“NuComm looks to grow”

Long-time readers will recall NuComm as one of the signal successes of the Lafayette Fiber to the Home project. The community’s do-it-for-yourself spirit, and the huge capacity that community fiber will make available in Lafayette, attracted the Canadian call center business NuComm to a location in an underutilized North Lafayette shopping center. (Take a look at our original coverage.) The 1000 jobs they were to bring was proof positive that having fiber would provide job benefits to all segments of the community.

NuComm is in the news today looking for more employees. They are currently up to 505 onsite with 50-60 offsite employees working from home. (That 50-60 has plenty of room to grow when the 100 meg intranet that LUSfiber will bring makes working offsite just as fast as working in the cubicle down at the main office – and a sight easier location from which to care for the kids or grandma.) 560 or so citizens with new jobs is nothing to sneeze at, but apparently there are 125 positions going begging now. NuComm would still like to hit the 1000 number but is finding recruiting the right candidates hard. LEDA and South Louisiana Community College are trying to help out but training funnels take more time than NuComm apparently has.

If you know of anyone who is looking for an entry-level job point ’em that way. Starting pay is $9.05.

CampFiber: October 4th

So now that you’ve got it, what are you going to do with it?

That mildly threatening challenge pretty much describes the status of Lafayette’s new fiber network: we fought for it, the install trucks are rolling now, and come the new year we’re going to have a shiny new, state of the art, fiber-optic network that will shortly run up to every home and business in the city. It’ll be stunningly fast. It’ll be cheap. And you will own it can have a say in what we do with it. The capacity will be enormous. In comparison to what is available almost anywhere else we’ll have capacities that are pretty literally futuristic—the future is now in Lafayette.

It’s a great start. But we haven’t decided what to do with those capacities.

It’s time (past time) to think about what we can do with our network.

Geoff Daily, Terry Huval, Abigail Ransonet and a few of the usual suspects are cooking up an event that hopes to get the ball rolling. That event is the first “Lafayette CampFiber.” You can get your info on the event straight from the source at the Lafayette CampFiber web page. If you are interested in attending you can sign up at its EventBrite page. Mark your calendar’s for October 4th at the Travis Technology Center.

This first event focuses on two groups of people here in Lafayette: first, the developer community, and, secondarily, it will sponsor a roundtable of community leaders in education and other areas that will put their greatest network needs and hopes before the community and the attending developers. For developers there will presentations on their latest and greatest from folks here in town, a chance to collaborate and a talk with one of Louisiana’s premier venture capitalists—all your resources in one place.

The time for getting creative and supporting our community’s decision is now. So if you can, and especially if you are interested in development or have suggestions for new and innovative uses of our community’s fiber-optic network please plan to participate.

This, friends, is the payoff to the long fight and the long wait. Now we can begin to do great things. —And so this is the mildly threatening challenge: it is up to you.

Home Networking, Verizon, and Lafayette

Food For Thought Department
[What follows is lengthy and starts out with arcana but I think the implications are significant—perhaps especially for Lafayette. I ask that you stay with me…]

According to TelephonyOnline Verizon is radically upgrading the gateways it installs in homes served by the fiber-to-the home-based FIOS service. —FIOS customers can buy a triple play internet/cable/phone package from Verizon based on technology that is very similar to that being constructed in Lafayette by the community’s Lafayette Utility System.

The new in-home devices have a number of interesting characteristics; they will:

  1. bump “speeds over coaxial cable in the home from 75 Mb/s to 175 Mb/s”
  2. “have double the processing power” compared to the current gateways
  3. allow “users to create up to four separate wireless networks, each with different security settings”
  4. allow “remote Verizon technician management”

Understand that an upgrade like this is costly. Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) is costly. Putting a piece of relatively pricey equipment in every home (on top of the set-top boxes you’ve installed for video and any VOIP equipment) really adds up. CPE is where every company tries to pinch pennies and extend the life of its equipment. So upgrades are rare. And they are never done without a damn good reason.

So why would Verizon invest in new hardware with the hopes of using the new capacities in “the next three to four years?”

My best guess: to ride the wave of big bandwidth in the home…Big bandwidth inside the home has recently emerged as an issue. (I’ve just recently caught on. See my recent post, FTTD (Fiber To The Desk, for some background musing on how really big in-home transfer might be accomplished. What Verizon is doing validates the idea but is pretty small potatoes compared to what is coming. Don’t miss the comments–good stuff there.) Verizon clearly thinks that its current model which provides 75 mb/s will prove inadequate for in home use in the next 3-4 years. Pause to let that soak in please: the next 3-4 years. Tomorrow.

That is a near-future time frame. Nobody spends the amount of money that Verizon will spend even gradually moving over to new equipment without a very compelling plan to make back their investment. And Verizon knew what it wanted in these boxes. These are not off-the-shelf pieces; they’ve been designed to Verizon’s specs and the company has contracted two independent providers that meet those specs in order to assure itself of supply.

So the difference between the previous standard and the new equipment should strongly hint at what Verizon thinks folks will do that makes the upgrade pay out. Let’s unwrap those specs looking for clues:

The Analysis
—Faster speed, from 75 to 175 mb/s, means that Verizon is expecting a lot of internal traffic on home networks. That is lot-—especially since Verizon won’t offer you more than 50 megs of connectivity to the internet itself so it’s not video downloads they’re trying to accommodate (of course not 😉 ).

So for what do you need massive amounts of in-home networking speed? Take a gander at the processing power for a partial answer.

—”Doubling the processing power”–if you dig around a bit (1,2) you’ll see that that phrase refers to moving from a 32 bit chip architecture to a dual core 64 bit chip. That’s the way my fancy laptop is built. That’s real processing power even if the clock speed turns out be a bit lower. It allows the onboard computer to coordinate more in-home devices. Most obviously multiple set-top boxes for the cable video service are in the mix; it takes a lot of bandwidth to push HDTV around especially if one or more set top boxes is acting like a DVR/video server and pushing video out to secondary screens. In fact the “doubling” phrase clearly understates the added computational capacity. On top of chip architecture the gateways can serve out eight (8!) Quality of Service (QOS) controlled channels. At a minimum that means that Verizon can push 8 separate protected streams to multiple TVs. But eight seems like more than homes really need. Of course there are Xboxes, and Wiis, and Apple TVs and the like in addition to a raft of reasons that users or companies selling to users might want a protected stream…So eight makes sense. . . If (and only if) you are planning to do something beyond video.

