The Year in Review

The Year In Review @ LafayetteProFiber

2007 was the year Lafayette’s fiber project emerged from the wilderness and people began to dream in earnest. The final delaying lawsuit was dismissed, the bonds sold, and contracts let for construction. Dreams followed the announcement of intriguing new features like a wireless addition and the 100 megs of intranet bandwidth and people began to dream of what we might do with it it to close the digital divide or provide new ways to strengthen the community.

At the year’s beginning we were still awaiting a decision from the State Supreme Court on the last lawsuit holding up the bond sale. The Fiber to the Schools project advanced, ensuring a parish-wide fiber backbone and early hints of a wireless project were realized when LUS put out a bid for a municipal wireless network — one initially designed to provide government services. The competition was clearly still out there as Cox introduced Video On Demand, upping the ante on what Lafayette’s network needed to provide in its initial offerings.

In early February Durel’s “State of the City” address lauded the fiber build but failed to slake our appetite for new news on the wireless component. The Advertiser’s attempt to move into an internet-centric future advanced in fits and starts but it emerged with arguably the best local video site in town, far outclassing the efforts of the local TV stations and proving that with the construction of new net-based infrastructure the race will not necessarily go to the established incumbents. An attempt to resuscitate the breathless prose of the fiber fight fell flat at the Advertiser as a story about the cost of defending ourselves against the incumbents produced no discernible ripple of concern from a populace immunized against such sensationalism by the long fiber battle.

Late in the month, after weeks of waiting, came the Supreme Court decision we’d been waiting—and hoping—for. The Court unanimously overturned the 3rd Circuit’s ruling and pretty roundly spanked them for their mistakes in letting the argument go on for so long. The final victory for Lafayette was widely heralded as one that would have consequences in locales beyond Lafayette or Louisiana. Cox, after years of vigorous attempts to delay or destroy the project, testily denied that it made any difference to them. Dreaming about what we could do with the shiny new toy starts almost immediately and LUS announced plans to solicit ideas from the community.

The first, and in retrospect apparently last, of the Fiber Forums is held and the community had plenty of ideas. (Cox and AT&T also attended and took conspicuously copious notes.) If nothing else the forum demonstrated that the LUS understood that a generous attitude will pay unanticipated dividends. And that simple insight is one which will do more to make the system a success than any elaborate business plan. Wireless hopes, big intranet bandwidth, symmetrical speeds and more were all promised and their implications discussed.

An old issue, the digital divide, returned, Lafayette was named a “Smart Community,” and the first high paying jobs attracted by the fiber arrived. LUS started to spend visible money on the networks construction, selecting a design firm to lay out plans for the headend building that would house the electronics and for a warehouse to store the masses of equipment that would be needed in the construction phase.

April brought a shower of small advances. The Digital Divide Committee was reconvened, the location of the headend facility at the intersection of I-10 and I-49 was set, and an engineer to oversee the construction and help make crucial decisions was chosen.

March brought a reblooming of the old FUD tactics from the incumbent corporations. Cox kicked off the festival with an embarrassing attempt to pretend its hybrid fiber-coax network was a fiber network in a venue where everyone knew better. Just a bit later we got a whiff of old push poll tactics when a new, apparently limited version was trialed in Lafayette. Then Naquin’s (AT&T’s PR team?) attorneys carried water for the incumbents by engaging in a rather transparently false threat to sue LUS just a week before the city went to New York to interview for the crucial bond ratings.

As the seasons turned Huval went to Councilor William’s “Real Talk” and talked—about the retail wireless plans, about a faster construction schedule, about a larger basic cable lineup than anticipated, about internet speeds where the slowest package would be faster than the fastest speeds available in most of the country. Oh yeah, and symmetrical bandwidth coupled with a 100 meg intranet. Enough to leave the most ardent proponent breathless. Lafayette Pro Fiber floated a dream about a “Lafayette Commons” that would take our commonly owned network and use it to make a place to share local information build community.

The bond sale was authorized and the bonds were put on the market. The first unit sold solidified the legal standing of the entire business plan since bond holders are constitutionally protected from any change in the plan no future legal challenges to the basic plan can be successful.

In July LUS’ Huval was honored by his national peers—he was both given an achievement award and made the chairman of the board of the American Public Power Association. The success of the fiber fight clearly raised his stock nationally as well as locally. The bond sale closed; meaning the money was in the bank and available to spend. The newly hired engineer’s men were in the field surveying poles—making sure there was plenty of room for the fiber to be hung.

