Wireless Waking Up

Just a small moment in the maturity of broadband advocates: MuniWireless, Muniwireless is saying:

What I see in a lot of cities is that politicians are using “Wi-Fi for low income communities” as a cheap and easy way out of their real obligation, which is to take leadership for laying down a robust, open telecommunications infrastructure (based on fiber) that benefits everyone, not just low-income people. That’s harder to do, and certainly more politically risky, since that means going up against various communications incumbents that fund political campaigns, and pissing off people who have a stake in keeping things the way they are. (emphasis mine)

The context is Houston where a classic “free” municipal WiFi plan crashed and burned leaving Houston without the network it had contracted. Esme Vos at MuniWireless is distressed because the city isn’t holding the private provider to the contract in a way that would meaningfully meet the goals of the contract.

That, in the end, necessarily means substantial fiber as now apparently even the most ardent of the muni wireless fans understand.

Good for her. And good for the movement. Maturity is a useful thing to have.

New Orleans’ Wireless Network

Earthlink recently decided to pull out of the municipal wireless market and that decision has caused consternation in cities from San Francisco, which thought it had been promised a network, to Philadelphia, where one has already been built. Not getting the same media play is New Orleans’ wifi network which has been operated by Earthlink for a while.

The Times Picayune story quotes the company’s director of muni wireless indicating that if a free wireless tier exists it means that not enough people will buy the service to make it viable.

But that’s not what his vice-president said not long ago. The blunt explanation then was that “cheap wifi is too slow.” In fact the mesh network technology that promised to make the networks cheap has the side effect of making it slow. And slow, in communications tech is undesirable.

The knock that I heard on the New Orleans network is that it was slow and spotty–at any price. Cheap WiFi was too slow.

Earthlink’s decision to divest itself of its muni division means it will not be investing any more cash in remedying the defects in its design that it readily admits. Any new purchaser that comes in may get the network for cheap–but will have to retool it extensively and expensively to make it a viable solution for the people of the city. My guess is that it won’t happen. Instead, the network will slowly fray, go down bit by bit, and one day, as we saw happen in Baton Rouge, the final parts of a once-proud alternative network will be unceremoniously turned off and the people of the city told that the equipment that is still functioning is not worth salvaging.

That will be a sad ending to a network that was a bright spot in the city’s early recovery. Initially it was cobbled together immediately after Katrina out of a system intended to transmit video surveillance for city police by clever city techs. It was New Orleans’ most useful communications network during the initial chaos and its resilience added to the aura surrounding muni WiFi. Tech-oriented volunteers quickly beefed it up into a community-wide system using donated equipment while Bell-South and Cox slowly tried to get their systems back up. An inspiring story, bu the story from there was predictable: Bell South and Cox objected to the competition as soon as they had anything back up at all. New Orleans couldn’t get the support to change a Louisiana law initially aimed at Lafayette which forced it to provide speeds so slow as to be unusable. The city was forced to hand it over to Earthlink so that the network could offer something like usable speeds and now Earthlink is folding. The slow decline of a hopeful sign has been sad and depressing. I suspect the end is near. I hope I am wrong.

The Year in Review

The Year In Review @ LafayetteProFiber

2007 was the year Lafayette’s fiber project emerged from the wilderness and people began to dream in earnest. The final delaying lawsuit was dismissed, the bonds sold, and contracts let for construction. Dreams followed the announcement of intriguing new features like a wireless addition and the 100 megs of intranet bandwidth and people began to dream of what we might do with it it to close the digital divide or provide new ways to strengthen the community.

At the year’s beginning we were still awaiting a decision from the State Supreme Court on the last lawsuit holding up the bond sale. The Fiber to the Schools project advanced, ensuring a parish-wide fiber backbone and early hints of a wireless project were realized when LUS put out a bid for a municipal wireless network — one initially designed to provide government services. The competition was clearly still out there as Cox introduced Video On Demand, upping the ante on what Lafayette’s network needed to provide in its initial offerings.

In early February Durel’s “State of the City” address lauded the fiber build but failed to slake our appetite for new news on the wireless component. The Advertiser’s attempt to move into an internet-centric future advanced in fits and starts but it emerged with arguably the best local video site in town, far outclassing the efforts of the local TV stations and proving that with the construction of new net-based infrastructure the race will not necessarily go to the established incumbents. An attempt to resuscitate the breathless prose of the fiber fight fell flat at the Advertiser as a story about the cost of defending ourselves against the incumbents produced no discernible ripple of concern from a populace immunized against such sensationalism by the long fiber battle.

