Zydetech & LUSFiber

I attended Zydetech’s rebirth at LITE yesterday evening and healthy rebirth it was. The snacks and conversation were good, the attendance great, and the presentations better. Congratulations go out to David Goodwyn, the driving force; Keith Thibodeaux, CIO of LCG; and Erin Fitzgerald of LITE, all of whom I happen to know worked hard to make it happen and happen right. Similar high fives to those who labored beyond my view. Zydetech was long the premier association of techheads and tech businesses in Acadiana and active in promoting both tech and the region.

Zydetech was at the heart of much Lafayette’s tech explosion back in the day, as demonstrated by a huge chart locating the “tipping points” in Lafayette’s development as a tech center that stretched across the LITE main theatre screen. Its return augurs well.

The Advertiser has an article on the event — and you should click through to get their overview — but my take here is going to focus, as you might suspect, on what was revealed about our fiber network. (Incidentally, even if you have read the printed version, click through to the online one. The printed version cuts off abruptly after Louis Perret’s presentation. The online version has an overview of the others as well. Maybe the Advertiser figured that stuff would only matter to the geeky sorts and that they’d get it online anyway.)

Among the gathered tech types, the LUS presentation was clearly the hit of the evening. After the applause died down following Mona Simon’s presentation, Logan McDaniel, who represented the school system, got up and, tongue planted firmly in cheek, thanked the organizers for putting him after LUS . . . which got him a nice bit of laughter to launch his bit.

LUS presentations are all of a type, whether the presenter is at a civic organization or at technical gathering: a charge through the major characteristics of the network with a staccatto list of highlights for each. The term “bullet points” was invented for these guys. But it goes so quickly that it does make it hard to keep good notes.

Some highlights. (Using bullet points, of course.)

What’s Done:

  • The public schools are connected with a 1 gbps backbone and each school is connected with a 100 mbps connection. (McDaniel made it clear that the system was very happy with that, describing it as “rock solid.”)
  • 250 of the 800 miles of fiber that will be built are completed.
  • The head end is completed and the electronics are being tested.
  • The huts housing field electronics are being built.
  • The launch schedule is holding. Still looking for a launch in the first section of January, 2009 and completion of the city by 2011.

What’s Coming:

  • 20% less. LUS is still saying that they will launch their triple play at 20% less than their competitors. They were originally only promising to charge less than the incumbents were charging at the time they announced the plan, but that’s kept shifting to a current time frame. Caveat: LUS’ price will be the “real” price – no 6 month specials – and their competitors’ real price is the one they promise to beat.
  • Lots o’ channels on video.
  • DVR–Digital Video Recorder, like TiVo.
  • VOD–Video on Demand, download TV through the TV interface.
  • VOIP–Voice over Internet Protocol, aka phone, aka nifty integration.
  • 10 mbps symmetrical will be the lowest, cheapest internet tier you can buy.
  • The cable service will be IP-based and Mona was direct in saying that they were going to make use of that to intro new features and integration.
  • The Peer to Peer intranet will run at 100 mbps. No matter how little you spend on internet connectivity with LUS, you will be able to communicate at 100 mbps with every other citizen in the city that has purchased the service. This has emerged as the signature feature of the new public network and Mona actually paused for a few seconds to emphasize they expected folks to do really interesting things with all that capacity. By which, I think she meant that she expected the people in the room to do really interesting things and write the apps to let anyone else do so as well. (CampFiber anyone?) This is the part of the presentation where the crowd murmur really got loud.
  • The video service Digital Set Top Box will be used for Digital Divide purposes. After a bit of a hesitation she said that she’d say that. I gather that there is still some question about that or about just how it will work. (I’ve fretted about this pretty often. It’s not the perfect alternative that it should be just now, but the upside is that it would get a NAD-Network Attached Device into every house that bought cable.)
  • Simultaneous wireless deployment is ongoing. LUS is wiring up and lighting up a wireless system as they deploy the fiber. Right now it is only open to their employees but the intent is to open it as a retail product — a free or very cheap feature of internet service. (Done that way, they wouldn’t have to worry about pushing signal to the interior of houses or businesses; if you have fiber service you’ll have plenty of in-home bandwidth. So they can just concentrate on getting high bandwidth rates going. TRULY ubiquitous, TRULY high-speed connectivity throughout the city would be available. (3G? Paugh. I spit on your 3G. ;-))
  • Connections to LONI and the Lambda Rail are in place.
  • Energy: this has been a low key but constant emphasis of LUS – which is, after all, an energy company. But the recent energy crisis has made this topic newly salient to the public. Being considered are: demand-side appliance management (lower peak demand costs, saving capital costs and fuel costs), time of use metering (get lower costs if you use off-peak electricity). Mona also pointed out that teleconferencing will be dead simple over the LUS intranet and that has the potential to save transit time and money. (And maybe even help unclog Johnson Street? Nah, technology can only do so much.)