Joey Durel took over leadership of the Louisiana Municipal and pledged to work “to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress.” Among other things, that probably referred to the infamous imposition by the legislature of the (un)Fair Competition Act. An LMA with aware leadership will fight such laws. The City-Parish Council approved the fiber funding plan. Dreaming about what might well turn out to be the nation’s best telecom system continued apace and a new Digital Divide report was made to the council.

Another small media tempest erupted as the kids headed back to school. The headend building came in way over budget and LUS had to scale back and issue a new set of specs to keep its price under control. The headend was one in a series of public projects whose price spiraled upwards in the wake of Lafayette’s post-Katrina/Rita building boom.

Cox fired its most effective shot yet across the bow of LUS by securing a long-term contract with ULL athletics for exclusive rights to telecast replays of coaches programs, sporting events and university athletic programs on its cable systems—and we can rest assured they’ll not be reselling such valuable material to the local opposition. For ULL fans this is a very big deal—such deals have lead to a lot of fan anger on both coasts where such deals are more common.

The Advertiser endorsed the dreams of bridging the digital divide in a supportive editorial and Huval spoke up on Federal broadband policy in his role of APPA chair saying plainly that the incumbent telecom corporations had failed American in spite of massive subsidies and called for letting “the public sector take the reins in communities where citizens want them to do so.”

Dreaming of a better wireless network provided a bit of fun in October. The surprise announcement that LUS would imitate Apple and open its own “fiber storefront” to educate and promote the brand was greeted with approval. And the construction news rolled on with Alcatel being picked to provide the electronic guts of Lafayette’s new system.

LUS signed a franchise agreement with the city-parish that was virtually a copy of Cox’s and immediately tried to reassure folks during its approval that the agreement wasn’t nearly all they hoped to provide the community. One of the few areas where LUS laid out a plan in their franchise agreement for going beyond what Cox had already done was in its support of AOC, the local access channel. That touched of some dreaming about what a 21st century AOC might really look like. Mike weighed in with some dreams about an asynchronous Lafayette in which AOC or a surrogate would play a major role.

If history repeated itself with the franchise agreement, an awareness of the recent fiber battle seemed completely missing from the minds of some candidates for the state representative seats up for grabs this year. Let’s hope their more aware colleagues educate them as to what a successful telecommunications utility could mean for the hopes and dreams of their community.

As the year wound down toward the holiday season the bid on the revamped fiber headend was accepted and the crews were spotted in a North Lafayette neighborhood moving wires on poles in preparation for hanging fiber.

The future is upon us. Since the plan is to light up a section of the city somewhere near the first of the coming year, with any luck next year’s edition of this missive will be able to say that fiber has been lit up in Lafayette and that we no longer need to wait for the future.

It’s a new year indeed.

$200 PC Available in Lafayette

A Wired blog sez that a $200 Ubuntu Linux PC, sans monitor is now available in Lafayette.

Cool. And it’s especially great for Lafayette.

Why great for Lafayette?

This computer and its software packages come very close to being exactly the computer that the Lafayette Digital Divide Committee recommended in the “Bridging the Digital Divide” document.

That study, which became official policy when it was made an ordinance by the city-parish council, recommended a mix of low cost computers, free open source software, and a local portal/server that leveraged the intranet bandwidth the committee recommended LUS make available to its customers. Let’s take a look at how that has played out:

The key, and hardest, part of that equation was securing the use of full intranet bandwidth—when the committee first recommended Lafayette adopt that policy there was real doubt that it was technically feasible. In short order such doubt was dispelled. Since that time LUS and the city-parish has fully committed to providing at least 100 megs of intranet bandwidth to every user regardless of how much they spend for internet connectivity. Huval and LUS call this “peer to peer bandwidth.” With 100 megs locally available to all users a rich local portal and aggressive use of server-based applications becomes possible. Since much of the computing and handling of large quantities of data can be handled on the network rather than in the users personal computer much less powerful—and hence less expensive—computers can be used.