Ok, its faster and more powerful…

—What’s with that feature: allow “users to create up to four separate wireless networks, each with different security settings?” Well, that allows you to set up a buncha different networks, some with QOS, some without, some that are slow, some that are public…..hmmn, whats with that? Again, it seems like overkill for current services. Wireless is hard to maintain for the QOS that video requries. They are probably wisely sticking with wires (coax) for that function given the eight protected streams on the wired side. By any measure the capacity for 12 separated streams is pretty astonishing.

Faster, more powerful, many separate streams, eh?…

—Finally: allow “remote Verizon technician management.” That means that Verizon can modify the thing from their headquarters. That alone isn’t too new—most “modems” can be upgraded by the company or at least reset to clear glitches and given the clearences it needs to access the ISP’s network. But in this context “remote management” surely means the ability for Verizon to enable and assign all those streams and to install some management software or special access codes on unit. And, sell that capacity to third parties who would like to use the in-home network that Verizon’s fancy new gateway creates.

Faster, more powerful, many separate streams, that can be controlled by the network owner…extending its control of the last mile into your rooms.

Chew on that for awhile. I did.

The Conclusion
Some folks might think all these bells and whistles are just over engineering. I can’t believe that a traditional telco like Verizon, one that is already straining its financial capacity to pay for a fiber build, is investing that kind of cash unless they really think this amount of capacity will be valuable to them within 4 years and pay for itself rapidly at that point.

My guess is that Verizon wants to control your home network and all the things that you are shortly going to want to run on it. Things which you might want today if only it weren’t so hard and costly to get the service up and running.

What Verizon wants to sell you directly is only the base. Video and video serving is likely only the beginning from Verizon’s point of view. The corporation has two profit centers currently: data and wireless. (Video shows promise but isn’t there today. Old style telephone lines are shrinking.) Convincing you to buy more data capacity and their wireless service is a proven cash cow. Wireless’s Achilles heel remains coverage and the most persistant irritation. In-house and in-building coverage is a big problem and one that is hard and expensive to solve by popping up more cell towers. The emerging solution is to use “femtocells” —to set up a small base station inside the building that is hooked up to a wired network and provides a mini “tower” that dramatically improves service. An in-home gateway like the ones described could help service and manage the bandwidth and protocols necessary to easily deploy this service to those that need it. And potentially radically reduce expensive customer turn over.

But, as popular as video and wireless retention has to be with the accountants who like old services and guaranteed returns, the real goal is likely broader: providing a platform for other, secure, protected services. Services which people can be sold but for which each provider currently has to figure out how to provison. A truly capable gateway like the ones that are described would let a lot of service providers play without installing their own in-home network and/or controller device.

All Verizon would want is, say, 20% off the top.

And providers would probably find that cheap compared to installing their own network.

Here’s an unordered list of things which would be much more commercially viable if the infrastructure/platform were already installed in the home and could be activated and managed remotely:

  • Gaming can eat local bandwidth too.
  • Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
  • Video telephony and intercomms.
  • A local high school sports “network’s” video stream and pay per view.
  • National professional and college sports “channel” versions of streaming video and downloads direct to your DVR.
  • Sophisticated security networks and security cameras.
  • “Telepresence” and other video conferencing/telephony.
  • Allowing all your electrical devices AC, refrigerator, hot water, etc to communicate and lower energy costs.
  • “Smart home” sensor and activity networks.
  • “Satellite radio” channels.
  • A myriad of music rental services could play directly through your connected sound system.
  • And many more…..add your own in the comments

Many of these “long-tail” sorts of uses will be “gotta have it” for some subset of users. The 2 dollar USL sports network will lock in users who will spend the next 200 monthly dollars on Verizon. Suppose only 1% of users has gotta have each of the above functions. That’s 11% of the market right there. Locked into your company from the start. I think Verizon could make a pretty penny by controlling the gateway device that made such home functions easy to buy, install and provide.

I think any network could.

The Take Home
Understand that the current incumbents know very well that the only thing that keeps them from becoming cheap, commodified transporters of other people’s expensive bits is their monopoly-based control of the last mile architecture. If we had six connections to the outside world all networks would be running cheaply and competing on how fast and reliably they could provide us with bits. (But that ain’t in the cards…which is why wise communities will follow Lafayette’s lead.) The incumbent’s stranglehold on the last mile is crucial to their profit profile. With it they are Gods of the network age. Without it they are the guys who sweep the roads and fill in potholes—and will be paid appropriately. They’d rather be Gods. That last mile control is the key to being invited in to control the network in your home too and the key that will give them huge new sources of revenue by controlling the toolbooth that they hope that new gateway will become.

It’s a pretty damn good plan.

No Lafayette Pro Fiber blog post would be complete with a comment on the local implications. IMHO this is another place where Lafayette could lead the way.

Verizon is poised to extend its fiber-based advantage into the home by controlling access to big bandwidth inside the home and by easing the entry of services that critically depend upon accessing a robust home network. In some places the cable company has already partnered with security firms to provide robust networking that rides on the coax installed for cable. Other incumbents surely will see the writing on the wall; they’ll have to follow suite or watch companies like Verizon generate the revenues that will enable them to become more and more dominant. Verizon has the big bandwidth advantage in fiber. But that advantage is purely theoretical until the public can see that the more capable network can provide not only “more of the same” but actually “different and better” services. The gateway can be the key that unlocks that potential.

A gateway or something similar can do the same for Lafayette’s network.

I’ve been hearing a lot of background buzz lately about trying to encourage tech development in and for Lafayette. Meetings in various places, varying level gurus flown in from various places to attend the meetings. Dinners in posh private homes. Talk about establishing an “x-prize” for Lafayette. An attempt to organize a meeting for developers. Desultory attempts at secrecy. (My list is surely incomplete.) The usual influentials’ names are bandied about. You know, the works. No one knows whether any of it will come to fruition. But the point is that Lafayette is beginning to wake up to the fact that it will be well served to actually do something to encourage development. A “build it and they will come” attitude only works in the movies. In the real world if you want something to happen you’ve got to do something special to encourage it. Building LITE and LUSFiber and ramping up LCG’s example are great starts but they won’t, alone, be enough to make Lafayette the mecca many of us would like to see it become.

