It’s working in Virginia…& Tennessee

It has been a while since we’ve checked in with Bristol, Virginia’s Fiber To The Home (FTTH) Network. Telephony Online provides another encouraging update.

Followers of Lafayette’s saga will recall Bristol as the city that the “academic” astroturf organizations and Cox/BellSouth supporters tried to portray Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU) as a failure in order to discourage Lafayette’s citizens from considering building our own network. It was always a crock but the system has recently become such a roaring success that opponents of municipal networks have had to start simply ignoring it. But it’s not about to go away. BVU’s success has inspired its across-the-border sister, Bristol, Tennessee to do the same. The projects, located in economically struggling Appalachia, have brought much needed jobs to the community, saved their citizens money, and kept local dollars from draining out of the rural communities.

The story “Fiber beat still pulses at Bristol” is well-structured and I recommend reading the whole article. Here are some highlights that are sure to hearten muni fiber supporters:

On BVU’s home town success:

BVU has fought major regulatory battles along the way, at one point suing the state of Virginia and helping to push through a new state law. The company has faced its own critics down, including local telco Embarq, which claimed BVU was cross-subsidizing its telecom services with its electric and water revenues…

“We had two very good success stories that happened with Northrop Grumman and CGI, which brought in 700 new jobs with average salaries of $50,000,” said Wes Rosenbalm, president and CEO of BVU. “The average salary here is $24,000 to $27,000. And we have a couple other deals we are looking at internally.”

On the consumer side, BVU has a 65% penetration rate for its triple-play services inside the city of Bristol…

On neighboring Bristol, Tennessee’s following suit:

The Bristol, Tenn., City Council urged BTES to get into cable after it saw how BVU was selling cable service at lower rates than Charter Communications, the primary local cable operator, Browder said. After going through the process of becoming a CLEC, BTES added voice service.

“The local cable company, Charter, lowered prices in Bristol, Va., after BVU started competing with them, but they wouldn’t lower prices in Bristol, Tenn., so the city council sent us a petition,” Browder said….

“Right now, today we have almost 25% penetration, but we have areas where we have been out there a little longer that we have over 50% penetration,” he said. “We are quickly bringing up the distribution system. We have now passed 27,000 homes. The original plan was to pass 20,000 in four years. We are hooking people up as fast as we want to, based on the fact that we want to serve every customer really well. If we did some advertising, we could bring in a lot more customers in a hurry.”

On nifty-keeno services:

Both offer high-definition TV — Browder says the Tennessee side has more channels — and digital video recorders. BVU offers caller ID on the television via Integra 5 technology, and in February it announced on-demand video from Cisco Systems, to be available by July…

“A huge piece for us is what we can do with the electric system; we can read meters,” Browder said. “They do automatic power outage reporting, and it automatically reports to our dispatch. When we very first started, we had a lightning storm. Thirty-four customers were out; two were on fiber. We knew it right away. A lineman went and fixed it before we got the phone calls.”

“With this system, they can buy $50 of electricity, and when it goes off, it quits. It’s been a great service to this particular group of people that need that. Also we have 14,000 water heaters in one area that we cycle off during peak times to save electricity. We can move that to very off-peak time by monitoring them and leave them off much longer times. If temperature drops we can turn that one back on.”

The line the hacks in astroturf organizations have always promoted was that municipalities could never get an effective network built or run it well. Bristol should put a stake through the heart of that nonsense. Here’s to hoping Lafayette will will help finish that line of “reasoning” entirely.

VOE: Fixing What is Wrong with Muni WiFi

Voice of Experience Department.

[Lafayette’s decision two years ago in voting to build a Fiber To The Home system rather than a cheaper, less capable wireless system is being validated by current events and the emerging pattern suggests that local citizens might end up owning the nation’s most impressive model of a real, inexpensive, municipal network with modern bandwidth and workable mobility. Read on…]

Business Week picks up on current net buzz on the difficulties encountered by municipal wifi networks and the story does a good job in laying out the current unhappy state of such projects. It’s a sad story for a lot of people in a lot of places.

