“Getting your Fiber ON”

Local videoblogger Lane (Lanevids.com) has posted a stream of consciousness review of LUS Fiber install and intial tests to his funnyrats channel on youtube.

Short version: He likes it.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is that he finds he pegs out his iPhone’s Speedtest App when using LUS Fiber to push wifi to his iPhone (left). Speedtest needs to update its graphics.

The video (below) is part of his daily vlog so if you are uninterested in the bits about his banking and his cat’s grooming habits you might want to look at the first minute or so of intro and skip to minute 5….

Revised LUS Fiber Budget

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate have articles today on last night’s council meeting and LUS’ revised budget. The big news was that LUS will not meet its own revenue projections; in fact they are off by about half…a disturbing shortfall.

Huval’s explanation cites two factors: the lack of initial marketing and defensive budgeting that was designed to make sure that a worse case scenario of having too many customers wouldn’t “break” the budget.

Defensive Budgeting
This is one of those cases where the Advertiser has the better quote:

“We made projections based on the most optimistic approach,” LUS Director Terry Huval said. “We didn’t want to get into a situation where we might have budgeted too conservatively and we don’t have the materials and supplies for the customers.”

To understand what Huval is worrying about requires some background. LUS is in the odd position of having a brand new service that needs to be cautious about growing too fast. Hooking up and initially provisioning each household is a VERY large expense. The labor and materials costs — especially the set of three boxes that sit on the side of the house and the set top box inside the house—are all very costly. It will, in many cases, take several years to recover that initial investment. While the profit margin is good, even with LUS’ reduced prices, you have to invest substantially in each customer. On the books you will typically lose money for a time on every new customer you bring on. As a consequence you might have to look at borrowing more money. For most businesses this would not be something to worry about very much. Any bank could see that you were a better risk for capturing a larger share of your market than you initially anticipated. You’d get your “float” loan.

But LUS is not like other businesses. LUS cannot, practically, go back and get a bridging loan. They have borrowed all their money upfront in the form of bonded indebtedness. Budgeting in this situation is, in part, a way of projecting the “draw” the business will be making against that loan. What Huval is saying is that they originally projected the most “optimistic” draw against the loan so that they would be sure that they had enough money at the ready to buy the equipment they needed to complete the budgetary period without going back to well…So budgeting for the most extreme case was, in this case, “conservative” budgeting. A typical business would typically borrow for its most optimistic realistic case in order to have a little reserve and to avoid having to go back and borrow money again—usually at higher rates. This maneuver is LUS’ equivalent.

The tendency to be conservative here is aggravated by a state law that shapes the way LUS has to assess the risks to its business. And we have Cox and AT&T to that for that: Long-time readers will recall my inveighing against the (un)Fair Competition Act. This is one of the places where that incumbent-written law comes into play. One of the provisions of that law is that LUS is forbidden to loose money for any year. If they do, the law mandates a fire sale of the business. Given that law, you’ll notice that once you understand that LUS is actually investing in each customer that it is entirely possible to be successful too quickly. Suppose LUS took 50% of the market in a single four month period…and then, having saturated the local market it would have to endure a year or two or three of losing money just to pay off that initial investment before the income from the bulge of new customers turned positive. It is far safer to grow at a steady rate as long as you get above the break-even point before the bond money runs out. Losing money too fast is always a problem. But the (un)Fair Act makes being successful too fast a problem too. State lawmakers piously claim that they are just protecting the citizens of Lafayette from losing money. This case makes it obvious that the people that wrote the bill, AT&T and Cox, are the ones being protected. Lafayette doesn’t need or want Baton Rouge’s protection.

LUS also acknowledges that it hasn’t run much of a marketing campaign, saying that it doesn’t make sense to gear up a large and expensive campaign if you aren’t yet ready to sell your product to all the people you’re paying to reach. From the Advocate:

Revenues for LUS Fiber this year might have been more in line with the initial projections had the city pushed a more-aggressive marketing campaign, Huval said.

But he said the decision was made to hold back on intensive marketing of the service until it was available to most residents, so as to get the most out of the marketing dollars.

That does make a certain amount of sense. But that excuse is already effectively over—LUS is currently finishing off its build-out. The vast majority of the citizenry is now ready to receive service. So we should now begin to see a much more aggressive campaign. —Though, of course, not sooo aggressive as to run afoul of the (un)Fair Act’s penalty on gaining customer share too quickly. (sigh)

In all fairness, LUS also has another reason not to want to sell too much of its cable product too soon. also been wrestling with the set top box software—the initial software was simply not up to snuff…it provided the fundamental functions in that it would change channels and record material but the interface was outdated and it was clumsily designed. It was even worse than most cable providers interface and that is saying something. With the new Microsoft Mediaroom LUS has come out on the other side–the interface is very slick, it works well and there are obvious hooks left for the development of innovative features. But until that mess was settled and LUS knew that Alcatel was going to step up and make good on its promises LUS Fiber was looking at a situation in which it very strongly suspected that each and every video customer was going to upgraded to a new box and software platform in the very near future. They had little desire to put the whole city on a solution that they would have to turn around and dump.