So far most of the Lafayette discussion on this topic has been couched in terms of somehow convincing (or bribing) developers to make us something special. As much as I like the idea—and hope it succeeds—I think we’d have better chance at success if we instead tried to do something special ourselves.

Like Verizon is evidently doing.

The heart of Verizon’s apparent plan is to make it possible, even easy, for developers to do something great and different. They are poised to eliminate the barriers to “getting things done” by providing the platform over which these things can be accomplished. Verizon lays out all the tools on the table (albeit tools that lock you into their network) and will surely even handle billing for you. But they won’t pay you. Instead they’ll charge you…and your customers. Frankly, that’s a better way. Opening the door is always a better plan than subsidizing the battering ram!

The right box in the house could do for Lafayette what Verizon’s gateway is poised to do in the homes of it FIOS users. But Lafayette’s could be based on ethernet and open IP standards instead of the clunky cable-oriented and proprietary network hardware and protocols that serve Verizon but are unfamiliar to most developers. Lafayette could do a better job of facilitating access to the Local Area Network (LAN) that is the home than any of the competitors is willing to do.

But Lafayette could go further. It could do the same for its MAN (Metropolitan Area Network) by building in the resources that make access easy. Make available storage. Make available the kind of computational power represented by LITE and Abacus. Embed modern protocols. Pack up some servers to enable within network serving of various kinds of data (streaming video, for instance).

In short Lafayette could make its networks, both inside the home and inside the city, playgrounds for the easy, fluid kind of development that developers love.

And we might, eventually even make a few pennies off it. But quickly and surely we could make Lafayette a tech mecca, give LITE a clear purpose in the community, and make LUSFiber a roaring success.

You want to be that shining city on the hill? The path is open.

“World’s Cheapest Laptop “

A key issue for any community network is the hardware users have to have to connect to the network. Certainly that was a, perhaps the, big issue during the fiber fight here in Lafayette. LCG and LUS promised to work hard to get appropriate hardware into poorer households. (We’ve been keeping our eyes open here. —1,2, among others.)

That’s getting cheaper. Amazingly cheaper. We’ve reported on cheap alternatives before but today’s winner in the cheap Network Attached Device (NAD) sweepstakes is a little laptop that cost 130 dollars apiece in batches of 50… Well, wow……You can get 50 for 6500 dollars.

The device is one of the new category christened “netbooks.” (Remember “ultraportables?” Like that. Only less.)

The price of these guys continues to fall….without visible limit. At 130 dollars a pop this would make a very interesting—and pretty damned affordable—digital divide device.

Not a perfect one, mind you. The specs are kinda puny, in line with the price: A 7 inch screen, a slow (by this year’s standards) processor, no wifi, no hard drive (well a, 1 gig solid state drive, aka flash memory).

The lack of wifi or even a real network connection makes this thing a poor digital divide for Lafayette. A laptop whose only connectivity if via a dongle? Hunh? Sometimes you really do need to talk to the marketing guys. But if it had wifi then a network like Lafayette’s could easily make up for the meager specs in things like storage space and processor power. That can all be located on the network. All you need to have in your mobile device is a fast way to get online and the capacity to run a decent browser. In lafayette the 100 meg intranet will allow anyone to run programs and store data online without much penalty. (Imagine an on-network server with all of Google’s apps — or a homegrown equivalent– serving out services over a 100 meg connection. Who needs to pay endlessly to keep up Microsoft Office?)

This may not be quite the thing. But the day is coming when a iPhone type device is crossed with a tiny laptop like this and becomes the tote-around thing to keep you connected and on top of your work. …

And when it comes it will cost less than 130 dollars. And places like Lafayette will be where it will be most valuable. Keep you eyes open.

FTTD (Fiber To The Desk)

I’ve long thought that FTTH (Fiber To The Home) was the last step in high-speed networking. We’ve already got easy access to 1 gig ethernet for in-home use. After all when we get a 100 meg symmetrical intranet here in Lafayette we’ll be far, far ahead of any connection available to large numbers of people in the US. Most folks dream of a 2o meg connection—and even more dream of being able to afford it. So the 1 gig ethernet network in my home seem, by an order of magnitude, far more than adequate to handle my practical needs. Fretting about an in-house fiber network seemed plain silly.

But maybe FTTD (Fiber To The Desk) won’t seem silly for much longer. According to a recent NetworkWorld article Verizon is actively marketing and has already installed a few FTTD setups in larger commercial and institutional settings. According to the article FTTD has real, solid advantages right now:

  • cheaper materials (copper is costy),
  • cheaper to install,
  • faster installation,
  • fewer electronics,
  • cheaper to maintain,
  • space-saving (fewer maintenaince closets),
  • energy-saving.
  • and oh yeah: far faster now and future speed upgrades will be dead easy

Now that’s a pretty compelling list. The article is very straightforward, however, in saying that FTTD isn’t currently for everyone. You need to have a fairly large population of users and retrofitting a smaller building probably wouldn’t be cost-effective. And my own caveat: in reading between the lines of the story it is pretty clear that the cost savings are based, in part, on eliminating the need for a separate phone network. The user is assumed to be on a VOIP phone. Now that seems like a sensible long-term evolution but it may mean that you’d come up with different numbers if you did a straight ethernet to fiber comparison. Still…even being in the same ballpark is very surprising and since phone wiring is going the way of the dodo anyway it may make sense to disregard its cost.

So FTTD is not for everyone…Yet.

I (cough, cough) remember when ethernet was viewed as similarly impractical for home use. It was an enterprise or institutional networking infrastructure. Nobody would have troubled themselves to install it in a household or small business. —I, back in the dark ages, installed AppleTalk networks in a graphics firm and in the building where I did graduate study. Ethernet was thought to be overkill–useful in the backbone but too much and too technical for mere mortals or small groups.

