Open Systems, Muni systems, and Lessons from Singapore

A Problem
Advocates of muni telecomm are often met with the blanket, essentially ideological, claim that municipal plans will fail because “everyone knows” that government-run enterprises will always lack the competitive advantages of private businesses. It’s hard to greet such claims with anything other than exasperation: anyone who thinks that the duopoly represented by corporations like AT&T and Cox has produced efficient pricing or any sign of innovation just hasn’t been paying attention.

Customers of telecommunications companies simply haven’t seen the benefits of “free enterprise” that competition is supposed to bring. The telecomm market looks like market-segmented, minimally competitive duopoly and produces results that look a whole lot more like staid, expensive monopolies than anything that might result from a real competitive marketplace.

Lots of folks have noticed this painfully obvious fact about the current telecomm market and in some places are even trying to do something about it. Lafayette has one solution. Singapore is trying another.

Singapore Tries Honest Problem Solving
Singapore is about to invest in a truly radical plan to build a world-class, high-speed network and to do it by encouraging real competition in the telecommunications market. (See 1, 2) Naturally they start by mandating and subsidizing the construction of a fiber to the home network. Beyond that it gets really interesting. Their plan takes yet another stab at inducing competition in the fundamentally natural monopoly wireline broadband market. Competition—when it works—provides cheaper prices and drives innovation. Lot’s of country’s have tried for that golden ring—and failed. (The American FCC’s attempts have been particularly laughable.) What is interesting about Singapore’s design is that it might work.

It is worth noticing how far they had to go to have a hope of developing real competition. Consider the starting point: Most networks world-wide are fundamentally vertical monopolies. One company owns the physical network, manages it, and sells retail services to end users. Think about your phone or cable company and you’ll get the basic idea. The minimal competition between phone and cable companies over the new internet services should not be allowed to obscure the fact that they are both basically monopolies with only a sideline internet business that has, at best, only one competitor—not nearly enough to develop a competitive marketplace that would yield the benefits of innovation and low prices. As digital services converge over integrated data networks it remains to be seen whether even the current inadequate level of duopoly competition will be maintained…and a lot of history that argues that it will collapse back into a simple monopoly.

But everyone wants competition and its benefits. Singapore wants competition. But Singapore wants it badly enough to try and get it realistically.

Being realistic involves admitting that the basic fiber, the physical network, is a classic natural monopoly. But beyond that evidence of clear-headedness Singapore also seems to recognize that operational layers of the network determine what sorts of application services can be offered at retail and that retail providers need to be able to count on a responsive middle layer provider.

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A typical large-scale network is built up of multiple, but integrated, levels. One way of looking at that is to see at the “bottom” a hardware base built up of the actual fiber and low-level switching. Up from that you have protocols and translation devices/routines that knit together the data from the low-level physical layer. Both of these are pretty much invisible to any end-user. On top of that you have applications that show their face to users of the network. Let’s call that 1) the physical layer, 2) the network operations layer, and 3) the applications layer. (This 3-layer description, as forbidding as it might seem, hides an awful lot of complexity. The canonical way of looking at network design is the 7-layer OSI description. That hides less of the complexity. Sophisticated readers should feel free to substitute OSI layer 1 for “physical;” layers 2-3 for “operational” and 4-7 for “applications.”)
</time out for a bit of background>
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Singapore is separating the physical and operational level into two different, unrelated monopolies committed to selling the same services to all retail providers at the same price. The retailers would then be in a position of making all their profit from the quality and the quantity of services they could convince consumers to buy.

Structural Separation: Keeping the Monopoly Owner Honest
Singapore is structurally separating the physical, lower level from the upper operational and application levels by creating a completely independent network company to build and manage the physical network (cleverly called NetCo). That sets things up so the only way the owners can make more money is by providing more value to the wholesale renters of their physical capacity. If you can offer more value more efficiently you can sell more capacity for a better price. And that, to repeat, is the only way to increase your take. This is a simple, reliable, structural solution to the problem of a monopoly owner using their control of the medium to eliminate or forbid competitors. The physical network owner cannot be motivated to manipulate the network to benefit its particular set of retail services if it doesn’t own any such services….it will not be allowed, for instance, to sell phone or video services to end users and so has no motivation to structure its network to favor, for instance, cable TV at the expense of DV (Downloadable Video). By making the monopoly network owner’s profits depend solely on motives that are aligned with the public’s interest the task of regulation is much easier. All you have to worry about is enforcing rules that require everyone to be charged the same for the same service. (This is much of what lawyers mean when they talk about Common Carriage rules.)

Operational Separation: A Balance of Powers
The most unusual (and least clearly specified) part of the plan is separating out the operational division of the network into its own independent company. Most structural separation schemes make this the property of the network owner or allow retailers to install their own equipment at the operational level. The problem with the first solution is that investing all the control in the conservative utility would make it less likely that unproven but potentially innovative middle level equipment would be installed, lessening the hoped-for benefit from innovation. On the other hand letting the retailer install whatever equipment they want on fiber strands they have rented virtually ensures that incompatibility will emerge on the network and pretty much ensures that some classes of equipment will be wastefully duplicated—lessening the hoped-for benefit of lower prices.

Singapore’s solution is to provide for a monopoly operational company (cleverly called OpCo) that must maintain a separate existence, board, and identity but which retail owners can own pieces of. Presumeably the Singaporeans, being committed structuralists, think that such an ogranizational schema will eliminate wasteful duplication and will tie OpCo to the more innovative retailers. Now this isn’t nearly perfect: it would let powerful incumbents on the network control the provision of new middleware and help them keep out smaller new competitors that would threaten their developed markets….but while imperfect, this is a solution that at least makes a stab at controlling the worst defects of previous attempts to foster competition and encourage both lower prices and innovation at the middle level.

Retail: The Evolutionary Melee
The hope, of course, is that by minimizing costs at the physical layer by putting a free-to-be-careful and conservative utility at the physical level, and by structurally maximizing low pricing and innovation at the middle level the crucial retail applications level will attract many competitors who will have no choice but engage in a ruthless evolutionary melee in order to survive. Consumers would reap the benefits of low prices and innovative, powerful services.

It Might Even Work—At a Price
It is clever. It might even work.

In Singapore. As a National policy. And anywhere that the national government is willing to subsidize a full new fiber network to the tune of 25% of its total costs. Anywhere where it can dictate the terms of the new networks operation in order to ensure the incumbents don’t kill competition in its cradle. (The incumbent phone and cable companies are among the bidders for the new network.)

Notice that this plan involves the people paying a substantial subsidy for the development of a system that private corporations will end up owning. And those corporations will reap all the eventual profit.

That’s a deal only a authoritarian, corporate state like Singapore could love. It’s a high price to pay.

