listen. Terry Huval is calling this peer-to-peer bandwidth and that points to the crucial feature that it is only available between members of the network.

The system will also be able to provide a special twist on Internet service that LUS has promised — nearly unlimited bandwidth inside the LUS network.

Internet customers, no matter which speed they sign up for to browse the Internet as a whole, will be given a full 100 Mbps when contacting another computer inside the LUS network.

Having such a unique capability in Lafayette could help drive innovation, Durel said.

Durel is right; it is hard to imagine what could be done with that sort of intranet bandwidth. But I’ll try in a subsequent post. 😉

The point here is that the train is leaving the station. Alcatel’s techologies will shape the first iteration of the system and, at first glance, they and LUS’ choices appear to be forward looking and leave a lot of room for growth in whatever direction the larger technological ecology takes. The inclusion of IPTV technology in the video category coupled with large internal bandwidth, and LUS’ long-stated commitment to an open system ecology in the internet part of its offerings insure that Lafayette will have the tools, and more importantly, the open running room in which to create something truly different, ground-breaking, and valuable to the community.

Now all we have to do is our part: get down to work and invent the future. Have fun!

(As I wrote up this review I had to restrain myself from expanding too much on several points. Follow-up posts exploring some of the issues suggested by yesterday’s press event and this morning’s stories are slated to follow..)

Sorrento emulates the FCC

Earlier I complained that EATel is turning into a wanna-be AT&T. Today my complaint is that the town of Sorrento is emulating the FCC.

Come on folks, in this day and age Federal regulatory practices are no more worthy of being copied than are the corporate practices of national monopolies.

The Advocate briefly reports that Sorrento Town Council has followed it decision to allow EATel to serve only the easiest to get to and most profitable of its citizens with a “fair” decision to allow Cox to do the same.

Fair to whom? Certainly not to the citizens who, you would think, would be the primary concern of Council members.

The reason that Sorrento has any say is that both Cox and EATel need to use the town’s rights-of-way property to run the cables that are necessary for their private, for-profit business. So they sign a contract (the “franchise” agreement) with the town which trades use of Sorrento’s property rights for a share of the income generated and other conditions favorable to the citizen’s who own that property in common.

Historically the most noticeable pro-consumer condition put on a private provider seeking to use community property is that they agree to serve all citizens-not just the most profitable few. Businesses were require to serve the bottoms as well as the hills. Sorrento is abandoning that tradition.

Cox, it must be said in their favor, has already met the more consumer-friendly requirements and is unlikely to abandon already-paid-for infrastructure. So it will be “stuck” with the least-profitable segments anyway. The benefit to them lies largely in the future, in establishing the principle of fair play, and in feeling a little less abused.

The idea of encouraging “competition” by granting one competitor an anti-consumer advantage and then, in the interests of “fairness” allowing the same advantage a few months later to the well-established incumbent was pioneered by the geniuses at the Federal Communication Commission. It’s a cute little game in which both sides of the supposed opponents get to cut back on their responsibilities to the consumer while the FCC gets to pretend that it 1) has actually encouraged competition, and 2) has been fair when the net effect boils down to it having abdicating its primary responsibility to protect the citizens of the country. We saw this on the federal level as cable companies entered the phone business and it is being repeated as phone companies move into video.

It’s a malign pattern.

And there is no reason for local governments to play that game.

Sun’s McNealy Returns

Well Scot McNealy of Sun Microsystems was back in town…and closeted with a lot of the cities tech big wigs (LUS, LCG, the University, and local business—tech enthusiasts) for a couple of hours before a press conference at LITE. Sorry I didn’t get to this earlier, but I was mired in a recalcitrant web site that was too close to launch to neglect. But luckily the regional media covered it in force. What happened in that meeting—why McNealy made a return trip—was not immediately made public though hints could be gleaned from the reporter’s coverage.

The Advertiser lead with and focused on the announcement of Lafayette’s ranking on a jobs growth ranking and didn’t mention the McNealy press conference, at which the ranking was mentioned, until paragraph five. KATC and The Advocate lead with the McNealy visit itself and didn’t mention the job growth ranking which was apparently a reference point in the presentation. The two stories do dovetail, of course, but the focus of interest on this site is the technology issues implicated in the visit.

Seasoned readers will recall that McNealy made a supportive stop here right before the fiber referendum. He appeared on one of Joey’s morning radio shows and was generally encouraging about our building a fiber system. Back then I laid out an enthusiastic, but I think still pretty accurate assessment of the potential of a Sun-Lafayette partnership. The gist is that LUS’ big bandwidth, Sun’s open source source software, and the immense potential of on-system storage and distributed computing in Lafayette’s intranet has got to have smart companies like Sun thinking hard about using Lafayette as a test bed for new technologies. There really will be little to match the size and diversity of our user population, or the intranet-speed in-system bandwidth supplied between customers. That is a match made in heaven for those that have hankered after the bandwidth to make real changes in the (computer, video, cloud computing, name-your-techish-dream) area.

