Lafayette’s Age-based Digital Divide

Today’s Advertiser runs two stories (1, 2) that are both interesting and informative on the gap in computer and internet usage between seniors and the rest of the community.

The gap between seniors and the rest of the population is one of the most marked divides in internet usage—and one remarked upon by Lafayette’s own digital divide committee. Today’s article documents the divide and notes the narrowing of the gap over the years:

In a study conducted for The Daily Advertiser this spring, 36 percent of those over 65 who responded said they had accessed the Internet in the past 30 days. That figure was 33 percent for a 7-day period in question. Those numbers are significantly lower than any other age group, but even that represents a marked increase over 2001 (8 percent) and 2005 (22 percent) for the 7-day response.

That clearly documents a divide–and an improvement over time. What’s really great about this is that it is local data. (Something we very badly need.) Lafayette is unique enough that I’ve never been confident that the national stats applied very directly. National trendlines are easier to show confidence in but even that makes the old statistician in me a little uneasy—so it is very nice to get better data. The little bit of data given here documents a healthy change over time.

Interestingly this summer, PEW’s well-respected periodic surveys of internet usage documents a very similar number —32%—for seniors “using the internet at least occasionally.” That sort of phrasing is likely to overestimate usage; the Advertiser’s asking if a respondent has used it in the last week is a more reliable and tougher question—and it showed 33%. So while a completely parallel question would be ideal the Advertisers data is still a good indication that Lafayette’s seniors do not lag the national average and most probably are using the internet in a bit higher numbers.

We’re used to thinking of ourselves as behind the ball in Louisiana but apprently that isn’t true of senior internet usage. At least not in Lafayette. Why not? Part of the answer might be visible in the subtitle of the first story: Classes help some step into computer age.” Folks at the university and at the public library have been making education available in a consistent and useful manner. Some organizations that appeal to the elderly, like genealogical ones, are also touting the advantages to interested seniors. All that has to add up.

Of course, as nice as education is, it still leaves more seniors offline than any other category. Arguably seniors with limited mobility, a larger interaction with the trappings of officialdom, and a more persistent need for good medical information would benefit more than the youngsters from internet connectivity. It would be nice to increase their utilization. The second story, Why getting grandma online matters,” points to the more fundamental problem: showing people who’ve gotten along without the internet for the whole of a very fruitful life why they ought to want to bother. The story lists activities that make the value evident:

  • Sharing photos with family and friends.
  • Free medical information is available.
  • Shop without leaving home.
  • Apply for certain benefits.
  • You know, when you think about it those are the sorts of things we all find interest–that and staying in touch with friends and our community more generally.

    What would help seniors begin to take advantage of the resources are pretty much what would help us all. We ALL would benefit from being better connected to our communities. That’s what the idea of a Lafayette Commons, an online place that makes useful local information easy to access is all about. Worth thinking on.

    WBS: KillerApp: Take Four, The Lafayette Survey

    What’s Being Said Department

    KillerApp’s blog has posted a fourth in its series about Geoff Daily’s visit to Lafayette. This one focuses on André Comeaux’s efforts to get someone, anyone, to sponsor a survey of Lafayette’s current broadband usage and needs. Daily lauds Comeaux saying:

    In his mind, we can’t know where we’re going and/or how far we’ve gone without knowing where we came from, and in order to understand that we need to have a fuller understanding of how, and if, the Internet is being used today.

    I think he’s spot on in his focus on this area, especially in a community like Lafayette that stands on the verge of making a major investment in its fiber infrastructure. I say this not only as a way to hopefully justify the cost of the fiber down the road, but also because of Andre’s savvy belief that if they can chart where they are today and then compare that to where they end up tomorrow, they’ll then have hard data that can be used to spur government officials into action, either through championing the successes that have been realized or stepping up to more fully support underachieving areas.

    Andre’s not alone in understanding the need to get more information about how people are using the Internet today.

    André is right, and Daily is right to cheer him on. André has done a tremendous amount of work and the entire package pretty much made up. He’s secured the right to use the wording and the methodology of the USC Annenberg School’s “The Digital Future Report.” This prestigous national study has been done yearly since 2000 and basing our survey on it would both insure that we had 1) a good, credible baseline, 2) way to compare ourselves with the national norms, and 3) and a way to compare ourselves going forward. He also has a solid proposal in from the firm that does the survey for the Annenberg school to do ours. All that is lacking is the necessary institutional support and the money. And the money, quite likely, could be minimized if we could get some folks from ULL to kick in a little support.