The static crackling around municipal wireless networks is getting worse.

San Francisco Wi-Fi, perhaps the highest-profile project among the hundreds announced over the past few years, is in limbo. Milwaukee is delaying its plan to offer citywide wireless Internet access. The network build-out in Philadelphia, the trailblazer among major cities embracing wireless as a vital new form of municipal infrastructure, is progressing slower than expected.

My friends in Philly say the network is pretty near useless where it is up—service is beyond spotty and it comes and goes unpredictably. The boards tell a similar story in Corpus Christi where Earthlink, a private provider, had bought the municipal network with a promise of upgrades. Google’s hometown Mountain View network isn’t anything to brag on either. The problem isn’t with public networks; difficulties seems to be hitting private and public muni wifi WANs (Wide Area Networks) pretty much equally.

There has been a lot of doom and gloom about the problems muni wifi networks are encountering (the Business Week article among them) and there has been the inevitable reaction to that on the part of advocates pointing out the immaturity—and naivete—of the original business plans. Business Week does, at the end of the story, note that a more mature business plan relies on the local city government being involved:

To make the business more profitable, Wi-Fi service providers are trying to pass more of the cost to the cities. “There’s no one that I am aware of right now who’d build a network without the city as a paying customer,” says Lou Pelosi, vice-president for marketing at MetroFi, which six months ago stopped bidding for projects unless the city agreed to become the network’s anchor tenant.

Advocates imply that a naive business plan is all that is wrong with the current crop of wide area wifi networks. Would that it were so.

The doom and gloom is overstated. But the truth is the version of muni wireless that emphasized cheap (or free) residential service using a wireless mesh to minimize costs was always a castle built on shaky technical grounds. From the beginning the fundamental concept was that you’d take a single expensive connection to the net and divide it up like the loaves and fishes between many users and still end up with sufficient connectivity to feed the masses. Thinking that way was hoping for the sort of miracle that doesn’t occur in our daily world. An analogy might be taking your home connection and “sharing” it with most of your neighborhood. That might work at times. But service could never be very fast or reliable. (Yes, it’s more complicated; I know–but that’s a fair analogy.) Additional problems having to do with the nature of the spectrum allocated to wifi (short range power and a frequency that has trouble cutting through vegetation or walls) added the limitations of physics to the questionable network design decisions.

Those problems can be overcome. It’s not even a twelve step program. Two will do

Step One is to abandon the idea that a wifi network will ever work well as a person’s primary, reliable, home connection to the full richness of the network.

Rock solid reliability is not in the cards for wifi–and affordable access to a reliable always-on connection is a prerequisite for full participation in the emerging digital culture.

You will need a hardwired, preferably Fiber To The Home connection if you plan to make full, reliable, consistent use of downloadable video, cable TV, Voice over IP, security alarms, medical monitoring and the like. With a fiber connection every individual can easily and cheaply provision their own in-home wifi network if wireless suits their style.

Any community that takes that stand abandons at one blow all the unrealistic demands that wifi technology simply cannot fulfill. Concentrate on ubiquitous local coverage, emphasize mobility and help people understand that cell phone levels of reliability is the best that can be hoped for. (That level of service would be a huge boon even without the unrealistic expectation, with ubiquitous coverage I could get a connection anywhere while on the go. I might not be able to do everything with it I could do at home–but I could do almost anything I can imagine that I would want to do on the run. Including in the best case, which I’ll get to below, mobile, albeit cell quality, VOIP.)

