Big Deal: Lafayette Internet Use Study Released

It must be spring…a survey that’s been hibernating over the winter has been spotted a couple of time recently and emerged into the full light Tuesday.

LUS posted a press release touting the survey of Lafayette’s internet habits and attitudes today and the Advertiser has jumped in with the first quick digest. The official report is available on Lafayette Pro Fiber with the survey form and dataset access forthcoming. The instrument is a sophisticated usage and attitudes survey that pulls its questions, phrasing, and sequencing from the yearly national Pew and Annenburg studies of internet usage. It’s numbers were carefully designed to make sure that all of our communities would be reliably sampled. Taken together the “Internet Use in Lafayette, LA, 2009 Baseline Study” will give a valid way to compare ourselves to national standards and to track our progress—or lack thereof—over time.

This is very big deal, it was a long time in coming, and a number of people should stand up and take a bow.

It’s a Big Deal
It’s a big deal because it is, to my knowledge, the very first attempt by a fiber to the home community to hold itself accountable for improving itself. It lays the groundwork for actually showing the difference that cheaper, locally owned, really big bandwidth can make in a community. It lays down a serious bet that fiber will make that difference and gives our people, and others outside the community the ability to check the claims we make. We now know where we stand relative to rest of the nation in a survey taken immediately before the launch of LUS Fiber. Future surveys will chart our progress against the national surveys it is keyed to. It’s a big deal because it holds holds our feet to the fire.

It’s also a big deal because it gives us tools with which to make those changes. We now know where the weak spots and the strong spots are in our community’s use of modern technologies. Knowledge, in this instance, is access to money. Both private and public funding exists to aid efforts to move communities forward. But all such money reasonably comes with two requests: 1st you need to show a need, and 2nd you need to be able to demonstrate that the action the group funded made a difference. This survey vaults Lafayette to the head of the line. We know what our needs are (I’ll post later on just exactly what I think it shows) and anyone we ask for support from can see that Lafayette can accurately say what its problems are and that we have a good way to demonstrate when we’ve made progress. It will be important to some of those grantor agencies that we’ve taken this burden on ourselves—it makes it look like we actually are serious about making changes as needed; not simply fishing for cash. What we need now is an aggressive cadre of grant writers in all our institutions but especially at the school board and at LCG. The new head of LCG’s division of Community Development should dive directly into this. LUS has already made good use of the survey in this regard: it was used to support the community’s recent application for broadband stimulus funds, “

It’s a big deal, finally, because with a good survey we can defend ourselves, and the idea of publicly-owned fiber, against its insistent, irrational detractors. It is a sad commentary on the state of our polity that “astroturf” organizations like the Heritage Foundation are even listened to but Lafayette has seen the lengths to which such incumbent-funded “analysts” will go to denigrate the successes of projects like our own. The best defense is a good offense, the saying goes, and going out and getting solid, open research is our best defense against such opinionators.

It was a Long Time Coming
The idea of doing a baseline survey has been brewing in this community for a very long time. The first time it peeked out publicly was in the Bridging the Digital Divide document put together at the behest of the city-parish council and released in May of 2005. It was the first suggestion in the “Assessing our Successes…and Shortfalls” section:

Develop and periodically run a survey containing standardized questions. Surveys are particularly good tools to measure outcomes that we expect to remain comparable regardless of differences in time and location. Some questions will be unique to our community, assessing locally unique factors that change over time. Others will echo the questions contained in standard, national surveys of Internet usage that will help us compare our progress to that made in other communities.

A) Run this survey once before the fiber optic network is built.

B) Run the survey yearly, and combine it with other feedback suggested here.

Shortly after the successful fiber referendum in July of ’05 folks active in the fiber fight got together with the idea that they’d try an take on various projects that would “keep the momentum going.” André Comeaux decided that he’d make getting a credible baseline survey his goal. He worked on that extensively, setting up ties with the Annenberg and Pew foundations, securing copies of their questionnaires, and lining up estimates for its cost. He canvassed the business community tirelessly for funding and while that particular deal never quite came together he produced a body of work that was ready to go when the opportunity finally presented itself.

The idea that periodic surveys were a good way to check ourselves never faded away and by the time LUS was ready in 07 to get its franchise from LCG to actually offer services a survey clause was included in the franchise agreement.

By the time LUS Fiber’s launch date neared most of the principals understood the value of a baseline survey but time was running to get the data collected before LUS had significant customers. A team had been put together from the sociology department at University of Louisiana at Lafayette crafted the questionairre and initially the hope was that a survey unit at the university would collect the data and a consortium of local businesses would pony up the necessary funding. When that didn’t work out and the survey unit at ULL was closed Joe Abraham at the Acadiana Educational Endowment stepped up and took on the task under the supervision of the university’s team. LUS took on the financial support. Several short stories worth of trials and tribulations later the data had been collected, vetted, and analyzed by the sociologists and the survey was complete.