The most reassuring part of the story is that the Advocate reports that Huval is saying that they are making their break-even rate—that is, they are getting the 23% of the population they need to win over to break-even and pay back the dedicated bonds. That, frankly, is the only important number—

[Huval] said that even though LUS Fiber is not meeting the early revenue projections, he feels confident the venture is building a solid foundation and will be successful.

LUS Fiber can break even with a 23 percent market penetration, Huval said, and that percentage has been “handily” reached in most areas where the service has been available for more than a few months.

What’s interesting is that while LUS will doubtless get some flack for not meeting its defensive budget estimates nobody is asking what LUS achieving its break-even rate means for the other actors in this little drama: Cox and ATT. Leaving aside ATT for the moment since it is not selling a cable product let’s look at Cox. Nationally the take-rate for cable video is supposed to be about 50%. I don’t have any reason to think Lafayette would be much different. If LUS is taking more than 23% of the local market “after a few months” that would imply that in just a few months—without a very credible set top box arrangement and with very little marketing—LUS can take about half of Cox’s well-established cable video market. That makes LUS, by any reasonable assessment, a very successful competitor.

LUS announces Mediaroom set top box software

At a 2:30 press conference today LUS officially announced the launch of media room with Terry Huval saying that adopting the new software would move the system to the cutting edge of video services and development. According to the press release:

The platform focuses on giving consumers advanced flexibility to enhance their overall TV viewing experience. LUS Fiber is the only provider in Acadiana that has a network capable of delivering Microsoft Mediaroom to its customers. With the power of Lafayette’s only 100% fiber optic network, and the compelling Microsoft Mediaroom IPTV platform, residents and businesses will now have access to world class features not available from conventional cable TV companies.

Current customers are being called and appointments made to replace the current set top box with another containing the new software. The change-over will begin immediately:

LUS Fiber anticipates that the new Video service powered by Microsoft Mediaroom will be made available to all customers receiving new service beginning July 8.

The most visible changes will be in the enhanced capacities of the DVR software that allows recording shows for later viewing.

  • Whole Home DVR
    • Record and watch recordings from any set top box equipped TV in the home, which allows a customer to start playing a recording in one room and finish watching it in another room. Record up to three programs at once – Flexible!
  • Instant Channel Change
    • No more waiting for the next channel to show up. You can scroll through channels with ease to find the program you want to see – Faster! ·
  • Picture-in-Picture Browsing
    • Get a peek at what else is on other channels while still watching your current program – More!
  • Enhanced Search
    • Find shows and movies quickly. This comprehensive search will even check the recorded TV list and Video on Demand offerings – Better!

Terry Huval addressed the question of why the change was necessary:

“During the deployment of our LUS Fiber system, a number of our customers asked us for more advanced video features…Microsoft Mediaroom provides the platform that will deliver the features our customers want and, because it’s a web-based system, it offers us endless possibilities for future applications and expansion.”

That last sentence is the key: LUS recognizes that what is wanted and needed is a platform that will allow bringing internet-based material and methods to your television. The television needs to also become another screen onto the web; albeit one especially suited for showing video and for occasions when multiple people want to view the same material. During the Q&A after the short demo I asked Huval to elaborate on those possibilities. He responded that they anticipated weather and news apps and mentioned putting caller ID on the screen and providing the ability to remotely program your set top box’s DVR.

I talked to an Alcatel rep after the show (Alcatel is the maker of much of the equipment that hangs on the side of your house and pretty much the system integrator) and he said that Microsoft makes the platform that the new apps/widgets/services runs on available to developers as a download. That sounds awfully good; I know that there are a lot of folks locally who are raring to get involved. Alcatel makes some middleware and I presume that is what LUS is using. Linking up the two should make most development possible. That sounds like the avenue for anyone who wants to get ahead of the TV app tidal wave…

Itsa good thing gang. Major media showed up; look for it on your (old-fashioned) TV screen tonight.

LUS’ new set top box software in beta trial

LUS Fiber has begun a limited beta test of its new set top box software—Microsoft Mediaroom. Even in its current state mediaroom is a much better piece of software. There’s been a lot of complaints about the old vendor-supplied software; while it does provide basic digital video recorder (DVR) functionality it did so in ways that were, at best, clunky. A more serious problem was that it was pretty dead-ended; there was little chance that it would be or even could be upgraded to provide for more digitally-enabled advances that integrate phone features and apps and widgets that access internet content.