Sun’s bread and butter has been building top-notch servers, and more recently, integrated server farms. That’s a business built on the need for fast networks. Sun has in recent years pursued some pretty interesting ideas pretty relentlessly. Sun signed onto the open-source movement early. Free and more importantly open, readily fixable and extendable software is the result. Sun has also swum against the tide in insisting on a pushing a “network-centric” computing model. This involves big central computing facilities and distributed dumb terminals — though some Sun models can run as traditional independent stand-alone computers. Sun also has relentlesly pursued its vision for JAVA. The hope was for a platform for writing software that was independent of the underlying hardware and could run and interconnect processes on everything from toasters to big iron server hardware. JAVA has yet to becom the platform for realizing the more blue-sky versions of those dreams but much of the intuition is being realized in web-centric AJAX apps.

The potential of having a whole community with fast, cheap, universally available broadband capable of ripping the roof off the network limitations that have kept many of Sun’s ideas barely viable has got to be tempting to the company. And the digital divide and development potential for Lafayette are obvious. There is surely partnership potential here.

But what is on the table now? I’d guess both LUS’ fiber program and the city’s computing needs.

Keith Thibodaux regularly complains about the need to update a creaky computer system. The dark lining on the silver cloud of having had an early strong computer department at ULL is that Lafayette’s networks were developed back in the days of COBOL and significant portions of the city’s core network runs in that crusty framework. Slipping in a modern Sun-based but still centrally organized, terminal-heavy system would allow that sort of mainframe-oriented system to move into the modern day relatively painlessly. As the tenders of that system reach retirement age (yes we are that far into the computer age) such a move might become critical.

The Advocate did a stellar job of focusing on the potential interaction of Sun and LUS’ fiber to the home project. I recommend you go take a look. It is exciting stuff and doesn’t bear much cutting here is a stream the good bits:

Durel said Wednesday that the project’s highest-profile cheerleader reinforced and supplemented the LUS team’s “vision” to not just provide “me too” products with the state-of-the-art network.

“It’s not just about saving customers 20 percent,” Durel said. “It’s much, much bigger than that.”

Durel said McNealy is a big fan of “open source” products, software allows tech-savvy users to upgrade and add their own innovations.

In an open environment, coupled with the vast bandwidth promised by LUS — which has said that traffic inside its network will be unlimited — there’s a great potential for people working out of their garages to develop innovative products in Lafayette, McNealy said.

LUS Director Terry Huval said McNealy talked about the potential for Lafayette schools to utilize, which provides free, open source educational materials.

McNealy said Sun Microsystems offers a product called Sun Ray that could also be of great use with LUS’ system to help get more people using technology in their everyday lives.

Sun Ray is a simple, low-cost computer that serves as a conduit between the user and a massive server, where all information, software and processing power is stored.

The interactive display of Sun Ray is merely a way for the user to tap into the network, meaning that any user — with a pass code or swipe card — could use any Sun Ray to access their information, be it at home, work, the library or wirelessly, Huval said.

It’s a grand dream and could get most of the city on the network in an extremely exciting and potentially sophisticated way. Serving (free) programs off a server to inexpensive computers is clearly the next step a city could take after offering cheap, universal, big bandwidth. Open source is the way to go and Sun is a leader. Partnering with someone who not ony cares about these ideas is a natural–especially when that partner has already bet the company on the ideas.

As always there are caveats, especially in the context of the digital divide: Sun’s terminals are inexpensive–but no longer notably inexpensive in comparison to arguably more capable standalone computers. (And their standalones are more expensive.) The most price-attractive hardware is proprietary and not all open source material is ported to run there. It is a pretty closed ecology without the diversity found in the larger computer market. And it isn’t clear what direction will be open to Sun as the mobile market continues to expand.

Without a doubt, it’s all exciting and the relationship with Sun will bear watching.

Durel’s Second Term

Joey Durel (reelected recently when qualifying ended with no opposition registering) laid out two markers for his second term: Over-delivery on the LUS fiber to the home project and smart growth.

It’s the first that interests us here. From the Advocate article:

Durel said he wants to continue the progress made in his first four years, including Lafayette Utilities System’s telecommunications venture, which is expected to hook up its first customer by the second year of Durel’s second term.

Durel said he hopes to “over deliver” on the promises made about what the new telecommunications business can do for Lafayette.

When a politician talks like that he’s got something in mind. Wonder what it might be?

Eatel Plays Telco Game

I’ve lauded EATel repeatedly, both for its locally-owned fiber to the home project and for its (lost, lamented) inexpensive phone service.