I do understand, and deeply sympathize with, the hope that cheap wifi could help close the digital divide. There still may be a role for it there if the bandwidth issues can be overcome (again see below). —But the reliability issues, arguably, are fundamental and the hacked-up solutions necessary unstable and too technically exacting to expect large populations to manage on their own. Pretending that wireless connectivity is the same as wired connectivity is profoundly misleading—and is a recipe for creating a second-class version of net usage where poorer users simply can’t rely on the net being there and so aren’t able to trust it fully enough to make it as central as their better-off brethren. Imagine what would have happened to telephone usage in our culture if the well-off got good, reliable, always on wired phone service. But “other people” got cheap, spotty, poor “radio” service on “garbage” bandwidth that might or might not work on any given day or location. That is the sort of divided service model was avoided in our phone history and if we try it today it will cause trouble downstream that I, for one, would rather avoid. The real solution to too expensive wired network connections is cheap wired network connections. And that is the solution that any conscientious community should seek. [I am grateful that that is the solution Lafayette has sought—LUS proposes to narrow the digital divide by making service significantly cheaper.]

With cheap, wired, reliable, big broadband available in every home the threshold moves to making some form of connection available on every corner (ubiquity) and making it available while you are on the move (mobility). That’s what wireless networks are good for—and why cell phones, as unreliable as they are, remain useful and hence popular.

Step Two is to abandon the the belief that wireless mesh networks can be used to turn an expensive wired connection into many cheap wireless ones.

It can’t; only Christ could manage the miracle of the Sermon on the Mount.

Build, instead, on the real virtues of wireless networks: ubiquity and mobility. Do your absolute best to minimize its weaknesses by making it as fast and reliable as possible within the confines set by physics and federal regulation.

Abandoning the idea that one connection the wired broadband internet can serve many users over a broad area well is the key to succeeding. Instead of designing the wireless network so that each wired connection feeds five, six, or more wifi access points, limit the ratio of access points to internet connections to 1:1. This makes for much less sharing of limited bandwidth among users, greater reliability, and dramatically reduced “latency” (the lag caused by mulitple jumps that makes VOIP phones impractical on most muni networks).

Better yet, attach your wifi network directly to a full throttle fiber network. Fund the entire capacity of wireless protocols. (Outside of a few University or corporate campuses very few of us have ever used a wireless network that worked the internet as fast as they could. The usual limiting factor is the wired network that supplies bandwidth to the wifi. If Cox or AT&T only gives me 5 megs of wired bandwidth to my access point then the theoretical 54 Mbit/s that is theoretically possible is limited to at most 5 Mbit/s. You’ll never see the other 49 Mbit/s no matter what it says on the side of the box.) A fiber network can easily supply a minimum of 100 Mbit/s supplied to the wifi access point; split that 100 once to a second wifi access point and something close to the full 50 megs of bandwidth that wifi is capable of could actually be seen on the street. Even split among a sizeable group of users on two nodes that would be plenty fast enough to support excellent quality VOIP with no discernable lag, great data connections, and many, many extras. Even if turned out to be less reliable and a bit slower in use than its wired counterparts the virtues of ubiquity and mobility would be there and our willingness to use cell phones proves that we find this trade-off acceptable.

A wifi network built this way would be as much superior to its wireless competitors as the fiber network would be to its wireline competitors.

But getting to that dream requires abandoning unrealistic expectations…and starting with a fiber network running down every street.

Lafayette is positioned to realize the ultimate dream: a cheap, blindingly fast, reliable, fiber-optic connection made available to every home and, based on that, a solidly architected, cheap, uniquely fast municipal wireless network that is demonstrably better than any muni wifi network in the nation.

Living large in Lafayette.

(Thanks go out to reader Scott who forwarded the story.)

Video Franchise Disaster in North Carolina

A weekly newspaper in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, The Independent, has one of those rare, acerbic, factually rich explorations of a significant topic that you only seem to find in alternative weeklies.

The reason you’re seeing it here is that the column’s point of departure is North Carolina’s “Video Service Competition Act”—a phone company sponsored bill that moved control of cable franchise to the state level and thereby removing local control over fees, PEG channel support, and consumer protection. North Carolina’s legislature passed it last year, just as Louisiana’s did, in the name of encouraging competition. But North Carolina’s governor signed the bill while Blanco, citing concerns over local control and damaging municipalities’ income, vetoed the bill.

On the basis of North Carolina’s evidence, Blanco was right.

