LUS wins rate increase, smart grid

Well, LUS won its rate increase…about 15% over two years, the first rise in electricity costs since 1998. If you want to see the sausage being made you can tune in to AOC or download the video off UStream.

The central story tomorrow will be that increase, of course. And that is probably all you’ll see in the papers. I’ll leave any detailed reporting on the back and forth to them.

On the other hand, I expect that there’ll be no reporting on the sidelight issue of the status of the smart grid funding and I’ll take that up here. (If you’ve not followed this you can catch up the earlier posts on the issue: 1, 2.) The smart grid package, which includes both water and electricity utilities will go forward and the Feds will cough up half the money necessary to pay for communications infrastructure and the electrical side’s new meters—11.6 million dollars. It’s a great deal. But if the rate increased had failed, as it initially appeared to have done, then LUS would have had to turn down the stimulus money that would have made the smart grid deal so attractive for Lafayette. With that would have gone the opportunity for the service improvements that would come with the utility having instant, detailed information on the status of every customer and the potential for home owners to save money by actively managing their consumption.

There was a fair amount of back and forth on this topic and it’s apparent that LUS believes that the grant money is still there and that with the approval of the rate increase they will have no trouble convincing the Feds to turn over the money they have won.

Now that the money has been secured I’m hoping for more interesting news sooner rather than later on just which information technology will be used to connect the meters to the network. Whether it will be wired or wireless will be the first question and the answer will shape the future of the LUS communications division….stay tuned.

Update: The local and regional media has weighed in and as I suspected there no mention of the 11.6 million dollars in federal lagniappe that goes with the decision. From the Advertiser: “LUS rate hike OK’d” and from the Advocate: “LUS rate hike wins approval.” From the Independent: “LUS rate increase approved.”

On “Broadband is not a Utility”

I continue to hear stuff like “Broadband is not a utility” and “broadband is a luxury” all of which is supposed to lead to the conclusion that we should all stand back and let the the incumbent duopoly do whatever they want. That has always seemed like a stunningly short-sighted and unimaginative position to me. Happily Glenn Fleishman over at Publicola in Seattle (where their new mayor is committed to a publicly owned FTTH project) has dug up the perfect rejoinder to such foolishness. Glenn analyzes this at length and his dissection is worth the read. But for our purposes the raw quote from the Richmond, Virginia’s 1905 Times-Dispatch newspaper will suffice:

“Unless we adopt the principles of socialism, It can hardly be contended that It is the province of government, either state or municipal, to undertake the manufacture or supply of the ordinary subjects of trade and commerce, or to impose burdens upon the whole community for the supposed benefit of a few….

“The ownership and operation of municipal light plants stands upon a different basis from that of the ownership of water works, with which it is so often compared. Water is a necessity to the health and life of every individual member of a community…It must be supplied in order to preserve the public health, whether it can be done profitably or not, and must be furnished, not to a few individuals, but to every individual.

“Electric lights are different. Electricity is not in any sense a necessity, and under no conditions is it universally used by the people of a community. It is but a luxury enjoyed by a small proportion of the members of any municipality, and yet if the plant be owned and operated by the city, the burden of such ownership and operation must be borne by all the people through taxation.

“Now, electric light is not a necessity for every member of the community. It Is not the business of any one to see that I use electricity, or gas, or oil in my house, or even that I use any form of artificial light at all.”

Sound familiar? A century more or less makes little difference in the way some folks think…though the passage of time does change what they are wrong about.

Fleishman is writing in support of a fiber to the home network in Seattle but it is worth noting that he is more familiar as one of the net’s go-to guys on wifi and related wireless technologies — and has been a great advocate of those technologies. But even he says that fiber is the end-game for fixed locations.

Lafayette Pulls Down $11,630,000 in Smart Grid Monies (Updated)

Congratulations to Lafayette and Lafayette Utilities System….

Their recovery act grant application returned $11,630,000 dollars to the city in order to install a smart electrical meter system in the city. This has been something that LUS director Huval has long sought and winning the grant means that it can go forward much sooner. The “Brief Project Description” put up by the grant-giving agency says:

Install more than 57,000 smart meters to reach the full service territory with two-way communications, enable consumers to reduce energy use with smart appliances and dynamic pricing, and automate the electric transmission and distribution systems to improve monitoring and reliability.