Late in the month, after weeks of waiting, came the Supreme Court decision we’d been waiting—and hoping—for. The Court unanimously overturned the 3rd Circuit’s ruling and pretty roundly spanked them for their mistakes in letting the argument go on for so long. The final victory for Lafayette was widely heralded as one that would have consequences in locales beyond Lafayette or Louisiana. Cox, after years of vigorous attempts to delay or destroy the project, testily denied that it made any difference to them. Dreaming about what we could do with the shiny new toy starts almost immediately and LUS announced plans to solicit ideas from the community.

The first, and in retrospect apparently last, of the Fiber Forums is held and the community had plenty of ideas. (Cox and AT&T also attended and took conspicuously copious notes.) If nothing else the forum demonstrated that the LUS understood that a generous attitude will pay unanticipated dividends. And that simple insight is one which will do more to make the system a success than any elaborate business plan. Wireless hopes, big intranet bandwidth, symmetrical speeds and more were all promised and their implications discussed.

An old issue, the digital divide, returned, Lafayette was named a “Smart Community,” and the first high paying jobs attracted by the fiber arrived. LUS started to spend visible money on the networks construction, selecting a design firm to lay out plans for the headend building that would house the electronics and for a warehouse to store the masses of equipment that would be needed in the construction phase.

April brought a shower of small advances. The Digital Divide Committee was reconvened, the location of the headend facility at the intersection of I-10 and I-49 was set, and an engineer to oversee the construction and help make crucial decisions was chosen.

March brought a reblooming of the old FUD tactics from the incumbent corporations. Cox kicked off the festival with an embarrassing attempt to pretend its hybrid fiber-coax network was a fiber network in a venue where everyone knew better. Just a bit later we got a whiff of old push poll tactics when a new, apparently limited version was trialed in Lafayette. Then Naquin’s (AT&T’s PR team?) attorneys carried water for the incumbents by engaging in a rather transparently false threat to sue LUS just a week before the city went to New York to interview for the crucial bond ratings.

As the seasons turned Huval went to Councilor William’s “Real Talk” and talked—about the retail wireless plans, about a faster construction schedule, about a larger basic cable lineup than anticipated, about internet speeds where the slowest package would be faster than the fastest speeds available in most of the country. Oh yeah, and symmetrical bandwidth coupled with a 100 meg intranet. Enough to leave the most ardent proponent breathless. Lafayette Pro Fiber floated a dream about a “Lafayette Commons” that would take our commonly owned network and use it to make a place to share local information build community.

The bond sale was authorized and the bonds were put on the market. The first unit sold solidified the legal standing of the entire business plan since bond holders are constitutionally protected from any change in the plan no future legal challenges to the basic plan can be successful.

In July LUS’ Huval was honored by his national peers—he was both given an achievement award and made the chairman of the board of the American Public Power Association. The success of the fiber fight clearly raised his stock nationally as well as locally. The bond sale closed; meaning the money was in the bank and available to spend. The newly hired engineer’s men were in the field surveying poles—making sure there was plenty of room for the fiber to be hung.

Joey Durel took over leadership of the Louisiana Municipal and pledged to work “to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress.” Among other things, that probably referred to the infamous imposition by the legislature of the (un)Fair Competition Act. An LMA with aware leadership will fight such laws. The City-Parish Council approved the fiber funding plan. Dreaming about what might well turn out to be the nation’s best telecom system continued apace and a new Digital Divide report was made to the council.

Another small media tempest erupted as the kids headed back to school. The headend building came in way over budget and LUS had to scale back and issue a new set of specs to keep its price under control. The headend was one in a series of public projects whose price spiraled upwards in the wake of Lafayette’s post-Katrina/Rita building boom.

Cox fired its most effective shot yet across the bow of LUS by securing a long-term contract with ULL athletics for exclusive rights to telecast replays of coaches programs, sporting events and university athletic programs on its cable systems—and we can rest assured they’ll not be reselling such valuable material to the local opposition. For ULL fans this is a very big deal—such deals have lead to a lot of fan anger on both coasts where such deals are more common.

The Advertiser endorsed the dreams of bridging the digital divide in a supportive editorial and Huval spoke up on Federal broadband policy in his role of APPA chair saying plainly that the incumbent telecom corporations had failed American in spite of massive subsidies and called for letting “the public sector take the reins in communities where citizens want them to do so.”

