Championing Fiber—And Our Advantage

1012 Corridor, a regional business mag run by Baton Rouge’s Business Report has a rather late recap of the April Fiber Fete here in Lafayette. The news, such as it is, centers around the revelation that the organizers are now characterizing it as the “first annual” fiber fete and that an ancillary group “FiberCorps” is being formed that ogranizer Daily says is:

 “an entity that can coordinate the people and resources of Lafayette to work toward the common goal of being the Hub City for fiber-powered innovation.”

The story closes with a worth-repeating quote that emphasized maintaining the momentum Lafayette has now:

“Right now, Lafayette has the attention of the outside world, and I think a good goal would be, by the start of next year, to have made a whole lot of progress.”

The question is: What sort of progress?

It’d be good to see a second event and good to see a community support organization—though I have to say that one that supports only for-profit business forms of “innovation” would be show a massive lack of imagination about what is possible for a community-owned fiber network. The real value, the unique value, of a powerful, affordable network that runs past every home and corner grocery lies in those many homes and micro businesses. We’d be smart to compete in areas in which we have a clear and sustainable advantage—and not for businesses that could be developed in any decently-appointed business park in this country. I’ve no objection to devoting some resources to big blue-sky business projects and even more energy to encouraging private investment in private businesses that utilize our resources. But I do think that the real value lies in the fact that we are well on our way to providing the resources of that enable a top-notch business park to even the least well-appointed neighborhood in our city. Why not build the sorts of resources on top of our network that you see in those “incubators?” Big bandwidth is a nice start. Community WiFi at full speed? Shared supercomputing resources? Shared storage? A streaming video server? A server with free cloud services like Google’s Apps?

What would a community look like if it didn’t take thousands and thousands of dollars to use the tools that are now restricted to large businesses and college campus but would instead be available to all for a cheap, shared price?

Nobody knows, of course. But then again almost nobody else has the basic resource of a community network upon which to build these new sorts of community infrastructure.

But we do.

And that is our advantage.

“Cox gives laptops to eighth-graders”

Kudos to Cox. This morning’s Advocate reports on Cox’s latest effort to address the digital divide and offers a brief overview of continuing efforts in Lafayette to address the issue.

The company announced Thursday that it will donate 350 Dell netbooks to select eighth-graders who have no access to the Internet at home. The donation also includes free home Internet service for a year.

This isn’t Cox’s first donation—they did something very similar back in ’08 supporting The Early College Academy. This time through:

[Cox] will donate 350 Dell netbooks to select eighth-graders who have no access to the Internet at home. The donation also includes free home Internet service for a year…

The 350 students will be identified through the district’s GEAR UP program, an early college-awareness program that targets middle-school students.

This initiative resembles a suggestion made late last year by the cable industry. At that point the NCTA—the industry’s support and promotion arm, suggested that a good way to use some of the broadband stimulus money was to support its “A Plus” program; that program was broader but less generous with Cable’s resources. It suggested that:

(1) digital media literacy training; (2) discounted computers that can access the Internet; and (3) discounted home broadband service to households that do not currently receive a broadband service.

Cox is also renewing support for the Boys and Girls Club, this time donating an expansion of their computer lab to the Jackie Club.

These generous donations join other Lafayette-based efforts to ensure equity in accessing the internet. In ’09 Je’Nelle Chagois’ Heritage School put 200 computers into the hands of students at Faulk Elementary. The Heritage School is also a participant in a $5.3 million stimulus grant request with LUS that has a similar, student-based purpose.—A second grant for $3.5 million has LUS and LCG partnering to build and enhance community computer centers that serve a broad range of citizens.

It’s all good stuff. Kudos to Cox on this one.