As to those who can’t imagine that we’ll need that sort of bandwidth the same ethernet history applies: There was a time when a powerful local network seemed pointless. After all what household could afford more than one computer and if you had two, why would they talk to each other? But as of this morning I’ve got a total of 6 or 7 computers pulling power in my two person household: 2 main laptops, 2 TiVos (each of which is a linux computer) and 2 “extra” computers–one serving as a “kids or visitors” laptop with appropriate programs installed and one running as a server/workstation. If you wanted to count the Cox set top box that would make 7. And hey, I don’t have an AppleTV, iphone, videophone, xbox, PS2, or a Wii. (Poor pitiful me!) I do have a network storage device backing up the main computers regularly, so that eats some bandwidth when it kicks in. A household with a lot of gamers or heavy video watchers could generate a lot more internal traffic than I do.

So when the claim is made that a networking infrastructure is more capable and cheaper for larger installations—and with local network demand for are visibly growing—I strongly suspect that it will, in short order, be feasible and valuable for home use. My guess is that somewhere shortly after we see 10 gigs being pushed to the wall of our homes we’ll think our 1 gig of in-house ethernet is puny. We’ll then think it makes sense to disconnect our ethernet, lash fiber to the ethernet wire and pull the copper ethernet out as we run the fiber in behind it.

Digging Deeper….
For those who might be interested in a bit more technical background (as far as I understand it): FTTD as discussed above is really a form PON (Passive Optical Networking). Verizon who is featured in the story uses this form of networking in its FTTH network FIOS—LUS will use the same framework here in Lafayette. PON systems take a single fiber feed and split the bandwidth it carries between a number of users; in most metropolitan-level networks it is split between 32 users and it appears that the Verizon commercial product discussed is based on this model. So there would be one “cabinet” in a large building that would replace the central IT hub and various closets with electronics like routers that are typically found on every floor or every large segment of an ethernet network. Part of the savings is found there. From the hub fiber would run to every desktop and that would necessitate an ONT (Optical Network Terminal) at every desk to translate the fiber’s light to electrical signals for use in the computer, TV, phone, or other device (like a wireless node, network storage, or network printer). The cost of this ONT would be a major issue, I would think. I would expect that some day the ONT would be integrated into the device itself as has happened with ethernet and other networking technologies.

So there really does appear to be a path to FTTD @ home in the foreseeable future. All we need is enough bandwidth to our houses to make deploying the in-house sensible.

Making the Most of LUSFiber’s Advantages

(Warning: Long…but thoughtful, I hope.)

LUS Fiber is going to have a lot of advantages going into the fray with Cox and AT&T. Capacity, technical sophistication, home-town appeal, and the fact that we fought a winning battle against the incumbents to get our network up all work to the advantage of the local utility.

But, unfortunately, a “build it and they will come” strategy is mighty risky. A more solid strategy can be built by taking your advantages and making them essential to your customers. LUS will have to encourage its Lafayette citizens to value what it alone can offer. The utility will also need to acknowledge its weaknesses and take steps to minimize those weaknesses that are inescapable.

Technical and organizational advantages:
LUS’ indisputable technical advantage will be bandwidth, bandwidth, and consistency built on having bandwidth to spare. (No one will have to wonder if the network is too “slow” to handle a given use “right now.” — As I regularly do on Cox when the kids get in from school.) So how does LUS find a useful advantage in all that bandwidth; or rather: how does LUS make sure its users find that bandwidth too wonderful to pass up? And how does LUS do that in ways that its competitors simply cannot—or will not—match? That involves making good use of its massive bandwidth and symmetrical connections.

But the massive bandwidth of fiber on a modern system unburdened by legacy copper and commitments is not LUS’ only advantage. Arguably, that’s not the major advantage. LUS also has the advantage of being owned by its customers. Other businesses have to compromise between what is best for its customers and what is best for its owners. LUS doesn’t have that conflict and can rationally choose to benefit its citizen/customers in ways that are simply not open to other companies. This makes it easy to take smaller profits and offer more services—the stockholders of LUS will, I assure you, not object.

But the advantage of community ownership goes beyond doing a better job of the standard business plan; LUS can do do more than offer better service at cheaper prices. A community utility does not need to pretend to be a slightly more efficient company slaved to a standard business model based on profit maximization. The utility model is based on service maximization…and that is not the same thing. Cox has to be able to show the profit potential in everything it offers its customers or be legally liable for mishandling its owners’ resources. LUS, by contrast, can do things that creates value for its citizen/owners without creating direct value for itself along the way. A utility can pass value through. A utility can take a remarkably generous attitude towards its citizen/owners.

That, potentially, is a vast competitive advantage. It means that LUS can pursue business models that its competition simply cannot emulate. And “value pass through” is not theoretical or forbiddingly abstract in practice: Passing the value through is exactly what LUS is doing when it lets its citizen-owners use the full 100 megs of intranet bandwidth and offers symmetrical bandwidth. Private corporations are loath to follow suit because doing so would mean letting customers use resources they might eventually find some way from which to profit.

Value pass through need not be limited to bandwidth infrastructure issues like symmetry or full intranet usage. It can apply to infrastructure at higher levels. LUS can provide—or support—all manner of infrastructure. On the purely video side it could offer “channels” to anyone local at ridiculously low prices (as Burlington, Vt. is doing) it has bandwidth to spare. Why not? On the richer internet side it can host neutral servers that any citizen/customer can use. The utility can host cheap applications that are open to anyone who has an IP address on the network. It can host free or cheap online storage. LUS would be wise to host (or sponsor) servers providing all manner of higher-level infrastructure capacities. It would be a trivial expense to host a server that provided users with the ability to multicast streams of video (broadcast) or to reflect a video to a specified set of users (“unicast”). Application serving, online storage, and facilitating advanced technologies would all increase the value of the network for the community of users and that, not simple profit-taking, is the goal of a utility company. Happily, it would also raise the percentage of people who’d take the service and thereby add to the bottom line.

(An aside: Google acts like a utility; and is hugely successful as a consequence….the business model of offering your customers “free” value to make richer use of your network is the basis for the most successful new business model of our era.)

