“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.

Follow Up: St. Charles Parish & Cox

The Times-Picayune reports on the latest St. Charles parish expression of discontent with Cox Communications. The parish council is asking citizens to show up at their meeting and let them know what they think of Cox. (Cox’s contract ends on December 31st.)

From the story:

The council, spurred by citizens’ complaints about the company, passed a resolution in February saying they want another cable company to apply for a cable TV franchise.

If Lafayette’s experience is any guide the council should expect the room to be packed with uniformed Cox employees who arrive in company trucks.

What the NOLA story does not mention is that back when this all blew up two of the council members were advocating municipal competition a la Lafayette and had met with represetatives from the city across the basin.

It should be interesting to see what comes of all this.

$10 DSL Revisted

New AT&T CEO Randall talks to the Atlanta Journal Constituion about, among other things, the “hidden” $10 DSL program that I’ve noted recently. The FCC required that AT&T offer this discount program—and an accompanying “naked DSL” program for a bit more—as a condition of it allowing BellSouth and AT&T to merge. As it turns out, in my experience and the experience of others, it is inordinately hard to find and order. Not a few people think AT&T is avoiding keeping its word.

Randall says that you don’t really want it. Is that true? If you’ve tried to get it I’d like to hear your experiences. (John2 “at” LafayetteProFiber “dot” com)

In his own words:

Q: Of all the things the AJC has written about AT&T lately, none has caused more reader irritation than AT&T’s $10 a month DSL offer, which was required by the Federal Communications Commission when you bought BellSouth. A lot of folks said they couldn’t find it. It was hard to find on your site. Why?

A: We haven’t made it difficult to find. To be honest with you, that’s not a product that our customers have clamored for. We still have $15 offers out there in the marketplace, even $20 offers, for 1.5 megabit speeds. Those are really kind of the minimum speeds that give a good user experience. So I don’t want to necessarily offer up a product where the user experience is not what I would consider really state of the art. That $10 product is kind of in that mode.”

Local Government Fair Competition Act Dead…in North Carolina

Following a state-wide outcry North Carolina’s version of the lobbyist-written “Local Government Fair Competition Act” died today according to a local report. (Previous LPF coverage: 1, 2, 3)

Opposition from the likes of North Carolina’s Leauge of Municipalities, Google, Educause, Intel, Tropos, and user groups finally killed the embarrassing telecom-sponsored bill in the state that prides itself on having successfully courted high-tech in its widely admired “research triangle.” The victory didin’t come easy and the incumbent corporations enjoyed several successes before being derailed in the House finance committee. Louisiana’s legislature, regular readers will recall, passed such a law and it has proved the bane of Lafayette’s effort to build the network the citizens voted for every since by spawning seemingly endless lawsuits. In North Carolina legislators were helped to see the light by the disaster produced by the previous year’s telecom -sponsored–a state-wide video franchise law. That made it a little harder to treat the earnest entreties of the incumbents as credible. (In Louisiana the ongoing mess produced by the Lousisiana Local Government Fair Competition Act was no doubt instrumental in inducing our governor to veto our state-wide video law when that giveaway was proposed here. You can fool some of the people…)

Congratulations are due to an aroused North Carolina citizenry. Only one thing trumps the money the incumbent corporations have to spread around at election time: the votes they had hoped to buy with it.

Louisiana needs to repeal it’s own version of this odious (un)Fair Competition law. It puts stunningly unfair restraints on competition, restricts the people’s rights to act in their own behalf, and has the now demonstrable effect of leaving local governments mired in legal battles that serve only to delay the expressed will of the people. It robbed the citizens of New Orleans of their municipal wifi system after the storm and came close to derailing Lafayette’s project. It is not likely that any other municipality in the state will have the resources or the will to pursue serving their citizenry in this way until this law is repealed.

North Carolina shows the way.