What people are seeking when they try something so draconian is to realize the promise of competition in a framework that has been fundamentally hostile toward competition. (And well, maybe, to provide a little grease for their friends…but let’s try to be generous). The hoped-for benefits are lower prices and a high level of innovation. Both are presumed to emerge “naturally” when you structure a natural monopoly so that the owners’ self interest is deployed in the service of the eventual consumers.

But there is another, simpler, surer, way to align the owners’ self-interest with that of consumers.

Lafayette’s way

You could make the consumers the owners, by the simple and time-honored device of making the natural monopoly a public utility. Then the owner-citizens would have no motivation at all to exploit the consumer-citizens…since they’d be one and the same. They could ask themselves for, and expect to get, lower prices and the sorts of services that appeal to them.

I can’t fathom why that can’t be a national policy as easily as giving away the farm.

“Cable TV may go à la carte”

There’s a little surprise for media watchers in today’s Advertiser: a media story that appears to have no immediate hook or sensational event to drive it to print. —A media story that seems simply to educate about an issue that consumers care about. And since Lafayette consumers will soon have a say about just how we structure our own cable offerings this is one of the few places where such an education might have practical consequences. Good for the Advertiser.

The issue is à la carte cable programming—the idea that you should be able to choose individual stations from a menu of choices instead of being forced to buy your cable programming in bundles determined by the seller. A short excursion into the phrase “à la carte” should be helpful in giving the cable story some context.


Á la carte comes from the French, and the restaurant trade there. It means “on the card”–on the menu. The contrast is between à la carte and prix fixe. The “fixed price,” prix fixe, is a full, usually multi-course, meal. There is no menu of choices. In the pure case all patrons eat the same meal and it is inexpensively priced for the courses offered. Some restaurants only offered fixed price—fixed choice menus. This option is rare in the states. Tujaques in New Orleans serves the same five course meal to all comers and is the only prix fixe restaurant I know of that survives—and it was an old institution when people now old were young. American’s don’t go for fixed price/choice restaurants when they have a choice. What American restaurants from McDonalds to Galatoire’s share is the à la carte menu format.

That contrast makes it easier to see why the current prix fixe cable programming model offends people. And it makes clear why the cable people’s objections don’t seem very important to most US citizens. Cable providers say, as the story demonstrates, that allowing people to construct their own cable “meal” from a menu of choices might end up causing their customers pay more.

They claim to object to that.

Sharon Kleinpeter, vice president of public relations for Cox Communications’ Greater Louisiana Region, says it may do more harm than good in the pocketbooks of cable companies and customers.

While it’s pretty much true that an à la carte menu means less income for cable companies like Cox it is also pretty clear that it does NOT mean more costs for most consumers. Fixed price formats make it easy for the seller to minimize the costs for a deluxe meal…you can buy only what materials you need in quantity, and waste, server, and cook time is all minimized. A huge pot of a savory soup costs little to prepare and keep ready. Keeping five soup choices ready for the 5% of people who order is considerably more expensive. Galatoire’s is understandably more expensive than Tujacques for the “same” meal.

But we don’t all want the same meal.

If we don’t want a desert or a soup we don’t want to be forced to buy it and watch it go to waste. That is the real trouble with current cable business model and the cable companies are in the position of the old fixed price restaurants. They know that they can’t provide the same fare they’ve been providing without charging more if people are allowed to refuse to pay for the soup or the salad course or the drink. And they can’t charge enough more for the main course to make up the loss from selling far fewer high-margin salads and drinks. It is true that a change is not a good deal for those few patrons who continue to order the five course meal; those patrons will pay more. But most, history shows, won’t. And the average customer will pay less and cable companies will have less income–and have to work harder to get that income. In fact the average cable customer watches just seventeen channels, according to the FCC, the article says.

What is revealed is that the folks who want to eat cable modestly have been subsidizing the patrons who want the deluxe version. Those who would order all the fancy trimmings get it for the cheapest possible price. But those who only want a quick sandwich at the end of a hard day pay more. The many have been subsidizing the appetites of the few.

Consumer advocates have noticed:

Consumer Federation director of research Mark Cooper points out that the current system forces subscribers to subsidize channels they don’t watch.

“The current system requires everyone to subsidize ESPN viewers,” points out Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation director of research. “Why is the cable company making these choices for people?”

Well, the short answer to Cooper’s question is the same as it is for prix fixe restaurants: They can make more money with less effort off a large volume of business, much of which is low cost, than they can if most of their clientle is transformed into price-conscious consumers of only the products they like best.

The equasion is pretty simple and the same, both for the cable companies and for consumers. Where they differ is in what they want out of the relationship. And in cable, restaurants, and marriage that makes all the difference in the world.

Something for us to think about here in Lafayette where the owners of the restaurant are the customers. How do we want to arrange our video world?

Lagniappe: If you’d like to look at the article in Gannett’s “The Tennessean” that apparently inspired this story you’ll find some interesting details about federal policy, the role of advertising in this game and other fascinating (to a few) bits and pieces neither I nor our local reporters bothered with.

Net Citizenship and You

Food For Thought: Wouldn’t you rather your master be you?

I’m going to have to lay out an unfamiliar thesis: You, fair reader, are almost certainly not on the internet. Not really. You are a second class citizen who is not allowed to make many of the most basic decisions that full members are free to make; you are a dependent of your modem and the wireline owner it is connected to. Generously: you are a client of AT&T or Cox or ____ (your local duopolist here). Less generously: you are a second class citizen of the internet allowed only the access that Big Daddy allows you. And Big Daddy, as in Tennessee Williams’ play, is more interested in wealth and power than he is the welfare of his dependents.

Full citizenship on the web can be defined simply enough: full citizens can use their connection in any way that they want. They are independent actors who are free to make available or view anything.

That’s not you.

Take a look at your TOS (Terms of Service). Cox and AT&T’s, for instance, do meaningfully differ. But they agree about the essentials that concern us here:

1) You are the client, clients of clients are forbidden; you may not distribute service to others,
2) You can’t talk bad about Big Daddy, (e.g.: Customer is prohibited from engaging in any other activity, whether legal or not, that AT&T determines in its sole discretion, to be harmful to its subscribers, operations, network(s). This includes … or which causes AT&T or the AT&T IP Services to be viewed unfavorably by others.)
3) Free speech? No sucha thing. They get to say what you can say. (e.g.: “Cox reserves the right to refuse to post or to remove any information or materials from the Service, in whole or in part, that it, in Cox’s sole discretion, deems to be illegal, offensive, indecent, or otherwise objectionable.
4) No Free Enterprise. You can’t sell things, for that you need the master’s special permission and a (higher-priced) service, regardless of how much traffic you use,
5) It’s not your connection. “Unlimited, always-on” connections are both limited and subject to an abrupt end. AT&T is bizarrely vague while Cox gives clear limits–which are seldom enforced. It’s not your connection; you need to remember that.
6) Your client status is a privilege, not a right. They can kick you to the curb at any time using whatever rationale seems most useful at the moment. (e.g.: Customer’s failure to observe the guidelines set forth in this AUP may result in AT&T taking actions anywhere from a warning to a suspension of privileges or termination of your Service(s). …AT&T’s decisions with respect to interpretation of the AUP and appropriate remedial actions are final and determined by AT&T in its sole discretion.)