    André is following up on work done by the original Digital Divide Committee whose “Bridging the Digital Divide” document, as approved by the City-Parish Council, made such a survey a central part of the local commitment to bridging the digital divide. He picked up the cause as a member of Lafayette Coming Together after the fiber fight and pursued it vigorously, trying to bring in folks ranging from LEDA to UL to the Chamber of Commerce.

    We need that survey pretty badly. Five years down the road the Lafayette Network will just be hitting its stride and I expect it to be doing well. But unless we have some way to track our achievements the perennial naysayers will always denigrate the system, saying that private companies could have done better (though they refused to do it all) or that the publicly owned network hasn’t really made a difference (though they’ll have no evidence they’ll say it anyway and we’ll have no solid way to disprove them). Even more critically, LUS and Lafayette will have no way to measure their accomplishments except by the same metrics that private for-profit companies use—subscribership and “profits”—and LUS is NOT trying to meet the same goals that private corporations are trying to meet. LUS will be run as a utility and its goals will be to lower prices (and hence profits) and to increase the utility and use of the service. Those are the sorts of metrics we should be using to judge our success and without a survey taken before the network starts up we will never have a good baseline against which to judge our success. I expect LUS’ entry into the market to fundamentally change the market making it cheaper, faster, and hopefully more useful. More people will use the local network/s (public and private) and they will use it for different things. Without a way to track that change, and compare it to what is happening in other places it will be impossible to disprove unfair attacks like the ones we saw during the long fiber fight leading up to the referendum victory.

    Thank are due André for his effort and thanks are due Geoff Daily for reminding us of what we have in such citizens. Here’s to hoping someone besides André will step up to the plate.

    Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong….Lafayette?

    Google, the US’ premier internet company, is testing new designs for its search page and its igoogle homepage…bu only in places where big bandwidth is available. According to a PC World article Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of technology, said:

    “We’re actually now experimenting with trying new kinds of homepages, for example in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, that are a completely different type than we’ve tried before on our U.S. site…

    “We think [the new design] will be more appropriate for the local cultures, and their context, and their broadband connections, which, for example in Korea, are extraordinarily fast,” Brin said, adding that response to the new site designs had been “quite positive.”

    Google has been famous for NOT crowding its basic search page with extraneous (and self-serving) ads or cross-promotions. As a consequence their search page has a reputation for loading quickly and cleanly. Apparently, having gobs of extra bandwidth encourages Google to experiment with changes that include animated icons though the additions are still modest by anyone else’s standards. (Check out the Korean search page.)

    Google’s user homepage system, iGoogle, gets an upgrade in faster places as well. Tabbed “gadget boxes” are a staple of the new design in fiber-rich locales and small animated graphics are featured as well. (Taiwan’s)

    iGoogle has fascinated me for awhile now. It is similar to a system envisioned nearly 3 years ago by Lafayette’s Digital Divide Committee as a way to make localized information available and to allow users to customize the page by choosing the modules they were interested in. In that vision you could get the feed from your church, or the sports feed, or find local computer repair or babysitters… The hope was encourage more extensive use of modern networks by making the net more useful for local tasks. Back then it was pretty much a pipe dream. Each box on the page (what Google calls a gadget) would have been pretty much handbuilt and the whole system would have to have been backed up with a locally created and maintained server and programming team. Changing the box’s placement on the page columns would have to have been mediated by an awkward panel. It’s amazing how fast the future comes in some areas: with the maturation of RSS feeds and the arrival of easy to use tools like Yahoo Pipes and Google Gadgets that project is now conceivable as something a single competent programmer (or a determined neophyte) could tinker together using those tools and end up with a very sophisticated face that would include drag and drop rearrangement of the page and multiple personal pages for different purposes—you could have a separate local tabs for “local news,” “kids stuff,” “my sports,” and “business stuff.”

    Lafayette could use the nifty extra features iGoogle uses in Asia for a sporty new local website. And with the coming bandwidth from LUS it could easily match the speeds available there.

    Maybe someone could ask Google if they need an US testbed?

    (Thanks to Mike who suggested the link—and the title. :-))

    AT&T’s 10 dollar deal: Is it real?