AT&T’s $10.00 DSL Not “Offered”

David Isenberg at his exemplary Isenblog points out that AT&T is not really living up to the agreements it made to get the BellSouth merger approved. He uses a LPF post as a point of departure, noting that while it is possible to find the $10.00 DSL offer I referred readers to it is not easy to locate and, even more significantly, you cannot get to the offer from even the difficult-to-locate page I found. I had not realized that but, upon digging further, found it to be absolutely true. Mea Culpa! Following the link on the BellSouth page leads you to the general AT&T DSL page and after giving them your local phone number as part of the “order” process for the cheapest visible alternative they still don’t give the customer (you and me) any sense that there might be a legally mandated, still cheaper offer available. To go any further you have to complete the order and await contact by email….since I’ve no intention to order DSL service I stopped there. But the fact is clear: You cannot get to the $10.00 offer unless you already know it is there and are willing to interrupt the normal ordering process to demand it.

Isenberg correctly notes that this is not “offering” the service in the sense that the FCC required. Posting the offer on your website in such a way that only Google can find it and then adding insult to injury by funneling a person who has laboriously located the “good deal” for “Fast DSL Lite” to a page where a $10.00 offer isn’t visible but a “New Lower Price Fast DSL Lite” at $19.95 is, cannot be called anything but deceptive.

Isenberg goes on to note that this isn’t the only evasion of its merger “deal” with the feds that AT&T seems to be ignoring:

It agreed to offer “naked DSL” within six months of the merger agreement — that would be June 30, 2007, and there’s no naked DSL offer from AT&T I can find today, July 6, 2007, either. The FAQ still says, To enjoy FastAccess DSL [FastAccess is what AT&T calls all its DSL services], you’ll need to have local phone service with BellSouth.”

AT&T also pledged to make wireline DSL available to 85% of the households in its territory by the end of 2007. Will it, or is this yet another Kushnick?* (A Kushnick is what a Bell does when it gets a Quid for a future Pro Quo, which it doesn’t ever deliver.)

AT&T has already announced that it will be developing technology to violate its pledge of Network Neutrality;

I’ve long since gotten to the cynical spot where I automatically assume that any obligation that BS/AT&T or Cox make that can be evaded will be evaded. They simply don’t act in good faith. I’m so inured to such behavior that I barely notice it and simply assume that if you want a fair shake you’ll have to fight for it. But Isenberg is right. You shouldn’t have to.

AT&T should simply honor its word. That it casually declines to do so when it is not to its immediate fiscal advantage is the best possible reason for not doing business with them.

The Money’s in the Bank

The sale of LUS fiber to the home bonds officially “closed” Thursday both the Advocate and the Advertiser report. LUS sold $110.4 million in revenue bonds to support the construction and intial costs of the network. As in “closing” on your home or car loan what this really means is that the money is in the bank and you can take possession of what you’ve been sold. In this case LUS (and the rest of us) is “buying” the use of the money. Now they can begin spending money.

Expect the pace of things to pick up.

The papers report that spending will begin on planning and on the early construction of items like the warehouse necessary to store construction equipment and the head-end building that will be the electronic heart of the new system.

Attentive readers may wonder what happened to the $125 million that the voters approved two years ago. Why only $110.4 million? The easy answer is that new cost projections are lower as a consequence of the delay are less so they are borrowing less. But while that is central there is a bit more to consider as the following from the Advocate indicates:

The $110.4 million in bonds are based on projections of what it would take to build a system if half the market signed up for LUS service.

The savings in technology and interest cost mean that should LUS exceed that 50 percent share of the market, it could make it easier to pay for further expansion with cash instead of another bond issue, Huval said.

The hope of LUS has always been to make LUS Fiber a utility, that is for LUS Fiber to be a ubiquitously available service run in the public interest. It is part of the history and community orientation of LUS to hope and believe that it will be the dominant provider of telecom services in Lafayette. While that level of subscription is not essential to the network’s success as a business (that figure is in the lower 20% range) a subscription figure above 50% is clearly what LUS desires. Based on subscription rates to other locally-owned, advanced telecom systems that hope is not particularly grandiose. Bristol, Va.’s system has recently had to retool its network at a real additional cost to accommodate higher that expected “take rates.” Consequently LUS has always taken seriously the potential for rapid subscriber growth—especially after having been endorsed by 68% of the voters. Heavy, early, buy-in from the community means a much higher initial cost to be paid for from the bonded money at a time before income really starts to roll in. The cost to run fiber from the street to the wall of your house, install the electronics box there, and connect up your home is a large, fixed cost that the business intends to pay off over time. (Huval estimated that cost at $6-700 recently.)