We’ve commented here before on the potential of smart meters using the internet to communicate; it is all about shaving the top off peak power usage. These meters allow users to save money by monitoring their own usage and shifting the use of electricty-hogging services to times when power is cheap. (Charge your new electric car between 1 and 4:30 in the morning and get a 20% discount just like the big industrial users do now.) And they’d allow the electrical provider to spend less money on peak capacity. (We won’t have to build an expensive new plant if most of those new electric cars charge during off-peak hours.)

Now I’ll be very interested in seeing just how that “two-way communications” will be accomplished. Fiber to the home works great…for those that have fiber. But to serve all the city’s electrical customers it would likely prove cheaper to lay down a WiFi network — after all we’ve already got fiber running down every block. Just hang the WiFi off the polls and put a node on every meter.

That gives the city a pervasive cloud of wifi. Use a muscular 802.11N version and there’d be plenty left over to give LUS Fiber subscribers a very nice wireless addition to their already capable network.

Stay tuned. There’ll surely be more to this story.

(Hat tip to Mike for the lead on this story.)

Update 10/31/09:
Both the Advertiser and the Advocate have now picked up this story. LUS apparently issued a press release and Huval has talked to reporters. The most interesting new tidbit is in the Advertiser’s article:

Because the grant requires a match from LUS, it remains unclear whether the city will actually be able to receive the funds.

LUS Director Terry Huval said the application was submitted with plans of a rate increase for all LUS customers. But because some City-Parish Council members have opposed the increase, a final vote on it was delayed last month by Lafayette Consolidated Government officials, and it is unknown when that vote will take place.

Since the rate increase is in jeopardy, the smart grid project is temporarily off the table, but could make it back onto a project list if the increase eventually passes.

“Unless we’re able to find funding for that or get the rate adjustment, we would not be able to meet the match requirements,” Huval said.

Here’s to hoping that our green council (who are all in their first term) has the good sense to realize that this is the sort of “expense” that more than pays for itself. A “rate increase” that allows customers to save money through their own decisions and helps keep the utility from having to pay for excess, seldom used capacity saves the people money in both the long and the short run. Especially when our federal tax dollars will pay for half of the cost. It’s a one-time, limited-time offer, folks.

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!

WBS: Interview with Terry Huval plus Slideshow.

What’s Being Said Department

Benoît Felten, of the French Blog Fiberevolution interviewed Terry Huval (in English) at Freedom To Connect and has posted the video to his blog. Terry roles out the history of the project, the hurdles it has overome, and brags on its qualities for an international audience.

Note particularly the remarks from about the 4:25 mark on the video when Benoit asks about “the next generation of services” to be launched. There Huval discusses two hot topics: 1) a city-wide wireless system and 2) a smart grid for the electrical system. Both of these have been discussed locally but this discussion is particularly succienct and to the point: The wireless network is to “blanket the city with a wireless cloud” and will perhaps be used lower the cost of internet to those who have had trouble affording its cost. (With Cox preparing its own wireless network it will also soon be a competitive necessity.) The smart grid idea involves using the network (perhaps its wifi portion?) to facilitate remote meter reading, outage management, and time of use rates that allows customers to take advantage of cheaper off-hours electricity. Whats new there is the mention of the stimulus funds being made available in the stimulus package for smart grids. LUS clearly intends to apply for those funds and receiving it could make that a sooner rather than later addition.

The video closes up with “lessons learned” advice for other utilities. It’s worth the ten minutes of your time to take a listen.

The talk Huval gave at the Freedom to Connect conference—where the above interview was taped—was accompanied by a slide show that has been made available at the conference website. That, too will likely be of interest to some readers. There’s a short history, the pricing structure, a couple of network diagrams and a bit of laignappe at the end that he didn’t show at conference: a head-to-head list of the channel lineups between Cox and LUS…I’m sure that is changing daily on the LUS side but it makes for an impressive comparison.