During the question and answer period most of the questions went to LUS. While several were about just how soon the questioner could get hooked up, the most consequential one was on the uber-geeky topic of static IP addresses: Would customers get static IP addresses? As I understood from across the room: Business accounts would. If I heard right, that’s a disappointment. The concern is with some users abusing their bandwidth. IMHO that’s not the best solution. Cap uploads if you must, but with IPV6 there is no technical reason not to give every household a unique address and a whole host of applications and communication tools that I could imagine would be facilitated by static IPs. (If you’re whacky enough to think so too, I urge you to contact LUS. They’ve already heard from me on this one.)

It’s a fun and exciting list. And very few people have any sense of what we are about to get. LUS needs to get that information out there and create a sense of excitement.

“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.

“The Latest From Lafayette, LA”

What’s being said dept.

It’s nice to be noticed. Especially for the things you’re actually proud of. Lafayette got a bit of notice online today from Geoff Daily over at Apps Rising. Geoff has visited here in Lafayette a couple of times and has had an outsiders eye on the city and its unique fiber project for awhile. So its gratifying that in reporting on an interview with Terry Huval of LUS he focused on the really important stuff. Sure, he mentions that he found out about technical issues and things that are interesting to industry pundits. But he spends all his time talking about what Lafayette’s network means.

But there were two other nuggets of news that really caught my eye as they proved LUS’s desire to be progressive in deploying one of the most advanced communications networks in the world

100 meg intranet—He’s right to headline this; it’s the biggie:

First off, Terry shared with me their plans to offer high speed intranet or LAN services for free to enable consumers and small businesses to transfer data in-network at speeds much faster than the Internet connections they’re paying for.

So say you’ve signed up for LUS’s baseline broadband, which will likely be around 10Mbps. Because of these free LAN capabilities, you’ll be able to establish point-to-point connections to other users on LUS’s network that go beyond the speed of your broadband connection to support burstable speeds of up 100Mbps for in-network data transfer.

What might this enable? Imagine sharing an HD home movie with a neighbor in minutes instead of hours, or a small business being able to send large datasets across town exponentially faster than it would take over the open Internet. No longer will you be limited by your Internet connectivity but instead you’ll be able to take greater advantage of the capacity fiber provides.

It is one thing to see the objective implications of this innovation. Daily understands what it means. He Gets It:

It’s my fervent belief that leveraging the in-network capabilities of full fiber networks holds the potential to revolutionize our relationship with the Internet and how we use connectivity to establish stronger bonds within our community.

That’s as wordy as I might be…to simplify: communications is the foundation of community. Owning the communications network means we can choose to build a more robust community in ways that private corporations would never consider. To wit:

The Digital Divide: building on the power of a 100 meg intranet the issue becomes making sure that power is as evenly and fairly distributed as is practically possible. This concern motivates what we’ve called the digital divide. Daily has clearly heard about Durel’s presentation in Washington.

The second major tidbit I learned relates to one of LUS’s initiatives to bridge the so-called digital divide by offering low-cost Internet service to TV sets.

The idea is that many people may want TV and phone service but aren’t yet convinced they need broadband. So LUS is going to enable them to pay a low fee to rent a special set-top box and for very basic Internet access–slower than their base level broadband–so that they can surf the Web from their TV.

The downside is significant limitations:

Now Terry admits that this service will be limited as it likely won’t be able to do things like allow people to watch YouTube videos plus there are the limitations of the set-top box, which won’t have the storage and ability to support an endless array of peripherals as a full-fledged computer would.

But users will be able to visit webpages, use email, and other basic functions of being online. And because it’s LUS’s mission to deliver their services for 20% less than their local competitors, it’ll essentially work out so that you pay the same to get TV and this limited Internet product from LUS as you would to get TV alone from the cable company.