Dreaming of a better wireless network provided a bit of fun in October. The surprise announcement that LUS would imitate Apple and open its own “fiber storefront” to educate and promote the brand was greeted with approval. And the construction news rolled on with Alcatel being picked to provide the electronic guts of Lafayette’s new system.

LUS signed a franchise agreement with the city-parish that was virtually a copy of Cox’s and immediately tried to reassure folks during its approval that the agreement wasn’t nearly all they hoped to provide the community. One of the few areas where LUS laid out a plan in their franchise agreement for going beyond what Cox had already done was in its support of AOC, the local access channel. That touched of some dreaming about what a 21st century AOC might really look like. Mike weighed in with some dreams about an asynchronous Lafayette in which AOC or a surrogate would play a major role.

If history repeated itself with the franchise agreement, an awareness of the recent fiber battle seemed completely missing from the minds of some candidates for the state representative seats up for grabs this year. Let’s hope their more aware colleagues educate them as to what a successful telecommunications utility could mean for the hopes and dreams of their community.

As the year wound down toward the holiday season the bid on the revamped fiber headend was accepted and the crews were spotted in a North Lafayette neighborhood moving wires on poles in preparation for hanging fiber.

The future is upon us. Since the plan is to light up a section of the city somewhere near the first of the coming year, with any luck next year’s edition of this missive will be able to say that fiber has been lit up in Lafayette and that we no longer need to wait for the future.

It’s a new year indeed.

“Laptops key in students’ learning”

Mike forwards the URL to an Advocate story that adds some meat to yesterday’s excursion out to the intersection of Educational Theory, Ubiquitous Computing, and Interface Design. The article, Laptops key in students’ learning, looks at the “Turn on to Learning” program that has seeded laptops in 54 school districts.

Louisiana’s laptop initiative, “Turn on to Learning, Critical Learning Tools for the 21st Century,” was funded by a $5 million legislative appropriation and has put an Apple MacBook computer into the hands of more than 3,500 sixth-graders and 150 teachers across the state.

One of the more interesting things about the program is that it isn’t focused solely on laptops; it also included digital tools that offer a more robust way to interact with the world using the computer:

Each classroom also gets supporting equipment and software valued at almost $3,000, including a storage-battery charging cabinet, wireless access station, printer, data projector, an external hard drive, digital camera and a digital microscope.

The wireless access station, coupled with the built-in WiFi N that built into macbooks emulates the connectivity that the OPLC laptops discussed in yesterday’s post offer. (The macs could even more closely emulate that model by flicking a switch in its WiFi preferences that would make each laptop to also function as an access point the way OLPC computers do by default. The kids could then remain connected to each other via an ad hoc network while doing fieldwork at a museum, for instance.)

The projector makes it easy to cast a screen image big enough and bright enough to be used as a common teaching tool; the equivalent of the blackboard. Providing such analogs to established practice are essential to the benefits of teacher’s existing teaching skills. Good for Apple and the Lousisiana program.

The camera and microscope are nice additions and its easy to see how a sixth graders could use them. (In the realm of capturing images, each macbook has its own built-in video camera, low res admittedly, but more than adequate for the sorts of video-enabled interaction that I dreamed about in yesterday’s post. I once helped work a fun project in a community center in Delaware that used cheap digital cameras to help tie school learning to the life kids live at home. Some amazing stuff is possible using such tools.

The West Feliciana tech director mentions the differences that such technology can make in the way we teach children. Changing the assumptions that drive educational practice has proven hard; technology’s greatest gift may not be anything intrinsic to the technology but that it provides the excuse to begin teaching the way that we have known we should for more than a century.

“This whole process is going to change the way we go about educating children,” West Feliciana Parish school technology Director Jerome Matherne said.

“Under the one-to-one concept, the teacher will no longer be the ‘sage on the stage,’ dispensing information. The teacher will be more of a facilitator because students now will have access to the information themselves,” Matherne said.

“You may have heard the saying, ‘We’re drowning in information, but starving for knowledge.’ That’s going to be the (teacher’s) challenge,” he said.

It’s all very interesting and Lafayette’s participation in such program still seems to me like one of the more obvious ways to leverage the integrated fiber/wifi network that we are currently building. We’d be smart to encourage the kids to learn how to use our shiny new network fully. They’ll figure it out a lot faster than us old fogeys (by which I mean — roll eyes — the over 12 set). Once they get it, they can teach us.