The History:
Though the legislation promised competition and new investment, in fact no new competition has emerged. Neither Verizon nor AT&T have actually launched any new services in North Carolina and they don’t have any firm plans to do so. No new technology has appeared. Prices have not fallen. Hmmn.

Though they assured municipalities that they’d see no drop in income in fact the state has collected only 62% of what the municipalities had been taking in. Ooops.

Though local PEG channels, like our AOC, were promised a secure share from the state it turns out that the state only budgeted for 80 channels—and 300 applied. Ooops.

The Kicker:
North Carolina is now being asked by the telecomm companies to pass the “Local Government Fair Competition Act.” It’s a law like Louisiana’s law that imposes unfair constraints on local governments and makes it virtually impossible for a small community to make the decision to do so. The author of this piece suggests, on the basis of the outcome of last year’s disaster, that they not do so. So has Lafayette Pro Fiber. Emphatically.

Give the story a read; there are some “rich” details.

VOE: “Cincinnati Bell Wireless launches Wi-Fi/cell service”

Voice of Experience Files:

From our new “Voice of Experience” files: Lafayette will want to note that wifi/cellular convergence is emerging at the edges of the cellular business.

LUS’ unique fiber/wifi IP-based network will allow some pretty nifty voice services to emerge. Our utility will be able to put together an interesting Voice ecology that combines VOIP on fiber with its wifi network to allow your personal phone number to reach you in multiple ways, to enable on-the-fly conference calling (with video?), access back to data held online or in your base computer, combined chat/voice/video/SMS connectivity, digital recording, message forwarding to any IP address, and more…

Most LPF readers are, I suspect, care most about the internet and recognize the central role cable TV will play in paying off the system. Relative to those highlights, voice gets ignored. Maybe it shouldn’t be—convergence is moving from talking to commercial products in the voice arena and Lafayette will be positioned to ride the wave as wifi mobile telephony emerges while our system is built over the next 18 months. (What we need is a partnership with a mobile carrier…on which more below.)

The immediate inspiration for those reflections? Margaret Reardon’s blog entry on the launch of Cincinnati Bell’s* new wifi/cell service. (Their local paper has a short article as well.)

The long and the short of it is that your phone will switch seamlessly between the cellular network and approved wifi networks. The service is an add-on 10 dollar a month charge on your wireless bill. Partially offsetting that monthly charge is the fact that any time you are on a wifi network your minutes are free. Really. And that “approved” means approved by you, not Cincinnati Bell. You can validate you personal or work or favorite coffee house wifi network as a connection point. Or you can use Cincinnati Bell’s own wifi network of 300 points without any setup at all. Get near one and your phone call switches over to wifi automatically and your minutes are still free. (Incidentally, Cincinnati Bell offers free access to its wifi network as part of its wired high-speed internet package; I hope LUS will do something similar.)

T-Mobile is the national cell carrier who is widely rumored to be planning the nationwide launch of a similar service, Hotspot@Home, in a few days. (They’ve been trialling it in Washington state.) That makes T-Mobile the obvious candidate for cellular partnership with LUS. The trade-off would be simple: LUS gets a national cellphone partner whose phone will work across the country and who is actively developing new integrated services. (Nobody will buy a wifi service that only works in the city of Lafayette.) T-Mobile gets virtually guaranteed dominance in Lafayette and the environs. (If you do most of your calling from within the city you can easily go with the least expensive calling plan since those calls won’t run up minutes. Who wouldn’t go with cheap–and local?) It could be a great deal.

Voice is something to watch. And Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile are the actors to follow.

*Cincinnati Bell is one of those “asterisk” companies — part of the Bell system since 1878 but never owned by Ma Bell, it is probably the largest “independent, local” phone company in the nation. This first-in-the-country initiative is further evidence that local ownership of telecom networks is a good thing.

Geeky extra: Both Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile are using a “glue” technology called UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) which allows providers, and to a lesser extent users, to hook into multiple protocols and tools. Most crucially for the current discussion it facilitates seamless handoffs between cellular and wireless networks. But it goes much further than that. If you are masochistic enough to want to follow it out you can start at the rather thin and querulous wikipedia page.