    I recently covered a $10 dollar DSL deal and a promise of a $20 dollar “naked DSL plan from AT&T that ought to be available locally. (It’s got some preconditions, see my post.) David Isenberg dug a little harder and made the case that these plans weren’t actually being “offered” in any real sense of the term. Now he (and I!) would like to know if anyone out there is actually getting this deal.

    Background: AT&T agreed, as a condition of its merger with BellSouth, to offer these deals. As we in Lafayette know, the phone company doesn’t necessarily keep its word and this appears to be a case where the company is skirting pretty close to simply breaking the law. I dug around a bit for this post and discovered yet another very real obligation on Ars Technica: AT&T is supposed to make broadband available to EVERYONE in its footprint; it promised to provide at least 85% of its customers with DSL and would tie the last 15% in with satellite or WiMax. So if they tell you they can’t provision you — ask again.!

    The question of AT&T keeping its word comes up following a small internet furor over a story popularized on engadget about a fellow that had a real hassle getting the $10 dollar deal from AT&T. I had similar issues when I tried to see how real the offer was locally.

    Has anyone out there tried? What’s your story? Were you successful? Did you eventually give up trying and go for the “good” (but more expensive) “deal” that was easier to get?

    I’d love to hear from you in the comments here or via email at John2_AT_lafayetteprofiber_DOT_com

    Thoughts on Killer Apps and Community

    I’ve been chewing over an informal speech/meeting with Geoff Daily of KillerApp Monday evening from which I came away pretty impressed. He was speaking on what drives broadband usage—especially usage of high-capacity fiber networks. Daily actually gets it—he’s not so distracted by the technology itself that he doesn’t see that something more is necessary to create real change.

    Daily was in town at the behest of Abigail Ransonet (aka fiberina and mistress of Abacus Marketing) who is hosting him here. Geoff, who is “on tour” of communities which have significant fiber to the home networks, is visiting Lafayette with the dual purpose of seeing what we are doing (or planning to do) with our fiber and informing us about what others have done.

    What impressed me was that Geoff didn’t succumb to the implications of the name of the business for which he works—nor the mindset that is so popular that the name was an obvious choice for a business focused on broadband. He doesn’t think there is going to be a “KillerApp” that drives full utilization of fiber networks and leads to broadband utopia.

    What Daily pointed out Monday was that most of the applications that people expect will drive broadband usage already exist. Some of them don’t really require big broadband if only a few people are using them—and only a few people are. Those that do require a big pipe don’t appear to be widely adopted where the bandwidth is available. The missing element is adoption. Waiting for “the killer app” is just a way of putting off the real works: preparing the community to make use of the many advantages which fiber’s big bandwidth makes available.

    Without community education—and providing a way for that education to occur—networks may be fiscally successful. But they will not realize the dreams of their advocates to provide a foundation for accelerated growth, equity, and a markedly better quality of life for citizens.

    The “build it and they will come” assumption is insufficient to those goals. Building a community-owned fiber network is, I believe, a necessary precondition realize such dreams. Privately-owned networks will never be motivated to serve the needs of the community except indirectly. If any community hopes to get ahead of the curve or to simply control its own destiny it must own its own tools. That’s true for carpenters and that’s true for cities. Lafayette did the right thing in building its own network. But Geoff Daily reminds us that this is only the beginning. (Check out his blog at KillerApp for relevant ideas.)

    Daily pointed to the Utopia project in Utah as one that appeared to him to be built on “build it and they will come” assumption. In truth, as Daily probably realizes, this attitude was pretty much forced on them by their statehouse: the state of Utah would only allow local communities to build the networks the private providers refused to build if they leased them out to private service providers. In consequence the Utopia project is not, and cannot be, “utopian” in any real sense. The citizens who own and will have taken the risk in providing the network will find themselves with services that are typical of services offered by any private network since what motivates their providers will be no different from what motivates anyone else’s.

    That is better than not having such services at all, I’ll grant, but that is not what Lafayette voted for—we voted for the dream.

    One point was unmistakable: Geoff Daily wants that dream too. He wants to see the technology lead to better things for communities and their residents. That leads him to think that we need a visionary success in at least one community to kickstart nation-wide usage. The country needs to see a place where an advanced network kicks off accelerates growth, decreases inequality, and results in a markedly better quality of life for all its citizens.

    I nominate Lafayette.

    But, as Geoff’s presentation and the following discussion made clear, it won’t happen by itself. The the only way that will happen is if LCG, LUS, and the community decide to make it happen.