The new software is most emphatically not clunky; the new complaint will be, of course, that the slick finish and transparencies are naught but “eye candy”—but it is beautiful eye candy. More seriously the navigation interface is much easier to use and some user interface gurus have clearly been consulted. Nothing is more than about two clicks away. With Microsoft as the producer it goes without saying that integration into the world of digital convergence is a major theme. Implementations of mediaroom at other carriers have included many new features along this line including caller ID displayed on the TV and various forms of weather and sports widgets. We’re not likely to see those until the basic DVR and Video On Demand functions have been fully implemented. But this area represents a potential major opportunity for local designers and programmers—Microsoft has a developer framework.

I’ve been lucky enough to be included in the beta test—possibly because I’ve complained to LUS about the software. The installer came by late last week and put it in and I’ve been feeling it out since then. He brought it already installed on a new box that looks just like the old box; apparently mediaroom wants a chipset newer than the one I had.

I like it. So much so that my antique pair of TiVos may be in danger of retirement from their role as my main interface to video—I haven’t used a provider’s interface (Comcast, Cox, or LUS) in more than a decade so that would be a major step for me. LUS’ version of mediaroom not feature-complete at this moment. In particular, the Video On Demand is pretty much unpopulated; the shell is there but the content is not.

Expect to see a few posts about the new software and its implications—more than you’ve seen about the old package. Mediaroom one has far more potential. I’ll write a bit on the interface in another post sometime soon with others to follow. My first interest has never been the cable video side of the network. I appreciate having it, and appreciate that income from it will help pay for the community system. But both my wife and I spend far more time on our laptops than watching TV and I’m pretty well convinced that is the path we’ll all be taking. Mediaroom can open a lot of doors between different screens and bring some of the participatory elements of the net to the TV in much the way that the iPhone brought elements of the net to the cell phone. It’ll be an interesting ride with both its upsides and downsides. By bringing Mediaroom onboard LUS assures that Lafayette will be in a position to ride that wave.

LUS Files Suit, Sorta…(updated)

LUS, for a change, has initiated a lawsuit. Or at least an FCC proceeding. Close enough.

In a press release issued today LUS outlined its case for the public. That release underlined the basic irony of the situation that LUS finds itself in: fighting for admittance to a coop whose reason for existence is to help small guys, like LUS, somewhat level the playing field with big guys, like Cox. It’s outrageous that Cox is in a position to try and block LUS. From the press release:

The concept behind the establishment of the NCTC was to allow small cable providers to aggregate their collective buying power for national programming, therefore providing an opportunity for more competition in the cable TV marketplace.

In a move that is reminiscent of the angry days of the fiber fight here in Lafayette Joey Durel blasts Cox’s willingness to block fair competition:

It is a sad day for the free market economy when a corporation hundreds of times the size of a small, community-owned enterprise will use every means necessary to snuff out competition so that they can go back to charging outrageous prices for services.

That’s from the press release, and really that’s pretty much all you need to know. But the complaint to the FCC is only marginally less caustic in its lawyerly way. A reader who’d like to savor the full flavor of this story is encouraged to read it through. But if you’re not in that group, I’ll be happy to replay some of the highlights…

I was intrigued to see that the complaint to the FCC had a politically timely overtone…the introduction begins by emphasizing that LUS depends upon video revenues to “provide ultra-high-speed broadband services.” Devising a high-speed broadband plan is the project of the moment for the FCC and Lafayette’s LUS received much favorable attention in Washington during the plans proceedings, serving as the national poster-child for local initiative for having provided ultra high-speed broadband at a shockingly low price.

The complaint outlines the history of the conflict; and a very suggestive history it is. Congress. The NCTC, the complaint alleges boasts of its inserting a clause into the 1992 Telecommunications Act that assured that the coop would be treated like a cable company by content providers by convincing legislators that this was the only way to insure fair competition between the little systems it represented and the mammoth national cable companies. But, a two-year “moratorium” on new members the NCTC opened up their membership…to Cox and Charter; two of the nations largest multi-system operators. Since that time they’ve apparently quit admitting new members that would compete with their present (expanded) membership.

[The NCTC and its dominant members] are now undermining Congress’s pro-competitive intent by using denial of membership in NCTC as an anticompetitive device to insulate NCTC’s existing members from competition by new entrants.

A footnote offers evidence that Cox and Charter aren’t the only members who have fought against local municipal competition…MediaCom, SuddenLink, Bridgewater Telephone have also engaged in their own versions of the anti-competitive behavior Cox has practiced in Lafayette.

