“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.

It’s Not News

For anyone in Lafayette it’s not news: Cable companies faced with real fiber networks like to pretend that they too have fiber-optic networks. The Me Too, Mee Tooo!! claim has long become tiresome here.

Now the rest of the nation is getting the same sort of misleading PR that Cox has been promoting here since they lost the fiber fight. (Before that moment they told us we didn’t need and didn’t want a fiber to the home network.) From an AP story datelined New York:

The picture on his TV would freeze now and then, and he had heard good things about FiOS. Then the 21-year-old student saw a TV commercial from Comcast that made fun of FiOS and claimed the cable TV company has a larger fiber-optic network…

But after asking around online, he found that nothing’s changed about Comcast’s service: It still uses coaxial cable to connect homes. It does use fiber-optic cable further away in the network, as it has for many years.

“From what everyone said … this is kind of misleading,” Axel said.

Axel had fallen for one of a series of commercials run by every major cable company that competes with Verizon’s FiOS. Besides Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Charter have all run ads belittling FiOS.

Verizon’s FIOS fiber-optic network which is very different from, and much more powerful than, the cable companies’ tradtional hybrid fiber-coax networks, inspired the spate of misleading advertising from beleaguered cable companies that have to compete with Verizon’s more modern network.

Summed up:

“Cable is deploying the rhetoric instead of the technology,” said Verizon spokeswoman Bobbi Henson.

That’s pretty much the whole of it.

The article outlines several ads that range from misleading and confusing to outright deceit (the cable companies have had to pull several when challenged). There’s one from Cox that says that Cox had fiber-optics before the phone company…which is goes beyond tricky wording into flat-out lying. The phone companies were the first to commercialize the telecom technology.

Take a look at the story. It’s a rare instance when a major news outlet does anything like aggressive reporting on misleading advertising…after all, the cynic in me notes, that’s an important revenue source.

Expect more of the same FUD in Lafayette as the ad war here heats up in anticipation of LUSFiber’s January launch.

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.

Digital Arts in Louisiana & Lafayette

Here’s something that Lafayette ought to get one of: “Tipitinana’s Music Coop.” Or at least some of this funding for our native equivalent. An article in last week’s Advocate describes the concept and its utility:

[Tipitinana’s Coops] in New Orleans, Shreveport, Alexandria and now Baton Rouge provide workspace and office and production equipment for musicians and digital artists to help them make more money and fuel the state’s culture industry.

“It’s a job-skills training and economic development project,” said Todd Souvignier, technical director of the Tipitina’s Foundation who has spearheaded the opening of the co-ops.

For $10 a month, the co-ops give members access to technology — from conventional office machines to software such as Pro Tools and Final Cut Pro, “the kind of stuff real musicians need to get their hands on to do some real work.”

Souvignier said 1,200 musicians and digital artists use the various co-ops 12,000 times a year to check e-mail and make phone calls or faxes to book tours or use computers to make press kits, Web sites or MySpace pages.

As I understand it this is pretty close to the concept behind ACFM (Acadiana Center for Film and Media) But where Tipitinia’s starts with music and strays to video ACFM starts with film and strays to “media,” broadly understood.

Tipitina’s appears to be supported by grant funding with a small $10 dollar a month coop membership fee that could do no more than supplement the exterior funding. ACFM appears to impose no fee on users and has at least channels 15 and 16 on cable as farm league placement for the work of folk who do their production using the facilities.

Both concepts are good ideas in as far as they get the tools of production into peoples’ hands. There’s a lot of belief that the near future holds a lot of potential for media production moving away from the big centers and towards very local, artist and fan-produced works. If that vision is to be realized we’ll need lots of places like Tipitinas’ Coop and ACFM. It’s not enough for a thing to be possible–people have to be able to afford the tools and, even more crucially, find the community of folks that will help the learn how to use the tools well.