UPDATE 7/13/10: The Advertiser logs in with a substantially similar story this morning, except theirs doesn’t discuss other Lafayette efforts to bridge the divide…

“Bridging a digital divide”

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

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

Je’Nelle Chargois and the Heritage school:

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

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

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

Walter Guillory and the Housing Authority:

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

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

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

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

Sessil Trepagnier and the Vision Community Services lab:

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

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

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

Sona Dombourian and the Lafayette Parish Library:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

LUS Reveals Long-Term Plans

(Please note: this was first published on April 1st. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the following is simply true and more is actually planned; what isn’t true is credible IMHO…the fun is in figuring out just what the status of each claim is. Might be worth coming back next year.)

LUS has revealed its long-term plans!! Sorta. A daylight savings glitch apparently caused a timed press release to be sent early. (This sort of thing has happened before.)

After a press release dated tomorrow, Friday, showed up in PR inboxes across the city mid-morning calls to LUS and an embarrassed George Graham (from whose office the missive was mailed) confirm its authenticity. The surprise release gives an amazing amount of detail (7 loosely organized pages) about topics the local utility has always deemed “proprietary information.”

Said Huval:

Yes, It’s real…We just decided that since it has become extremely clear that Cox and the Independent’s FOI [Freedom of Information] requests will force us to reveal many details that would remain private were we a privately owned company like Cox or the The Independent we’ve decided to make the best of a bad situation. If we can’t keep our competitors from using and critics from revealing much of our proprietary information we’ve decided that a pre-emptive strike is our best bet. We’ll simply tell our community—our owners—everything we are hoping to do and see what their reaction is. Hopefully we’ll get good feedback that will help us make final decisions. [Pause] Besides most of this stuff is either obvious or nothing Cox or AT&T can do anything about anyway. Why not let the community know?

Huval declined to elaborate on what was meant by “extremely clear.”

Said Graham:

Yes, it’s for real. No, it’s not supposed to have gone out quite yet….the attached pages haven’t been fully edited and organized…that’s pretty much the way it came over from LUS and our writers haven’t much of a chance to whip it into shape. There’ll be a better version this evening. The thing was on automatic send for tomorrow. There’s some sort of time glitch in Outlook that’s in the news this morning…our IT intern is supposed to be on it. I’m not a happy camper.

The pages are pretty much a mess…. But the substance is pretty visionary. No need for LPF’s reporting to wait till the evening. If we can get even half this stuff done….well…. I’m impressed.

On to the good stuff as I see it; extracted from the PDF, organized into my categories:

Major points:
LUS is planning a set of hardware upgrades to the network

  1. The local backbone electronics are being upgraded to 10 Gbps as we speak. [This is about 2 years earlier than the first electronics upgrade anticipated the business plan.]
  2. New 1 gig-capable CPE equipment [the box on the side of your house] has been ordered and installs done after May 1st will use it; early adopters with 100 meg equipment will be upgraded “according to demand.”
  3. The 100 meg intranet is being upgraded to 1 gig [LUS has always talked, awkwardly, about the intranet as a “full available capacity” feature and this upgrade is consistent with that stance since the CPE was the choke point before…but: wow.]
  4. A 100 meg symmetrical internet connection will be available for retail customers. (100 megs is currently only available in a “business” package though a household is allowed to buy that package if it wishes. Presumably the retail version will be cheaper.)

LUS is upgrading their set top boxes, software and hardware

  1. The software upgrade comes first and is due March 15th.
  2. The plan is to install new MS Media Room software “beginning” on that date. (no hint on whether you’ll have to bring your box in or if an over the network upgrade is possible. Either way expect an uncomfortable transition moment.)
  3. A set top hardware upgrade is planned for August. Upgrades will be available to current “upper tier users on demand.” (Why switch boxes? no hint…)

A WiFi network will extend the fiber. This has long been in the plan, both Terry Huval and Joey Durel have stated their intent in public forums but no concrete plan has emerged before today.