Just in time.

Some People Should Stand Up and Take a Bow
I was in a spot to see most of this long and tortured tale come together and am left with a lot of solid admiration for the folks who finally made the survey happen. It takes a certain sort of mind to recognize the value of doing something that is so long-term and which has so little immediate value for any of the participants. Lafayette is lucky to have a large set of people who both saw the value and were willing to sweat for the sake of the community. I’m proud to know ’em. There are a whole crew of people who deserve to be stood up in front of the community and applauded. The best I can do is to is to list off the ones that I happened to see in action.

  • The folks on the original Digital Divide Committee and especially “Committee II” that drafted the original idea and continued to push for it over the years: Ed Bowie, Jennifer Hamilton, John St. Julien, Kevin Domingue, Layne St. Julien, and Melanie Louis.
  • André Comeaux deserves his own paragraph—he persisted when few would, convinced those who needed to be convinced, and got the basic package together.
  • When the deadline approached an ad hoc “steering committee” formed up: Joe Abraham, Steve Creeden, Jacques Henry, John St. Julien, Mike Stagg, and George Wooddell. They kept on pressing until the thing was done and in the box. That required special sacrifices from Joe Abraham, Jacques Henry, and George Woodell. Joe set up a calling center at his nonprofit and went through several kinds of H*ll getting it running right. Actually he did that twice. “The sociologists” Jacques and George had to battle data issues that kept cropping up and weren’t afraid to stop the cart and force folks to simply start over. Without their dedication it wouldn’t have been done right. Considering that they originally had to be cajoled using their affection for Lafayette, their recognition that this was something that simply ought to be done, and the (unfortunate for them) fact that no one else was in a position to do the analysis I’m sure they got a lot more than they bargained for. But they stuck it out. Terry Huval should be added to that list. If he hadn’t stood up with the money needed to do it when the timing got really critical the survey would never have happened.

This is the sort of thing that can happen in real communities. People hang in there for years, looking out for what is best for their community and finally get it right. Nor am I under the illusion that this survey is the only place you see such honorable behavior. In just a few weeks we’ll see Festival International 2010… I’m genuinely impressed—and pleased to live in a place where those sorts of things can happen.

Boradband Plan a Pipe Dream?

The response to the National Broadband Plan has been muted nationwide, at least in part because it was released at the climax of the health care debate. The response has been even more muted, if possible in Lafayette…after all, we’ve got ours Jack…real 3 way competition even if AT&T is an also-ran. (Caveat: Economists say a 3-way is not enough. The fact that we’ve got a public option will help immensely.)

But for most of the country the plan would be uninspiring in any context, mainly in that it has failed to grapple with the underlying problem of competition. The plan as currently constructed simply accepts the current nation-wide wireline duopoly. The pretense that wireless competition is large enough and that it is separate enough from wireline to generate genuine competition is just foolish. (I have two friends who’ve worked, in differing capacities, on the plan. Both have expressed deep disappointment. One bitterly.)

The Economist does a great job of summarizing the painful reality of the American situation:

Almost uniquely among OECD countries, America has adopted no policies to require the owners of broadband cables to open their infrastructure to rival sellers in order to enhance competition. America relies almost exclusively on “facilities competition”, the provision of rival infrastructures: a cable provider may compete, for example, with a network that runs optical fibre to the home. True, there is a legitimate worry that forcing a company to rent out parts of its infrastructure to competitors may deter investment, but a review of international broadband policies prepared for the FCC by Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society revealed a range of successful compromises in use in other countries. The FCC has availed itself of none of them, and suggests that wireless broadband could instead provide more competition. But wireless data transfer is very much slower and less reliable than fixed broadband; it is more a complement than a competitor.

If America’s facilities-based system were really working, the country would at the very least enjoy first-rate broadband in dense urban areas where providers are most likely to recoup their investments quickly. Yet in February the Saïd Business School at Oxford and the Universidad de Oviedo released a study, funded by Cisco, that produced a broadband quality score based on bit volume and speed, mapped against current and probable future applications. Chicago, America’s best-performing city, ranked 26th, below Sofia and Bucharest.

Lafayette is lucky not to have to rely on the “beginners” sort of broadband plan that has been generated so far. It’s yet another instance of it being demonstrably wiser to do for yourself.

That’s not to say that there is nothing positive to be said about the plan….most importantly it’s a plan worth criticizing. Up till this moment the US has had NO plan. We are admitting that not having a plan is a problem. And, as we all now recognize, admitting that there is a problem is the first step in solving it.