Hmmn…While you are looking at Huval’s slideshow you might want to try and decrypt Felten’s as well. It was a very interesting analysis of the European FTTX experience with reference to how that experience might apply to the US. Felten comes down on the side of thinking open networks make the most sense from a purely business standpoint—not a point widely accepted here but much more prevelant in europe. Even more intriguing was his analysis of the different kinds of “open” networks and which types really work best to provide the widest array of consumer choice at the lowest prices…those clever Swedes….

Felten and Huval also have something in common besides a fondness for fiber…they were almost as popular with the crowd for their musical abilities as for the presentation: Felten on the harmonica and Huval on the fiddle. (And no, he didn’t wear his red cap.)

Terry Huval at the fiddle

Felten on the harmonica

NADs, the Digital Divide, the iPhone and Lafayette

Food For Thought Dept.

Mike helpfully emailed a link to a Wall Street Journal article that thoughtfully rewrites a press release from Comscore, a marketing research firm which recently released a study on the influence of the iPhone on the smartphone market.

Long story short: the iPhone is a big deal and is driving some pretty basic shifts in usage patterns. This isn’t all that surprising when you realize that the iPhone is pretty much a full computer with an always-on 3G internet connection—usably fast mobile ubiquity. I recently got one to take on an extended vacation and camping trip out west and it was fantastically useful to be able to access mapping, directions, restaurant reviews—and even GPS locations while hiking far from cellular connections. I am not surprised that others find its extended all-in-one capacity both helpful and worth affording. (That trip explains the 2 week LPF hiatus for both of you that wondered.) You can do a search on the terms and find bits and pieces of Comscore’s broader analysis. (The full report is a for-pay item.)

Our Focus
But the big picture is not particularly what interests us here today. Instead we focus on the implications of these usage shifts for digital divide issues here in Lafayette.

Part of what Comscore’s data shows is that lower-income householders are 1) adopting smartphones and especially the iPhone at a rate that is growing faster than those that are more wealthy and 2) that their use of network functions like email and search are also growing faster than the wealthy as is their usage of music/mp3 functions. (As an interesting sidelight: the overall usage is actually shrinking for non-network centric uses like music listening. hmmn….)

The conclusion that the analysts reach is that folks who need to stretch the dollar are dropping telephone landlines and internet connections in favor of cellular connections when they are pressed—iPhone-like devices make it possible to gain enough of the benefits of these capacities over your cellular connection to make turning off the other services seem cost-effective. You also don’t have to pay for a separate mp3 player or computer.

The smartphone/iPhone is emerging as an all-in-one network device that is particularly attractive to those whose need to pinch pennies. It may well become the preferred NAD (network attached device) of the working stiff.

The NAD and the Digital Divide in Lafayette
Just how people attach to Lafayette’s shiny new network has been a big issue dating back to the Digital Divide Committee and the Fiber Fight. Both LUS and the city-parish council have made a strong (and specific) commitment to making sure that the benefits of the community’s network extend to all. The first and most valuable commitment to equity was to make the the network as cheap as possible and to make the cheapest levels of service much more powerful than is available from for-profit providers. LUS is clearly keeping that commitment with very low-priced, extremely high bandwidth connectivity products. But there was also a commitment to find some way to get computers into poorer people’s homes.

Closing the digital divide, digital inclusion, was never just a matter of do-gooder sensibility or even simple justice (as powerful as both are); the impulse always included a healthy dose of selfish realism: We will all advance further and faster if we advance together. A truly advanced digital community must be pervasively sophisticated. To the extent that Lafayette (and any vigorous local community) has decided to invest in a technological future for its children it cannot afford to leave any part of the community behind. No local community has the human resources to waste. No real community would tolerate it.

That was the basis for our commitment to digital inclusion. At the time it was assumed that the NAD would be a desktop computer or maybe a laptop. But the winds have shifted.

The New NADs
It now appears that the NADs used to bridge the digital divide in Lafayette will consist of some mix of 1) newer, radically inexpensive low-powered laptops (aka “net tops”, 2) wireless smartphones, and 3) the cable settop box’s rudimentary browsing and email capacities. I’ve discussed 1 and 3 pretty extensively earlier.