    Huval Reveals Plans @ the Martin Luther King Center

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

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

    New News:

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

    Significant Reaffirmations:

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

    It’s coming folks. It’s coming.

    Thinking in Tucson, AZ: Getting it Right

    Muniwireless points to a study, meant to inform about how to write up a request for proposals for Tucson’s prospective wireless RFP that caught my attention. First, the extent of the research and the detail in the study far exceeds that which goes into most full proposals, much less the RFP. A large amount of information about broadband usage, digital divide issues, and market questions is in this study—enough to provide plenty of well-researched data to support both public purposes (like economic expansion and bridging the digital divide) and to support a strong marketing plan (it includes current costs of broadband and geographical usage patterns).

    Lafayette needs such a public document. Without the baseline it provides it will be difficult to demonstrate the success of the fiber project. You need such a baseline to demonstrate the economic benefits and to document the effects of lower cost broadband on bringing new faces into the broadband world.

    But if possible, even more impressive than the original survey research was the quality of thought exhibited. Doing a study like this is a job–and most folks are tempted to do the job to specs even if that is not what is called for by the reality of the situation. CTC, the consultants doing this study didn’t succumb to that temptation. The job specs, it is clear, were to tell the city how to write an RFP that get private agencies to provide city-wide wifi without municipal investment. Universal coverage, closing the digital divide and economic development were apparently important parameters given the consultants.

    Trouble is, it’s become clear that the private sector simply won’t, and perhaps can’t, fill that wishlist. And CTC, instead of just laying out what would give such an RFP the best chance, more or less told the city it couldn’t have all that without at least committing as the major anchor tenet. That was responsible, if unlikely to make the clients happy. And on at least two other points (Digital Divide issues and Fiber) they pushed their clients hard.

    1) Digital Divide issues:

    The interviews indicated that as computers become more affordable, the digital inclusion challenge that needs to be addressed is not as much equipment-based but rather how to overcome the monthly Internet access charge. (p. 18)

    Concentrate WiFi provider efforts on low-cost or free access – not the other elements of the digital divide. (p. 17)

    Entering the digital community is no longer about hardware; it’s about connectivity. The hardware is a one-time expense that is getting smaller and smaller with each day. Owning a computer is no longer the issue it once was. Keeping it connected is the real fiscal barrier these days. As their survey work shows, the people most effected know this themselves.

    A CTC review of Lafayette’s project would note we’re doing several things they say most cities neglect to do: 1) LUS has consistently pushed lower prices as it major contribution to closing the digital divide—(and we must make sure that there is an extremely affordable lower tier available on both the FTTH and the WiFi components). 2) Ubiquitous coverage is a forgone conclusion; LUS will serve all–something no incumbent will promise (and something they have fought to prevent localities from requiring). 3) Avoiding means-testing. Lafayette’s planned solutions are all available to all…but most valuable and attractive to those with the least. Means-testing works (and is intended to work) to reduce the number of people taking advantage of the means-tested program. If closing the digital divide is the purpose means-testing is counterproductive.

    About hardware, yes, working to systematically lower the costs and accessibility of hardware through wise selection, quantity purchase, and allowing people to pay off an inexpensive computer with a small amount each month on their telecom bill makes a lot of sense and should be pursued. But the prize is universal service and lowering the price of connectivity. Eyes, as is said, on the prize.

    CTC additionally recommends against allowing extremely low speeds for the inclusion tier and for a built-in process for increasing that speed as the network proves itself. It also rejects the walled-garden approach, an approach which they discreetly don’t say out loud, turns the inclusion tier into a private reserve that will inevitably be run for the profit of the provider.

    Good thinking…

    2) The Necessity of Fiber

    CTC also boldly emphasized fiber, not wireless, as the most desirable endpoint for Tucson.

    We strongly recommend that the City of Tucson view the WiFi effort as a necessary first step, then look at ways to embrace and encourage incremental steps toward fiber deployment to large business and institutions, then smaller business, and eventually to all households. (p. 19)

    Although wireless technologies will continue to evolve at a rapid pace, wireless will not replace fiber for delivering high-capacity circuits to fixed locations. In addition, fiber will always be a necessary component of any wireless network because it boosts capacity and speed. (p. 20)

    The report explicitly rejects the theory that wireless will ever become the chief method for providing broadband service to fixed locations like businesses or homes. Few in the business of consulting on municipal wireless networking are so forthright in discussing the limitations of wireless technologies and the role of fiber in creating a successful wireless network that is focused on what wireless does best: mobile computing.