That said there are parts of the plan that, if implemented, could have a real effect on communities like Lafayette. More on that as time allows….

LUS rate hike returns

LUS will be going back to the City-Parish Council for another go at a rate hike on January 19th. Or so report the Independent, (not once but twice), the Advertiser and KLFY.

Of the early reports the most interesting has come from the Independent’s Walter Pierce who starts looking into the background politics of the matter. His speculations focus on shifts toward rate hike support from Purvis Morrison and (very tentatively) Sam Dore.

But my guess is that some serious negotiating has already been going on with Brandon Sheldon and Kenny Boudreaux being taken more seriously than in the first pass when the complaint was heard that little explanation was given and no inclination to discuss mitigating the increase was entertained.

There is a lot sitting in the background of this issue, including the upcoming redistricting and a prospective change to the home rule charter that raises uncomfortable questions about city vs parish revenues and charter-based restrictions on how LUS’ in lieu of tax revenues are controlled and how that money can be spent.

This might well get more politically sticky before it is put to bed.

For tech infrastructure interests that are a focus of readers of this blog the consequence of securing the rate increase might well be to put the federal stimulus money for LUS’ smart grid infrastructure back on the table. (See earlier coverage.) Without the rate increase LUS was going to have to turn down $11,630,000 dollars. It’d be nice to get the feds to pay for all that build out—and smart too. Having to walk away from that much money might well have influenced the administration to quickly take another stab and the Council to reconsider its earlier action.

It should be interesting to watch the sausage being made.

You CAN get there from here! Or, at least you used to be able to.

The story making the trade papers today is that Level 3 Communications is going to apply for some of the broadband stimulus money. That’s a good thing and could also be a good thing for Louisiana.

Here’s why.

Level 3 owns and operates one of the largest fiber networks in the world. You can download their network map here (PDF).

You’ll note on the map that Level 3 has two routes in south Louisiana. The original route runs along I-10. The second route runs a bit north of there along a natural gas pipeline right of way that connects Houston to Atlanta. Going back to the days when I used to map these networks as they rolled out across Louisiana, arguing to the Mike Foster administration that these were the Rivers of Light (PDF) that could produce corridors of opportunity in this state, that second route was built by the Williams Company of Tulsa, OK, and sold when the telecom branch of the firm went bankrupt around the turn of this century.

So, what does this have to do with broadband in Louisiana?

Let’s let Level 3 explain:

Edward Morche, senior vice president of the Federal Markets Group for Level 3 Communications, said last week that his company would partner with cable companies, LECs, wireless providers or state and local governments in seeking to offer broadband access in unserved and underserved areas, building off its national network.

“When we built our national fiber optic network, we had to put in regeneration nodes, to re-amplify the signal, in tier 2, tier 3and tier 4 markets,” Morche said. “If you look at where we have those regeneration nodes – and there are about 500 of them – we are looking at a couple of dozen that we could use [to apply for stimulus funding] for the first round.”

At the time this and other networks were built, these regeneration stations were needed about every 35 miles along the network. As you drive along I-10 now, there are two fiber regeneration stations not far from Lacassine. One on the north side; the other on the south side. The station north of I-10 is Level 3’s. Each serves a different fiber network but serves the same purpose — generating the light that carries communications signals down the network. Neither Google Maps nor Mapquest provides high enough resolution images to definitively identify those stations through their satellite or aerial formats.

Level 3 has their own regeneration station in Lafayette, located in a LEDA industrial park north of I-10, in a lot adjacent to LUS’s cable head end facility. Ironically, Level 3 provides network backbone nationally to Cox Communications.

Qwest Communications owns a lot of fiber in south Louisiana. It’s original route runs along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. They have a regeneration station in downtown Lafayette that sits across the tracks and towards Johnston from the train station. The next point is about 35 miles down the track.

All of these fiber networks are the same. All of these regeneration stations are the same. Each offers the opportunity to plug into a regional/national/global fiber network.

Had Lafayette Consolidated Government and the Durel administration not agreed to the colossally short-sighted provisions of the Louisiana Municipal Fair Competition Act back in 2004, many other Louisiana communities would now have the opportunity to follow Lafayette into the business of building the networks that for-profit companies do not find profitable enough. How many cities? Back in 2000 I had compiled a list of those Louisiana cities with the access to fiber and other assets that made them prime candidates for such development.

Instead, Lafayette is getting its fiber network. But it erected a high barrier behind it to impede others from taking a similar course.

The price of that short-sightedness is now becoming apparent as Level 3 makes clear that it is willing to open its network at those regeneration points to non-incumbent providers.