7) Lucky 7 Laigniappe clause: Masters don’t have to follow the rules, only clients. (e.g.: AT&T reserves the right, but does not assume the obligation, to strictly enforce the AUP.)

You are in a master-client relationship with your network provider. You are NOT a full citizen of the internet. Your “location,” your IP address belongs to someone else. They have an assured, static IP. You do not. As long as they own that property you are dependent upon them and they can dictate the terms of that use.

Be aware that this is not the way it was supposed to be. The internet, right down to its IP core was designed around your freedom to connect.

One way of looking at network citizenship is through the lens of internet protocols and the operation of “the end to end principle.” From wikipedia:

The end-to-end principle is one of the central design principles of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) widely used on the Internet as well as in other protocols and distributed systems in general. The principle states that, whenever possible, communications protocol operations should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resource being controlled.

That’s a mouthful. Translated: The internet is designed as a transmission device that is supposed to be controlled by those on ends of a communication. You and the person at the other end. A request from one end is simply passed on to the other end—no single positive, centrally-controlled “circuit” exists. No controller stands in the middle. This is in contrast to the underlying design of the phone network with its centralized circuit switching system that designates a circuit for you and holds it open. (We’re talking about protocols, now….not physical implementation or the practical experience of users.)

Net neutrality battles are raging around the edge of this nascent war. We want to be full citizens of the new order. The incumbents would prefer that we be clients, vassels, and that they be the masters. Right now they are winning. Right now few of us even realize that current order is not necessary or natural—it was arranged for somebody else’s benefit; not for ours.

It really is that simple.

What we need to recognize is the nature of the war. What we need to be fighting for is ownership of our own connection. For full citizenship. To kill the Master-client relationship that constrains our current access to the network.

Ownership of the network is the most complete solution. Any limits we impose on ourselves are limits that we impose; they are not the dictates of the master. We may start out copying what we know in some ways. But that won’t last.

Lafayette, with its community-owned, fiber-based network utility is a good example of how that will work. From the begining things will be different here. We’ll have static IP addresses…and a lot of potential will flow from that. We’ll have full access to the speeds and capacity of our own network–that is what the 100 meg intranet is all about. As it becomes more and more obvious that many of the limits imposed by the current owners are not natural and not in the interests of users we’ll change those aspects as well.

That’s the real value of the battle fought and won here in Lafayette.

Worth thinking about…

Laptops in Schools: A tale of two cities

The Gist: Regional cities are getting laptops to school kids. Both in Birmingham, Al and in Alexandria, La. I’m envious.

If you are interested in the intersection of computers and education the big news this week is that Birmingham, Alabama has announced its intention to buy 15,000 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) computers for its elementary and middle school students.

That’s right, the struggling steel city a few states to the east.

The Dream — OPLC and Birmingham
The OLPC program, attuned readers will know, is a product of the fertile imagination of Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. It’s the famous “$100 dollar laptop” that has been widely touted in the media. It’s been grandly promoted as a project to put a computer in the hand of every child in the world. The purpose laid out on the website is only a bit less grandiose:

OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.

It’s not just a nifty computer we’re talking about; it’s a nifty networked computer—which is an entirely different animal. Each machine is capable of using wifi and creating a node in a mesh network—the machines create an ad-hoc network that extends any user’s connection to all the other computers in the neighborhood. That opens up large areas for collaboration with local users and potentially with any internet user world-wide. Spend a moment thinking about that. Of course the reliance on ad hoc mesh networking introduces both speed and reliability issues that the OPLC people don’t talk about. But the integration of networking into the core makes applications which were previously impossible to consider because of the lack of infrastructure pretty easy. Kids won’t need to go offline to work together.

Negroponte’s TED talk is worth a watch if you’d like to get a flavor of the project..and the man. While the ideal of building a machine for every child is a bit grand, less grandly, the OLPC laptop is a tour de force effort to make networked computing technology affordable, durable, power efficient, usable and cheap. In a phrase: a cheap utilitarian commodity. The computing industry hates it. They’re too close to a commodity already.

OLPC also offers a frontal challenge t0 both the software industry and the educational community. The radical software innovations start with the operating system. In contrast to the “modern” desktop and document metaphor popularized by the Macintosh the “Sugar” interface operates on a social-activity metaphor (see guidelines) where the central visual organizer is organizing ongoing activities around the child. (Literally central–the image at right with the child in the center of their ongoing set of activities is the equivalent of the desktop in the Sugar interface.) The challenge to the educational community is embodied in that metaphor—the organizing principle of the educational arm of the project is that learning consists not in storing facts but in successfully joining ongoing activities. (Just for the record: this is NOT far out; Most modern educational frameworks for learning theory since the the 1890’s take a version of this stance. It’s practice that has lagged.)

Looked at in that way one has to wonder whether the florid global ambitions of the OLPC aren’t, in fact, a way to distract observers from the really ambitious project that lurks in the background: to transform modern computation and software so as to drive a fundamental change in educational practices–in learning– in the 21st century. (Now there is a really grandiose, if noble ambition. If that is the hope, then putting the idea that they want to give every child a laptop front and center is a way of being modest.)

That’s what the city down the Interstate is getting into.

The Dream—Alexandria
Now laptops in the schools are not new…Apple, in particular, has a long history of pretty aggressive marketing into schools and once produced a set of rugged laptops (example, emate 300 at right) tricked out with kid-driven software and extensive online support. Maine was an early adopter has had a successful laptop program for years. (Negroponte was associated with it in the early years.)

That legacy lives on. Now it has come to Alexandria, Louisiana.

A recent Town Talk editorial lauded a Louisiana/Apple program that has put Macintosh laptops in local schools:

“Turn On” has put laptop computers into the hands of children in 54 of the state’s public schools. In Central Louisiana, Bolton High School students received laptops at the start of the school year. Now Cottonport Elementary School and Mary Goff Elementary School sixth-graders have received them.

Twenty years ago, computer literacy was optional. Not any more. Today it is fundamental to the working world and to an individual’s ability to succeed.

…It is no surprise that Gov. Kathleen Blanco has helped to get the “Turn On” program going in Louisiana. Blanco has been out in front of significant technological initiatives during her tenure, including the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise Center.