    Again, good thinking.

    Communities would do well to think clearly about what they want, what is possible, and the roles of fiber and wireless technologies can play in their communities’ futures. CTC has done a real service to the people of Tuscon. Too much unsupported and insupportable hype has driven muni wireless projects. That unrealistic start will come back to haunt municipal broadband efforts nationally as the failed assumptions show up in the form of failed projects. But those mistakes were not inevitable. The people of Lafayette should take some comfort in the fact that we haven’t made the sorts of mistakes that Tuscon’s consultants warn against and are planning on implementing its most crucial recommendations.

    LUS at TechSouth

    Heads up:

    TechSouth sent out an email blast with nothing in it but the following LUS teaser:

    (click for a larger image)

    LUS and TechSouth are promoting LUS’ booth as a place to find out more about the fiber to the home project.

    If you’ve got an interest (and who reading this blog doesn’t) you’d be well-served to visit LUS at TechSouth; it’s always interesting. Last year they quietly announced in a looping slide show what has turned out to be a cornerstone of the project: full peer-to-peer bandwidth between subscribers; aka intranet speeds. That item, which means that every subscriber will be able to communicate with every other subscriber at the full available speed of the intranet, is a huge plus for both the digital divide and the entrepreneurial hopes for the local project.

    Expect to be able to glean interesting details by talking directly to the folks who’ll be running the project.

    Oh, and hey: TechSouth is worth visiting for a myriad of other reasons. It’s about time for a post…..

    Lagniappe: Bop on over to the TechSouth site and scroll to the bottom. There you’ll find an unexpected sight: LUS, Cox, and AT&T all lined up, and sharing a common banner… 🙂

    Celebrate July 16

    The anniversary of the July 16, 2005, community vote in support of the LUS fiber to the premises project should be celebrated in the community and by the community each year.

    That day marked the culmination of one process and the beginning of another. The process that ended was an extended community discussion about Lafayette and the kind of future we want it to have.

    Despite persistent campaigns of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) waged by opponents of the LUS project, the plan won approval because citizens here came to view the fiber project as something consistent with Lafayette’s long-recognized desire to control its own destiny. It also won approval because proponents of the project were able to clearly identify the interests of the community as being separate from the interests of the corporations that opposed the project.

    The fact that the project won by a 62-38 margin makes it easy to forget just how uncertain its prospects were when the the election on the project was first called. Remember, it was opponents who wanted the election. Those of us who favored the project were afraid that Cox and BellSouth (remember them?) would bury us with the dollars they could bring to their efforts to oppose the project.

    I believe we won because, at the core of the campaign, proponents of the fiber project trusted the intelligence of the citizens of Lafayette to recognize their interests. We benefited greatly by the disdain for the community repeatedly displayed by opponents, but particularly BellSouth.

    Now, after nearly two years of court fights, the project is moving forward. Bonds will be sold in a couple of months and money will be in hand to begin the work of building the network for which so many of us worked so long and hard to bring about.

    So, with the last serious legal challenge dispensed with (sure would like to know who paid those attorneys for the plaintiffs in those suits!) and the project gaining momentum, the community should now move to a new phase on the project as well.

    I believe we can do this by celebrating the anniversary of the fiber election by recognizing what we’ve accomplished and focusing on the new opportunities ahead. One way that we can do this is by bringing in a prominent speaker to inspire us to dream big about the possibilities that will open up to us as a result of every citizen having access to a fat pipe (100 megabits per second?) connection.

    What kind of community can we grow here based on that kind of abundance? What kind of businesses can grow here based on the kind of bandwidth and connectivity that won’t be available in the vast majority of U.S. cities for decades to come? What does a community without a digital divide look and operate like? How much will our ability to educate ourselves and our children improve when access to information is a right, not a privilege?

    One of the things the legal fight against the LUS project was designed to do, I believe, was to dampen enthusiasm for the project, as if the city’s commitment to using technology to differentiate itself as some kind of fad that would pass if opponents just dragged this out long enough.

    They were wrong again.

    The enthusiasm has not waned. Now that the project is moving forward, the time has come for the community to begin focusing on the opportunities that will soon be upon us.

    Celebrate July 16!

    Competition, Market Penetration, and the Digital Divide

    The International Herald Tribune carried a story not long ago that lead to a bout of reflection about LUS’ telecom utility. It made me wonder: is there a point where marketing and digital divide issues come together? Can serving the common good also be smart marketing?