If value pass through, massive bandwidth, symmetry, and high-level infrastructure represent key advantages for LUS and Lafayette then those advantages should be used to offset any inescapable disadvantages the local network will face when dealing with Cox (and AT&T, should it get its act together).

LUS’ disadvantage: Size
And LUS does have a key disadvantage: size. We are tiny compared to Cox. And even smaller compared to AT&T. Nor do we have, yet, a clearly visible wireless strategy and a wireless strategy will be considerably enhanced by the size of LUS’s competitors.

Large size makes a few things potentially easier, among them: regional content, regional network effects, and technical prowess. People want to communicate with and about local things. (Most phone calls are local, for example. Regional content like high school football has a larger area to draw from than the city of Lafayette.) So Cox will be able to establish valuable products like local calling circles and regional sports networks that LUS simply will not be in a position to match.

Large size also means that Cox and AT&T can afford to spend big bucks putting together sophisticated interfaces to their content and building devices that allow them to integrate wireless and wired, phone and internet, and generally to try and lock people into unified world where they can offer easy integration. —For instance they could work on making it easy to program your DVR from a phone or see a telephone caller’s name and number on the TV when the phone rings.

Advantages and Disadvantages. Lemons into Lemonade.
So regional network effects and the ability to spend on integration and interface issues favor large corporations. But home town loyalty, massive bandwidth, symmetrical bandwidth and, most crucially, a willingness to pass value through to citizen-owners favor local, municipally-owned competitors. LUS can build higher-level infrastructure that drives participation and adoption.

Capitalizing on Advantages: Broadband and Symmetry

LUS can do what no private provider will: encourage bandwidth usage. And kill the old broadcast model while doing so. It will be to LUS’ advantage to do so since it will lead to a place where the competition will simply be unable to follow.

The most obvious driver of bandwidth usage is video and LUS needs to be thinking about how to drive levels of use so high that Cox and AT&T cannot match local demand. The way to accomplish that is make it possible and easy to use video phones, simple to use security cameras casually, to send video’s of T-boy’s birthday to grandmama, to watch a live stream of the Tuerlings game broadcast by a fan, to talk to salesfolk at a local store, to sign into a video “channel” organized by the Chamber of Commerce…or the Wetlands Coalition, to attend class, to, even, view locally produced full-length documentaries. Local video needs to become a casual, normal, accepted, unremarkable way to communicate, share, and promote products and ideas. If that level of usage can be reached LUS’ network will be wildly popular…and the intimate local content will make other networks look weak in comparison.

Making video communication unremarkable is quite possible. But it will require active promotion on the part of LUS and the Lafayette community. We will have to break our own path—fortunately that’s something we’ve done before.

LUS has already made an amazing start. We’ll have true bandwidth, true symmetrical bandwidth. It will be cheap. It will be ubiquitous. Those are the necessary if not sufficient conditions to move to a visually rich communications system. With the lowest tier, even in the first year, being 10 megs there will be no one on our network that will have too slow a connection to regularly use a video phone or watch full screen HD streaming video. Even when we are communicating with the outside world. When we are connecting to our fellow citizens we’ll have the full capacity of local network available to us, limited only by the electronics on the wall of our house…currently 100 megs. And everyone here will have the same 100 megs of intranet capacity. Regardless of what they pay for their connection to the outside world. That sort of uniformity and capacity will make it possible to build networks–human networks of people talking, playing and working–based on the expectation that you can communicate with huge resources.

We’ll have a dense population of uniformly high-bandwidth subscribers in a small city. Once a tipping point is reached everyone will want to be on such a network. First in Lafayette and then, when others see what is possible, elsewhere.

Reaching that tipping point though will have to be a goal that we work toward. Having the necessary conditions is not sufficient.

Getting There: Supporting Higher Level Usage

Bandwidth and Symmetry give this community a huge leg up on the future. The future will be possible in Lafayette come January. But they aren’t enough alone to ensure that we make the shift ahead of other communities. The community will need more to make the jump. Luckily LUS is a public utility and it has already show that it thinks in terms of giving the community the most it can. That is why we have big bandwidth and a 100 meg intranet.

Public utilities can and often do pursue such a “generous” policy—and LUS has shown every sign that it understands the value of this. (For details see “On Really Getting It“) A generous attitude turns the ROI attitude on its head: anything that benefits the user is good unless it does serious damage to the bottom line. The owners must be pleased first, just as in any business. But since the consumers actually are the owners in a public utility scenario pleasing them includes giving them what they want, mostly–which is lots of reliable services for as little as is possible. That is what public utilities do. They “pass value through” to their community.

We’ll still have two sets of needs that someone will need to generously provide; they will be both social and technical. Social needs are essentially educational. Technical needs are essentially infrastructure.

Social Support
On the social side we’ll have to teach people how to use new tools. Dialing the telephone was once a daunting technical challenge involving unfamiliar concepts like codes that stood for locations and an elaborate set of rules about when to release the rotary dial. (Really) Use needs to be taught. In our era we’ll need to teach folks the rudiments of lighting, (backlighting is rude) how to upload video, a bit about politely providing a compressed stream to the poor people who view our stuff outside the city, and something about how to usefully tag our products. If that seems crazy and forbidding go back and look at the phone video I linked to above. In 5 years it will all be second nature–but until that time we’ll need to provide basic education.

Beyond basic communication we’ll also be undertaking to create media…to broadcast our kid’s soccer games, to hold business meetings virtually, and to create advocacy films and websites. We’ll need to learn how to do this well. The schools should be involved and we’ll need a community center, or several, to foster a new layer of people who are the equivalent of today’s photographers and newsletter writers…again, we’ll know this has been a success when nobody really needs to be taught this any more; when it is absorbed from the culture and every small group has its “Uncle Bob” who knows how to get it done.

AOC –Acadiana Open Channel, the PEG channel— who already does a similar task for TV production and film needs to be retasked to include these functions or some new organization created to serve these educational functions.

An AOC-like organization will also be needed to host Uncle Bob’s videos, to run the server, to vet the new “channels” and playlists made available by groups and individuals, and to keep the technical backdrop going. Community access channels will remain, if renamed in any new big broadband future that takes local communities seriously. Someone has to do the work.