It’s an interesting world we live in.

Shreveport considers WiFi…and Looks South

Two articles in The Shreveport Times (1, 2) review the potential for community WiFi in Shreveport. The articles are apparently a response to the formation of a task force on the issue manned in part by “the council’s youngest and perhaps most tech-savvy members.”

The articles author does a good job of reviewing the pluses and minuses, the successes and failures, of municipal WiFi. Cap’n Shreve’s port is just thinking about it though. The story makes it clear that discussion in Shreveport is just begining so I wouldn’t look for anything concrete for a while.

It is, however, interesting to notice that another of Louisiana’s major cities is at least thinking about municipal broadband. And that has lead them to notice that we’re doing it differently down south of I-10:

Yet other cities have taken a different approach.

In Lafayette, city officials put a bond issue before voters in 2006. The result: $120 million to extend fiber optics to each home and business in the city, according to Keith Thibodeaux, chief information officer for the city’s Information Services and Technology Department.

The city estimates residents will be able to get services for about 20 percent less than the approximately $85 a month paid for bundled telephone, cable and Internet service, said Terry Huval, director of Lafayette Utilities System. “This system will completely pay for itself.”

Huval later added, “Our motive is not to make a profit, but to provide a value to the community.”

[Note: the author of the story got one part of that wrong: LUS has consistently said that it would offer a 20% discount off the triple play price current when the plan was announced — about 85 dollars a month; not 20% off 85 dollars.]

The story then goes on to interview Keith Thibodeaux about Lafayette’s WiFi network which is currently limited to police and utility functions.

Shreveport’s committee almost immediately encountered the sad fact that Louisiana law makes any public broadband (including wifi) very difficult. One of the “tech savvy” council members says:

Aside from cost, which is a question mark at this point, Lester said legislators passed a law that essentially prohibits municipalities from being in direct competition with companies that provide high-speed Internet access. But it doesn’t prevent municipalities from partnering with such companies.

Lester isn’t quite right there–though he hedges his bet by saying that the law “essentially” prohibits such networks. That is the clear intent of the law, of course, but Lafayette’s successful fiber fight makes it clear that a city can fight and win if it is determined enough. The council members might well be that he doesn’t think that a referendum battle would work in his part of the state. Maybe–but it really ought to be considered. There are large advantages in owning that property yourself; networks are no different from real estate in that regard. The people of Shreveport ought to be given the chance to discuss that alternative. (They’d be smart to discuss a fiber build as well.)

Should Shreveport’s people decide they want to do something for themselves they’d have supporters in Lafayette.

Chortle, Snort: AT&T’s (in)Competence in St. Louis

Since I’ve already shared the basics of this story I thought I’d let you know how it ended up:

AT&T, the ponderous international conglomerate that had the temerity to tell Lafayette that we didn’t really need a modern telecommunications infrastructure and we local yokels we were clearly unable to run one anyhoo, has finally reneged on its contract to build St. Louis a wifi network.

Because they can’t find the plug…Honestly that’s pretty much the story.

They forgot, when they strong-armed the mayor and the city council into awarding them the contract non-competitively, that WiFi isn’t totally wireless: it needs power for its radios to work. And AT&T’s engineers haven’t been able to figure out how to do it yet. So they’ll just do a pilot downtown. The gist:

AT&T had planned to build out the wireless network across the city over two years, under the plan announced in February. It would then provide free Internet service to everyone for 20 hours a month and charge for more time or higher download speeds.

The main problem was that AT&T engineers couldn’t find a cheap way to power the network’s transmitters, which carry the network signal and send it to people’s computers. One estimate required 50 transmitters per square mile.

They initially planned to mount the transmitters on city streetlights, but some of those don’t have power during the day…

Missed that did you? No power eh? Uh, ……Duh.

Ok, now I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about how Lafayette’s engineers couldn’t possibly be competent to run a fiber-optic network. AT&T’s engineers manage it and they literally can’t find the plug in the dark. My guess is that LUS’ engineers would have known they’d need power. And would not have assumed that light poles could be treated like simple light switches.

Good Sense Spreads…Muni Broadband comes of age

Two stories came across my virtual desk yesterday that tell me that the municipal telecom movement is maturing. The time is ripe for Lafayette’s resolution to the disagreements within the camp of those who favor municipal and regional public networks.