Lafayette wasn’t the only municipal provider caught in this trap. Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina were similarly denied membership–right up to the moment that they demonstrated they’d bring a complaint in conjunction with LUS to FCC. Then, suddenly, they were notified that the NCTC had reconsidered. LUS and its lawyers draw the obvious conclusion and urge the FCC to do the same:

NCTC’s discrimination against LUS cannot be explained on legal or factual grounds. In fact, the only significant distinction between LUS and Chattanooga/Wilson is that LUS’s major rival, Cox Communications, is NCTC’s largest member as well as a prominent member of NCTC’s Board of Directors, whereas Chattanooga’s and Wilson’s major competitors, Comcast and Time Warner, respectively, are not members of NCTC.

…NCTC’s continued flat rejection of LUS’s membership application, despite LUS’s offer to join under the same terms and conditions as Chattanooga and Wilson, underscores the arbitrary, discriminatory, and anticompetitive nature of the Defendants’ practices. Indeed, to keep LUS out, the Defendants are even willing to go so far as to harm the membership of NCTC as a whole, as the addition of another qualified member would increase the bargaining power of the whole group.

There’s more in the complaint, including a series of emails between Lafayette’s lawyers and the NCTC’s explaining—or rather refusing to explain—why Lafayette was being treated differently, the text of the first joint draft of the cities’ complaint, and the text of the NCTC’s attempt to pre-empt the three cities legal action.

It’s a surprisingly readable and interesting document. And it will be very interesting to watch this go forward. Lafayette has asked for a quick and frankly pretty brutal judgment against the NCTC and the individuals and companies represented on the NCTC board. I look forward to seeing how these companies enjoy having their feet held to legal fire.

Update: Back during the fiber fight when Cox and AT&T were doing everything in their power to eliminate LUS as a possible competitor each ugly episode made national news. The push polls, lawsuits, and incumbent-promoted petitions were widely reported. No small part of Lafayette’s victory was the result of unremitting bad PR in the national press. Those days have returned and the current fight over NCTC membership has garnered extensive coverage.

The Advertiser: LUS files FCC complaint
The Advocate: LUS Fiber complains to FCC; Cable TV order asked
The Independent: LUS alleges ‘unfair, deceptive’ conduct by Cox, NCTC

Broadband Reports: LUS Files Complaint With FCC Over Cox Blackballing
Broadband Breakfast: Small Town’s Telecom Drama Continues: Municipal Utility Sues Cable Group For Discriminatory Access To Programming
Telecompetitor: NCTC Membership Fight Stirs Up Controversy, FCC Asked to Intervene
FierceCable: LUS blames Cox because it can’t get into National Cable TV Co-Op

Streaming History; Will we be Smarter?

Ok fellas, it’s happening….Video is joining text in laying down an accessible version of history’s first draft. The NYTimes reports that C-Span is in the process of finishing uploading its entire video record going back to 1987—and all that it has archived going back to 1979.

Now before you yawn and switch channels: this is a big deal. Really.

You want “transparency” in government? All transparency really calls for is having a good enough record to hold the people in charge accountable for the mistakes they make. CSPAN making this archive available in a freely searchable internet archive that allows anyone to stream the full record is an enormous step forward in transparency.

And a lot of the usual suspects like the idea:

Having free online access to the more than 160,000 hours of C-Span footage is “like being able to Google political history using the ‘I Feel Lucky’ button every time,” said Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC host.

Ed Morrissey, a senior correspondent for the conservative blog Hot Air (hotair.com), said, “The geek in me wants to find an excuse to start digging.”

They’ve got a point; this means that everything, everything done on the floor of the House or the Senate and most of the major committee meetings going back a full generation are going to be available for free on the web in a form that allows us all to witness history directly. And it’s going to mean that a lot of people, fairly and unfairly, are going to be held accountable for past actions.

Remember the old saying that “Hindsight is 20-20?” You’re about to get a great view of a huge undigested glop of history that before now was either concealed by “the mists of time” or visible only through the lens of other people’s interpretation. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you will be able to understand everything you see, after all, we don’t understand everything we see in the present when we are immersed in the context. History needs interpretation. In some ways History is interpretation. We are going to need to get a lot more sophisticated about understanding history if we are going to get full benefit…but this is one way; and a very important way that the web is making us more knowledgeable.

It will be up to us to make sure it is making us smarter.

“LUS sacks Cox with Saints vs. Cowboys game”

From the Independent blog:

“If you’re paying $39.95 a month for LUS’ 83-channel expanded basic cable service, breathe a sigh of relief. You’ll watch the undefeated Saints take on the Dallas Cowboys (8-5) on Channel 38 Saturday night at 7:20 p.m. But if you’re one of Cox Communications’ approximately 100,000 Acadiana customers who subscribes to expanded basic, 72 channels for $52.99 per month, it’s going to cost you more.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. —You can sign up with the local guys or you can pay more for less and still not get what you want from Cox. It’s a choice that ought to be easy. What do you think Lafayette?