So part of what it means to ask for less money from bond market than you were authorized to take by the voters is that you believe that you can keep up with the hoped-for take rates at more cheaply as a consequence of lower interest rates and lower equipment and installation costs than you originally thought. This is good news.

The most dangerous moment for LUS might well be the moment of its biggest success. If LUS gets a huge initial subscription bulge that prevents it from showing a quick profit (as it pays off all those expensive but income-producing $6-700 dollar investments in new customers) AT&T, Cox and its agents are no doubt waiting to make use of the incumbent-written “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” to try and “prove” that LUS not making a profit (precisely because it is dominating the market) and use clauses in their their law ostensibly inserted to “protect the citizens” to shut down their local competition. LUS has apparently decided that this is not worth worrying about at the 125 million dollar level–only the 110.4 million dollar level. Having to worry about such nonsense at all adds cost to the build and is yet another reason why this special interest law should be repealed.

Oh, by the way…am I the only one to notice that LUS had the authority to take home $125 million dollars—authority directly from the people—but chose to only use $110 million of that authority? That its “excuse” was the best of all fiscally responsible reasons: that it wasn’t going to cost that much so they didn’t want to burden the people with the expense of what would amount to a safety cushion? Where are all the nutcase jobs who were sure that the project was going to be incompetently and corruptly handled? Are any of them rethinking or moderating their stand based on the evidence? (Thanks, I needed to get that off my chest.)

Verizon’s fiber-optic payoff | CNET News.com

Food for Thought, Learning from the Big Guys Division:

“Verizon’s fiber-optic payoff;” The premise of this story is that Verizon did right by going with a Fiber To The Home plan…and AT&T/BellSouth messed up by trying to get by on the cheap. Verizon will have the bandwidth and the flexibility to compete more than adequately against the cable companies. But AT&T will not, on the basis of this author’s analysis.

Lafayette can mine Verizon’s experience for insight into how an all-fiber network can compete against the cablecos. Verizon will be several years ahead of LUS in the deployment of a new fiber system and its successes can be followed and its failures avoided. Verizon is, happily for Lafayette, not the incumbent locally. It’s enormous numbers will allow suppliers and developers for its products to supply a place like Lafayette almost as an afterthought–and at reasonable prices since the big-ticket purchaser is the giant Verizon. Even better, the also-rans on giant Verizon contracts will be looking for a place to prove their ideas. If Lafayette’s buyer’s are wise we’ll be able to cut some interesting deals on cutting-edge ideas that badly need a place to demonstrate that their ideas are viable before marketing it to the big fellow. A real danger has always been that LUS would be so far ahead of what the market in other places can provide that useful products would have to be untested and hand-crafted for us. That could be exciting…but expensive. Much better to have a big trailblazer proving basic concepts somewhere else. Then we only have to lay in a better implementation.

Apparently Verizon is succeeding. Thought its stock has taken a hit because of its heavy, long term investment in fiber has suppressed earnings its subscriber numbers are very healthy for the same reason. Its bet on a combination of old-style cable technology, fancy new IPTV for the extras, and fiber to the home capacity is allowing the company success in delivering both a high-quality, reliable TV experience, and fancy new IP services. AT&T, on the other hand, has high stock prices but low subscriber numbers for its new hybrid fiber/DSL that uses unstable IP for all its services. If I were looking at a long-term investment I know where my money would go.