For my money, Lafayette could easily support both a Music-facing digital studio and a Video-facing one. You have to think the synergy would be good for both. And, you know, real soon now we’ll be getting an in-city network that will open up a 100 megs between local nodes on the LUS network. A Tipitianas or an ACFM could easily put together a “channel” on that kind of bandwidth. Either tap into the multicast stream or download from the growing archival library. It’d be an instant way to make good cultural use of the bandwidth we’ll have.

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

“LUS fiber project still on schedule”

The Advertiser published a small update on the LUS fiber project “LUS fiber project still on schedule” whose title just about says it all.

The headend building near the I-10/I-49 junction is now up; I was by there the other day and it is a solid looking building—massive prepoured concrete slab walls give a solid impression. It’s not the showcase building LUS might have originally wanted but it ought to weather the storms.

But here’s the part I liked; a quote from Huval:

“But I can tell you that it’s going to be everything we promised and more. We’ve got people working six-plus day weeks trying to make this thing happen.”

That’s what I like to hear. (Incidentally, I talked to one of the engineers in charge of the project the other day and from the way she described her job it sounds like the director’s description of the work week is pretty much literally true.)

Against the Grain

With the country sinking into a recession and the housing market collapsing nationwide it is somewhat comforting that Louisiana is going against the grain.

Loren Scott, the media’s go-to economist from LSU, predicts a continued strong economy and particularly a strong housing market in Lafayette according to an article penned by a local realtor in today’s Advertiser.

What did Scott say specifically about Acadiana? He noted many positive indicators including a low unemployment rate, a strong oil patch, a large number of building projects, LUS fiber system, hospital expansions, Acadian Ambulance expansion, Dynamic Industries contracts and discovery of more oil in the Gulf. In other words, Acadiana has a vibrant economy and an excellent housing market. They are predicted to remain strong for the next two years. (emphasis mine)

What’s interesting in the context of this site is that the LUS FTTH network has already graduated from a gee-whiz, that-would-be-neat-if-they-get-it status to an accepted, off-hand element in a list of strengths for the region.

Here’s to hoping that the lower prices, an amazingly advanced product, and better service that LUS Fiber are bringing will do its part in keeping the wolf from the door locally.

Video franchise bills all take; where’s the give?

The statewide video franchise bills up for consideration in the Louisiana Legislature are, in fact, bad news as John and the LMA (pdf) have made clear. But, based on the 2006 experience where only Governor Blanco’s veto prevented a version of this legislation from becoming law, I also believe it is clear that some form of this legislation is going to pass again this year and Governor Jindal will sign it into law.

First, let’s make clear that while AT&T is the prime mover of this legislation, the cable industry is on board. That’s because this legislation or a subsequent package will ultimately give cable companies the same freedom to cherry-pick and red-line neighborhoods that the phone company is seeking with these bills. They’ll demand a level playing field.

It was no accident that Cox Communications announced its latest rate increase just as the Legislature was heading into its Regular Session. That enabled the various astroturf movements to begin flooding newspaper editorial pages with letters to the editor, condemning the cable companies and singing the praises of competition.

Think of this as a choreographed fight for the benefit of the viewing audience, rather than a brawl. The cable companies and AT&T are partners in this dance. Cox stepped on a lot of consumer toes in order to make them receptive to the competition paeans that the phone company allies would produce.


That ability to selectively deploy new network technology is the heart of the issue.

How do I know this? Because John and I sat in on the 2006 negotiations on that year’s version of these bills when the phone company (still called BellSouth at the time) flatly refused to deal on offers that did not free them from community-wide build-out obligations.

What does this mean for communities? It means, for starters, that the State of Louisiana will become the official enforcer of the digital divide in our state; that is, enforcing that divide will become official state policy codified in the law.

Under current law, local governments have been able to require community-wide build-outs in their negotiations over franchise agreements. Under the three bills being offered in this session to create the statewide franchise, there will be no community-wide build out obligation.