Technical Support
There’s a level of infrastructure above the physical connection that really should be attended to. If we can set up some reasonable standards and provide some resources that are easy and cheap for us to do collectively the whole process of “getting there” will take place much more rapidly and the Lafayette network that LUS runs will be much more useful.

LUS and LCG could provide most of this—and perhaps should—but they could also simply support it by sponsoring organizations that provide the functionality.

Most basically, community support organizations should be provided with bandwidth; they are serving the network and making them pay for bandwidth would be both prohibitive and unfair. The community media support, the local portal, organizations that support nonprofits…all need bandwidth to serve the community. If they don’t make a profit they shouldn’t be expected to pay to use resources that are, after all, not scarce.

Server and storage space are the 21st century equivalent of a the TV studio–the necessary infrastructure to make community media possible.

LUS can also establish basic technical capacities that anyone can use. For instance LUS should turn on multicast features in their routers, They should help make sure that a multicast server and a server that supports multicast are available for broad use. That is much like reserving channel capacity for public channels on today’s cable networks. The new networks will also be served by fostering public media.

There are also a wide range of things that the community, in the guise of LUS and LCG could do to keep the network up to date and able to dynamically adapt to changing conditions. Because Cox and AT&T will have much more money to drop in developing integrated applications (like the phone/TV ones mentioned above) than Lafayette ever will it would behoove the community to adopt the broadest standards available and encourage developers to treat a protected portion of the network like a “sandbox”–a safe place to play that encourages innovation. In one example: it is clear now that in the near future the standard set top box for cable television will be based on a standard called “Tru2Way.” This is a published standard and allows anyone to write applications that can be used on any compliant box. If history is any guide cable companies in general will try and strongly restrict what people can actually do with their signal and what applications are allowed to run on their boxes. The companies will want to control the experience (and dollars) of “their” users. Innovation will generally be restricted and nifty new services will not make it to market. (Want to know why your HDTV can’t surf the net? It’s not because such technology wasn’t developed a decade ago in rudimentary form.) If the Lafayette network adopts only boxes that run this standard and adopts an open attitude about allowing others to add value we’ll likely end up with advanced integration and a better user interface than any of the larger, slower, more constraining network providers.


This has been a long piece but the take-away is relatively short: The success of the new LUSFiber network is dependent upon maximizing the advantages it gives its citizen/customers and finding ways to compensate for the networks inescapable weaknesses. Bandwidth, symmetry and the ability to pass-through value due to the network being community-owned are fundamental advantages. Size is any local network’s fundamental disadvantage. LUS needs to focus on making its advantages essential to the community; a process which will require both education and building another layer of infrastructure above the fiber itself.

Even if LUS has an advantage in a standard face-to-face commercial matchup (and it clearly does) it would be wise to play a deeper game; one that focuses on making the new network central to how we live and play in Lafayette. That means helping citizens find rich ways to use the network; especially help using the network to communicate locally. In that arena Lafayette’s network is free to adopt policies which will make it overwhelmingly more useful to community members—policies which its competition cannot match.

The Lafayette community has already demonstrated that it is up to the task and LUS has shown that they have right generous spirit to pursue their part of the effort.

What remains is to settle down to the hard work of making it happen.

Vint Cerf, Google, Municipal Broadband & Lafayette

(If you’re only perusing this for the “& Lafayette” skip the windup and run to the bottom.)

Vint Cerf, internet pioneer and VP at Google, recently voiced support of high-speed municipal fiber-optic networks.

Some operators contend that municipal networks create competition between the government and private companies. “That’s nonsense,” Cerf said.

Indeed; Cerf links network neutrality—a position he has pushed as Google’s “Internet Evangelist”— to control of the shared resource of the internet:

Operators may simply not want to invest in their networks to bring higher bandwidth to users, he said. “That comes back to the municipal argument. Citizens that want the capacity should be able to decide among themselves to put the resources in place to get that kind of capacity,” he said….

“I still think it’s not a bad idea to have legislation that says don’t discriminate unfairly simply because you happen to have control over this shared resource,” he said.

Who owns the network is indeed the crucial question. The current owners won’t agree with Cerf that the network is “shared;” they are certain it is theirs. With public ownership the shared nature of the net is unambiguous and net neutrality is simply not a contentious issue—owner-operators are free to do what is technically the most advantageous to the community.

While the endorsement of a major name in the networking world is significant in and of itself these remarks in Spokane come at an interesting juncture locally and nationally.

Locally Seattle is considering following its neighbor Tacoma and building a municipal fiber-optic network. Such a network would be the largest in the US if built. The discussion in Seattle has see-sawed between politicians wanting to “invite” private investment and tech advocate who advocate a municipally-owned system.

Nationally Google has become one of the staunchest opponents of the expansion of the vertically integrated business model of carriers like Cox, Comcast, and cellular owners who already have an exclusive lock on much of the content carried over their network and owners like AT&T who would like to emulate that model.

Google’s main thrust in this battle has been to try and force open the wireless marketplace. It recently upped the ante by bidding in the recent 700 megahertz FCC auction thereby making sure that at least some of that bandwidth would be more open than any cellular airwaves have been to date. It has put considerable resources into the “Android” open cell phone architecture in the attempt to pressure cellular carriers to reshape their network policy so that users can use their cell phones to access data and content as freely as they use their laptops.

But perhaps most significantly Google has followed the down-home maxim: “Money talks where BS walks” with a half billion dollar investment in the recent tech alternative “Clearwire” consortium of Sprint, Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Intel, and Google. The group hopes to put together a national WiMax network using Sprint and Clearwire’s spectrum to force an open regime in the wireless mobility arena. That’s a lot of money to spend–especially when you are allying yourself with the cable companies whose networks currently represent the acme of closed networks on the wireline side.

This story is one of an alliance of convenience and necessity. The three-sided alliance benefits all. The telecom companies are strapped for cash to exploit their spectrum; the tech companies desperately need open networks to keep their business models running at full tilt, and the cable companies need a wireless play to offset the phone networks ownership of the cellular marketplace. The players need each other’s money, spectrum, and credibility to create a markeplace suited to their strengths.