The ticket for Verizon so far appears to be sticking to the absolutely reliable technology on the cash cow—cable TV—and using the capacity of fiber to deliver more channels; especially to deliver more bandwidth-hungry HDTV. In addition they are mounting an aggressive push into IP-based services. Verizon is clear about the need to migrate to a full IP system as soon as the technology is proven and it, and AT&T’s committment, ensures that the kinks will be worked out of IPTV sooner rather than later. All in all Verizon’s success validates the similar decisions made by the technical guys at LUS; the bottom line is that it’s good news for LUS.

Is there a downside for Lafayette? Sure. LUS may not compete with Verizon but Cox does. And as Verizon proves that fiber means deadly competition Cox is more likely to feel the pressure to develop effective ways to expand its own bandwidth and competitive delivery of services. But that’s not all bad of course–for the consumer. The catch for Cox is that Verizon is currently succeeding without competing much on price. LUS will and that and the local loyalty that LUS has gained (and Cox forfeited) makes LUS a much tougher target locally than Verizon is through most of its footprint.

The real loser? AT&T/BellSouth who will have the least capable system in the city and very little room to really compete on price.

Google, Intel, others oppose “No Competition” act

We’ve been following the contretemps on Wilson, NC where the local folks seem to have their act pretty well together. There is substantial local opposition to their states version of our “Fair Competition Act.”

The local paper reports that they’ve been joined in their indignation by wireless giants Alcatel-Lucent and Tropos (who will be supplying Lafayette’s wireless equipment). They joined Google and Intel in complaining about the ways that such state interference suppresses the growth of competition and private partnerships with companies like theirs.

“HB 1587 threatens to undermine the establishment of such partnerships, particularly in rural and high-cost urban areas of North Carolina in which the state’s incumbent providers are either serving poorly or not at all,” read the letter signed by Google’s state policy counsel, John Burchett.

Intel’s letter called erecting barriers to public-sector Internet networks a mistake.

The two companies were joined by Alcatel-Lucent, a networking company in Raleigh, and Tropos Networks, a California-based company that provides wireless networks to cities and towns including Philadelphia and Wrightsville Beach.

Not that local officials need much help in clarifying the purpose of the bill:

Andy Romanet, general counsel with the N.C. League of Municipalities, said … “It would make it virtually impossible to do one of these projects,” … “I call it the ‘No Competition’ act.”

Mark Chilton, mayor of Carrboro, one of the first towns in the nation with free wireless Internet, said the bill would hurt expansion of that system, and would prevent rural and poorer citizens from getting online.

“It’s clear that this is just an industry ploy that everyone and everywhere should have to pay somebody on Wall Street to get on the Internet,” Chilton said.

Its nice to know that there the historical suspicion that what is good for Wall Street’s large corporations is not necessarily good for Main Street has not been entirely lost..at least not in North Carolina.

Lagniappe: Jim Baller, whose newsletter on breaking telecom news is indispensable, posts links to all the letters filed in opposition to the attempt to foist a “Fair Competition Act” on North Carolina on his municipal broadband reference page.

Huval Reveals Plans @ the Martin Luther King Center

Terry Huval set down in front of a group of citizens at the Martin Luther King center last night, took a deep breath and issued a soliloquy on the Fiber To The Home (FTTH) project.

Councilman Chris Williams holds a monthly “Real Talk” meeting at the center on Cora that features local issues and worthies and the worthy last night was Huval and the topic: “Update on the Fiber to the Home and Utility Issues.” Much of it we’ve heard before but to get it all in one place and directly from the horse’s mouth was a treat that revealed how the head of the system is thinking about the project. But there was some pretty significant “new” news and a set of equally significant reaffirmations.