That means that AT&T (but more likely, cable companies) will be able to deploy their new network technologies only in those neighborhoods that they believe will be most receptive to using it. Yes, I think cable companies will be the primary beneficiaries of this legislation because AT&T is not going to be making huge new infrastructure investments in Louisiana. They are carrying a heavy debt burden now and expecting things to slow down as the national economy moves into recession.

But, cable companies are already pretty well deployed across the state. Look for them to work to amend the legislation to allow them to selectively deploy new network technology in the communities where they are already in business under existing local franchise agreements. This will be a particularly attractive path for companies like SuddenLink that bought older networks in slower growth markets from Cox (Lake Charles and Alexandria among them) shortly after the Atlanta-based media company went private.

Consumers As Shields

AT&T and its allies are using the well-being of Louisiana consumers as the poster children for their argument to be relieved of the onerous burden of local franchise agreements. But, those are crocodile tears. In fact, most consumers will be losers as a result of this legislation.

How so?

It flows from the freedom phone and cable companies will have to bypass those neighborhoods that they deem not sufficiently attractive to them to warrant their network investments. When the insurance industry did this, it was called red-lining. When only the best neighborhoods are targeted, it is cherry picking. It is the preferred corporate way.

The fact is that there is no commonality of interest between these companies and most Louisiana citizens — or, for that matter, the best interests of the state. AT&T, Cox and others are focused on return on investments. Which is all fine and good for their stockholders. It is the American way.

But, there is a divergence of interests between the profit motives of those companies and the best interests of communities, particularly when it comes to the issue of access to modern network technologies. Access to those technologies is essential for the economic success of individuals, businesses and communities. With the video franchise legislation, the Legislature will be saying to the phone and cable companies that it is just fine with them if those companies want to exclude certain neighborhoods and communities from access to these technologies.

Combined with the burdens and limitations imposed on communities to act in their own interests on the matter of network technologies via the Municipal Fair Competition Act of 2004, the Legislature (and presumably Governor Jindal) will be handing over control of the economic fates of communities and neighborhoods to companies like AT&T, Cox, SuddenLink and others.

Where on the hierarchy of priorities — for investment, for deployment of new technologies, etc. — of those companies does the fate of those communities rank? With the limits placed by the so-called Fair Competition Act, this is a vital question because communities will have little or no recourse to the decisions that these companies make on matters about access to advanced to technologies.

Where’s the ‘Give’?

The statewide video franchise legislation would give the phone and cable companies everything they want. What are they giving up in exchange for this largess? So, far, nothing.

Recognizing the political reality that a few hundred dollars in campaign finance contributions from the phone company buys a lifetime of loyalty from legislators, I don’t believe there’s much chance to defeat this legislation. Some form of a statewide video franchise will emerge from this session and Governor Jindal will sign it.

Viewed from that perspective, what can communities take away from this battle? As matters stand, there is nothing in this legislation that benefits communities. As the record in North Carolina shows, consumers are not going to get benefits of competition that is, supposedly, at the heart of this stuff.

Legislators need to take their eyes off the corporations for just a few minutes and think about their constituents. The statewide video franchise will consign some number of citizens — primarily in middle and low income neighborhoods, to second class digital citizenship by relieve phone and cable companies of the obligation to include those neighborhoods in their new network build-outs.

This is a public policy disaster in the making that runs against the efforts of the state to upgrade the quality of the workforce here. The network tools needed for workers to fully participate in the connected workplace and the global economy will not be available to every one, only instead of a market failure, it will be the direct result of public policy.

The Fairness Doctrine

There is a way to lessen the negative impact of the statewide video franchise legislation. That would be to restore to communities the right to act in their own self interests in matters of network technology access.

That is, those interested in closing instead of widening the digital divide in Louisiana should move to amend this legislation to include a repeal of the Municipal Fair Competition Act of 2004.