What’s most interesting about these 3 paths toward accessible network connectivity is not how they differ and the hard choices those differences might suggest but how they are similar and the opportunities that they offer that Lafayette is uniquely situated to grasp.

Net tops laptops, smartphones, and set top boxes are all unabashedly network-dependent devices. Without a good, fast, reliable connection to the internet they are really not very useful or valuable. With an advanced connection, however, they are transformed into powerful, amazingly cheap devices that challenge the functionality of a powerful conventional computer for most folk’s purposes. That defines the double-edged sword that inexpensive network devices represent for most people in most places: they are only as good–and as cheap–as the networks to which they connect.

The smartphone/iPhone presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for providing fair access to Lafayette’s networked future.

Smartphone Opportunities
The opportunities are pretty breath-taking: hand-held, always-on network devices like the iPhone or newer advanced Blackberries offer the possibility of leapfrogging into a future that must remain a vision in most places.

That vision is of an ubiquitous, always-accessible network that puts rich comunications—ranging from video to voice to text—and huge computational and information resources at the fingertips of users at a price point so low as to make universal use almost inevitable.

If we can line up all these elements we can be both a national and even a world leader in popular access to advanced technologies. Lafayette can be the place to explore today the consequences of sort putting massive bandwidth, new devices, network storage, and online computational resources into the hands of most people in a community. It’s a chance for our comunity to help define the future—and to make a place in that future for communities like our own.

Smartphone Challenges
The new, cheap NADs Lafayette is considering as tools to close the digital divide are all not only network-centric but network-dependent. These inexpensive devices all require two things to make them function as adequate substitutes for traditional computers: 1) an always-on, large-bandwidth connection and 2) —and this is less well understood—on line storage and computational resources dedicated to each NAD user.

We have the dense fiber backbone. And the crucial public ownership. But we need more.

1) We need, first, to make sure that we beef up the wireless network that is currently being deployed along with the fiber and offer it as an adjunct to a citizen’s network connection. We can provide wifi within our own homes by attaching it to the fiber, but on the streets and and in public places our network connectivity needs to follow us. Wifi (for other practical reasons as well as the current considerations) shouldn’t be a seperate network.

2) We need to provide substantial online storage for individuals. NAD’s are noticeably short of storage space. That’s part of what makes them light and inexpensive and hence good digital divide devices. There is no reason to have massive storage located on an always-connected device. But beyond compensating for NAD shortcomings, a central online repository will soon become a practical necessity as people move toward using multiple, differently capable devices online. It is easy to see a time in the near future when the typical user might login daily from 1) a home computer, 2) a work or school computer, 3) their personal NAD, 4) their settop box to view some net content communally or on the large screen, and 5) from a friend’s house or public space. A single, online “home” would allow everyone to use their personal “stuff” (from docs to passwords to bookmarks to online applications and beyond) from any device at any location.

3) We need to provide real network-based computational power. NADs onboard computational resources are weak. But with a robust local network there is no need for a supercomputer in your hand…just access the computational power of the supercomputers on the network. The settop box solution would be greatly enhanced by locating a linux desktop on the network. A small server farm (or a nice virtual server like the one that Abacus has) could serve out the capacity of a full computer with a full suite of powerful applications to any screen—from the settop’s TV to a NAD’s small one. The technology is currently being called “cloud computing” but it could be arrayed cheaply by any community with the will to do so.

With fiber, fiber-driven wireless, online storage, and network-based computation Lafayette could cheaply and easily meet the commitment made during the fiber fight to closing the digital divide. And it could do it in a way that would benefit every citizen no matter what their income, neighborhood, race, or level of tech savvy. Meeting above challenges would help shape Lafayette into a community with an unrivaled capacity to meet future challenges. Since everyone would benefit it would be easier to sell politically. In these hard economic times it would be a huge boon to the whole community and mark Lafayette as a progressive, self-reliant locale in which to do business.

Really this should be a no-brainer…. don’t you think?


Should you be tempted to think that this is ahead of its time or that Louisiana is behind those times:

About 25 percent of Louisiana’s 4.2 million people have a Blackberry, iPhone or similar device, which May said “is really a computer.”