The Saints Mania that has taken hold here (and across south Lousiana) has made people more than a little crazy and I’ve got email this week asking whether LUS will have the game. I had a hard time understanding what folks were anxious about since it is on expanded basic, and expanded basic is pretty much the default level for most folks. Now that I see that Cox is only carrying it on a more expensive tier I have to suspect that the truly fanatic were hearing about that and worried that the same would be true of LUS…there was a big blow-up in the Baton Rouge media earlier this week and apparently Cox worked hard at getting it set up there even though BR wouldn’t normally be allowed to see it. I’m sure they’d like to have been able to do the same in Lafayette—if only to avoid the unfavorable contrast with LUS Fiber.

It’s not really just about this game and single, immensely popular show…it is more about the contrasting corporate policies that Cox and LUS Fiber pursue. Cox has, time and again, moved “must have” weather, French language, TV guide, and sports channels off the basic tiers and pushed them up into the upper, more costly, tiers in unpopular if financially understandable, moves. After all they are in it to make money for their owners. LUS Fiber, on the other hand, really doesn’t have nearly the same pressure to “upsell” its customers since those customers are its owners. Keeping your owners happy means entirely different things to a large corporation and small town utility.

And that’s the real lesson of this story.

Set Top Box Follies: Cox and LUS

The executive summary: Cox is acting like Cox.

The short version: LUS has asked for an exemption from an FCC rule mandating the use of cable cards in set top boxes. Cox, joined by the Consumer Electronics Association, objects.

The essence: Cox would like to throw a kink, into, to again delay if possible (or to impose additional costs on LUS if it is not) Lafayette’s FTTH project by using the FCC to force LUS to deploy technology that doesn’t exist. It seems, I suppose, like an clever way to try and use the feds to cause trouble for a competitor. The bitter irony is that the technology doesn’t exist largely because Cox and its cable brethren have refused to obey the law and develop the technology to comply with what Congress mandated 14 years ago.

If none of those short versions satisfies you’re going to have to settle in for a long, history-laden tale replete with bureaucratic battles, crippled 3rd party set top boxes, a long, successful rear-guard action by incumbents determined to keep consumers from controlling the boxes attached to their cable network and dueling technologies favored by self-interested players in a three-sided match-up. It’s one of those stories that nakedly reveals “the way things really work” in a way that doesn’t say much good about any of the major players.

Ok, first there is the cast of characters:

  • FCC: the federal communications commissions playing the part of the pitiful big guy all the tougher kids enjoy messing with.
  • The Telephone Companies: playing the confident old-timer with generations of home field advantage; the telcos have traditionally dominated the FCC game, but breaking into the video big time with IPTV-based set top boxes instead of the older cable tech requires all their lawyer’s talents.
  • The Cable Companies: playing the fiesty tough kid from the sticks the cablecos have fought a successful delaying action against federal regulations that try to impose teleco-like requirements that would allow mere consumers to attach their own devices to the tough kids’ network—and rob those tough guys of their traditional set top box charges.
  • The Consumer Electronics Association has wandered in from left field wanting to make sure that the big consumer electronics companies have a big single, unified market for set top boxes that keeps them from having to develop separate toys to control satellite, cable, and telco video set top boxes.

oh and:

  • LUS, the lonely little new kid on the block in the supporting role of the outsider whose seemingly innocuous question sets off a major battle. (This is the character whose fate is so unimportant to the plot that it’s never resolved…and only the friends and family of the actor notice.)

The background story, the setup for the latest battle:
Gather round kiddies, this story goes back to that dim time before the internet, 40 years ago, a time when things were different…Back then the FCC actually had the power and the will to break up huge monopolies like AT&T (really, it was broken up before the modern FCC midwifed in its rebirth). This all starts with the almost mythological Carterphone: a device that was to morph into the analog sound-based “modulate/demodulate” device that in turn became the digital modem of recent history. That’s right sprouts: without the Carterphone there would be no internet for anyone today. And we almost didn’t get the Carterphone. I won’t tell the long version of the story (but it’s a goodun.) What interests us today is that the FCC told the telcos that they had to let any device connect to the telephone network as long as it didn’t damage the network. Ma Bell (what we used to call AT&T) howled. But the FCC stood its ground and soon all manner of phones that hung on the wall or had push buttons, or were wireless, or were pink replaced the phone company’s black table-top rotary-dial ringer that had produced such a nice steady stream of income for Ma Bell. Though nobody knew it then the internet and VOIP and all manner of things that were to humble the once-invincible phone company flowed from that single brave decision to tell the phone company that it was only the owner of the network and had no right to tell legitimate users how they used the connection they bought.