The Problem
Lafayette prides itself on being a progressive city…going for something like this seems an obvious addition addition to a city-wide fiber and wireless build. Programs like Maine’s, Birmingham’s, and the one in Louisiana use laptops because they give each child learning tools both at school and at home. Apple’s program requires that schools have a good internet connection in order to be considered—one of its few real requirements. Where these programs run into trouble is with having easy, fast access at home. No school system can mandate that homes have an adequate connection; there is not only the cost, but some homes or apartments in every district simply cannot buy, at any price, a reasonably fast connection.

But bandwidth is essential to the vision. And not having a fast connection available in every home has been THE major stumbling block in pushing the use of network-based learning.

Nation-wide folks like Apple have simply had to compromise the vision. No comprehensive assignments can be made for completion at home. No teacher can assume that learning, practice, and reinforcement are available anywhere but in the school itself. That limitation keeps anyone from seriously designing programs that really encourage the habits of life-long learning that a dynamically changing society has come to demand.

Testing the idea of pervasive, always-on learning hasn’t been possible.

OLPC’s ad-hoc mesh networking comes as close as anyone has to proposing a viable solution to the lack of universal, always-on broadband service. A laptop taken home wouldn’t be assured of a connection to either their fellow students or the internet. Mobile Ad hoc mesh networking only works even half-reliably in the confines of a small area–like a school. Because it implicitly relies on one connection to the larger internet it is limited to dividing the available bandwidth (usually a small fraction of wifi’s potential bandwidth) it is, on its best days, slow. Video “show and tell” using cheap, built-in cameras like those found in Alexandria’s Macintoshes isn’t possible–and a whole range of program and screen sharing capacities are but theoretical dreams given those limits. But the OPLC implementation of networking is the best solution for collaboration that I can imagine without comprehensive support from the surrounding community. After all the OPLC was designed for use in third world countries where the village simply doesn’t have any way to provide connectivity. Some of the laptop’s most widely praised features result from its not being able to count on reliable electricity; in those places local networking can only come from the computers themselves.

But here, in these United States, electricity isn’t an issue. We could provide robust pervasive wireless access. If we had the will. That is what the wireless municipal dream has been about. (While I have critiqued the simplistic version of that dream it was never the dream I distrusted—only the suitability of the tools to realize it and the unwillingness of some promoters to deal with the weaknesses of their plans.)

A Solution; The Dream — Lafayette
Lafayette will soon have a functional fiber-optic network in a every corner of the city. A wireless network hooked into the fiber at every other node will closely follow that build. At the end we’ll see the nation’s first integrated fiber-optic/wifi network with speeds on both sides funded by 100 megs or more of bandwidth. Each wifi node could, if we chose, distribute 50 megs of bandwidth to its local area. That’s enough to provide more than enough bandwidth for all the kids on the block to use good quality mpeg-4/H.264 video for their collaboration–even at home. Lafayette’s kids could do screen sharing and use whiteboarding applications.

It would be easy to lock a code into the laptops that would give them special speeds and access privileges to school-provided programs. The school system and even individual classes could tunnel their own VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) to provide tools and security. None of this is technically difficult. Access control and provisioning have all been more than adequately developed on university and large corporate campuses.

There’s grant money going begging and imaginative projects that lack grant support only because no one can imagine where the bandwidth to use them will be widely enough available to justify helping out.

With the essential, fast, universal infrastructure in place, the only limits for Lafayette would lie in our imagination and in our willingness to boldly use public assets for the public good.

Worth thinking about, don’t you think?

We’re Already Cyborgs

Sunday Food For Thought Dept.

Take a gander at a recent Wired Magazine article for something to chew on intellectually. “Your Outboard Brain Knows All” takes off from a recent study that shows that younger (and presumably more techy) folk have poorer memories than older ones:

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative’s birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

That last sentence pretty much sums up the story. But if you’d like the explicit version:

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I’m talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us. [emphasis mine]

The author, it seems to me, is right. We’ve woken up in the future and are already linked into the net in ways that aren’t so visually dramatic as we might have seen in Star Trek (and yes, that’s “Jean Luc Picard” as Locutus Of Borg at the head of the entry) but are every bit as real socially and personally.

Not only do I google items when I am on the phone, my daughter calls me on the phone in order to have me google stuff for her when she traveling with her cell but without direct access to her own “outboard brain.”

Another striking bit:

What’s more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I’ve been blogging for four years, which means I’ve poured out about a million words’ worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don’t even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I’d forgotten I knew — it’s what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an “outboard brain.”

It’s a nice treat to find that occasionally a fiber topic I’ve searched for returns Lafayette Pro Fiber as the top hit. I am generally surprised at how much sense those guys make. 😉 I’ve learned to Google for my own work rather than make any effort at all to recall when and in what context I wrote something.

And it’s not just the net. My laptop holds more of my life than I can easily recall existing–what was I doing in April 6 years ago? I don’t know. But my iCal calendar program does. Ditto for birthdays or the last time I went to the doctor. When did I first run across a particular author? Well a content search of my laptop will reveal the date I first entered anything by him in email, an article, or my old hand-made HyperCard reference library. My email archive is a treasure trove of history about myself that I’d forgotten.

And I rely on all that “offloaded” memory on a regular basis. It’s part of my life and a resource I count on. It’s “my” memory every bit as much as something I “wrack” my brain to remember. And it is a good bit more reliable.

We are already cyborgs.

For my money, it’s a good thing.

Of course not everyone is so sanguine—there is a real fear of, if not losing our humanity to the Borg, then at least becoming less capable people because of it. That’s not a new fear. No less than Plato feared external memory (in the form, gasp!, of writing) would lead men to let their memory atrophy and lose the basis for true human wisdom.

Plato wasn’t entirely wrong. Anyone with any pretension to learning in that day and age could recite long epic poems that very few in our day would bother to learn. Part of the art of rhetoric was memory practices. But the Greeks and Romans adapted. They decided that perhaps the ability to recite long poems wasn’t what really made a man learned. Ironically, the ability to ask the right questions, for which Plato/Socrates was famed, became much more important in determining who was wise.

That same sort of thing has been at work in our own day. Until recently we thought that the ability to parse logic and perform calculations were the indisputable signs of high intelligence. Then computers got so easy to use and so ubiquitous that no one had to be able to do math in order to possess its power. Now being able to do long calculations in the head is merely a quaint skill, not quite on the level of reciting epic poetry, but clearly approaching it.

As terabytes of storage go on sale at Best Buy, as flash memory lets you store gigs of data in your pocket, as laptops that would have recently been classified as supercomputers too powerful to export legally show up at WalMart, as we locally share a 100 meg intranet and a truly capable and ubiquitous wifi net it is interesting to wonder what we’ll come to think of as valuably and uniquely human.