That’s from an Advertiser story on the community college system reformatting online coursework to make it accessible via smart phones….since it is “really a computer” qualified students can get aid in buying a smartphone since it can be regarded as educational.

The future is just around the corner. This stuff is all in sight.

And We’re Not Amazed

Food For Thought

That’s Kevin Kelly sitting in the red chair on a darkened stage. He’s talking to an assembly of some of the world’s finest minds at a recent TED conference. He’s earned their attention by being, over the last 40+ plus years one of the most prescient thinkers on the globe. He not only sees real patterns — which is rare enough — but he has an ability to see the direction in which those patterns are moving. That’s a forbiddingly abstract talent and it’s always been hard for Kelly to make himself sound sensible when he first points to a pattern. It’s only later that his positions come to be taken-for-granted wisdom.

As you might surmise, Kevin Kelly has been a hero of mine for a long time; since the old Whole Earth Review through his work on chaos theory. His sort of integrative, obsessive, reportorial focus on what’s truly important is always worth listening to….and even if you are tempted to think that this time it might be a little over the top you should remember that he has pretty much always been right….

This time he’s on about the web. How amazing it really is. How amazing it is that we’re not just poleaxed by what we’ve got. How that’s only the beginning How the web is turning into an ever-more all-inclusive machine. And how that machine is evolving.

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Like the web you could just about take off anywhere in that talk and dip into some really fascinating and important stuff. For instance, Kelly mentions, in quick passing, photosynth. Long-term and retentive readers will vaguely recall that term; I posted on it back when I fell across the technology on the web. Take a look; I think you’ll see how it fits his thesis. Then consider: He considers that a throw-away line. There’s a lot of meat below that almost-glib surface.

Here in Lafayette we’ve got to start taking such stuff seriously. It’s now inevitable that we will be able to inhabit the leading edge of this brave new world when it appears. We’ll have bandwidth to burn in LUS’ 100 megs of intranet and the wireless network now abuilding and attached to that hard-wired backbone can provide ubiquity at speeds that will stun. (In my neighborhood mysterious black cylinders are being attached to LUS fiber on a pole on every block. As I walk past with my iPhone NAD a wifi network pops up….) But, frankly, having the hardware doesn’t give us the vision. We could use it to just give us “more” of the same—bigger bandwidth, better phones, more fun cable, all for less. And we should do that. But that is the LEAST we can do with our new network.

A network-centric future is upon us. The web will connect, for practical purposes, all points from hand-crafted links, to databases, to our relationships, to the bevy of things we make and use. What ties all that together; what makes it work; is how it is integrated. Right now we’re calling it “search” and Google is the god. But simple textural search and link-ranking (which is most of what Google does) is only the tip of the iceberg here.

What the world needs—and what Lafayette and a few other places are positioned to supply—is what will replace search. The new web needs big bandwidth and ubiquity—practically speaking a tightly integrated fiber-wireless network. The next web also needs the huge calculative power that Kelly mention but does not emphasize. Between LITE and ULL’s underutilized supercomputers we’ll have computational power to do the sorts of pattern recognition and integration that things like photosynth and other database integrative applications will need. Kelly notes that the new web will no be like the old web any more than our web is like television. The new way of making acessible all those things which the web will connect is the crux of the difference. I trust his insights there and can see the outlines of the patterns he points to.

What Lafayette, and other communities with the resources, should be doing is supporting and providing incentives for companies and individuals that want design for what only we can currently do: provide the next generation of integrative technologies—that which will replace search. Any x-prize, any portal, any support that does not take that into account will be missing the boat.

“Cox to launch cellphone service” (updated)

Cox wants to be your phone company…cellular that is. (Or so says USAToday.)

There’s been a real question for quite a while now as to what Cox was going to do with the (expensive) wireless bandwidth it bought in the 700 mhz band. The possibilities bandied about have ranged from advanced data services to mobile TV to, well, cellular service. That last is what Cox is leading with but makes it clear that it intends to do bits of the others:

Cox, which expects to eventually manage all aspects of its service, also will test faster 4G technologies that use the international Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard…

Cox also says that subscribers will be able to watch TV shows, and possibly full-time channels, on their handsets. The company wouldn’t say what video will be available, how much consumers will pay for cellphone service, which markets will get it first, or how long it will take before it’s available in all its territories.