That brings us back to the subject of todays post: Everex’s TC2502 gPC computer. This ‘puter is available through WalMart for $200 dollars and Wired’s blog carries of list of locations that will stock it that include Lafayette. It is also available over the net from WalMart’s online store. It is sold without a monitor but includes mouse, keyboard and a set of speakers. The desktop computer runs a variant of the free Ubuntu Linux operating system called gOS. Also free is a list of installed open source software including OpenOffice, Firefox web browser, Meebo IM, and Skype, GIMP photo software, the Xing DVD and video player, and Rhythmbox music management software. Even more interesting for local digital divide promoters is that it includes icons linking to Google applications like Mail, Documents, Spreadsheets, Calendar, News, and Maps.

Between LUS’ solid commitment to lower prices for connectivity (which is now more important than computer cost as a barrier to adoption) Google’s online apps, and the emergence of commercially available, low-cost, open source computers like this Everex, the pieces are falling in place for Lafayette to have a digital divide program that will be as unique as the system itself.

LUS-Alcatel Deal in the News

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

From the Advertiser:

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

From the Advocate:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcatel to provide LUS’ Electronics

Alcatel-Lucent will provide the electronic guts for Lafayette’s FTTH project. The deal was announced at a press conference this morning at City Hall. (Pic at right from left to right: Huval, Durel, and the Alcatel rep.)

Huval, Durel, and the man from Alcatel made short remarks and took questions from the press.

Durel’s remarks touted the potential of the system. He emphasized that technologies that were not practically available just a few years ago are being integrated into the system. One element of that was the 100 meg intranet “peer to peer” network that all citizens, regardless of the amount they can afford to pay for their connection to the outside world, will share. As a consequence, Durel says, the network will be able to “spur the creativity” of Lafayette’s people. Children in the poorest sections of town, paying the least amount of money, will have the same access within Lafayette itself, as those in the wealthiest parts of town will have. And both will have capacities that no one will have elsewhere. That’s something to look forward to. He’s clearly proud of the system saying that Lafayette will be the most connected town in the states–especially if the state can be convinced to tie in LONI and LITE.

Huval’s comments were, as one might expect, more technical. He emphasized the peer to peer (intranet) bandwidth, the IPTV aspects, HD streams for every room in the house, “customized video,” the ability of the box that hangs on your house to handle as much as 200 megs of service and the advanced (though unspecified) capacities that Alcatel brings to the table. In response to questions Huval said that the wireless network would follow the fiber and that doing it in that way would make the wireless portion of the network much more robust. Fiber, he said, is “the fundamental infrastructure to support wireless.” Huval also emphasized a point that he’s made repeatedly: the network will support both old style black rotary telephones and hypermodern VOIP phone integration. You’ll be able to plug in that old black and white TV and use it for basic cable without a settop box. Or you’ll be able to move yourself entirely to IPTV interaction and video downloads. This network will cover the entire range of possible products.

Digital Divide advocates will be interested to know that Durel made a glancing remark about being able to do things in that department that will be impossible elsewhere and with Councilman Chris Williams—who had made the question central to his support of the project— standing in the background I briefly thought things were gearing up for an announcement but none was immediately forthcoming. Hmmmn.

Excerpts from the press release:

City-Parish President Joey Durel and Lafayette Utilities System today announced the selection of Alcatel-Lucent to provide critical components for the Fiber-to-The-Home project now under way. The company was one of six vying for the LUS project. After reviewing the bids, a panel comprised of LUS officials and representatives from Atlantic Engineering Group, CCG Consulting and RW Beck decided that Alcatel-Lucent was best suited for the project. The deal is contingent upon final contract terms...

Alcatel-Lucent remains the uncontested market leader in broadband access with more than 142 million DSL lines shipped and a cumulative market share of 41 percent, more than three times that of its nearest competitor. More than 165 customers have adopted the ISAM product family – the industry’s first true high-end IP access platform that accommodates a wide range of network flavors and topologies. Alcatel-Lucent is engaged in more than 65 FTTx projects around the world, more than 35 of which are with GPON. “We have witnessed the capabilities of this company and have seen for ourselves the quality of their products and services,” added Joey Durel, Lafayette City-Parish President…

Alcatel-Lucent’s FTTH components will provide cable, phone, Internet and a broad range of features, from features like a standard cable connection for Advanced Basic and Basic services, to state-of-the-art Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) with flexible and advanced aspects previously unimaginable in Lafayette. The system will also be capable of 100 Mbps peer-to-peer communications in addition to several levels of Internet access, traditional phone services as well as the newer Voice over IP service. The system will be scalable to allow for future growth to accommodate advanced services as they are developed.