People will have levels of memory, calculation, speed, and depth of access to facts that savants in earlier eras could not match. I don’t imagine that making those abilities common will make our land as much better a place as the savants might have imagined.

But it should be interesting to see what we do with our new powers. And what we come to value in ourselves instead of those things.

Coming Soon: aL, La and the Magical Municipal Tour

As we head to the end of this year, the pace of progress on the LUS fiber project is increasing. The electronics vendor has been selected; property for the head-end has been purchased; a building for that is not far off.

Some of the specifics of the network offerings have become public, the most notable of which is the fact that every LUS fiber customer will have 100 megabits per second of in-system connectivity. What that means is that Lafayette will have an intranet that will rival any corporate or academic campus in the world.

This will create the opportunity fundamentally change life in Lafayette. With that much in-system bandwidth available, it will be possible for a new, asynchronous Lafayette to emerge — asynchronous Lafayette, Louisiana (aL, La).

Lafayette and The Network

The power of networks to drive change is well documented. There is Metcalfe’s Law. There is the fabulous, thought-provoking 2002 book by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: The New Science of Networks, which explores the power of networks and what new, more powerful networks mean for science, business and everyday life. I’m sure you can find other examples and references.

Because of the design of the LUS network and the commitment to create an intranet for customers of that network, Lafayette is going to be a community where the impact of this meeting of network power and the various aspects of network connected life will be explored first. We will be pioneers on the great adventure that will not come to other communities in our country and the world for years — if not decades — to come.

All that bandwidth will mean that access to aspects of life Lafayette will no longer be tied to time. That is, large swaths of public life in Lafayette will migrate to a point where access to events will no longer depend on your ability to physically show up. Any public event in Lafayette will have the potential to be preserved for posterity.

The path to opportunity in Lafayette will run along the ability of government, companies, institutions, associations, clubs and individuals to push the transition from ‘Lafayette in the now’ to ‘asynchronous Lafayette.’

The LUS fiber system and the intranet capability it will provide its customers will make it difficult to leave Lafayette. Life will be different from other places here. We will miss the amenities that the fat connection that the LUS network will afford us. But, if we work this right, we will not have to miss Lafayette in the sense that more of our civic and social life can and will be made available to us via the network in ways that will not require our physical presence at the event in order to observe it or, in some cases, participate in it.

We won’t stop attending these events, but the LUS network will enable citizens here to experience more of Lafayette life because those events will be available to us at times that our hectic lives — family, work, and play — don’t currently allow. For instance, I like good music, but I can’t always find the time to say, go to a Louisiana Crossroads performance. Or, maybe I have to be out of town on the night that there’s a PASA show that I’d otherwise like to catch.

In asynchronous Lafayette, those events could be captured, stored and be made accessible to folks who can’t attend the live event — or who might want to experience the event from a different perspective.

This is one way that the network will set public life in Lafayette apart from life in other communities.

I think it’s important that we focus on this opportunity in order to ensure that the changes resulting from our new distinctiveness enable Lafayette to capture and leverage those aspects of our community that make us unique; that we use our infrastructure to knock down the barriers between us, not to widen existing gaps.

Here are some ideas of how the LUS network might enable asynchronous Lafayette to emerge.


This new infrastructure has the potential to improve the ability of citizens to participate in governmental processes with the result being that government becomes more responsive to them and their needs. In asynchronous Lafayette, public meetings will be recorded, stored and be able to be accessed by citizens who were not able to attend the meeting. Documents presented, discussed or distributed in the meeting will be available for viewing and downloading via the webcast (live and stored) of the session.

Those web-accessed meetings could also have links to allow citizen input on the process. It will mean a number of structural changes will need to take place. First, local government and agencies will need to put cameras and microphones in any room used for public meetings so that the sessions can be recorded. Second, they’ll need to invest in the storage capacity to allow these meetings to be tagged and archived for later access. Third, they’ll need to provided wider windows of opportunity for citizens to submit formal comment on proposals, issues and ordinances.

I’m not talking about the kind of Blog of the Banshees that the comment sections of The Daily Advertiser and other papers have become; but a formal channel for citizen comment and involvement that will become part of the permanent public record of the proceedings, even though the citizens might not have been present at the event when it actually occurred. Asynchronous access to government might actually lend itself to richer, more thoughtful citizen involvement by affording interested parties the opportunity to review the materials and sessions away from the heat of the moment.

Lafayette may need to come up with its own version of public meeting laws to ensure that our rich digital infrastructure is used to enhance citizen access to government and its decision-making processes.


In asynchronous Lafayette, students will never miss another day of class. That is, classrooms could be equipped with cameras and microphones which would enable teachers to deliver their course content in a real-time session that could be available to students too ill to attend class that day. The course could be accessed from home either via a video stream or accessed later when the student was feeling better. When I made this case to my daughter a couple of years ago prior to the fiber election, I have to admit that she was not wild about this idea.

The network will also facilitate more collaborative learning, as students, teachers, even researchers will be able to interact in real time with voice, data and video on projects ranging from homework to science projects to specialized research projects.


We can use this infrastructure to improve and enrich Lafayette’s cultural life and, in the process, bolster and sustain artists and the institutions that support them.

Asynchronous Lafayette will be a boon to businesses built around entertainment and culture. More specifically those places offering ‘live’ music are going to have a real opportunity to emerge as global purveyors of our musical culture. There’s a hint of what is possible by what’s transpired in Austin, Texas. Austin City Limits helped transform that city into a multi-media entertainment center, drawing musicians from around to world to a place that has no obvious other reason to attract them. The show now has its own music festival.

Big whoop.

Imagine asynchronous Lafayette, where we are capturing on video live performances at Grant Street Dancehall, the Blue Moon Saloon, Louisiana Crossroads, Festival International, Festival Acadiens, Downtown Alive, the Heymann Center, and other venues. We could establish our city as THE live music capital of the world by letting the world access all the great live music that we grow and bring here.

Put cameras in the venues, run a feed out of the sound boards and — voila! — shows could be streamed over the web and stored on servers here in Lafayette for later access. The webcast versions could be free or very inexpensive, serving to feed demand for the higher quality recordings of the sessions that could be produced from the archived digital files and sold at a premium.

I happened to catch T. Bone Burnett on The Charlie Rose show on LPB the other night. In that segment (he was on as the producer of the new Robert Plant and Allison Krause album Raising Sand), Burnett said that he believed the future of the music business would revolve around live performance. He added that he wanted to be involved with producing live shows and the recordings that resulted from them.

Asynchronous Lafayette will be ideally positioned to lead this transition by using our wired infrastructure to enable the capture of high-definition, high-quality recordings of all that great music that is some what wasted when it is only captured by the ears that are in the room.

