EATel’s fiber to move into Baton Rouge

EATel, East Ascension’s locally-owned fiber-based telecoms provider, is set to move into the Baton Rouge market and provide Cox & AT&T some real competition. This would be a tremendous change in that market, especially if the local provider was prepared to build-out beyond the sort of limited cherry-picking that Baton Rouge has seen from AT&T’s “entry.” It is conceivable that parts of Baton Rouge could actually have 3 providers for the full range of telecom services. That’s virtually unheard of.

According to the Baton Rouge Business Report EATel is anxious to get things going and objected to any further delay in granting its franchise citing in part the age of the owner:

“I will be here next time, and I will continue to come until we get the franchise. We’re a family company. Our owner is 84 years old,” Britton said, to which Addison replied, “You can tell your 84-year-old owner that you’ll get it.”

The Business Report story is misleading in at least one respect: it talks about EATel bringing “broadband” competition without mention of either the phone or the video aspects of the service. A quick read of the council agenda item in question reveals that a good bit more is at stake: 

Authorizing the Mayor-President to enter into an agreement with Eatel Video, L.L.C. d/b/a Eatel, to offer multi-protocol broadband platform of voice, data and video/television services (“broadband network”), the video/television component of which is a multi-protocol, two-way interactive, ip-enabled video/television service in the City of Baton Rouge and Parish of East Baton Rouge. By: Parish Attorney.

We’re talking voice, data, and video…the full triple play.

I’ll look forward to hearing the details; it’d be a pity if EATel’s intent was more modest than I am assuming. The company is in of East Ascension south of East Baton Rouge and in Livingston in areas southeast of parish. So it has built up networks in striking range of southern East Baton Rouge Parish. The extent of the build is unknown but it may be worth noting that the Councilman whose concern about FCC regulations appears to have derailed immediate approval represents district 2 in the historically poorer, blacker area of northwest
Baton Rouge. If his concern is that his constituents might not see much benefit from the competition EATel brings that is probably reasonably founded on how little the highly touted “competition” from AT&T reached his constituents.

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.

CenturyTel to Buy Qwest in $10.6B Stock Swap –

The third largest telephone company in the United States will be located in Monroe, La…Bastrop really.

Really. Honestly. No kidding…

The New York Times reports that CenturyTel will buy Qwest, the western Bell company for 10.6 in a stock swap deal announced today.


The combination would have about 18 million phone lines serving customers in 37 states, but would still be dwarfed by AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. It would be based at CenturyTel’s headquarters in Monroe, La., rather than in Denver, where Qwest is based.

The number of landlines in the U.S. shrinks by about 10 percent per year as consumers chose to rely on their wireless phones or service from cable companies. The fourth-largest provider of landline phone service in the country, by number of subscribers, is now cable company Comcast Corp.

Official LPF reaction: Wowser. This new company will create a national rural wireline carrier. It may well have the largest footprint in terms of square miles in the country.

Nifty New Intranet Speed Test

LUS has launched a nifty new intranet speed test page. It tests the speed of the intranet portion of LUS’ internet offering. (And you can only get to it if you are already on the network.) The decision to treat all of Lafayette as a “campus” to make the full speed of the local network available to all subscribers—regardless of what they pay—is probably the most unique and impressive aspect of LUS’ service. It results in a single very high speed community within Lafayette of 100 mbps of service. Whether you buy into the lowest speed package or the highest one; whether you are the mayor or plain Joe Citizen you get 100 mbps to talk to your fellows on the network. That’s something to be proud of both technically and socially…Campus networks are typically something you can only find within large college campuses or the “campus” of large corporations like Microsoft.

That 100 mbps is the technical limit of the hardware currently in use (as I understand it) and techy types here have always been curious as to how close LUS can get to that limit. For instance for 100 mbps “fast” etherenet—ethernet being the usual reference standard for networking—is theoretically capable of 100 mbps but in real-world situations achieving 80 mbps consistently is considered good by the technical sorts that administer these things.

On that score LUS must be working with some good engineers…I got 94 mbps out of my connection on this test:

What’s more its rock-steady…look at the tiny variations in the blue speed line over the test:

But the most surprising part of the above speed graph is that inconspicuous red line right at the bottom…1 ms of “delay” aka “latency.” That’s every bit and maybe more surprising than getting so close to the 100 mbps barrier. Latency is crucial in making next-generation interactive audio and visual applications work well. If you want to actually talk to and see someone in real time it is crucial—and is seperate from simple “speed” which might better be described for these purposes as “capacity.” You need the transit time from you to the person you are talking to and back to you to be as low as possible. You do need enough speed/capacity for good video resolution and audio; but you also need a very quick response–you need low latency to make the whole experience worthwhile. (You’ve recall those nice clear pictures of on-scene reporters from the other side of the world talking to show’s anchor. You also recall those long pauses and akward starts and stops? That’s the latency part.) 1 ms of delay is astounding. Even more astounding the absolutely flat line in that graph—every point reports at 1 ms—indicates that 1 ms is simply the lower bound of this testing setup. LUS’ delay varies somewhere below 1 ms. The company that designed the software clearly didn’t think that it needed to ever worry about reporting delay any smaller and so is reporting all delay below 1 ms as “1 ms.” LUS has confounded the expectation that delay below 1 ms isn’t practical. Wow again.