Municipal Campaign Strategy; Learning from Lafayette

So what did we all learn from the battle of Lafayette? I’ve been asked recently and have been thinking about it some…What follows is a first draft which focuses pretty much on the active strategies of the two sides as I see it. —It’s about what they tried to accomplish and where they wanted the conversation to go. This ignores some interesting larger factors (like trust in the mayor, or the relaxed southern Lousiana attitude toward government, or Lafayette’s peculiar ways of organizing influence, for instance) that could be considered important but background factors. It also mostly ignores the tactical questions–how the strategies were enacted–that are some of the more interesting things to come out of this fight. Instead this is a more birds-eye view of what, it seems to me, both sides might have learned from Lafayette’s fight for fiber.

First off, it’s pretty apparent that the incumbents don’t have much new up their sleeves. The campaign they waged here mirrored campaigns they’ve waged in the past. We didn’t see the as dramatic a finish as we saw in the Tri-Cities but that may well have been because the battle was already lost for BellSouth and Cox before the end arrived. But that doesn’t mean that their basic idea about what makes for an effective campaign has changed: the basic strategy of sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt seems pretty constant. The tactics seemed to involve a lot of replays as well…Push polls were used here, albeit pretty counter effectively. We got two last minute overexcited direct mail focusing on false claims about taxes, the repeatedly disproven idea that all municipal broadband (or even most) is failing, and silliness about the debt families are supposedly taken. Too, as in the Tri-Cities, an editorial writer who played a prominent role in the opposition was taken to task for unseemly involvement with the incumbents or their allies. The tactics were mostly retreads; what was different was that the predictable campaign was not fronted entirely by the incumbents themselves but, especially in the last days by their allies at Fiber 411.

One of the things the incumbents learned here was that long campaigns are bad for them. Given time, and an aggressive willingness to fight back, lies can be disproved, push polls turned to outrage, and promoting fear and insulting the intelligence of the locals begins to sour any possible relationship with the community. In Lafayette the fight went on for too long. The incumbents had to trot out their best weapons too early and pro-fiber partisans were able to correctly label them as FUD and drive home the message that the incumbents were not being truthful—a message that inoculated the public against further last minute lies.

Unfortunately, I think the incumbents also learned that, saved to the last minute, and promoted through a local proxy, their FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) approach can still be effective. I agree with Don’s analysis that the last minute mailers, the full page ads that simply reprinted a (non)local editorialist’s massively inaccurate take and automated phone calling about a new fantasy “debt” issue were effective. They were simply not effective enough. The local pro-fiber groups kept up a dogged insistence, even during the incumbents’ quietest moments, that the incumbents and their allies were not truthful. Radio time remained filled with a recut version of the push poll and Lafayette Coming Together (LCT) was relentless in pushing the issue. LCG and LUS, while toning down this message near the end and moving it away from the Terry and Joey, never fully abandoned it.

What the pro-municipal fiber forces learned was probably more valuable: that they can win. The overwhelming economic power of the incumbents can be blunted. Their willingness to leave accuracy and truthfulness aside in the pursuit of their own interests can be turned against them. What it takes is something that most municipal officials will not have the stomach for: a full throated attack on some of the most powerful corporations in their city. Telephone corporations have a long history of being the most “generous” investors in state election campaigns and the most powerful lobbying force in state legislatures. Cable companies control what politicians understand to be the most powerful media in town. Lafayette was willing to fight with a strong local and populist message that clearly labeled its opposition as “greedy” “out-of-state” “monopolies.” The spectacle of our Mayor and the head of the utility system “standing up” for Lafayette in a press conference after every bit of misinformation spread by the incumbents and being uncompromising in calling them on each and every false claims was crucial to the campaign. Driving home the message that the incumbents self-interest and greed was driving this process was invaluable in resisting the final onslaught.