The tech giants are spending billions to establish an alternate vision of how the world could be—in part by pulling Sprint and Clearwire into their internet-centric orbit. Intel wants space for new technologies…and most immediately for the WiMax chips it is currently fabricating and which the teleco’s reasonably see as a threat to their business model. Sprint and Clearwire are looking exit a loosing battle against the Verizon/AT&T closed cellular behemoth. If you are losing, change the game: the internet-open network model looks like a good bet for the also rans of cellular. Google has built its business on having unfettered access to individual customers. Verizon/AT&T is very clear about wanting to move the sort of control they have over applications in the cellular part of their business to their landline-based internet offerings. The needs and benefits for the players are easy enough to see.

One of the “needs” of the spectrum owners is one that Sprint recently came up against hard: the need for substantial backhaul from its local cell sites. Not consistently having enough bandwidth to push modern services out over its newly constructed Xohm WiMax network was the central reason Sprint delayed its nation-wide launch. Allying with the big cable companies, who have more capable last-mile networks deployed into every nook and crany of the densely populated regions that are the first targets of Sprint and Clearwire’s now merged networks is a huge help in actually getting that network properly launched. Which brings us to the implications for Lafayette.

& Lafayette…
You’ll notice that none of the cable partners has a presence in Lafayette. That is because Cox, in a smart and aggressive move, is going it after the wireless arena without the compromise implied by partners. It no longer needs Sprint or Clearwire or any other carrier’s spectrum and has not joined the coalition. (It was a member in an earlier incarnation.) That is because Cox recently invested heavily in the aforementioned 700 mhz wireless auction and won good spectrum in an arch from Gonzalez through Baton Rouge and across the Atchafalya to Lafayette. That roughly corresponds to the unified Baton Rouge-Acadiana market that Cox now operates. You can be confident that Cox is planning a wireless rollout of its own to compete with AT&T — and differentiate itself from Eatel & Lafayette’s more capable fiber to the home landline systems. The new spectrum is still being freed up from its previous owners but 700 mhz offerings can be looked for in 2010. The time for LUS to act to secure its own wireless offering ahead of the rollout of Cox’s new network and AT&T’s 4th generation services is right now. First to market is worth a lot. As is maintaining a set of services that matches and outclasses the opposition. The incremental cost of adding a WiFi network capable of being upgraded to 802.11n-k-r-y is truly minimal, perhaps 5% on top of the fiber investment. LUS is aware of the potential and already has a test of 70 WiFi nodes running.

Because the Clearwire coalition will have no local cable company to rely on—and with whole coalition organized in opposition to the likes of AT&T—the new group will need to find a lot of high quality backhaul in Lafayette and the parish. LUS’ fiber network should be the obvious candidate. If LUS is really smart they’ll seek a more extensive deal after attracting the coalition’s attention with something it needs.

But Lafayette amounts to only a tiny side-deal in this battle of giants. Why in the world should the coalition go out of its way to cut a special deal in Lafayette? Maybe they won’t. But they should. Because it is not about Lafayette: it is about municipal broadband and the consumers —citizens— owning the crucial last mile and “next mile” infrastructure. And visibly encouraging Lafayette is a cheap and effective way to encourage that sort of ownership to spread.

Spend a billion or two on Communities
The Tech folks and Sprint/Clearwire surely understand that their alliance with each other is one of genuine parallel interests but that their alliance with the cable companies is one where only their short-term interests are aligned. People as smart as Vint Cerf understand that in the long run the interests of cable companies lies is in extending their tight control of content to the internet and the interests of tech companies lies in continuing the open internet and letting the destruction of the broadcast/cable model proceed apace. In contrast communities could be long-term allies with whom their true interests are permanently aligned. Encouraging communities to build and own their own broadband infrastructure is something that both Google and Intel have both visibly supported. They’ve committed to spending billions on an infrastructure that fortifies them against the telcos’ intentions but leaves them dependent upon cable companies which share the same long-term goals. It’d be wise for them to lay a foundation for moving away from the cable companies when the inevitable day comes that their divergent interests become practical obstacles.

So what could these companies do to help out a community? Let’s make one of those lists bloggers are famous for:

  • Sprint could partner with the muni network and provide a cellular tie-in for the muni’s bundle that would help it compete against quadruple play offerings from the telephone and cable companies.
  • Clearwire could offer cut-rate wireless locally (though the municipality that owns fiber should really do this itself).
  • Intel could offer money and technical support.
  • Google has by far the most to offer:
    • An on-network google cache that would lower costs and speed up the internet for local users
    • Google email for the community–ideally with community addresses rather than generic google ones
    • Google apps for the community–ideally run of the local server for unmatchable speeds; an amazing way to help bridge the digital divide by bringing down costs
    • YouTube in HD….
    • Use the partner communities as a testbed — Lafayette with its 100 megs of intranet bandwidth would make a unique playground for trying out the sorts of ideas that Google is famous for.

Spending a little money…and even more, spending some prestige and thought on supporting municipal efforts could do as much to sustain and create the internet Vint Cerf and other wise tech types want to see as any other partnership they might undertake.

Worth pondering.

Smart Power, Networking, and Lafayette

(Note: Lafayette is about to get its introduction to this topic when Terry Huval addresses the League of Women Voters tonight. Invited to talk about Lafayette’s new network he says he wants to bring up ways to use that network to cut the community’s electrical costs. Lafayette may be the place where the electrical and the communications networks first merge in ways that preview what will happen more widely as soon as the current, ongoing energy crisis echoes through to electrical market place.)

Want to get a sense of what that is about? Try the AP article that appeared in Sunday’s Advocate that explored smart electricity.

Lafayette’s POV
It’s all about peak demand. Or: It’s all about saving money.

Your choice of focus depends on your Point Of View.

Network Engineers will focus on the first, peak demand. It’s a constant source of irritation for neat, tidy, frugal, engineer types that they have to add hugely to the expense of their networks in order to accommodate a few days in August when all the AC units are chugging on high. The customer POV, on the other hand, focuses on saving money. With the rising price of energy this motivation looms larger every day.