So, in its summary, the software tries to tell you what your connection is good for…and in this case the decision rendered has to sound like a laconic understatment:

With 94 mbps and and at 99% consistency the service is “high enough to support a high quality” voice conversation is a vast understatement. That’s enough to support, without strain due to the connection, an HD video conversation….or several. Within the network you simply won’t have to worry about the network limits on what you can do. These limits are far beyond what the current hardware and software is designed to handle. —The falsely high report of 1 ms from this test software is an example of how really high speed/high quality networks expose that weakness.

Looking For A Downside
In fact that hints at the dark lining on our silver clound: We’ve gotten so far ahead of the curve that we are finding new choke points—choke points that few others have to worry about. In practice the most serious choke points are usually local—in the last mile network or in your ISP’s regional feeder system that supplies that last mile. Server delay sometimes figures in to a slow-loading page but is usually transient. The people who run the popular servers know that slow-loading pages drives the traffic they want away and fix any issues that might arise. Even rarer is within-premise delay. Your local network has typically been so much faster than what your ISP supplies at the wall of your house that misconfigurations and out-of-date hardware don’t effect your perceived speed.

But with the sorts of speeds that LUS is providing, especially on the intranet, all these formerly unimportant server issues and local network messes suddenly become the new bottleneck. For instance: I’ve noted before that I haven’t felt obliged to upgrade my WiFi to the newer, faster N standard because I simply couldn’t get enough real bandwidth from Cox for two of us to saturate my wifi’s ability to push bits. That’s no longer true. The 94 mbps that I got above was what I got when I connected directly to LUS’ ethernet connection. When I tried the same thing through my WiFi my connection dropped to 44 mbps. I lost half of my available speed! Frankly, I’m not upset—my current WiFi hardware is set up as an a/g network. When I tested it both my wife and I had connections open. The theoretical limit of an a/g setup is 54 mbps and and the typical achieved rate is about 22 mbps. My setup is working fine. It’s just old-fashioned. I need to segment the network leave my wife’s old laptop connected to an a/g node which is all her ‘puter can handle and connect mine to the N version. (hey! Don’t look at me like that. I tried to get her a new laptop. She won’t let go of the one she has.) 802.11 n is supposed to get, in practical situations, 144 mbps…plenty enough for now.

When I talked to LUS about this they said they’ve had a lot of issues with routers not being able to push LUS’s speeds out to the laptops. This problem emerges not only in old a/g wifi routers and even some N ones but more surprisingly also over the ethernet ports in some of those routers. (Pure 10/100 ethernet routers can generally handle the speeds on wired networks, I’d presume. My wifi router, an Apple Time Machine, happily doesn’t have the weakness some combined routers do but you should check yours if you use any ethernet.) So…all that speed is going to put pressure on our creaky local area networks (LANs). It’s my intention to rewire my house with cat 6 wiring and install a new gig ethernet (1000 mbps) router—all our working puters can use that speed. And since I’ve now got the speed I’m gonna trade out the old WiFi and put in new ethernet connections to my nifty new LUS box, media computer, the newer TiVo, my PS3, and hey the TV has an ethernet port, why not? (The day is coming soon when I’ll video conference on my big screen TV with folks here in Lafayette…) They’ll join my printer and kid/server ‘puter on the faster wired network.

So…Lafayette, the good news is that you’ve got a fantastic network to use—at astonishing prices too. The bad news, such as it is, is that you’ll have to start paying some attention to your end of the connection for probably the first time in your life. There might be some work involved.

I’m kinda enjoying having that kind of “problem.” 🙂 Have fun!

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.

LPF’s Fiber FAQ

I’ve been pouring over the good, but largely inaccessible information on the new LUS Fiber network on the net, in the Advertiser Forums and in the back pages of LPF and have decided to put together a FAQ on LUS Fiber that brings the most frequently asked questions together in one place. Much of the interesting matter is buried in references to tangental matters so I’ve tried to simplify things.

What you’ll find at LPF’s Fiber FAQ is pretty standard fare for an internet FAQ: an index at the top of the page, a simplified question and a basic answer to the question. As a recovering academic I’ve tried to include references and the actual words of LUS or its spokesperson.

If folks find it useful I’ll try and keep it up. If you want me to take a stab at some question ask in the comments….

Fiber Announcement at Tonight’s Council

Terry Huval will make a presentation at tonight’s city-parish council meeting. According to a council member the LUS director will lay out more details about the soon-to-be-launched system. The address will occur during the “President’s Address” segment of the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. This low-key, unannounced address will be the most comprehensive and authoritive description of the network’s products in Video, Voice, & Internet. I expect a status report on the state of the channel lineup, the extent of Video on Demand serivces, service tiers, pricing on tiers, the probability of caller ID and emergency data shown on-screen, Internet speed tiers, digital divide plans….and more.

The council is, in effect, the “board of directors” for LUS and it is appropriate enough for them to hear the proposed details first. The nice thing is that we, the public “stockholders,” get to listen in.

At 5:30…

To Attend In Person:
@ 705 W. University Avenue, Ted A. Ardoin City-Parish Council Auditorium (City Hall)

To Attend via Cable TV:

@ AOC Channel 16
Asychronously rebroadcast:
Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Saturday at 1:00 p.m.

To Attend via the Internet:
And Asynchronously, anytime

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.