  1. The network will consist of both public and private “channels.” (Presumeably the “private” channels will serve safety functions — there’s been a lot of discussion of GPS costs on the council recently and this would be a very cheap way to address location issues inside Lafayette.)
  2. The public side will exclusively use 802.11N and will be offered on a “best effort” basis
  3. 1 meg of symmetrical wireless service will be offered to everyone on a “guest” basis.
  4. Subscribers to internet service get free “best effort” service. (WiFi N is rated as high as 600 Mbit/s ( but I doubt we’ll see such speed—but 50 or a 100 wouldn’t be impossible considering LUS’ rejection of the bandwidth-sapping mesh architectures that hobble most muni networks.)
  5. Probably associated with the wireless issue: “The CPE [Customer Premise Equipment] will equipped with a wireless repeater node.” (I’m not sure I fully understand that but I’m pretty sure I like it.)
  6. Cellular interoperability for “select” WiFi phones from “a major carrier.” (?)

Digital Divide/ Digital Inclusion, the one sheet devoted to this and is in a different format for what that is worth. Digtial divide and digital inclusion are used interchangeably, possibly this is the beginning of the Graham Groups rewrite…digital inclusion is the newer term.

  1. There will be a comprehensive DD/DI program whether or not the current application for a stimulus grant is won. That is, support for community computer centers is planned for a “slower rollout” if the grant bid fails.
  2. The WiFi node in the new CPE is cited as part of this.
  3. The new set top box is also mentioned in this regard. Apparently it has on-box memory that is regarded as necessary to use this box as a “fully functional” web browser. (The current WAP-based browser in the set top box, while innovative, is simply not practically useable.)
  4. The free 1 meg of wifi to all is mentioned again on this page.
  5. Discussion of supporting “NAD’s” seems to refer mainly to smartphones and perhaps to the new iPad and recent netbooks. (Network Attached Devices is an odd generic term to use and may refer to a recent LWV study and other local mention.)

Things I don’t understand….
Well, there’s actually plenty I’m not sure I understand; the doc could use a lot of clean-up. I’ve tried to stick to reporting stuff that made sense to me. The upcoming release of a cleaned-up version should help a lot.

  1. There’s stuff in there about a media server and AOC that are opaque to me… also stuff about VLANs and remote access to the same. (I need to do some research to get into this.) AOC is also mentioned in reference to support for its “new location” (?) and server space in the front-end for “multi-format web-based VOD.” (again ?)
  2. There’s stuff about cloud computing, standardizing access protocols, and “supporting” a unified data access categories “scheme” that probably means something to some readers but doesn’t to me. (help?)
  3. Interoperability & “widgets:” A lot of emphasis throughout the doc is placed on interoperability and widget-based interfaces. APIs are mentioned that would support incoming phone calls on the TV, Caller ID, remote login to video recording features, etc. The Media Room product supports some light programming so apparently the idea is to allow local 3rd party developers access to some (but not all) of the hooks.

Ok folks, that’s a lot to digest. A dream-list. I presume they’re not wedded to it all and Huval explicitly asked for input from the community. What do you really want LUS to get behind?

There’s NOT an App for That…

But if you write a good one you could win $100,000

A digital inclusion App that is…

The FCC and the Knight Foundation are teaming up to offer an “Apps for Inclusion Challenge” that asks:

technology innovators to review government and community services and develop tools that will improve lives by making it easier for citizens to receive these services through mobile and online applications.

For the FCC’s part—they are interested in increasing the rate of broadband adoption in “lagging” sectors and see potential in useful apps for achieving that goal.

The Knight Foundation is fronting the money. Details are not yet available but the Knight Foundation suggests that they’ve got three core beliefs that this challenge would serve:

First, our ideal of informed, engaged communities; second, our conviction that universal broadband is key to achieving this ideal; and third, our deep interest in using new approaches to connect with innovators.

The inclusion of mobile platforms and highlighting it with the allusion to “Apps” is probably pretty good policy. Recent research shows that more of the poor and minority populations that are lagging in net connection are adopting wireless devices more rapidly than the rest of the population…mobile’s probably a pretty good target.

There’s been a recent push in Lafayette to get more governmental data available online. We’ve even got a placeholder location for hosting data in an accessible form. Some places, like San Francisco, are a bit further along in having its data available in a form developers find useful. It’d be a neat project for somebody—or some civic-minded group of geeks. I’d sure like to have a version for the Lafayette Commons’ gadget page….