—No, nobody knew back then but the story is oft-retold now… and the fiesty cable guys who’d once been little local municipal video providers but had coelesced into monopolies fully capable of taking on the telcos—and the sadly diminished FCC knew the implications of the Carterphone decision. And they had no intention of losing control of their network to consumers the way that the old AT&T had. Back in 1996, at the dawn of the internet era when the country was flush with enthusiasm for the new communications network, Congress passed a new telecom act which among other things, tried to reproduce the success of Carterphone by requiring that cable companies open their lines as well and specifically that they allow

“other converter boxes, interactive communications equipment, and other equipment used by consumers to access multichannel video programming and other services offered over multichannel video programming systems, from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor.”

In other words, Carterphone for cable. Congress passed the task of enforcement off to the FCC confident that they had done their part to insure a brighter future and turned to confusing other issues. Alas, the FCC of 1996 was not the FCC of their grandfathers and, long story short: this never really happened. The cable companies successfully argued that they had to retain control of “security” and the FCC responded by requiring that the necessary proprietary security be separated from the rest of the box and located in a device that could be used in either the cable company’s or a third party company’s box. The cable card. Delay followed delay. The FCC’s enforcement was pitiful indeed. So pitiful that it tolerated delays that meant that the first generation of cable cards was outdated by the time it was available and cable has still approve a card that is able to give third party producers access to their networks. This dithering about had damaging consequences: it left the producers of products that were clearly superior (in that people were really willing to pay for them); products that had usable interfaces and pioneered Digital Video Recording either bankrupt (Replay) or barely hanging on (TiVo).

Fourteen years later the FCC rule still stands and nobody is expected to actually follow it. Everybody has garnered an exception of one sort or another. All the players have their own version renewed occasionally on ever-varying grounds. The only constant is that the networks have never had to let their customers attach the equivalent of shiny new pink digital phones to their networks.

The consequence is that the much-anticipated digital convergence still hasn’t happened. You can’t surf the internet on your TV (well, there is an exception we’ll get to), you can’t do video telephony using your TV as a monitor, setting up recordings over the net or from your smart phone remains an uber-geek activity….and on. We could have used a cable version of the Carterphone. Instead what we got was a slightly faster version of the same access that the telephone companies had been forced to accept over their lines designed for voice. Faster internet, not access to a whole new communications network designed for video and much larger capacities.

The satellite companies never really had to comply with the law—the cable companies successful defense meant that satellite never really had to come up to bat since big brother cable proved capable of fending off the very idea. So satellite got an exception until cable could figure it all out…and cable wasn’t about to. As workable cable cards finally neared market acceptance cable whirled around and managed to get the day put off a bit longer by instituting a new non-hardware based software standard which would be oh-so-much better. They got an extension of their exception to work on that. When the telephone companies finally started to get into the provision of video over their networks it was built on the back of the new internet (the one that their lose in Carterphone days helped create), implemented a version of IPTV—and taking a leaf from the well-worn book of cable have claimed that their special technology wasn’t compatible with the old cable-card technology either. And (you see where this is going?) they got their version of an exception.

Who does that leave who does have to comply?

Surely you remember the lonely new kid on the block who asked the uncomfortable question? LUS? Apparently the argument is going to be that LUS should be the only guy in the neighborhood that has to follow the rules. This argument comes from none other than Cox Communications whose own exemption to the rule is still in place. Cox doesn’t argue that the technology exists to allow LUS to follow the rule. (And it doesn’t) Cox just argues that LUS should comply with a rule that it has never, ever, over 14 years done anything but fight itself. Citizens of Lafayette will be amused to learn that they are arguing that they only want to provide a “level playing field.” Again. Like the state’s (un)Fair Competition Act, you can be sure that when Cox says it wants a level playing field what they really mean is that they want the government to impose limits on Lafayette that it has never had to abide by itself. What is fair about asking your small local competition to abide by rules you yourself have successfully evaded? Of course this isn’t about fairness. It’s about advantage. In a halfway sane world the FCC would laugh in the face of an effective monopolist like Cox that tried to impose rules on a brand new competitor coming in from the outside any of the major sectors to provide the very high-speed, fiber-to-the-home, low priced competition that the FCC has been sniveling about wanting for the entire 14 years it has failed to enforce the law….but we don’t live in a halfway sane regulatory environment.

To pile on the insult the latest is that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has weighed in. Understandably frustrated after all these years, all the companies that want to make the magical media devices that record all and control all in your living room have demanded that the FCC quit making exceptions and enforce its rules….on a small municipal provider that is actually providing an innovative, powerful, cheap alternative that the FCC says it wants and that is the model of everything the CEA should hope happens to US broadband. Just for the sake of completeness I should note that each of the three-telco, cable, and CEA–have their own candidates for a new technology to enable video network openness. Each of them would dearly love to control that technology and no one can doubt that the one they’d come up with would 1) advantage them, 2) disadvantage their competitors, and 3) enrich the owners of the tech. Nobody’s hands are clean.