The logic of this is rooted in the points made earlier: the interests of the phone and cable companies are separate and distinct from the interests of communities and, indeed, the state.

The only entities that are obligated to act in the interest of all citizens in communities are local governments.
As Lafayette has demonstrated, local governments have the technological skills and the financial means to act in their own self interests in the arena of network technology. LUS is in the process of deploying its fiber network now. By the end of the year customers will be able to sign up to get levels of network services that no other community in the state — and only a handful in the country — will be able to access.

Other local governments must have the freedom to act in the interests of their own citizens rather than be forced to stand idly by as these network builders shunt aside the interests and aspirations of large segments of their citizens.

The Municipal Fair Competition Act is a relic of a soon-to-be bygone era when phone and cable companies proclaimed that they sought to serve entire communities. Local governments should be freed to act to respond to the needs that these corporations are fighting for the right to ignore.

Repealing the ‘Fair Competition Act’ is a fair trade off for passage of statewide video franchise legislation. Doing so would free local governments to act on the interests of the community that the phone and cable companies do not share.

Amend the statewide video franchise bills to include a repeal of the Municipal Fair Competition Act. It’s in the best interest of Louisiana.

Cox to build Broussard’s WiFi?

There’s interesting by-play being reported in the Advertiser today. The town of Broussard, just south of Lafayette is set to renew its cable franchise with Cox….and install a government-use WiFi system there. Anybody besides me think this is the opening move in a years-long chess match between LUS and Cox in Lafayette Parish and Acadiana? From the short story:

The cable company has agreed to provide the city with wireless Internet for the police and fire departments and city administration. “We’ll pay a nominal fee for the service,” said Mayor Charles Langlinais shortly after the March 28 City Council meeting. “Whether they expand city-wide will be dependent on them.”
One point under negotiation has been the fact that the company is not required to provide service in rural areas, unless there are at least 40 residents per linear mile, Langlinais said.
Langlinais recommended lowering the number to 25 per mile, which he estimated will provide the opportunity for cable to most residents of the Broussard area.

There are at least three pieces of context that a reader should take into account.

  1. Cox does not, anywhere to my knowledge, do municipal wi-fi.
  2. Langlinais has been a very vocal supporter of the LUS project and
  3. Broussard has talked about putting up its own wi-fi system; a system which would have run afoul of the anti-Lafayette “Local Government Fair Competition Act.”

Juxtaposing those three reveals a nexus of conflicting interests and local politics. What’s going on? What are the interests of Cox, the city of Broussard, and local citizens?

Why would Cox offer a totally new service to a small town in south-central Louisiana? In doing this Cox is substantially adding to the list of things a local community can demand in its franchise agreements. Every city wants wifi. The cachet of being a wireless city is being pursued by cities ranging from tier 1 cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco to tiny places like Chaska, Minnesota. The idea that just any little city can forgo all the pain of building its own wireless net or enticing a commercial entry with tax funds, tax givebacks, or exclusive contracts in order to get them to do so is just stunning. If Broussard can just attach wi-fi to its franchise agreement upon renewal why can’t anyone? This is a big deal–perhaps a bigger deal nationally than it will be locally.

That Cox is willing to go this far reveals some things: This offer reveals that Cox takes widely-speculated-on elements LUS’ expansion very seriously and feels compelled to respond.

  1. They believe that LUS will build a wi-fi network as part of its fiber-opitc build. (I am confident they are right—but no such announcement has been issued.)
  2. They believe that LUS is poised to extend its retail telecom presence into the parish outside its traditional city footprint. (I think they are right—but no such announcement has been made.)
  3. They are terrified that the addition of wireless services will give LUS a large advantage. So large that they believe that Cox can’t afford not to respond with a preemptive product of its own even if it has to offer it out of sequence with its national plans. (Which, they have hinted, will someday include their own wireless product.)