    The Tribune story recounts a situation emerging in France that bears watching here in Lafayette. The French Fiber to the Home market is in the midst of a major expansion and, at least in a few places, these new networks are competing with each other. That is, for the companies, a potential problem. Competing networks must gain a minimum number of paying subscribers per mile (or kilometer) in order to make back their investment. With only one network building itself up it is pretty easy to get the minimum number of subscribers… but with two it is twice as hard….and with three or more there simply may not be enough room in the market for all to survive.

    The new entrants are betting that they’ll get a big enough market share to survive. There are only two basic strategies: 1) take established subscribers from the incumbents and 2) create new subscribers. A smart new competitor has a clear strategy for doing both.

    In Lafayette
    The situation in Lafayette bears a interesting resemblance to the one in France: In short order there will be three networks vying for subscribers in the wired telecommunications market. Cox is and AT&T is preparing to invade its opposite numbers’ monopoly market. LUS will come on the scene with a high-powered, low-cost alternative to both. It’s success will depend upon taking subscribers from the incumbents–and on creating new subscribers.

    The basic strategy for taking subscribers from the old incumbents is straightforward: offer a better product for a cheaper price. LUS has made it abundantly clear that it intends to do just that–and with a home-town, voter-approved alternative it should do well on that score.

    It isn’t so clear that LUS has a well thought-out strategy for creating new subscribers.

    The French Response
    French purveyors of high-speed internet are faced with a market in which only 60 percent of the country’s households have computers. Creating new subscribers will mean convincing folks that don’t have a computer that they ought to get one in addition to purchasing the service.

    “If one-third of the people in a building do not own a computer and see no reason to get broadband, it becomes a serious financial issue,” Fogg said. “Some Internet companies have offered incentives for people to buy computers, but Neuf has taken it to the ultimate level in offering the computer themselves.”

    Neuf (one of the triple-play video/phone/internet providers) is now offering a package called “easygate” which includes a Linux-based computer stocked with open source apps. It is, with inimitable french styling, a handsome box. Flicker user nitot’s caption accompanying the CCed image at left describes its functionality:

    “A DSL modem plus a low-end PC in a single box, running Linux, Firefox and a few apps, leased to subscribers of the Neuf Internet broadband service. “

    The idea is easy to abstract: reduce the hardware barrier to as little as possible. if a major impediment to selling your internet service is that a large portion of your potential customer base doesn’t want to buy your modem service because they don’t have a computer then put the computer in the modem and lease it along with the modem. They can try it without making a big-ticket computer buy. Neuf isn’t going the pure route, though. If you want to use it like a regular computer you’ll either have to supply the “peripherals” yourself or pony up separately for a monitor and a keyboard/mouse/video camera packages. (See the photo at the top.) To sweeten the pot the computer comes equiped with several specially skinned version of Linux (designed for differing levels of expertise) and an open source browser, word processor, and spreadsheet.

    An all-in-one package—cheap and convenient. And designed to grow a new market segment devoted to its supplier, not just to battle for a group of established users who already have equipment and a provider.

    With the coming era of convergence the basic impulse represented by the Neuf Easygate package could easily be extended. Settop DVR boxes are rapidly becoming the standard among digital cable customers. What you have with one of those babies is a hard-drive equiped computer with enough firepower to drive digital video—no mean feat. For a minimal amount more that same computer could be equiped with Linux, a bit more ram, another few cheap I/O interfaces and, presto changeo, you’ve got: ……a Tivo. That’s precisely what TiVo is and with several of the major cable companies having cut deals to put TiVo software on their boxes (including Cox (yes, our Cox) and Comcast) TiVo has already designed cable-box software.

    TiVo’s settop box deals are proof of concept: you can marry a Linux computer and a settop box. The final step could be LUS’ to take. Why not liberate the computer side of that sort of box? With special software and the coming wave of new, digital TV’s the screen could be the TV and all you’d need in addition would be an inexpensive wireless keyboard and a the purchase of the internet subscription to be online. Putting your internet computer inside the settop box would sneak internet-capable computers into the maximum number of households possible and lower the barriers to entry to the bare minimum.

    It’s hard to think of another strategy more likely to grow the market for LUS’ product–nor one more likely to bridge the digital divide.

    Maybe smart marketing and pursuing the common good need not be too far apart.