Besides the before-the-camera representatives of the project the event was also attended by the technical and support staff from LUS. At the end of the presentation there was a round of applause; applause, I’d like to think, that was for them. It’s been a long slog for those doing the nitty-gritty work of getting this project underway.

I’ll go dig around and see what I can see about the Alcatel family of equipment but today is a momentous day: The electronics define what will be available to us and with the letting of this contract that is all starting to shape. We should soon be able to figure out what our network will look like. (And yes, it would be nice if LUS would just tell us and be a little less cautious about talking about things…)

Sun’s McNealy Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public-Private-University: The Reality & the Potential

A report from the Advertiser presents an overview of the speakers on “technology and knowledge economy” at a Chamber breakfast at the Petroleum Club (a location redolent of the old rather than the new economy). The Advertiser’s Bob Moser leads with the money qoute:

Lafayette has put itself in a great position to lead the future “technology and knowledge economy,” a Mississippi economic leader told a local business crowd on Thursday.

Randall Goldsmith, head of the Mississippi Technology Alliance, was the leadoff in a session that also featured Lafayette’s Ramesh Kolluru, Keith Thibodeaux, and Doug Menefee.

The Reality
I was pleased to see some positive discussion of the essential role of the University in any hope Lafayette business might have of riding the technology wave. Not mincing words: I am often appalled at the dismissive attitude that I find pervasive in the Lafayette business community regarding the role of ULL as the engine of tech growth. Put plainly, without ULL there would be not tech be a sector in Lafayette. There is no hope of staying ahead of the curve without the academics. They are the essential players. It really is that simple and a Chamber breakfast that seems to treat that as a given is a great relief.

LONI and LITE were apparently the focus of discussion and both, of course, are academic ventures. (Again: without ULL neither could exist—and more pointedly neither would have even been conceived.) LITE will need careful, tolerant, encouragement from the local community. It is a new concept and is a tool rather than a product to boot; as such it so will take time to develop its niche. (Impatient parties should review the rocky early history of Baton Rouge’s Pennington Biomedical Center and consider what the consequence would have been if Baton Rouge’s business leaders had demanded immediate, local payback in terms of focusing on fostering old-style local private medical practices and hospitals in Greater Baton Rouge. —It would have destroyed what has become an outstanding world-class asset.) In a similar vein LONI—and its connections to Internet2/LamdaRail, are all fundamentally academic interconnects. It is a creature which, will benefit a larger community but not something that would exist as an asset for Louisiana or Lafayette if it hadn’t been created by the Universities.

It goes without saying, or should, that without the private and governmental sectors actively and passionately involved the possibilities that ULL offers the community cannot be realized. They, too, are essential. But no one should mistake the reality: while a strong business community and a wise government are central to Lafayette’s growth they could not create the resource that is represented by ULL; they could, however, fail to take advantage of it.

Oddly in my view, the “technology and knowledge economy” event did not include a focus on the most significant (academic or non-academic) initiative in the city—and arguably the very one that will have the greatest immediate impact on the ability of Chamber members to compete from a position on the high ground with their national and international opposition: the LUS Fiber project. That project will provide a ground-breaking 100 or more megs of intranet connection to every citizen who signs on—and that could easily be 50 or more percent of the market. Young and old, poor and rich, white and black, Creole, Cajun, French, and Americain. It will be coupled with a state-of the art wireless network that will actually work. It will all be available in the least expensive parts of the city to large, small, tiny entrepreneurs and regular folks who, if they so chose to grasp it, will have bandwidth previously available only in to mega corps and university campuses. What will we do with all that? Who knows? But rest assured that the vacuum will be filled. Why no mention? What’s up with that sort of blind spot?…The really interesting discussion would have been of how to leverage this uniquely Lafayette convergence of the muscle of private initiative, municipal community-mindedness, and the restless exploratory energy of Academia to benefit the community.

The Potential
It would be pretty easy to imagine a research project that encourages ULL professors to develop an expertise in the popular use of really large bandwidth. It would involve both social and technical research and would draw in artists, playwrights, and mulitmedia folks of all strips in testing content. It’s the sort of research project with tentacles into every department that a first-rank research 1 University would salivate over. But none of them have the essential resource. Consider: Lafayette will shortly have more bandwidth in the hands of a larger number of people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and incomes than any place in the country. It is going to be the richest feedbed of data imaginable for next generation theorizing and practice in disciplines ranging from networking to interface design; from multimedia art to interactive theater. Properly designed and funded such a program would attract top-notch, ground-breaking young scholars to ULL in numbers sufficient to make the university a national center in a field of interdisciplinary studies it, and Lafayette, could create.