“City seeking $9.2 million in stimulus grants to address digital divide”

The Independent blog reports that LUS and LCG have submitted a pair of stimulus funding grant applications worth 9.2 million dollars that are directed at reducing Lafayette’s digital divide. This has been a central issue in Lafayette for a long time and this is the first attempt to move beyond lower prices for better services as a way to close that divide. (See LPF digital divide coverage—LPF also offered some background on this grant application back in February when the authorizing ordinance was proposed.) The Library, the Housing Authority and Je’Nelle Chargois’ Heritage School of the Arts and Technology are also partners. The grant money would come from the second round of BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunity Program) stimulus grants. LUS won a first round stimulus grant for its smart grid program back in February.

BTOP provides separate programs to fund broadband infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption projects. These two applications are for the computer center and the sustainable broadband adoption sections.

The coalition has applied for $3.9 millon to build out or expand public computer centers in the library, senior centers, and the Housing Authority. The money will be spent on new computers and personnel.

The second grant is focused on “sustainable broadband adoption.” That’s bureaucratese for finding ways to help folks who are not currently getting service or who underutilize service available to get up to speed. That one is worth $5.3 million and:

would go toward 55 direct or indirect jobs in providing 35,000 hours of computer training and 1,000 new PCs, as well as pay for two-year subscriptions to high speed Internet through LUS Fiber for graduates of the program.

Details on the plans for the training program would be very interesting.

The Independent is also the first local news source outside this blog to mention the community broadband survey that will be providing supporting evidence for this grant. Hopefully we will soon see the release of the study and the supporting dataset.

LUS/Lafayette to apply for more stimulus funds

LUS received permission from the City-Parish Council to apply for “BTOP” stimulus funding in a special meeting held after Wednesday’s Council session. You can take a gander at the meeting minutes or view it on at UStream online (@ 1:54)

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) is part of the ongoing federal recovery stimulus funding. BTOP provides grants to fund broadband infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption projects. LUS won’t need to apply for infrastructure—that’s something we’ve already done for ourselves—so the focus of Lafayette’s grant application will likely be in the area of community computing centers and sustainable broadband.

This new application follows the success of LUS’ application in the first round of stimulus funding for which it received $11,630,000 dollars to build a smart grid addition to its electrical and water departments. An attempt to add a computer center component to that earlier application was dropped; reportedly because there wasn’t enough time to get it together and because there was trouble finding community institutions that could promise to sustain the new centers once the initial grant funding ran out.

The new effort, according to Terry Huval, LUS director, looks for locations already available within the Lafayette Consolidated Government such as those already available at library locations in public centers and space within public housing authority sites. It will also look at providing computers and network access to at-risk youth in underserved areas of the city. (Grant guidance for both computer centers and sustainability grants can be found online for those interested in thinking about the possibilities.)

During the brief council meeting at which the enabling ordinance was passed Councilman Theriot raised the question of the matching funds that the community would have to provide should this grant be won. Huval said that the grant was being designed so that the 20% match would be achieved by LUS’ in-kind donations of bandwidth and connectivity. In discussion Councilman Bertrand and Huval raised the point that the city’s investment in its fiber to the home network could be used to leverage federal money to help us “do some good things for our community.”

Doing this right could help fulfill the promise that public ownership of the network could be used to help close the digital divide in Lafayette.

“LUS: Fiber schedule, meetings, software and more

Who DAT! You Dat! 🙂
If you’re recovering from Saints fever I have just the antidote. A long post on the latest in Lafayette’s fiber fortunes. If you’re starting to think that maybe anything is possible, well, read on.