So what does that mean in Lafayette? Well, it’s pretty clear that Cox, as I’ve been saying for some time, is shaping up to be the Verizon of cable companies, that is: the company which is willing to invest real money in an intelligent long-term vision. Moving into the wireless space is smart and a will be a real challenge to LUS and the community’s new network. I do think an even smarter play for Cox, especially in Lafayette but everywhere, would have been to emphasize data and go with broad, open data structures like WiMax rather than tie themselves to a one wing of a narrow, cell-industry standard (LTE). Data is where the future is and flexibility is the key to success in the long run. Cox is apparently still locked in to their “old-world” mentality of providing “services” rather than access or communications. If they push much video at all over their wireless connection they will eat up bandwidth with proprietary, costly-to-consumer content. The cable model…in a world where they are competing against any real data-driven competitors it is a model with limited life. (And in Lafayette, though in few other places currently, they will have a data-driven competitor.)

Wireless services will enable integration with Cox’s other phone and video services; in addition to watching some TV shows on their mobile phone:

..subscribers will be able to use the phones to program home DVRs. They’ll also be able to access e-mail and voice mail that they receive at home.

Network integration is the holy grail of modern networking. It increases overall usages and tends to lock consumers into your product line. (Oh, and real people find it useful.) Just how that integration is accomplished is the question: via proprietary pipelined services or via open networkable data standards. Cox is going with proprietary services, as one would expect given their history and DNA.

LUS and Lafayette will also, readers will recall, have a wireless play. In Lafayette that will be a wifi network hung off the fiber and made available to all who purchase network connectivity from the new division. Current testing shows the wifi network pushing high bandwidth–in the neighborhood of 10 megs. That’s a lot of bandwidth, more than enough for 2-way video at mobile device resolutions for instance, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be more. LUS’ play will be a pure data play, the basic internet protocols will be the hook on which the whole thing will be hung. As such it will be robust, flexible, and adapative. LUS has been pretty coy on just when this will officially launch and how much additional (if any) it will cost. Getting that sort of information along with what protocols the new network will support in terms of infrastructure will be crucial to encouraging development for the new fiber-n-wireless network we’ll be seeing in Lafayette.

All very interesting.

Update: Mike passes on the URL to a Light Reading article on Cox’s wireless ambitions in light of the recent announcement. If you’re interested in the topic it shows the signs of being written by a reporter with real background knowledge; understanding what other cable companies are doing and what the history of wireless moves has been in the cable world…worth the click.

App-Rising on CampFiber

Mea Culpa, folks: I’ve fallen far behind in my posting. One thing I must get to soon is some reflections on Saturday’s CampFiber. It was both invigorating and informative—”in” in the best sense.

Happily, Geoff Daily over at App-Rising has had a series of commments trying to come to grips with the event. (1,2,3) His last post, though, comes really close to hitting it on the head. Geoff’s long been an advoate of Big Broadband and has recently refocused on the idea that filling the big pipe is a “problem.” Discussion at CampFiber has had the effect of making him rethink that basic question once again:

…one of the more interesting takeaways I got from CampFiber. It made me realize that the goal isn’t filling up the pipe, it’s figuring out how not having to worry about capacity constraints can free the minds of developers to worry less about compression and squeezing things down and more about the functionality, usability, and overall impact of their apps on improving society.

That comes very close, IMHO: Big Broadband is all about, or should be all about, destroying the constraints we currently suffer under—reconfiguring the playing field to make it more radically generative. A big fiber pipe is only a precondition and enabler for the fuller transformation. A necessary precondition, without any doubt, but a waystation on the path, not the final end in itself.