The quiet, background, argument within that community has been between those that saw WiFi as the obvious way to provide ubiquitous, cheap internet connectivity and those who saw fiber as the only sensible long-term foundation for a municipal telecomm utility that would provide public capacity for internet, phone, cable, wireless and other services as they emerged.

I’ve argued that muni networks would need both fiber’s capacity and the mobility of wireless if they hoped to provide a valuable and competitive alternative to the increasingly interlocked camps of private incumbents. The opposition between Fiber and WiFi has always been false one but, for a host of reasons, the only practical way forward is to make the committment to building a FTTH network and only then build out a wireless network that would piggy-back on the crucial fiber infrastructure. That’s Lafayette’s plan.

With the recent shakeout of muni wifi market the hope that cities could get a private provider to build a network without any local risk or investment has been revealed as an impractical one. We’re now getting down to a more realistic appraisal of what cities will have to provide—and when it’s their own money on the line cities appear to be taking a more sophisticated view of what their citizens really need and the crucial role of fiber in providing it. When the “free,” “good enough” alternative evaporates people buckle down and actually think about their needs and how to make sure their investment pays for itself.

In Minnesota and Vermont
In the first of the two stories that indicate that muni telecomm is maturing, one a city has made the decision to push for a fiber network even though its neighbor is famous for one of the more successful WiFi builds. In the second, a successful fiber build has announced its intention to add wireless.

In Minnessota’s twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul Minneapolis has gotten a lot of publicity for moving forward, apparently on pretty favorable terms, with a WiFi network. It’s next door neighbor, however, isn’t buying in. St. Paul opted for a fiber network:

Minneapolis can keep its Wi-Fi network. St. Paul says Wi-Fi is too slow, and it wants something faster. Much, much, much faster.

On Wednesday, the City Council unanimously approved an advisory committee’s proposal to seek partners for a publicly owned fiber-optic cable network for high-speed Internet access…

St. Paul’s broadband system would be fixed in place, but the 20-member advisory committee said the city could add a Wi-Fi service later though a private provider. That would let the wireless system piggyback on the fiber-optic network, which it would need anyway to connect back to the Internet.

A sidebar succinctly makes the case:


St. Paul quickly rejected the idea of Wi-Fi, City Council Member Lee Helgen says. Some reasons:

Too slow. Typical Wi-Fi speeds are 1-3 megabits per second, but research indicates average users may need speeds of up to 25 megabits per second by 2012.

It’s flaky. Wi-Fi doesn’t penetrate far into buildings; leaves, rain or snow can interfere with its signal.

In Vermont Burlington’s FTTH system has taken the go-slow approach to success and is now planning its move into wireless.

“We are going to build a wireless network,” said Tim Nulty, BT director, in an interview. “But the best way to build wireless is to build fiber first. That way we already have backhaul [capability] and every telephone pole is a potential antenna site.”

Like many municipalities seeking to deploy their own networks, the challenges in Burlington, the largest city in Vermont with 39,000 residents, were daunting. It had to convince state and city politicians and the town’s voters that the network was a good idea, as well as fend off criticism from established telecom providers. And early financing problems nearly sunk the project.

After picking its way through complicated political and financial minefields, BT developed a city-owned network that will supply Burlington citizens with low-cost triple-play broadband and, when its debt is retired in 15 years, should provide the city with 20% of its general fund.

“BT will be able to pay down its debt very quickly,” said Christopher Mitchell, of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self Reliance. “On the cost side of the equation, Burlington once faced massively growing telecommunications expenditures. It now views the telecommunications sector as an important source of new revenues.”

“…We resisted pressure to do wireless at first,” he [Nulty] said, adding that he expects that BT will one day provide Burlington with a “wireless cloud.” Nulty is beginning to look at various wireless approaches including Wi-Fi, WiMax, mesh, EV-DO, cellular resale, and 700 MHz among others.

BT is reported to have started negotiations with other Vermont cities including Montpelier and Rutland as well as smaller neighboring communities interested in gaining access to the Burlington network.

Dealing realistically with the difficult facts of an endeavor is always a sign of emerging maturity. Muni broadband is coming of age.

Public-Private-University: The Reality & the Potential

A report from the Advertiser presents an overview of the speakers on “technology and knowledge economy” at a Chamber breakfast at the Petroleum Club (a location redolent of the old rather than the new economy). The Advertiser’s Bob Moser leads with the money qoute:

Lafayette has put itself in a great position to lead the future “technology and knowledge economy,” a Mississippi economic leader told a local business crowd on Thursday.