LUS, of course, doesn’t have the wherewithal to develop a new technology itself. The set top box family deployed in Lafayette is apparently the only one that is usable with both the Alcatel equipment the community is using and with IPTV. The fact that the network is all IPTV (translation into analog for analog tier users takes place on the wall of the house) opens up vast new areas for innovation. The 100 meg intranet “campus” is a good example of what a really innovative community-oriented network can do. Neither Cox nor any other cable provider is providing free unthrottled in-network bandwidth to its users. Even more on point: LUS offers our community an internet connection through the IPTV set top box. That the box is natively IP is crucial to that very desireable feature. Subscribers that don’t even own a computer are able to surf the net. That’s something that IP enables…and something, again, that I don’t see that Cox or any of the other guys who have set top boxes have done. Really opening up the set top box is something that Congress was right about. There is huge room for innovation. The FCC’s failure to enforce, and Congress’ failure to provide adequate oversight to see that the nation’s laws are enforced have cost the country dearly.

LUS points out that every other IPTV-using network has already received this waiver and that all they are asking for is the same waiver that Verizon and other established IPTV providers have already secured. To ask new entrants who are actually competing and using the new technology to offer a cheaper, faster, more innovative system is to bear a burden the established corporations do would be stunningly counter-productive.

Let’s hope the FCC can find the courage that the FCC forty years ago had, do the right thing here and refuse to reward the bullying of a large corporation who has evaded the very rule that they hope to impose on a cheaper, local, competitor. A competitor who, incidentally, is actually demonstrating the value of innovation on the set top box that the rule is designed to achieve.


It’d be funny if it weren’t so overburdened with irony.

Those of us who still get a daily newspaper will have been amused by Cox’s latest attempt to “me-too” (“fiber is nothing new” cough, cough) the LUS network’s offerings. As my wife was going through our morning ritual of removing the 3/4 of the paper that is glossy ad inserts and sections we never open out slipped an 8 1/2 x 11 Cox flyer with the screaming bold headline “LUS Fiber HYPE.” The irony, of course, is that the hype and FUD is entirely being performed by Cox. Have you seen any LUS advertising “hyping” —or even promoting— LUS Fiber in the major media yet? I haven’t. And I watch. Now no doubt the day will come when LUS will hype its network. When it is offering the service to a large enough base that it makes sense to advertise in the paper or other local media. But that day has yet to arrive. My guess is that this flier is the best evidence available that LUS’ “controlled roll-out” is beginning to significantly cut into Cox’s base of subscriptions; painfully enough to buy an insert which will be distributed almost solely to people who can’t—Yet—buy LUS services. Now the motivation may be to just try and insert the headline into the “LUS fiber HYPE” into the community unconscious. If so that shows a pretty profound misunderstanding of this community. Cox has played the game of playing fast and loose with truth with Lafayette before and it’s proved embarasssing. Who can forget the disastrous story of the “local blogger T. J. Crawdad” or the infamous “push polls? Even more than embarrassing…folks got to saying tha “you can’t trust anything they say.” This flier is in that (ig)noble tradition.

The thing Cox forgets is that to be truly effective attack advertising has to be true. And it has to be about something that people care about. Otherwise you just end up looking desperate. Cox is hyping its “digital TV,” claiming to have more digital channels than LUS…and is using that hype to sell what’s on the backside of the flyer: it’s lowest triple play tier. For 89.99. For 12 Months.

“It’s a day late and a dollar short” as the old saying goes. You’re supposed to assume that the claim on the front supports the offering on the back. That you’ll get more with Cox’s cheapest “digital TV” offering.

But you won’t.

Take a gander at the slideshow below; it’s from Terry Huvals presentation at the recent (and fantastic) F2C conference. The relevant slides are numbers 31, 32, and 33 which detail the “expanded basic,” “digital basic,” and “digital basic plus” tiers for both companies.

What Cox wants you to buy, on the basis of their claims on the front of the sheet, is the product on the back of the sheet, that 89.99 (for 12 months) sale offering. If you go to Cox’s “Greater Louisiana” website & drill down you’ll get to a page that shows you get their “expanded basic” cable tier with that deal. So surf on over to slide 31 on the display below….

Terry Huval style=”margin: 0px;” width=”425″ height=”355″>

View more presentations from f2c

You’ll see that in truth LUS offers more channels in their lowest tier combo deal than Cox. If that strikes you as strange soldier on to slide 32. There you’ll notice that LUS offers more channels in the middle tier too..only at slide 33 the highest tier do you find Cox offering more channels that LUS. So the (hyped) claims on the front, while not entirely untrue at every level, do not support the product they are selling on the back. A little bait and switch, that.