It’ll take some server capacity (hey, Google and Sun both offer ‘Data Centers in a Box‘ that bring huge storage capacity in a modular unit that looks like a shipping container), but opportunities like this are going to abound in the arts in the new, wired, asynchronous Lafayette.


The strictly business crowd (you know, the folks who buy Dell and HP computers) won’t be shut out either. In fact, businesses in Lafayette are going to have a strategic advantage due to the bandwidth that the LUS intranet affords them. For starters, it will be possible for businesses in Lafayette to work in a more distributed way. That is, people here will really be able to telecommute (i.e., work from home) in ways that are just not possible now. Massive bandwidth will make information sharing easier so things like white board sharing over multiple locations will be able to take place seamlessly. This could be a key to our traffic problems since no one seems to want to pay for roads.

WebEx and similar services should be recruited to conduct pilots here because the kind of network capacity we have here is going to be a while in reaching the rest of the country. Imagine the possibilities that engineering firms located here will have to look at problems via a network, fashion solutions and get them to the fabrication floor in a much shorter cycle.

Healthcare and Public Health

Healthcare in Lafayette can be fundamentally different than it is in any other place in the country. Home monitoring of patients will be able to rival that currently available only in ICUs. Any kind of telemetry that can be captured from a patient in a hospital will soon be able to be captured from home via the network. This could reduce hospital stays and with that the cost of care — without adversely affecting the quality of care.

A few months ago, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals conducted a series of drills across the state to test preparedness for a potential flu pandemic. I happened to attend a meeting in a community where the results of one such drill were discussed. One aspect of the outbreak that the providers did not mention was the impact of an outbreak on the telecommunications system. In the event of an outbreak, there will likely be a good bit of what people near chemical plants know as “evacuation in place.” That is, people will be advised to stay home in order to avoid exposure to the virus that would be causing the flu outbreak.

With the robust telecommunications infrastructure that will be in place in Lafayette, we can diminish the extent of the outbreak by ordering children to stay home from school (with a wired community, teachers could teach from home to students at home). Some companies could have their workers stay home, using the network to conduct their work from there. All of this could have the effect of limiting the extent of the outbreak and, perhaps equally important, limiting the disruption on community life that such an outbreak would otherwise inflict.


People in Lafayette love sports and they particularly love watching their kids play sports. In asynchronous Lafayette, soccer, baseball, basketball and football games could be recorded, as well as swim meets, track meets, and other events could be recorded and shared. Sports leagues could use the network to produce highlights of games/tournaments, post stats, show standings, schedules and other key information.

Again, what will be needed are cameras, servers and the people to operate them.

Religious, Social & Civic Organizations

Churches, community organizations, civic groups will be able to record their meetings and make the content available to those unable to attend the live event.

Scratching At The Surface

Beginning sometime in late 2008 or so, LUS will begin offering services. At that point, the transformation of Lafayette and the potential it offers will move from the dream state to reality. The possibilities mentioned above are a wholly inadequate and incomplete list that doesn’t really even scratch the surface of the potential that awaits us.

Think about your current life in Lafayette. Think of how big bandwidth, affordable network technology can be used to enable you to to connect (or re-connect) to those aspects of life here that interest or intrigue you, but that your schedule will just not allow you to get to.

Thinking this way is how citizens are going to be able to transform life here. It will be a bottom-up process that will be built on the foundation of the Lafayette intranet afforded to us by the LUS fiber network. Digital technology has unleashed revolutions in video, audio, and communications in general. With the bandwidth available to each of us and the institutions we align ourselves with, we can — and will — define new ways of joining, belonging to and participating in these institutions and, through this process, change Lafayette.

This will be an opportunity unique to Lafayette in North America because we will be the largest, most diverse community with access to the fattest network pipes. We can pioneer new and unique approaches to civic, social, cultural and community life using the network, just as our geography shaped those aspects of our life here in the centuries leading up to this point.

As the network builds out and as we begin to capture the potential that our fiber infrastructure will offer us, asynchronous Lafayette can come to embody the notion that you never really have to miss Lafayette at all — at least, not any public event.

The time to think about how to turn that potential into reality is now, just as the LUS network itself is moving from the engineering tables to the streets.

This great adventure of asynchronous Lafayette is coming sooner than you think right down your street. The time has come to start preparing to take advantage of the opportunities that will abound. You’re only limit will be your imagination.

Step right this way!

$200 PC Available in Lafayette

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

Cool. And it’s especially great for Lafayette.

Why great for Lafayette?

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

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

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

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

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

The Other YouTube

ToDo & Sunday Thought Departments
Small Print Warning: some curriculum theory from a previous life—cleverly obscured—lies ahead. Please ignore. 🙂

Ok, we all know about YouTube–it is that silly-fascinating site where dogs ride skateboards and people spend a lot of time crying for a fascinated public.

Pure entertainment–in the bad sense of fascinatingly mindless distracting pablum.

But there is the other YouTube.

That YouTube that has created a brand new bottom-up educational format: the short video instruction. It’s fun, it’s popular, it works and it’s what entertainment can be in its best sense: a fascinatingly engaging way to learn. Most educational video shorts—let’s call them “instructables” so we have a less akward handle—are somewhere between two and six minutes long. They focus on some small bit of “doing” like making a nifty techno-toy, or showing a dance move, or throwing a pot on the wheel. The producers are most often advanced users and the consumers anyone who wants to learn “how.”

You might have watched some of these but didn’t have a category to put them in. Here is a nice little example for someone for whom the description doesn’t strike a cord:

That “instructable” is an example of “throwing off the hump.” Potters do that when they want to make a series of similar small items. It’s not an easy thing to describe–books, blackboards, and lecture-halls are not good mediums to convey that variety of learning. It’s the sort of thing that is more usefully “shown.” There is a whole class of things that we’d like to teach which are better shown than described; things that are better experienced than conventionally taught. Video isn’t perfect but these extremely short pieces of “conveyed experience” are very, very useful to the learner. The learner can see multiple examples (e.g.: another throwing off the hump). They are repeatable and they are deep. —Repeatable: if you didn’t see how he finished off the rim, watch it again. They are deep in the sense that by watching it a learner who has had his or her hands in clay can “feel” how thin those walls must be and get a sense for how much “wobble” is tolerated and how many times to “pull” up walls and what to do toward the final curve with each pull. All these things are (inadequately) discussed (at interminable length) in conventional classroom settings as preparation. But advisory rules about wall thickness and pulls are rather direct abstractions from experience whose utility lies in allowing the student to move more quickly and effectively to new experience. They are much better taught after as student has learned to throw a few forms as a way to move toward independent explorations.