There is little doubt that Lafayette had advantages that might not be available in all locales. The bravery of the leadership and its willingness to call a monopoly, a monopoly and greed, greed has already been noted and was tremendously important. There was also a determined, deliberately broad-based coalition of citizens that made it hard to paint the project as one fostered by wealthy technocrats. The coalition group, Lafayette Coming Together, was also quite sophisticated about the use of both old and new media. But the greatest advantage was a pride of place born out of a realistic belief that the region, and Lafayette as the heart of that region, is unique and not subject to rules imposed on us by outsiders. It mixture of cultures, its cultural identities, and the ways the people have found to sustain their cultures make it very difficult for outsiders to successfully come in and infer that the locals are incompetent or successfully introduce effective divisive tactics. (One of the more despicable strategies, used all the way through and culminating in simple lies on Black radio near the end, was to try and split the Creole and black communities away from the rest of the community by using historical resentments which had nothing to do with the issue at hand. Without the aid of community leaders this attempt did not take hold. But the attempt is destined to be one of the longest remembered stains on the campaign of the incumbents and their allies.) Most communities have never had to develop that sort of resilience in the face of outside disapproval but the communities of Acadiana are very good at dismissing outsiders.

Other considerations that helped support a victory in Lafayette appear to be a result of market and national policy worries of the incumbents. Fights like the one in the Tri-Cities can be considered Pyrrych victories—the cost was high, not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of their reputation both locally and nationally. The cable and telephone companies simply are regional monopolies in their core business and maintaining a favorable regulatory relations at the state level and franchise agreements at the local level depend upon their being perceived as good, or at least benign, local citizens. It will surely take a decade or more to regain that status in the Tri-Cities; even voters who succumbed to the arguments of the incumbents could not help but notice the fear-based tactics that were used to bring them along. There was no large federal issue ongoing at the time of the fight in Illinois. But major initiatives of both the Cable and the Phone companies are before statehouses and more importantly, the Congress. The centrally important 1996 telecom act is up for revision this legislative season, in but one example. An ugly, high-profile attack on Lafayette when the defenders were willing to fight back by identifying the incumbent corporations as “greedy monopolists” may well have been too much to stomach for those at corporate central who felt they had bigger fish to fry and to much to lose to risk that sort of battle in a single small city.

Finally there is the basic market motivation: too much bad behavior damages the bottom line–if you lose. Surely BellSouth and Cox had done their own polling and could read the writing on the wall as well as anyone. The referendum was going to succeed and p0lling no doubt showed that the first reaction of the population to a new round of misinformation would turn more people against them than it gained. If there was any doubt about that the swift and overwhelmingly hostile reaction to the second push poll this summer proved the point that the usual incumbent tactics had become counter-productive. The hard truth was that BellSouth and Cox still had to compete in Lafayette and a loss in a full scale assault would have immediately pushed the likely “take rate” among voters past 5o% percent if corporate behavior turned a “Yes” vote into a vote against Cox and BellSouth. Working through proxies and saving the mail pieces and scare phoning until the end when they could not be answered might well have been all that can be done without damaging their market position by turning the referendum into a marketing tool for LUS.

Lafayette’s battle deserves, I believe, to be seen as one model for regaining local control of crucial monopoly infrastructure. The underlying populist message of local self-determination and legitimate anger toward regional monopolies like BellSouth and Cox was what drove the winning argument in Lafayette. People saw nothing wrong with building for themselves a network that the incumbents refused to build for them. Similarly, people do understand that these companies are monopolies whose bottom line has nothing to do with what is best for the communities across the country in which they reside. That is the core upon which electoral success was built. Lafayettes’ leadership, her aware citizens’ group, a committed ‘old Lafayette’ leadership, and the way her cultural distinctiveness played out made the message relatively easy to develop and denied the opposition virtually all local assets. Other communities might not share those particular advantages but the anti-incumbent message that can win has now been established and future communities can sharpen the message and develop their own resources.

Lafayette can be proud to have developed a winning model and strategy—not without help of course, but with plenty of verve. It will be up to our successors to sharpen the tool and make it more generally useful.