New News:

  1. Parallel deployment of a WiFi network. Previously I’d understood a “soon-after” deployment schedule. This will no doubt still depend on the initial testing working out well but this is now the plan. And it is MOST welcome news. Once it spreads into the national media we’ll get a lot of interested and envious comment. (I think this is the smart way to deploy wireless.)
  2. LUS will roll out fiber more quickly than originally planned: the schedule we’ve heard involved an 18 month wait from the bond sale to serving the first customer, that is, somewhere around the first of the year in 2009. (Someone is gonna get a nice Christmas present.) It was to take three years to complete the buildout city-wide. Huval is now saying that advances in deployment technology will allow him to cut that time by a third to two years making Lafayette a fully-fibered city by the dawn of 2011…
  3. Our slowest speed will be faster than their fastest speed;” and you will get what you pay for. The internet portion of the services LUS will offer will be faster than the incumbents’ current fastest speed which, when I checked the web, is Cox’s 12 meg “Premier” speed. That’s a bit of a surprise even to me–I’d previously heard that the lowest internet tier would be 10 megs and was plenty impressed by that. Huval also emphasized that LUS would make sure that you get the advertised speed. If LUS sells you 10 megs you’ll get 10 megs if you check a speedtest like the one at the Communications Workers of America site. —I just checked and I got about 3 megs download and 555 k upload on Cox’s 7 meg package using the CWA speedtest (@9:30 AM). I’d be interested in hearing your mileage in the comments. That is pretty respectable vis-a-vis the nation but it isn’t half of my package speed.
  4. 50-70 channels on the basic cable package. Contrast with 22 for Cox. This may not be new but I don’t seem to recall it from before.

Significant Reaffirmations:

  1. Intranet speeds, aka peer to peer speed, aka full insystem bandwidth, aka cool. Too new to have a settled name this is the greatest, least understood feature of the new network. It embodies Internet equity: Every Lafayette internet subscriber will, regardless of how much they pay for their connection, be able to communicate with anyone else on the network at the full speed available at that moment. Citizen-subscribers are equals on the Lafayette network. This policy underlines the difference between a community-owned resource and a for-profit company. With it Lafayette becomes the ultimate testbed for new big-bandwidth services like video telephony and sophisticated conferencing setups that require large numbers of diverse users with ultra-highspeed, symmetrical bandwidth for a honest field test. This will allow our citizens’s tastes to help shape the future of the net. And it will shape our own future as a democratic community as we move forward together into an age where digitial communications shape our interactions.
  2. Retail WiFi. We will get a chance to add city-wide WiFi to our LUS telecom package. Can you say “Quadruple Play?” I’ve long hoped for this. Yay! Now what we need is a contract with a major cellphone carrier that will let us use WiFi phones in-city and their cell network outside.
  3. No hookup fees; no contracts. Go with LUS and you’ll never feel “trapped” in your contract because there will be no contract. The no hookup fee is a significant concession considering that Huval mentioned that he thought the cost would be 6-700 dollars per home to pull service from the street.
  4. 20% savings on the triple play. That’s still in place; I’d worried that in the years of incumbent-caused delay a lot has changed and that keeping that committment might be harder—but the promise is still in place.
  5. Symmetric Bandwidth. You buy a 12 meg package and you’ll get 12 megs of upload and download. Contrast that with my current Cox package: 7 megs down and 512 k up. Thats about a 14:1 ratio. LUS will charge me less, give me more speed down and much, much more speed up. I’m in. (I wonder if now is the time to start lobbying for static IP addresses?)

It’s coming folks. It’s coming.

Cox Talks to the Trade Press

Back in February, in a story I missed then, Cox’s Baton Rouge unit was treated to a profile story in Multichannel News, a leading industry trade magazine. (Baton Rouge Beefs Up To Meet Demand Surge). It’s a very interesting story in which Cox Baton Rouge–then recently merged with Lafayette’s Acadiana unit to form the new “Greater Louisiana” marketing unit–tells its own story to its colleagues in a sympathetic forum. It is revealing of how Cox wants its knowledgeable industry friends to regard it.

One thing that leaps out is that it doesn’t try to blow as much smoke about its network and discusses network upgrades fairly frankly. For instance, it notes that the local unit was participating in the Cox-wide program of expanding bandwidth from 750 Megaherz to 860 Mhz. Hopefully that will improve its Video On Demand capacity in my neighborhood. (1, 2) But the story also reveals that Cox has not, contrary to its vauge assertions and local rebranding efforts, been not building out fiber in Lafayette, apparently not even in its fiber backbone–but has in Baton Rouge. According to the story in the last year:

In response to the market’s growth, the system last year added about 130 miles of new coaxial cable and 65 miles of fiber in Baton Rouge, and 61 miles of coaxial cable in the Lafayette cluster.