(If you can’t get into potting, try the Zydeco demo, or the instructions for making cool LED “throwies” and re-read the above paragraph with your example in mind. You could find similar instructables for welding, making lures, cooking creole, or applying makeup. There is a whole DIY section for you to browse. Let your passions rule)

We don’t teach by example in schools because we don’t have the time. There are too many students in our classes for many of the most effective kinds of instruction to be possible. Instructables approach the one-on-one experience of tutorials. You watch at your own pace, you notice what is meaningful to you, and you can get repeated examples until you “get” the right approach. A real tutorial with the added dimensions of individualized feedback and things like force feedback (holding the students hands against the clay to give the “feel” of the appropriate pressure) would be even more valuable. Even so, instructables are new and valuable form.

This is one of the reasons you should want big bandwidth. To really see some of the details on the potting example you’d want HD-quality videos. I can imagine getting more personalized instruction from afar–if we had the bandwidth. A skilled potter (or master welder) in Lafayette could set up a nice shop and market personalized instruction over the net—if both ends had really big bandwith.

Just for the record: the usefulness of this technique is not, in my judgment, limited to vocational topics or hobbies. Showing and having the student find ways of solving a problem is central to good mathematics instruction. Learning to read is something that has to be shown; letter sounds can pretty much only be “labled” correctly after a student has learned sound out letters by example… Much conventional instruction could be replaced or aided by providing multiple, repeatable, deep examples.

So…something ToDo on this Sunday when you really ought to be at Festivals Acadiens if you are an Acadiana denizen. And something to think about.

PS: Yes, yes…we just got a wheel. What of it? 🙂

Update: 7:28: ooops. I just looked at Boing Boing for the first time in weeks and down the list I spoted a nifty link to how to make clear ice cubes. So naturally I followed it (well, naturally for me). The link goes to a site called “instructables!” I thought I had made up that term–but now it seems more likely that I’ve seen a reference to this site. Which is pretty neat place to visit. (The ice cube link? Right here.)

Boosting Lafayette’s WiFi

Worth Thinking About Dept.

Executive Summary: Wireless provider FON’s recent successes provide an intriguing example for those interested in LUS’ still-unformed wi-fi network.

Recently BT (Britain’s dominant broadband provider) and Time-Warner cut deals with the Spanish wireless outfit FON. FON’s goal is to foster wi-fi bandwidth sharing among its membership, “foneros.” These recent deals are considered breakthroughs because they explicitly encourage users to share their bandwidth, something that network companies have previously forbidden.

The FON Idea:
Any foneros that freely shares their access can get on to any FON access point in the world for free. The company’s ground-up, user-built approach to building a hotspot network contrasts pretty dramatically with the top-down methods by major wireless and phone service providers who build, maintain and charge a healthy fee to access their hotspot network.

While the FON plan sounded impractical to some it gained a prestigous group of backers even before the major partnership announcements in Europe, Britian, and the US; investors include: Google, Skype, Index Ventures, and Sequoia Capital. The latest round of investment brought in major Japanese players and BT invested in the company as part of its deal.

The deals cut with network providers BT (#1 in Britain), Neuf (#2 in France) and Time-Warner (#2 cable internet provider in the US) provide instant credibility for FON’s idea. All those networks’ members (Time-Warner has 6.6 million users) are now “foneros” and wi-fi routers supplied by the company have been flashed with Fon’s software. Future broadband subscribers will be encouraged to buy FON routers and share their connections. In Britain, as a result of BT’s dominant position and high adoption rates, speculation holds that dense urban areas will be nearly completely covered by the FON/BT network.

How it Works:
The new FON member attaches the FON-enabled wi-fi access point to the wired network connection they’ve paid for. FON wi-fi access points are cheap (occasionally free) and are software-configured to provide a public channel and a private, seperately encrypted, channel. The owner of the access point uses the private channel for their own, interior, at-home wi-fi network. The public channel’s bandwidth is controlled by the owner; who limits the bandwidth that is shared with fellow foneros to a portion that doesn’t degrade his or her experience. (Note: there is an alternative make some money off your access if a non-fonero member decides to pay for access through your node.)

The users get free wi-fi access across the world in exchange for giving up a little bandwidth that they feel they don’t need. FON makes deals with the big providers. The big network providers get instant, user paid-for and user-maintained wi-fi networks to brag on and sell to consumers.

There are advantages besides the obvious laptop uses you see at any coffee house in the city. Having a widely-available wi-fi network means that users of wi-fi enabled phones and devices (think certain PDAs, Nokia phones, and the iPhone) could effectively make phone calls for free from FON hotspots in addition to surfing the web, using email, and working other data-based interactions over the net. There would be no additional connection cost over what they’d already paid for their home network for the connections made away from home.

Whoa! But there ARE problems:
But eager investors and growing user-base based on huge, established ISPs does not mean that all is rosy in Fonero Land. FON is faced with a perverse inverted reflection of the problems of wi-fi based muni broadband efforts.

I’ve discussed the problems of muni wi-fi at some length on these pages. Some of it boils down to the fact that mesh-based muni networks find it hard to provide adequate backhaul unless they have a dense fiber network to hang it off. (We’ve got that one licked here in Lafayette.) But the second part of the problem is that the constraints placed on wi-fi restrict it to low power and its spectrum allocation is such that wi-fi signals find it hard to penetrate dense vegetation and, especially, houses. Most people compute indoors. A public wi-fi network that has a hard time reliably getting inside homes and that makes for a very hard sell as a primary network. (LUS has tentatively solved this by selling fiber as the primary interior connection and making city-wide wi-fi an appropriately cheap add-on that will not be sold as suitable for in-home use.)

If muni wi-fi’s acess-point-on-a-street-pole can’t get in to homes, by the same token FON’s bottom-up in-home network is going to find it hard to get out to the public areas of the neighborhood.

What’s needed is a wireless system with the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither…

You see it coming, right?
LUS should either partner up with FON or do something similar themselves. (FON’s software is not unique; other, open source software could emulate the basic capacities of the FON wi-fi router.)

LUS will be in a nearly unique position: it will have a FTTH network and a wireless one. The question, as always, is: How to best make use of the unique resources we are building in Lafayette. So far, in my humble opinion, LUS has mostly been making the smart moves. Fiber First is smart–the smartest basic move possible. That makes a strong wireless network possible. Given that starting point, it is smart to go ahead and build wireless mobile capacity as LUS is planning to do. It’s smart to not pretend that wi-fi can be an adequate substitute for a reliable, wired network. LUS isn’t doing that; instead LUS’ wi-fi will be positioned, as it should be, as a low-cost mobility addition. What is ironic is that Lafayette’s wireless network, while relegated to secondary status locally, will be faster and more reliable than any public wi-fi network in the nation; its dense fiber connectivity and the design decision to avoid more than rudimentary use of mesh re-routing assures that.