Randall Goldsmith, head of the Mississippi Technology Alliance, was the leadoff in a session that also featured Lafayette’s Ramesh Kolluru, Keith Thibodeaux, and Doug Menefee.

The Reality
I was pleased to see some positive discussion of the essential role of the University in any hope Lafayette business might have of riding the technology wave. Not mincing words: I am often appalled at the dismissive attitude that I find pervasive in the Lafayette business community regarding the role of ULL as the engine of tech growth. Put plainly, without ULL there would be not tech be a sector in Lafayette. There is no hope of staying ahead of the curve without the academics. They are the essential players. It really is that simple and a Chamber breakfast that seems to treat that as a given is a great relief.

LONI and LITE were apparently the focus of discussion and both, of course, are academic ventures. (Again: without ULL neither could exist—and more pointedly neither would have even been conceived.) LITE will need careful, tolerant, encouragement from the local community. It is a new concept and is a tool rather than a product to boot; as such it so will take time to develop its niche. (Impatient parties should review the rocky early history of Baton Rouge’s Pennington Biomedical Center and consider what the consequence would have been if Baton Rouge’s business leaders had demanded immediate, local payback in terms of focusing on fostering old-style local private medical practices and hospitals in Greater Baton Rouge. —It would have destroyed what has become an outstanding world-class asset.) In a similar vein LONI—and its connections to Internet2/LamdaRail, are all fundamentally academic interconnects. It is a creature which, will benefit a larger community but not something that would exist as an asset for Louisiana or Lafayette if it hadn’t been created by the Universities.

It goes without saying, or should, that without the private and governmental sectors actively and passionately involved the possibilities that ULL offers the community cannot be realized. They, too, are essential. But no one should mistake the reality: while a strong business community and a wise government are central to Lafayette’s growth they could not create the resource that is represented by ULL; they could, however, fail to take advantage of it.

Oddly in my view, the “technology and knowledge economy” event did not include a focus on the most significant (academic or non-academic) initiative in the city—and arguably the very one that will have the greatest immediate impact on the ability of Chamber members to compete from a position on the high ground with their national and international opposition: the LUS Fiber project. That project will provide a ground-breaking 100 or more megs of intranet connection to every citizen who signs on—and that could easily be 50 or more percent of the market. Young and old, poor and rich, white and black, Creole, Cajun, French, and Americain. It will be coupled with a state-of the art wireless network that will actually work. It will all be available in the least expensive parts of the city to large, small, tiny entrepreneurs and regular folks who, if they so chose to grasp it, will have bandwidth previously available only in to mega corps and university campuses. What will we do with all that? Who knows? But rest assured that the vacuum will be filled. Why no mention? What’s up with that sort of blind spot?…The really interesting discussion would have been of how to leverage this uniquely Lafayette convergence of the muscle of private initiative, municipal community-mindedness, and the restless exploratory energy of Academia to benefit the community.

The Potential
It would be pretty easy to imagine a research project that encourages ULL professors to develop an expertise in the popular use of really large bandwidth. It would involve both social and technical research and would draw in artists, playwrights, and mulitmedia folks of all strips in testing content. It’s the sort of research project with tentacles into every department that a first-rank research 1 University would salivate over. But none of them have the essential resource. Consider: Lafayette will shortly have more bandwidth in the hands of a larger number of people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and incomes than any place in the country. It is going to be the richest feedbed of data imaginable for next generation theorizing and practice in disciplines ranging from networking to interface design; from multimedia art to interactive theater. Properly designed and funded such a program would attract top-notch, ground-breaking young scholars to ULL in numbers sufficient to make the university a national center in a field of interdisciplinary studies it, and Lafayette, could create.

An element in making such a push credible to an outside world that sees Louisiana through the lens of the White Citizens Council and the Jena 6 would be a real digital divide initiative and a strong, community-backed program to encourage every citizen to make the fullest possible use of the potential of the new network. With public, private, and university backing Lafayette could find itself among the Austins’ and Research Triangles’ of the US: places where people come and want to stay in order to build something special that they could build nowhere else. Dell Computer is an engine in Austin (and the US) becaue a student wanted to earn some extra cash and explore what he’d learned in school and for very little other substantial reason. That Hollywood is all but synonymous with riches worldwide is not due to any natural advantage but to an accident of history.

We could create such an accident here.