Even sixty one miles of new copper is nothing to sneeze at but the copper coax portion of a hybrid fiber coax (HFC) architecture is mostly in the last mile–and one is lead to presume that this new coax is predominantly in new subdivisions in our “cluster.” But this does confirm that the local rebranding of Cox’s network as a “fiber” network is truly misleading…nothing is altering Cox’s committment to HFC and its disavowal of FTTH. (I’d be happy to be shown otherwise.)

However the article chiefly focuses on Katrina’s consequences and the merger of the Baton Rouge and Lafayette markets. Both lead to a much larger market with Cox adding more than 5000 customers post-Katrina. That brings its combined total to 291,551. A very respectable combined market. The story also makes it clear that the Acadiana unit was absorbed into the Baton Rouge one and not simply combined. (That was certainly the experience here where the distinctive local elements like lower pricing, and a French and weather channel on basic cable were “aligned” to the Baton Rouge pattern.)

The integration of the Lafayette system, which is about 50 miles southwest of Baton Rouge, has involved a number of initiatives. For example, Cox Greater Louisiana has aligned the channel lineups — and retail pricing — across the Baton Rouge and the Lafayette clusters.

More broadly, Cox has tried to more fully absorb and acculturate the Lafayette cluster, so that it conforms to the company’s corporate strategy: That its cable systems offer state-of-the-art technology, be perceived as doing so and be very involved in their communities.

The bit about being “very involved” with their communities was directly tied to LUS–presented as simply a “municipal overbuilder:”

There was a need to forge closer ties with the community in Lafayette, where Cox faces competition from a municipal overbuilder, Lafayette Utilities System, Vines said.

The overbuilder “was pushing that it was bringing fiber to the home, but there was really not a sense that Cox was doing that as well,” Vines said.

“Louisiana is very parochial,” she said. “It’s a very relationship-oriented state. So as we were integrating the Lafayette system we had to introduce ourselves, reintroduce Cox Communications … to make sure [customers] understood we had fiber and they didn’t necessarily have to go with our competitor.”

No mention, of course, that Cox fought a bitter, losing battle, much of it covered in the magazine, to prevent this “overbuilder” from building a competitive network. In truth, most of the need to repair its relationship in Lafayette was NOT due to our “parochial” nature but to Cox’s many blunders during the fiber fight—the first and most serious of those blunders being to oppose the clearly stated desires of the community for a fiber network. Vines is blowing a bit of smoke in implying to her fellows that their fiber was similar to LUS’. It isn’t of course; fiber “in” the network is universal–both AT&T and Cox have fiber cores–and so will LUS. What makes a network a fiber network in the usual usage is that it takes fiber all the way to the home. That is what Lafayette fought for and the people here understand (correctly) that that is what “fiber network” means. Changing the description of your network from HFC to “fiber” in order to pretend that it is the same as what LUS will be offering is a continuation of the deceptive tactics Cox used during the fiber fight. If Cox really wants to repair its relationship with Lafayette ceasing its attempts to mislead us would make a better start than helping pay for Chamber diners or being a sponsor of Festival Internationale.

There are other interesting bits of insight scattered through the article. Take a look for yourself if you are a connoisseur of all things telecom in Lafayette.

One final bit of fun: The story reveals that Jaqui Vines, the new head of the “Greater Louisiana” section is a Ray Nagin protege. Yes, the same Ray Nagin that is mayor of New Orleans and was General Manager of Cox New Orleans. He hired her away from Time-Warner during his tenure in the New Orleans’ Cox system. It’s a small world down here. Sometimes it is a bit “parochial” down here in the sense that personal relationships do count…at least who Jaqui Vines knew proved helpful.