But fair is fair. EATel has apparently decided that its role as a rural incumbent phone company should allow it to act like the big boys. Like AT&T everywhere little EATel is balking at cutting the same “serve the whole community if you want to use our rights-of-way” deal with the village of Sorrento that any other cable company would have to cut. From the Advocate story:

Town Attorney Greg Lambert told the council at its meeting Tuesday that Cox Communications, currently the only provider in the area, asked that Eatel be held to the same agreement provisions as Cox.

Lambert said Eatel has agreed to all of the same provisions except the density requirement, which requires Cox to provide service to any house within 300 feet of a distribution system, and any area that has 50 residences within one cable mile or 10 residences within a quarter of a cable mile.

Sharon Kleinpeter, a vice president at Cox Communications, told the council that Eatel and Cox should operate under the same standards.

A broken clock is right twice a day and Kleinpeter and Cox are right about this. And I was wrong to think EATel too local and loyal to try and run such a scam — though I was right to think that the Sorrento Council would resist. [It should be noted that there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about Cox’s objections: Cox’s late endorsement of the state-wide video franchise that BellSouth/AT&T proposed came about when they were included in the list of companies that could ignore a local community’s demand of service for all citizens in return for the use of those citizen’s property. Cox would have been wiser not to encourage the competion to cherry-pick then; they’d be more credible now.]

EATel already has to run its copper into every home and has been profiting off the people of Sorrento for generations…it is resisting upgrading a few people who have been loyal customers to marginally increase their overall profit in a new market.

Emulating AT&T is not the way to go for a progressive local firm whose greatest asset is the belief that it is more likely to care about the local community than outside monopolies. Stuff like this squanders their core advantage and is lousy business even if it weren’t unethical.

For shame.

Let’s hope the Sorrento Council holds firm and returns EATel to its better self.

“Sorrento might OK Eatel fiber”

Sorrento is about to get a locally-owned fiber-optic network. Rural telephone provider Eatel, who Lafayette readers may remember fondly as one of the businesses that used to offer cheap phone service here, is now bidding to extend its fiber-optic network to the town.

EATel, no longer known as East Ascension TELephone, is based in the parish of the same name and is bidding to extend cable and high-speed internet service to this town in its already-existing footprint.

From the Advocate story:

The Town Council has agreed to consider a proposed ordinance that, if adopted, would provide residents with a choice of cable television providers.

“Basically, it will allow Eatel to run fiber-optic lines to provide cable services. Eatel will provide a competing service to Cox (Communications),” town attorney Greg Lambert said.

That’s good news for local consumers. Sorrento is lucky that its phone provider is Eatel and not AT&T.

Eatel is doing what AT&T refuses to do—actually competing against the cable company in small rural towns. And Eatel is doing so on a level playing field, paying the town of Sorrento franchise fees to use its property equal to those Cox pays. One assumes that there is no question but that Eatel will serve the whole town; the phone company network is everywhere and city council in a small town like that would get hung if it signed anything that allowed partial service. BellSouth/AT&T realizes that local representatives feel that way—and since they would rather serve the rich guys they went to the Louisiana legislature to get a law passed that would have forbidden a town like Sorrento from demanding that a franchisee that wanted to use the public rights-of-way would have to serve both sides of the track. (Blanco vetoed the bill.)

Good for Eatel. Good for Sorrento.

Tidbits: Fiber Budget News & Wireless Police

Two Tidbits from recent news accounts that focused on topics other than Lafayette’s network but included interesting bits about it…

The Daily Advertiser coverage of the city-parish council meeting yielded this bit after news about the budget:

The proposed 2007-08 budget is not expected to include funding for the fiber-to-the-home network because bonds to build the project were issued after Lafayette Utilities System submitted its budget, LUS Director Terry Huval said Monday.

A special budget amendment will be considered by the council, probably at its Aug. 7 meeting, to address the capital needs of the project, Huval said.

A second budget amendment to address the operations and maintenance of fiber-to-the-home, will be submitted prior to adoption of the 2007-08 budget Sept. 27.

And, related:

LUS is accepting bids to temporarily lease warehouse space to house the material needed for the FTTH enterprise.

LUS soon will be taking bids on the warehouse and head-end building that will permanently house the FTTH equipment, Huval said. Construction is expected to begin before the end of 2007.

Everything is moving down the tracks.

A bit more on the wireless network LUS is anticipating building from the Advocate’s news briefs “Around Acadiana.” Note that it is framed in terms of using these cars “no matter where they are in the city.”

Each of the units is also fully equipped with wireless equipment. Since the city is expanding its citywide wireless network for public safety workers, it won’t be long before police units will have wireless capabilities no matter where they are in the city.

I’m looking forward to universal coverage.