The next steps really need to be aimed not at filling a pipe or spending X amount of dollars to generate some mythical “killer app” but to increase the numbers of people that are participating and dramatically enhance the utility of the network for them. We’ve got a big leg up here in Lafayette on that score and it is not surprising that Lafayette developers immediately focused on some issues that initially surprised Geoff: the settop box and mobile computing….the big pipe is already accepted as a done deal here in the city. We will have that. We trust LUS to follow through. We trust LUS to lower the cost as much as possible so as to build usage in the most obvious way. Onto: “Next problem.” And the next problem is expanding the user base and expanding the range of things that can be done over the network: Set top box and wireless. Penetration and ubiquity.

We’re shockingly far down the road. But we need to recognize just how far out front we are least we squander our lead by imitating those who won’t really catch up for a decade.

But more on this in my next post……….I promise.

New Orleans’ Wi-Fi Gone

It’sa gone pecan….or less colloquially and jocularly: sic transit gloria.

New Orleans’ Earthlink WiFi network, launched with much fanfare as the leading edge of public-private partnership in muni networking in the days after Katrina is gone–completely. As Earthlink abandons its network of city-wide wireless networks New Orleans will not be left with even the truncated, city-services-only networks of Corpus Christi or Milpitas, Calif. In those cities Earthlink was able to give the networks to the city and cut its loses. But in New Orleans neither the city nor anyone else apparently was willing to take it. Earthlink will remove its networking equipment as it folds shop in the Big Easy.

This is the last whimper of a story that started out bravely. One of the shining moments of New Orleans municipal government after the storm (and there were shining moments) was the way it hacked together a working telecommunications system in the hours after the storm passed through by quickly repurposing a network of wifi connected cameras to serve basic police, fire, and emergency communications—long before BellSouth (now AT&T) began to get itself back together.

As the city stumbled to its feet it announced that it would use that network, expanded by volunteer workers and donated equipment, to provide basic voice and data communications for its citizens who BellSouth and Cox admitted would be without phone and data service for many months. (At right a Washington Post graphic from a story showing the core of the city unserved three months after Katrina.) For several months battered New Orleans could proudly claim to own North America’s only big-city wifi cloud. BellSouth and Cox ignobly objected, using as a basis Louisiana’s (un)Fair Competition Act; a law that BellSouth had recently pushed through the state legislature in an attempt to first prevent and then to at least cripple Lafayette’s plan to build a fiber optic network. (A plan which has since come to fruition.) The incumbents demanded that the city jump through a series of legal hoops meant to make it all but impossible to build community-owned telecommunications networks and, in any case, to delay ones progress indefinitely. New Orleans, lead by a former Cox executive, bravely refused to be cowed, cited emergency exemptions, and—backed by Governor Blanco—continued to provide the basic services private corporations were unable to quickly restore to the community.

BellSouth and Cox eventually, of course, got their way when emergency regulations expired and the Louisiana legislature refused to reform the law in light of post-Katrina realities. New Orleans turned its community-owned network over to Earthlink who had entered the municipal market aggressively. But then the public-private muni network bubble burst when the limitations of wireless networks in general and WiFi networks in particular became obvious.

The only large muni network still standing is, as far as I know, Minneapolis’. There the city owns the network and provides substantial anchor tenant fees to the locally-based operator and builder who, in exchange for a long exclusive lease shouldered the expense of construction. (Interestingly for close watchers of Lafayette’s network, the city started with a substantial fiber ring and factored in an extensive expansion of that fiber network as part of the bid specs for building the wireless network. Minneapolis owns a fiber backhaul backbone for its network–which may well be part of the explanation for its generally acknowledged above-par network performance.) Retaining ownership of the network was not a path open to New Orleans as BellSouth’s law forced an outright sale. For the same reason, New Orleans could not take the network back and run it or and lease it to a private provider as Minneapolis has successfully done. We’ll have to see if the lack of municipal competition will result in the bevy of new services for New Orleans and Cox and AT&T have claimed would result from eliminating “unfair” municipal competition or whether, just perhaps, places like East Ascension parish and Lafayette where small local providers –public and private– are going up against the big boys are the places where good deals and new services are rolled out first. Anyone want to bet on whose populace actually gets the better deal?

The last act for New Orleans brave WiFi experiment has now played out. In substantial part it ran aground on the implacable opposition of Cox/AT&T, the irresponsibility of the state legislature, and the poor business planning of Earthlink. Sic transit gloria