The real potential of such an open collaboration between the public, private, and university sectors would be in the spin-offs, the Dells, the Steve Jobs—the companies marketing the “inconsequential” by-products of new fields in the form of new services offered by drop-outs and folks who don’t want to leave but have gained new, almost unique skills and put them to productive use. Texas poured its oil revenues into academics and, along the way, into a “far-out” and esoteric “computer science” department back in the days when the internet was a gleam in a researchers eye. An orthodonist’s kid who showed up intending to become a doctor got hooked, got his hands dirty, and decided to drop out to really do this stuff. Dell Computer and a high-tech industry in dusty then-backwater Austin was the payback. That sector alone will return its investment many times long after the last oil is pumped from the sands beneath Texas.

If that strikes you as worthy thing to hope for there are few things you could do. You could support the university and especially its research arms in doing the “far out,” esoteric things they are supposed to do. Hang around and hire the dropouts. Be tolerant of the oddities of those you don’t fully understand. Feed ’em and share the music. Celebrate Mardi Gras. You could support a local survey of Lafayette’s needs to provide all those future researchers a baseline from which to work. You could support LUS fully, regardless of any previous leanings—and say so. You could work to close the digital divide and to bring everyone in our community into full use of the technology we will own.

You could decide the future is worth working for.

Industry Woes and State Law Limit New Orleans’ Wi-Fi

New Orleans’ hardest hit neighborhoods won’t be getting the wifi system it was promised.

According to an AP story available in print from the Advertiser, online from KATC, which is apparently based on an article from the Times-Picayune, Earthlink is pulling back from its commitment to expand it wifi network into the areas hardest hit by the levee breaches following Katrina. (See Earthlink’s current coverage area at right.—Click for a larger image.) That’s a blow to those who are fighting to rebuild their lives in the worst-hit areas. In the words of a local blogger who assessed the situation last year:

In a nutshell, if your neighborhood did not flood, then you have access to free WiFi, but if your neighborhood did flood, you’re out of luck. The city says the service will be free as long as the city is rebuilding, but the service is only available in places that didn’t flood, and hence don’t need to rebuild. I would argue that the flooded neighborhoods need the WiFi access more than anywhere else in America. For example, I won’t be able to get a phone line working in my house for years, and with information and building permits online, it would make much of the rebuilding process easier and safer.

Earthlink is a partner to the woes that have beset the concept of municipal wifi as a competitor to landline services; a problem that has recently been commented on here. Basically, offering wifi as alternative connectivity to the public based on advertising and subscriptions to higher level tiers has not worked out financially. Earthlink and other participants are demanding that the cities step up and guarantee their income by becoming “anchor tenants.” When you get right down to it that means is that the cities would guarantee the private concerns enough income to provide a secure basis for their making a profit. —It’s not a terrible deal since muni wifi offers a potentially large savings for all sorts of city services (from police, to fire, to emergency services, to meter readers, to code inspectors and more…) that are currently tied into expensive cellular services. Cities like Corpus Christi claim to have saved a bundle.

However the bottom line is that there is no denying that the new business plan of the private providers is for cities to guarantee their income with long-term fixed-cost contracts that guarantee an at least marginal profit for private providers.

But is subsidizing private profit a good deal for the cities? America’s cities, legally dependent on the states, and possessing no independent power, are perennially underfunded. New York, not long ago, almost went into bankruptcy. New Orleans couldn’t afford to rebuild something as basic as its sewer system before the storm. If the cities were allowed to build their own telecommunications systems the expense would easily be paid for from the savings to city services alone. Selling access to citizens would keep dollars in the city and help rebuild a crumbling income base whose erosion has kept city centers that are vital to our economic growth blighted and decaying.

Unfortunately, cities are seldom allowed the freedom to take care of themselves and their own citizens internally. The states have often, commonly at the behest of a single monopolistic outside corporation, effectively forbidden municipalities from providing their own telecommunications services.

That has happened to New Orleans.

New Orleans, long-term readers will recall, is a victim of Lousiana’s famous Muncipal (un)Fair Competition Act. New Orleans has already built a well-regarded municipal wifi system in the downtown area that provided for safety and police functions. When Katrina hit one of the success stories was that network which was quickly repurposed to provide wireless communications in a city where the private infrastructure had been wrecked. Volunteers, using materials generously donated by corporations, extended and upgraded the system in the initial days and months after the storm and the city opened up the network to citizens whose phone service and commercial connectivity was down. It was the feel-good story of the early days: hardworking, visionary local officials, in concert with a flood of talented volunteers, and the generosity of Americas’ telecom equipment providers, cobbled together a bright, shiny, new free muni wifi system—the first of the nation to go into operation.