An element in making such a push credible to an outside world that sees Louisiana through the lens of the White Citizens Council and the Jena 6 would be a real digital divide initiative and a strong, community-backed program to encourage every citizen to make the fullest possible use of the potential of the new network. With public, private, and university backing Lafayette could find itself among the Austins’ and Research Triangles’ of the US: places where people come and want to stay in order to build something special that they could build nowhere else. Dell Computer is an engine in Austin (and the US) becaue a student wanted to earn some extra cash and explore what he’d learned in school and for very little other substantial reason. That Hollywood is all but synonymous with riches worldwide is not due to any natural advantage but to an accident of history.

We could create such an accident here.

The real potential of such an open collaboration between the public, private, and university sectors would be in the spin-offs, the Dells, the Steve Jobs—the companies marketing the “inconsequential” by-products of new fields in the form of new services offered by drop-outs and folks who don’t want to leave but have gained new, almost unique skills and put them to productive use. Texas poured its oil revenues into academics and, along the way, into a “far-out” and esoteric “computer science” department back in the days when the internet was a gleam in a researchers eye. An orthodonist’s kid who showed up intending to become a doctor got hooked, got his hands dirty, and decided to drop out to really do this stuff. Dell Computer and a high-tech industry in dusty then-backwater Austin was the payback. That sector alone will return its investment many times long after the last oil is pumped from the sands beneath Texas.

If that strikes you as worthy thing to hope for there are few things you could do. You could support the university and especially its research arms in doing the “far out,” esoteric things they are supposed to do. Hang around and hire the dropouts. Be tolerant of the oddities of those you don’t fully understand. Feed ’em and share the music. Celebrate Mardi Gras. You could support a local survey of Lafayette’s needs to provide all those future researchers a baseline from which to work. You could support LUS fully, regardless of any previous leanings—and say so. You could work to close the digital divide and to bring everyone in our community into full use of the technology we will own.

You could decide the future is worth working for.

“Group Tries to Close the Digitial Divide”

The Advertiser surprises this morning with a story—a good one—on Lafayette’s Digital Divide Project. It’s surprising because there is no particular “event” to hang it on and events are usually requried to make the paper. Instead this is an educational article that straight-forwardly informs the public about that which they should be aware. Education is a too-oft neglected function that legitimates real reporting—good for the daily.

The author interviews Huval and Walter Guillory on the efforts of the Digital Divide Committee. That committee has been quiescent since the referendum battle heated up but before that produced an excellent roadmap for “Bridging the Digital Divide” in our community. (Full disclosure: I am a member of that group.) After the fiber bonds were cleared and the process of building the network gotten underway the committee was reconvened.

The article outlines the roadmap pretty clearly; it gets the goal right:

A committee set up as part of Lafayette Utilities System’s fiber-to-the-home project is moving forward in its efforts to try to provide Internet service to all residents.

That is the point; that and trying to make higher-level, more valuable capacities usably available to the people of Lafayette—to make the city truly “digital” for all.

The paper also focuses attention on what research shows is, hands down, the most effective way to increase participation:

LUS Director Terry Huval said that one major goal of the fiber initiative has been to provide telephone, cable and Internet service for about 20 percent less than what consumers currently pay…”If we offered that ‘triple play’ pricing, a consumer could pay the same for all three services as they pay now for phone and cable.”

Walter Guillory, chairman of the Digital Divide committee, said that with that type of pricing, more residents could use the Internet for personal, business or educational purposes.

Guillory is right….and Huval is right about the target:

“Whatever we do, we want something that could be available to every residential consumer,” Huval said, adding that consumers may be able to pay for the devices over time.

Things are moving to the next level and the list of projects (read work) is growing:

Huval said committee members and LUS are still examining what type of products could be used to help bridge the gap. Among the possibilities are devices that connect to TV sets and laptops that could be sold at a reduced price.

That’s a difficult project all by itself….Computing power is getting cheaper and it’s moving into all sorts of mobile devices—think Blackberries and the iPhone. Laptops originaly designed for 3rd world countries and children are now falling below the 275 dollar mark with a clear target of 100 dollars. (See the OLPC project for the best-known example.) Making wise decisions about what to support and promote is critically important to the future of the community.