Amanda McElfresh over at the Advertiser has an article up that apparently derives from following up remarks made by Joey Durel in his state of the city-parish address. In that speech (video) Durel devoted a fair amount of his time to touting the LUS Fiber network (@ minute 8:00). He revealed publicly what had been widely rumored locally: LUS Fiber was far ahead of schedule, and that the city-wide availability was expected by July, 18 months into a 24 month schedule. Durel linked the completion of the network to a series of meetings meant to engage the community with discussing what the “fiber-powered future” could look like.

Discussing that Fiber-Powered Future
As long time readers and friends will recall the general idea that Lafayette’s people need to get involved meetings that would shape the future of the new network is something I’ve long advocated. Both here and and in various community groups like Lafayette Coming Together and the League of Women Voters. So the ears pricked up at the idea that the City-Parish President would be promoting a series of meetings to look at our fiber utility and the future of our city.

The first item on Durel’s list of community meetings is “campfiber” a series, according to Durel, of “participant-driven conferences will be opportunities for local innovators to share their projects, get feedback from the community and for everybody to discuss their fiber-powered future.” There have been several CampFiber meetings already (LPF coverage) and to date they’ve been strongly oriented toward software developers as participants and not toward public response or discussion. If they are to serve the purpose Durel describes they’ll have to change. Engaging the imagination of the technology-types is crucial, of course—they’ve got more to dream with—but two other groups will be needed as well: the public and LCG/LUS. Both are crucial to a worthwhile discussion. The need for public involvement is obvious. But just as critical is a fully engaged LCG administration and LUS. LUS and the administration did attend and engage at the first campfiber. But in the end that participation seemed mostly defensive; real progress here will require the developer and the larger community be given more information with which to work. Two useful models occur to this writer: bring together distinct community groups beyond developers—nonprofits, church, medical, educational, creatives, small business, and neighborhoods all come to mind and ask them what a community-owned network could do for their sectors. (The Lafayette League of Women Voters has held the prototype of this model in two meetings involving nonprofits and community service organizations with fair success.) The other angle would be to organize around specific elements of the new system…for example: channel selection, internet storage, TV-phone integration, TV-internet integration, or set-top box uses (I can guarantee interest in the set top box.) For CampFiber meetings to engage the community will require focus and commitment from LUS and LCG.

The other item on Durel’s list of meetings was Fiber Fete (website) which he described as designed to “bring experts from around the world to Lafayette to meet with local innovators to discuss what our fiber future looks like and plan on how to get to there from here.” I’ve talked with the organizers—David Isenberg and Geoff Daily—and sit on what passes for the local board. The quote from Durel is just about the current extent of the planning; it is only now getting into any concrete planning. I’ve pushed for a more consistently social approach and for bring in speakers who are prepared to speak about how technology can be part of making communities stronger and people within them more active and powerful participants. Too many “visionary” tech conferences are trapped by the amazing technical wizardry and raw possibility of new technologies. Others go beyond that narrow vision only to focus solely on the business potential of these same technologies. While both of those motives are proper enough in their place that is not what a new community network needs and I’d hate to see
Fiber Fete captured by such limited visions. What’s needed is a sense of how powerful communications technologies can be leveraged to create a stronger community and a more active and informed citizenry. (I am aware of the irony of suggesting that at a moment when deconsolidation is the talk of the town.) Having David Isenberg as one of the chief organizers gives me considerable hope that we might actually be able to accomplish this. His Freedom To Connect Conferences (F2C) are directly about promoting the idea that ensuring that we can freely connect to one another over the new network is the modern equivalent of freedom of assembly and free speech…That, rather than technical gee-whizary, is the right starting point for Lafayette and its people (not merely its “innovators”) to start their thinking about a the responsibilities of a community-owned network.

For any of these public meetings to be useful rather than ornamental they’ll have to involve more than the usual crowd labeled “innovators” — they’ll need to involve a real cross-section of the community’s most active citizens and the sense that LUS and LCG are open to sharing the information the community needs to assess what the network can accomplish and the sense that their conclusions will matter after the conference closes. That’s a tall order. But it’s one worth striving for.