But, as smart as all that is, LUS’ muscular wi-fi network will still have trouble getting into the home. Coverage will still be spotty and shifting–like cell phone coverage is, only more so. All that is a matter of physics and federal regulation — no amount of smart network design can completely eliminate the issue.

The smart way to minimize coverage problems is to provide both the muni solution for outside, public space and a FON-style solution for interiors. And because LUS will control both sides we can do what nobody else can: integrate the two. LUS would provide coverage on the streets and in public spaces. Subscribers, using FON equipment or similar router software cover their own interiors and their yard away from the street to exactly the degree they find useful for their own private, locked-down wi-fi channel. Piggybacked onto that would be a second, public, channel that would be available to all LUS subscribers. It’d be used by meter readers, police, friends, and folks visiting town who’ve bought the the three-day pass—and Foneros if we go that route. (If we join FON local subscribers could roam on FON points anywhere.) As long as you were visiting locales that used LUS fiber you’d never have to log into a private network. As a mobile user moved down streets, into offices, and visited friends they could, potentially, remain on the public network the entire time and never have to log into anyone’s private network or use any resources that weren’t public.

Near-ubiquity of coverage would allow VOIP phones could become truly useful in the city, making truly mobile wi-fi telephony a reality. WiFi-enabled handhelds, from iPhones, to Blackberries, to Nokia phones, to Skype phones, to various “smart” PDA hybrids would become reliably useful without having to buy into expensive packages from cellular providers, enabling a whole new class of network devices to become cheaply available to everyday Lafayette users.

The Bottom Line:
LUS could sweeten the pot for its subscribers by providing each broadband customers that agrees to share using the LUS-approved equipment and software with an extra meg of “langiappe” bandwidth so that sharing actually provides a small boost in capacity for the subscriber who bought their own router and occasionally shared their extra capacity. Recall also that LUS will (again almost uniquely) be providing every user unthrottled in-system bandwidth. Wi-fi routed packets that stayed inside our system would be under that local use umbrella. The relatively small bandwidth diverted to wifi sharing will be a mere drop in the bucket for the LUS user in that instance.

Lafayette’s resulting wi-fi service would be as nearly flawless as is humanly possible both inside and outside. Segregating public and private networks would increase the security of the subscribers’ personal networks; making wifi networks more secure for regular users than they are today. Subscribers would understand that coverage inside their homes was their responsibility while at the same time gaining access to the public network everywhere. As users found holes in coverage in places where they needed it they could simply move their wi-fi point or add a cheap repeater.

The net effect for LUS would be that the users would plug many of the holes in the city’s cloud themselves–at their own expense–when they felt they needed coverage and only when they did. The resulting network with public channels available both inside and outside participants’ buildings would be more dynamic and more nearly ubiquitous than any in the country. And ubiquity is the major selling point of any wireless mobility network.

The net effect for users would be a robust public network that was available both inside and outside wherever the people that lived or worked there thought it would be useful. That’s simply unavailable anywhere else. A user’s laptop would be more useful than ever. And mobile devices of all kinds would bloom in Lafayette as the price premium for service vanished.

It would be a very profitable collaboration between the community’s telecom utility and its citizen-owners; a collaboration available to almost no one else.

Worth thinking about, don’t you think?

(And a thanks to reader Jon who first pointed me at the BT story….)

“New” Web Business Models in Lafayette

Food For Thought Dept.

Here’s something worth thinking about: Arguably a Lafayette firm is running its business based on what web-folk will tell you is the hottest new cutting edge business model. That firm, as reported by the Advertiser’s Bob Moser, is Fugro Chance. Fugro Chance is a survey company specializing in the Gulf of Mexio. It sells its ability to locate things accurately on a map. That is its product. But Chance appears to know that what has really kept in it in business for 30 years is trust: its customers believe that they can trust them to locate things accurately and they trust Chance isn’t about to turn their special knowledge into an excuse to rip off their customers. So their customers return…

What got Furgo Chance an admiring piece in the paper is that they gave away their most valuable product, a comprehensive map of the pipelines, old and new, active and inactive, in the Gulf, for free. Apparently no one else has the history and focus to match their expertise and after the storms of ’05 ripped up the Gulf offshore platforms an accurate map of the pipelines was crucial to quick, efficient recovery. Everyone from FEMA to 200 industry insiders needed the map. They got it. From the story:

They could have charged thousands of dollars for this map, and most would have paid it. But this mainstay of oil and gas mapping knew what was right, says Marine Data Manager Lionel Cormier. Plus, generosity builds loyalty.

“We e-mailed pdf files (of the map) possibly to 200 people within a few weeks of the hurricanes, it was a handout to the industry,” Cormier said. “We felt we were the only one who could produce that map in that timeframe. … There was more to win than to lose.”

That might not strike you as exactly a hot, new, cutting edge business strategy. It might seem remarkably long-sighted in a business climate that trumpets short-term gains and ruthless, immediate, exploitation of every advantage over you customers as a some sort of business virtue leading to “maximizing ROI.” You may remember a time when people understood that greed wasn’t good business. But this approach to business probably doesn’t strike you as new; rather it seems like the “old” model.

But that might be because you’re from down the bayou…from a place where shopkeepers used to give away lagniappe in an effort to give “a little extra” in the form of an inexpensive treat for the kids or the customer. That little extra served to prove that the transaction wasn’t purely motivated by faceless profit-taking; that the store owner was willing to give a little back in a form that acknowledged the life of the customer.

Not everybody has that, or a similar experience, in their history.

There’s a lot of hoo-ha online about “new” business models (for example, Google) that involve giving away valuable products (like maps or search) and showing respect for your customers (by not abusing their trust) in return for customer loyalty toward your product (in Google’s case a tolerance for their advertising). Similarly Linux’s open source business model is built around a free “product,” the Linux operating system. What is sold is the expertise to extend the product and to provide high levels of support and integration. In a word: trust.

That trust-based business model is reported to be some sort of new discovery driven by network economics and constructed by brilliant young bi-coastal entrepreneurs and especially suited to the internet’s economy.

Now giving away your central product–as Google arguably does with its search engine results—might seem a new element that would justify.

But right chere in Lafayette, cher, there is the example of Furgo-Chance; who operates successfully in the cutthroat oil industry to prove that the gift economy—the framework for understanding Google, Commons-based peer production, and the open source buisness model—isn’t particularly new nor something particularly suited to the internet.

The old and the new collide in Lafayette. It’d be a good thing—and a wise thing—if local tech businesses were to learn the lessons taught by both Linux and old french shopkeepers: business is about Trust. Dollars are a by-product.