And LUS’ low tier combo deal is cheaper too: Cox’s “Good” comes in at 89.99 (intro price) vs LUS’ “VIP – $84.85” (allathetime price).

(And, while we’re at it you also get 30 megs up and down with LUS but only 10 megs down and 786 k up… with video shifting to the web and more and more people doing their telephony through 3rd party VOIP that’s going to be more and more significant. I already do a healthy amount of my TV viewing over my shiny new computer-TV hookup.)

My Ordering LUS Fiber Service

When my blue fiber announcement came in the mail I immediately rang up the new LUS call center to sign up and lay claim to an installation date. A comfortingly local accent answered the phone, was overwhelmingly solicitous and had clearly been trained to explain what he was doing and why in patient detail. I’m the sort that likes understanding every little bit so I enjoyed the experience. YMMV. 🙂

The order didn’t go overwhelmingly smoothly. They’ve just started up the ordering process, and clearly have in place an elaborate computer database setup to methodically walk through the necesarily complex details involved complex services—getting you registered, address, identity validation, phone numbers, porting, 911 service, email address, passwords, confirming question (like mother’s maiden name), multiple channel packages, and other seemingly endless bits and pieces. I managed to find oddnesses in the software. (My street name has a St. before it & a St. after & my name has a St. before…that software can be confused by such I know from long, unhappy experience with university databases–my guess is that the software designer didn’t live in South Louisiana…)

I didn’t buy a simple bundled package, but broke it up into high end internet, a middling channel package, and a minimal landline phone order. The folks on the other line handled all that quite easily and when you order you should know that you can unbundle almost anything…including buying phone services a la carte. Just ask. One thing I forgot to ask about in my eagerness was static IP addresses–a beta tester told me that he’s got one and that it is supposed to cost $5.00 a month. If you want such just ask. My experience was that the folks on the other end of the line either actually know all the details or when they are uncertain just ask…a good norm in a service center.

At the end of the afternoon after a couple of callbacks all was done, and I was and remain an exceedingly happy man. (Who now has to take that Cat 6 out of his trunk and actually finish rewiring the house.)

For those who’ve asked for the nitty-gritty details…remember you did ask…here is the long version:

The Process:

  1. You get a nifty sheet folded to make it into a two page (4 page front and back) promotional brochure. The brochure comes folded in half to make a mailer the size of a large postcard. It’s sealed with tape and tucked inside you’ll find two informational sheets with all the prices and the most current channel lineup.
  2. You eagerly tear it open
  3. Get with your significant other/s and decide on what you want
  4. Call the number on the flyer (99-Fiber)
  5. Transverse the phone tree to get to hold of one of those new LUS service reps. Punch 1 and then 1 again… I got a very nice guy with a distinctly local accent who was both methodical and very solicitous.
  6. They go through a process to verify that you really are in the area that is currently open for service. This verification apparently is separated from the sign-up process so they ask for a few things a second time later on. (But my guy told me he was going to be asking again and apologized in anticipation. I was in no mood to worry about such.)
  7. Once you are confirmed as a potential location they want to know who you are. You get to verify your identity, in my case by SSN, and get an identity in their system. I provided a password and the answer to a standard security question.
  8. Then you get to give your address and billing address. That should be easy. But in my case having a “St.” in front of the street name caused problems. We eventually hit on a series of letters that the database acknowledged existed. (Saint needs to be spelled out.)
  9. Part of confirming your address is that you need to have one that the 911 system acknowledges. So the address needs to go in and be accepted in that database. We wrestled with that a bit too…as it turns out that field doesn’t like the other “St.” —the one that denotes “Street.” (That one needs to be left off entirely.) Coming out of that series of retries we got a “unexpected error” error. —Another of those ever so informative computer messages. He couldn’t get unhung and asked to call back.
  10. He got unhung and called back. We managed to duplicate the error. Great for bug tracking. Frustrating to my service guy. He let me go again.
  11. My callback was from a nice, brisk, and apologetic woman who apparently was the supervisor. Anyone who has hung on technical support lines for hours recognizes that I’d had a level upgrade… She muscled past the buggy screens and finalized my setup.
  12. At that point I “just” had to specify my order. That was complex. Even the most minimal land line has to go through a lot to port a number and set up all the required 911 details. I asked a lot of questions (being who I am) about service details on the internet side, got the fancy 50 meg symmetric package, and a digital DVR box with one premium channel…That involved a lot of talk.
  13. She set me up on the spot for an inside install and let me know that the outside installer would be coming but would ring us up first.
  14. She apologized for everything one more time, checked my particulars and let me go. Done!

It’s a lot to get hooked up with, validation details, all those services, myriad supporting details, and to setting up two appointments all at one blow. Especially since I was so eager. But my experience with folks on the other end were that they were methodical with and unfailingly helpful toward even for an over-eager beaver like myself.

I eagerly await.