The Rest of the Story
But Sunday’s report had a lot of fiber news beyond the revelation of an early completion date and the prospect of public meetings. The new customer service center that we’ve heard about for so long is now scheduled to open by June. Says LUS’ Huval:

a customer service center set to open at the corner of Pinhook and Kaliste Saloom roads by June. The building will include samples of LUS Fiber products, and will also be equipped to handle the needs of utilities customers, thus freeing up some of the gridlock at the customer service center at City Hall.

That will coincide with the completion of the network and, hopefully, a more vigorous public relations campaign promoting the new network.

Huval continues to be coy about adoption rates but says that “many” thousands have joined up. I’ve talked to friends who talk about most of their block or street moving over. I can’t say that of my northside neighborhood and suspect that take rates are a very local phenomena at this early moment.

What should be welcome news was the declaration that LUS Fiber is going to be going through its first major upgrade. Again, from Terry Huval:

“It’s tied to the set-top boxes and enhanced DVR services,” he said. “It was a technology that was not completely ready for us to use when we deployed our system, and it’s something that’s not costly to us.”

The software used on the Motorola boxes just isn’t very good…it’s older and the interface is a pain to use. So I don’t use it. Now I am an interface nerd of sorts and also refused to use Cox’s set top box software. With both LUS and Cox I have done most of my TV watching via the two old TiVo’s that sit precariously perched on a rickity table by the widescreen. My understanding is that the new software will be an iteration of Microsofts’ Media Room. That software package has been used by Verizon in its FiOS FTTH build out in the northeast. Verizon also uses the same family of Microsoft set top boxes that LUS has purchased so it should be a fairly mature implementation and full-featured platform. It will also be a much easier basis on which to build extended services than the Alcatel-supplied software currently in use. Heck it might even be usable.

A real concern has to be the internet capability which was the bright spot in the less-than-stellar Alcatel software. That feature is a great idea but its current reliance on a WAP-based browser both limits its practical utility and makes it extremely dificult to use. That capacity exists in the set top box and represents LUS’ most innovative attempt to date to bridge the digital divide in Lafayette. It should be possible to utilize it on Mircrosoft’s software–after all media room for the PC allows for internet connections. If it is not baked in developing a real net connection would make a great contest with which to involve local developers.

Acadiana “Program aiming at tech gap”

If you missed the story Je’Nelle Chargois and her computer rebuilding project then you need to take a look at the story in the Advocate. The project exemplifies all those grassroots, community-driven public/private ideals you hear about so often—and so seldom see in full-blown action. Here’s the gist of the story; one that will hopefully drive you to read the whole thing—and maybe even contribute to the project at hand or start one yourself:

Through a partnership between community organizations and local businesses, at least 200 computers will be placed in the homes of Faulk students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the technology outside of the classroom.

“We’re trying to close the digital divide and give them to the tools to compete,” said Je’Nelle Chargois, manager of KJCB radio and coordinator of the Heritage School of the Arts and Technology, partners in the project.

The group has worked with the school to match 137 students with computers. By next month, the group will have reached its goal of placing 200 computers, Chargois said.

The computers have been donated by area companies and, as needed, refurbished by volunteer computer technicians.

Those students who receive a computer and their parents must attend computer literacy workshops. The parents also agree to get more involved at Faulk.

There’s more, of course; there’s a neighborhood center involved, Vision Community Services, founded by Sessil Trepagnier, a computer analyst with Halliburton. I’ve worked with Je’Nelle briefly on a rebuilding project a couple of years back and can testify that she’s devoted to doing this right.

If this sort of thing interests you and you think you’d like to help out or do something similar I’ve got a meeting you might want to attend: the League of Women Voters of Lafayette is bring together a group of folks who have previously expressed an interest in starting projects in Lafayette concerning both computer rebuilding and community computer centers. That meeting is next Monday, Jan. 25th at 5:30 at AOC (Main at Lee downtown). Both Sessil and Je’Nelle will speak as will a number of others ranging from League membe Thetis Cusimano reporting on research on current community center resources done by League members to Sona Dombourian of the Lafayette Library.