As a consequence they are willing to use Broussard to place a roadblock to LUS’ expansion to the south even at some risk to its larger corporate interests. The City of Broussard won’t be available as an anchor tenant on any LUS system.

I won’t be shocked if Cox tries to launch such a system in Lafayette proper. But I will be surprised. Competing with LUS’ wireless system will be very hard: LUS will be running off a dense fiber network and that will enable it to run a system that will be as far ahead of other wifi networks as its FTTH system will be ahead of other wired competitors. I expect 30 times the bandwidth provisioning of conventional muni wifi networks. Entering into competition with that could be embarrassing.

Broussard & Langlinais
If Cox’s interests are clear, so are Broussard’s—and Langlinais’.

Municipal wifi is almost universally a mayoral project. Securing a major, new, hot, “visionary” service for its citizens (at no cost) has got to look good to any mayor.

That aside, Broussard is, I strongly suspect, playing a smart game with its franchise agreement. Typically municipalities have NO leverage come franchise renewal time. In the normal course of events the cable company knows that there is no practical chance a competitor will enter the fray and give local citizens choices. Given its practical monopoly status, no city council will dare endanger their citizen’s cable television shows. (You think potholes are a big local issue? Try disturbing a man’s Sunday afternoon football game. Or access to Opra. NO way.)

But Broussard has managed to get city-wide wifi (with a “possibility” of residential access). That alone is an amazing feat. Broussard is also negotiating with Cox for an expansion of its build-out. Changing from a density requirement of 40 per linear mile to one of 25 might not sound impressive to some. Such folks might want to take a good look a map of Broussard. Broussard—much more than any of the other communities surrounding Lafayette—has incorporated huge swaths of rural land with only the spottiest development. Some large tracts have no development at all. Changing this requirement will mean that many new areas will get service (and you can bet Mayor Langlinais knows just who should be grateful). Nation-wide the phone companies are driving hard to eliminate municipal franchising precisely so they won’t have to serve all parts of the community; especially poor and sparsely settled areas. Cable companies have mostly been going along, asking only for an equal ability to not serve whoever they don’t think will yield a large profit. What is not on the table is increasing build-out requirements during franchise re-negotiations.

Should this plan go through Broussard will have pulled of an almost unimaginable coup, getting governmental wifi, a potential retail wifi network, AND forcing Cox to serve a greater portion of its citizens. For this Langlinais and Broussard will owe the citizens of Lafayette who have created a credible competitive alternative to the local Cox cable TV monopoly a vote of thanks. (Eatel’s competition, those with long memories may note, did the citizens of East Ascension a similar favor.)

So the citizens of Broussard are in for what looks like a really good deal. At least in the short run. And for as long as neither the Feds nor the state of Louisiana succeed in stripping franchising power from local governments. But the citizens should be going down to the city council and asking some hard questions. Questions which will determine whether this short-term treat is a long-term good deal. I suggest starting with:

  1. How long will the new contract run? How long is the city locked into Cox as its wireless provider?
  2. Will Cox’s system have mobile capacity? (A huge advantage for police and firefighters.)
  3. How robust will the system be? (LUS’ will be huge–potentially running at 30 megs, a speed unheard of in muni wifi.)
  4. Is there any exclusivity element in the wifi agreement? Can others come in and compete?
  5. Does the city have any influence on what Cox charges its citizens in return for use of city-owned poles and rights-of-way?
  6. Is there any revenue sharing on the retail wifi end in return for the use of city property–as there is for Cox’s cable TV product?
  7. Just how “nominal” is the nominal cost for governmental services?
  8. Will citizens be allowed to access the system while on city property–say while doing research at city hall?

One question about LUS’ system is absolutely put to rest by this development. I’ve heard people ask what possible benefit LUS’ fiber-optic network will be to the rest of the parish. I’ve not heard this as much since LUS ran fiber to every school in the parish. But this development shows what an astounding benefit the tonic of even the threat of a little competition can bring to surrounding communities.