The overall idea behind this is to provide another way for people to get introduced to the advantages of being online so that they might find inspiration to upgrade to the true broadband connectivity LUS’s full fiber network can deliver.

Daily is on target about the limitations:

When I heard Terry describe a service where you couldn’t watch YouTube, where you didn’t have any storage, where you likely were extremely limited in the Internet applications you could use, I found myself cringing at the thought.

But he comes down here:

…in the end I think this is an innovative approach to tackling the digital divide from a different angle, and I couldn’t be more excited to see how it plays out, because if it works then we’ll gain another important arrow in our quiver as we all work together to convince America that broadband’s great and that everyone needs to be online.

Frankly, while I respect both Geoff and Terry’s judgment, I think we can do better than accepting the limits of Alcatel’s favored supplier. I do think that the set-top box solution is the best solution for those not yet on the web. (And I’ve long held this opinion.) But it isn’t at all clear to me that there is any reason that we couldn’t have a much more capable settop box setup than is suggested in Geoff’s post.

It really should be pretty easy.

Let’s think about this a little: a cable settop box these days is increasingly often a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and is capable of two-way communication with the headend. It is, in reality, already a network connected computer with a fat hard drive for video storage. Often the guts of the software is a Linux OS already because that is what is cost-effective (and free) for the developer. The typical cable provider is desperate to get these boxes into every home because the company knows that once they get a digital box in the home they can 1) sell more services that require two-way communication (say Video on Demand which is a huge cash cow) and 2) upgrades do not require an expensive (hundred + dollars) truck roll and 3) many typical outage issues at a home can be dealt with from the hub without a roll or if a roll is necessary they know what the problem is going out.

These additional revenues and savings MORE than pay for the cost of the box. So cable companies do their best to push them on every customer and if the FCC did not require them sell a non-box, “analog” cheap tier they would not do so.

LUS would share these benefits, so getting sophisticated set top boxes into the hands of as many consumers as is humanly possible should be a high priority for the sake of video revenue alone.

Since the basic setup is already a hard-drive capable networked computer with very nice video circuitry spending the very few spare dollars to add a few things like a bit more RAM and maybe a usb port should be a tiny incremental cost.

Presto chango: a fully capable, if cheap, computer–if you open it to your customer.

It would be a stunningly cheap way to meet their social obligation to close the digital divide in our city. —Something I know they really want to address.

With such a device in hand the smart thing to do would be to offer it to every customer as part of the package. Even, especially, the low-cost tier. The FCC only forces you to allow the low cost tier to be box free. If you want, you can give the customer the box or allow them to refuse it. If that box carried with it a free low-level internet that was fully capable but slower than the city’s 10 meg basic tier I predict few people would turn it down. Instantly almost every LUS subscriber would be on the internet by default. Making that capacity available in every home would instantly turn the household TV into a household internet device—I’d bet families would cruise YouTube together. We already do that with our grandchildren on tiny 13 or 15 inch laptop screens with the kids crowded around and laughing. Imaging how much more fun it would be to do it comfortably on a big screen. Or gaming…..a lot of network things are potentially more fun or valuable on the multiple participant TV screen than on our seperated little ones.

It’d be a healthy switch from a passive social medium to an active social one. And Lafayette could pioneer it.

And LUS could sell more VOD and other product to those people than they would otherwise and save lots of money on maintaining them. (And pay off the network more quickly.)

It is a classic win-win.

a small variant:
Suppose LUS doesn’t want to provide a local hard drive because of cost (though drive costs are absurdly cheap). Hey, we’ve got fiber. With a 100 meg intranet connection at every house there is NO reason not to provide online storage to customers. Cheap, easy–and you’re already obligated to do email storage anyway, just to provide that basic service. What’s an additional gig or two for good citizen-customers?

All that is standing in our way is the capacity — or rather incapacity — of the set top boxes currently being considered. The only reason YouTube does not work, I’d venture to guess, is that the creaky old OS version that the Motorola or Cisco has installed can’t handle flash. So get ’em to upgrade it. Make sure to pick a box with a USB port. Let the user hang a disk off that if they want. (The ones they are considering already support wireless keyboards and mouse.) Find a box that does what we want it to do.

We can do this.

If we decide we want to.

That’s what makes owning the network so wonderful. We can do it for ourselves.