And of course there are those pesky, forethoughtful sorts who claim that we can’t keep on doing what we’re doing to the environment and simply must burn less fossil fuels if we don’t all want to sink into the Gulf faster than is necessary.

All these groups can hope that Lafayette’s new community network will help lower peak demand and cut costs and usage.

Lafayette is positioned on the cutting edge of all these issues: unlike most communities we own and produce our own electricity. We are about to own our own advanced telecommunications system with fast fiber and, eventually, ubiquitous wireless. And, in a time of climate change and rising waters, we sit in a spot where the alluvial plain sinks into the Gulf. Had Rita come ashore southwest of Lafayette instead of south of Lake Charles we’d have seen storm surge in the southern half of the parish and up the Vermilion River to I-10.

Doing Less with More
We can hope to do less (use less energy, spend less money) with what we have more of (networking and community).

The AP article talks about what is being done in some locales–and neglects to mention how important a capable, pervasive network is in making its dreams possible. Without two way communication between the customer and the electrical grid none of the potentials can be realized.

What the engineers at power companies want is to eliminate the spikes in demand that drive the costs of providing service up dramatically and make the network dangerously unstable. Here in Lafayette you might be surprised to know that our Fiber To The Home network is not the most expensive public works project undertaken in last few years. In fact building a set of gas-fired power plants here in the parish to handle merely the occasional peak demand cost nearly twice as much! (Nobody much noticed that project and it sailed through the council with out much public notice or media comment.)

Saving money on that cost is something that, if you have smart communications, you can share with your customers who are willing to help cut such peak demand. Power companies have long sought a way to give customers breaks who cut their usage during such periods–but the technology simply has not been available in a world where the finest grained reading of meters is done monthly. With smart, continuously read meters and a tight connection to a household network a dramatic set of possibilities for helping the power company, the consumer, and the environment emerge.

You can simply charge more for electricity during peak usage periods. Smart consumers and especially businesses can shift their usage cycles to respond to that price savings. Big electricity users like chemical plants have had such capacity for years–and have responded well, running power-intensive processes in the middle of the night helping providers save on new capacity. Other, more sophisticated programs give the consumer a substantial break for allowing the power company the ability to reach in to the home and raise the AC temperature 2 degrees, or to turn off the hot water heater or refrigerator for an hour during crisis moments. Just being able to monitor how much running various electricity-hungry processes costs can have a surprisingly good effect on holding down wasted use.

So, if you’re interested in this sort of value-added convergence of LUS Fiber and LUS Power consider coming to this evening’s LWV meeting. –The focus will be the network but expect Huval to introduce this new potential to the community.

Monday, May 5, 2008, 6:30 @ City Hall, Conference Room
(6:00 for Social/Refreshments)
Lafayette Consolidated Government Building—705 W. University Avenue

Has Lafayette Found its de Tocqueville?

It seems that Lafayette, the city that honors the Marquis de Lafayette, might well have found its de Tocqueville in Geoff Daily.

De Tocqueville was the Frenchman who toured the newly sovereign nation and became our nation’s most insightful commentator. He came to the new United States to survey its penal system and came away an an ardent fan of the new democracy. A product of his own culture and station in French culture his judgments on the way the new nation was growing were oft ambivalent but his insight into the reasons for the growing differences between the old world and the new world aborning were and remain influential. He turned an outsider’s eye on something new and saw shapes emerging that were difficult for those participating to recognize. De Toqueville concluded that the free availability of enormous amounts of new land for every citizen —the frontier— made impossible the old world feudal relationship based on the nobility’s ownership of the land and the tenant’s dependent relationship. In the new world every yeoman could own his own land. And they did. The emerging culture of equality had much to recommend it; and, on de Toqueville’s account, much about which to worry. He was concerned that equality might too often become mediocrity and overpower the natural nobility he attributed to the founding fathers. De Toqueville remained hopeful about the American experiment and kept an attentive eye on its development.

Daily came to Lafayette to see a new fiber-optic network. He has repeatedly published his notes on our experiment. He appears to have found something more than just a network–just as de Tocqueville found something more than just a penal system. He finds a community-owned network and attributes much to the culture of the area and the nobility of its leaders. And he Daily has an advantage de Toqueville never had: he may have missed the revolution but is in a position to see the launching of the new network from the beginning and to see if the potential of enormous amounts of new bandwidth has effects on our community that are analogous to the frontier in our nation’s history. Like his predecessor, Daily, is already warning that our future is what we will make of it.

A sympathetic outsiders eye has come to Lafayette. That is a good thing, surely. It will be interesting to see if Daily proves as insightful about the cultural changes that follow as his predecessor.

WBS: “Why Lafayette Can Be That Shining City on the Hill”

What’s Being Said Department

Geoff Daily over at AppRising has posted a remarkable article, “Lafayette Can Be That Shining City on the Hill.” It’s remarkable for the sympathy and insight that he shows. Enough so that you really ought to go read the whole piece. Go on, I meant it…

But I do want to preserve here the opening and closing bits of the post and briefly comment.

Opening ‘graph:

During my week in Lafayette a message I attempted to leave behind is that building a full fiber network isn’t enough; it’s as, if not more, important to focus on getting the community engaged with the use of broadband.


Lafayette is a unique and special community that I can’t wait to continue exploring, but for now I’ll end this coverage with the following charge to the people of Lafayette:

Your community is poised to take a bold step into the 21st century.

But your investment in a new network means nothing if no one uses it.

Your community can become that shining city on the hill for fiber and the use of broadband.

But only if you leverage the strength of your history, culture, and people to make the most of what’s possible.

If done right, Lafayette can guarantee its economic prosperity for the next 100 years.

But it’s going to take hard work to do so, not just building the network but getting the community ready to use it.

Cajuns know that through hard work great things can be achieved.

So set the goal to be great, make the commitment to do what it takes, and anything is possible.

Geoff is exactly right on these points and we’d do well to heed his call.

My small quibble is that by characterizing our place as Cajun he misses the parallel histories of the French, Creoles and Americains in this small area and the role of that admixture in building the unique place for which he clearly holds affection. A trip to some Zydeco haunts and more thorough introduction to the flavors and implications of gumbo can await a return visit.