More for the to-do list:

  • Make donated or low-cost computers available to qualified customers.
  • Develop community training facilities.
  • Support high-level local products that would reflect local cultures.
  • Provide low-cost or free Web-based programs.
  • Provide CD-based free software for off-line use.
  • I encourage any reader to consider joining up to tackle the job. Lafayette’s advanced network is already slated to be more than mind-numbingly fast and cheap. It will have the unique feature of being configured to give everyone the same, high, at least 100 megs of intranet bandwidth. We’ll all be able to pull things off the local network at speeds limited not by our income but only by the limits of the network itself. And those limits boggle the mind. Lafayette is poised to become the world’s largest big bandwidth community; it could easily have the majority of the population connected at the same internal speed to that enormous pipe. Developers and users will be able to count on that capacity in developing new products and services. No one will have to “dumb-down” their offerings because a large part of the audience has to take their data in little dribs and drabs.

    The major impediment to realize some pretty fantastic dreams (what’s yours?) is simply finding people with the time and energy to further these goals.

    Sign up, for the committee or simply to work on a project. Get in touch with Terry Huval at LUS. Or I’d be happy, more than happy, to talk to anyone about any aspect. (JohnDD(at)

    Make yourself a Widget

    Saturday ToDo

    type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allownetworking=”all” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” data=”” align=”middle” height=”153″ width=”167″>

    Well, this is fun. You should try and make something too. I’ve been tinkering with web gadgets and widgets as a way to implement one of the digitial divide committee’s recommendation that a local content homepage be made available. Mike, knowing my interest, sent me a link to an online gadget factory that I hadn’t heard of and suggested a timer that would countdown to the day the first fiber customer is expected to be served.

    So I went to SpringWidgets and tinkered around on their system.

    Et Voila! Just like that, SpringWidgets mocked me up a very nice one. I’ve set up the target date for the first customer being served as January 1 2009. See how many days, hours, minutes and seconds remain until the fated hour. 🙂

    Feel free to copy this to your system, blog…whatever. Mess with it.

    This coundown timer didn’t take five minutes. I bet you could do much better…if you do send me a copy!

    (Google Gadgets, Yahoo widgets or PageFlakes can be made to do similar and more elaborate things—with more work. WidgetBox works with similar web form-based simplicity.)

    More on Lafayette’s WIFi “Feature”

    Blogging over at TheIND, Nathan Stubbs has announced Huval’s “announcement” of a WiFi “feature” for Lafayette’s fiber-optic network. As we covered here Huval’s mention of wifi at Tuesday night’s council meeting was pretty casual: he was responding to a question from Mouton touching on digital divide questions and worked the mention of wifi as a “useful addition” to the fiber-optic network for consumers. He also allowed that it might be useful as a lower-priced addition for some users.

    Huval tells Stubbs that “marketing” is still to be worked out. Indeed—My guess is that LUS is adverse to marketing wifi as an alternative to its central, costly, vastly more capable network. His remarks are directed toward positioning wifi as an addition, a feature, of LUS’ retail network. It is, Huval says, “a convenience.” for customers. As such it would be offered at a minimal additional cost for users and postioned as an enticement to join the network. (And, not incidently, to block any attempt to outflank LUS by the incumbents.)

    None of this is as a new as it might seem (I called it “the biggest story barely told” back in 05). As far back as October of 04 Lafayette official were talking about building a wifi network—”also.” Hopefully this time it will penetrate the consciousness of the public and the reporters that inform them: we are going to get wifi too. This is going to be bells and whistles, gold-plated, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink public network. (That’s not only a promise; it’s also a threat: now we have to find good ways to use all that capacity.—Didn’t you always feel just a little threatened when you got a good, really useful gift?)

    The newest thing in the blogpost is the way in which the wifi network is made subordinate to the fiber network. Huval has told Stubbs that it just isn’t up to snuff as reliable network alternative:

    Huval says that the difficulties associated with wireless almost always result in spotty coverage for city networks. Walls and even moist vegetation can block signals. “To sell a service for wireless without having some degree of assurance that customers can really enjoy, that is not something that at this point we would want to do,” Huval says.

    I think he is right about that.

    He adds that LUS’ city wifi will be more of a hotspot versus a mesh network. While there won’t be blanket coverage, the network – tied directly to fiber – will provide up to 1 megabyte download speeds in certain areas.

    I’d take that hotspot metaphor with a grain of marketing salt. In order to serve his own people and the police and other public servants reliably the network will have to blanket the city and cover every street eventually. The economies that come from the investment in wifi for the city won’t be there if that doesn’t happen. The city will want to be able to cut itself loose from its expensive cellular and data connections and supply those services for itself at a considerable savings. And it will as soon as the system is up and running reliably.

    What probably is true is that they know they don’t want to mess with trying to push the wifi signal into houses or through a lot of vegetation away from the street. That’s been the downfall of most city-wide wireless networks. What LUS is willing to commit to up front is wifi in public spaces, especially around the downtown core and they won’t say it is “officially” available unless they are confident they can offer the gold-plated experience of about a meg of connectivity. That way nobody will get the impression LUS is offering a “junky” service. I’d hope they’d leave the rest of the network open but not officially supported —a sort of “no promises outside our approved zones” sort of approach. That would mean that you’d be able to connect pretty reliably on the streets, as reliably as the police and the LUS workers find necessary. That might not be the 1 meg of the official zones but considerably less bandwidht would be usable for email and light browsing on the front porch. If you want to download a movie quickly you go indoors and use your “real” fiber connection. Not too shabby.

    A handle on the digital divide angle might be got by keeping the “add-on” price very low, say a 5 dollars addition, to ANY LUS bill (including water and electricity at the most extreme.) That’d make really, really cheap connectivity available easily to anyone in the city whose current economic straits didn’t leave them homeless.

    Should be interesting to watch all this marketing mature.

    The trial network is up and in testing stage right now according to Stubb’s interesting post. That, you will recall, was to be built based on a wireless RFP issued early this year. That RFP called for a limited number of test points to be built out, presumably along the route of the already-existing fiber ring. Anybody seen any of these Tropos access points in the wild?

    Digital Divide at the Council

    Item 14 on last night’s City-Parish Council agenda was a “Digital Divide update.” Put on the agenda by Chris Williams, the update had been scheduled for last month but was delayed to accommodate an out of town conference appearance by Huval.

    Last night’s short slide show reiterated the ideas of the digital divide committee’s “Bridging the Digital Divide” document and recounted the (slow) progress toward fulfilling the commitments LUS, and LCG made when it was approved by the city-parish council. The presentation was broken up into three logical parts (we are dealing with engineers here): 1) the committments, 2) progress to date, 3) a timeline for completing planning.

    The committees’ report focused on suggesting ways to overcome barriers to adoption and ways to check our progress. Barriers were characterized as structural barriers, motivational & historical barriers, and barriers to full participation. In the category of structural barriers Huval reiterated LUS’ commitment to universal service and 20% cheaper prices—making real broadband available to all for less. About the most contentious elements in that category—a refurbished or new computer program—little was said beyond emphasizing how quickly the area of lowcost computing hardware was changing and using the One Laptop Per Child program as an example of network capable laptop computers falling toward the $100 dollar mark. Many of the committee’s other recommendations in the areas of motivating use and encourage full use of the new network were mentioned as areas in which planning was still needed. The one solid committment in these area was the reconfirmation that Lafayette’s users would get full intranet speeds when communicating insystem with other users. No matter how much you are paying for your connection you will be able to connect to other users at the full bandwidth available on the system—and LUS is planning a minimum of a 100 meg system. The planning schedule for the larger digital divide project remains one of getting the plan in place and implementation begining by the time the first customer is served.

    A few interesting points were raised in the presentation and the following brief discussion. Apparently the connections to the parish schools are still being finished up with 37 of 45 hookups completed and the rest scheduled to be done before the first of November. While that fits the original timetable of fall of 07 there had been some hope that they’d all be online for start of school this year but it appears that getting pole attachment agreements lined up delayed the project a bit.

    In response to a question from Councilor Mouton Huval talked a bit about the wireless end of his system and said again that he saw it as a useful addition to the wired system for customers. He also glancingly mentioned that it might be a way to provide a yet more affordable alternative for some.

    Dr. Williams closed the period by calling for plans to be carried forward in the 18 month time frame. He noted that Lafayette was receiving much favorable attention for its netowork and expressed the hope that we could be equally well-know for the way we handled the digital divide issue.

    He’s right in that hope.