That happy glow was not enough to save the system.

That Municipal (un)Fair Competiont Act forbids municipalities offering their citizens telecommunications services (wired, wireless, or carrier pigeon) that is in excess of 128 k unless they go through a complex, legally ambiguous battle, with the well-funded incumbents. The law was passed in response to Lafayette’s initial discussion of a retail Fiber To The Home network and was the incumbents first, nearly fatal blow to the project. As it was finally enacted even if a city succeeds it is still subject to a regulatory regime that does not apply to their private competition and which is enforced through an entirely new mechanism created to evade the state constitutions’ prohibition on regulating municipal utility functions. That regulatory regime is openly designed, not to protect the municipalities’ customers, but to protect their entrenched competition: it sets no upper limit on what muncipalities may charge, nor does enforce any quality assurance procedures. What it does do is set a lower limit on what a municipality may charge by insisting that the rate structures never show a loss and that “no loss” be defined in terms of what would be profitable if the municipality had to pay taxes to itself and other governmental agencies and pay itself for the use of its own poles and rights-of-way!

It is a thorough incumbent-protection act that stops just short of outright prohibition and does its best to make sure that even municipalities that win through to owning their own system will face unfair disadvantages during the operation of its telecommunications utility.

It is understandable that, in the wake of the storm and lead by a mayor who had once run the local Cox network, New Orleans would not choose to go through a long battle to keep its network when the emergency status that kept it legal expired. Instead they turned it over to Earthlink with the promise that Earthlink would expand the network into redeveloping areas and provide the leading edge of the spear in battle to reopen the flooded areas of the city. That won’t happen now.

The bright promise of a municipal network that would lead development instead of profiting off the struggling people of the city has, sadly, faded.


The dark side of US federalism can be found in the way that its greatest cities, the engines of economic growth and the potential seat of political power, have been kept impoverished by state-level political resentments. New York and Philadelphia, for instance, have, like New Orleans, long been kept on a short leash by the states whose wealth and position of influence in the union depended upon them. The rise of a unified city electorate that distrusts state power and hangs together in support of even unsavory local political machines is as much an indictment of how the cities have been treated by “upstate” politicians and their resentful constituencies as any ‘innate’ urban corruption. There is perhaps no better example of this dynamic than Louisiana where cosmopolitan, Catholic, liberal, and yes “chocolate,” New Orleans with its fleshpots, Creoles, Mardi Gras, and French traditions remained leashed to a state whose political engines were controlled by those who were offended by most of what made the city great.

The state’s people, organized by their local communities, should pursue the complete repeal of the law that keeps New Orleans from taking care of itself. Lafayette, the original target of this malign law, who has won through to having its own fiber network, is now morally obligated to lead the way.

Construction News

The Advertiser posts a story on various aspect of the FTTH construction that leads with high bids that came in for the headend building near I-10 at I-49:

Bids to construct the building that will house equipment at the heart of the fiber-to-the-home project came in $1.5 million more than budgeted.

“They came out very high: $2.9 million on a $1.4 million budget,” Lafayette Utilities System Director Terry Huval said.

That’s better than twice what was expected and while this is a relatively small part of the project that much difference is troubling–as is the unspoken implication of the story that LUS might settle for a building that was less able to withstand hurricane category force 3 winds than the original design called for. The headend is the heart of the system and we want a secure building with enough room to accommodate additional communities that might want to buy services from LUS. (LUS has made a great business out of providing water and electricity to less well-appointed regional providers and in the process held down the cost to Lafayette ratepayers. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do the same for telecommunications.)

Other parts of the story talk about the RFP that is currently out for fiber hardware and is due in on September 17th. That RFP defines what LUS is asking for and the response will give the community a good idea of the cost of various, relatively narrowly constrained, network architectures. The selection of a winning bid there will define the system’s capacities.

In the category of news about the lack of news:

Still undecided is which neighborhoods will be the first to receive fiber. LUS is working on the methodology to fairly make that decision.

That’s been the story for years now…..;-)

In the category of “its nice that someone has noticed:”

Meanwhile, he told the City-Parish Council this week that wireless or wi-fi will be part of the fiber initiative as time goes on but not in the initial stages.

“We do plan to let wireless become part of our overall network when we do fiber,” Huval said. “We won’t be providing retail access to Wi-Fi until we provide fiber services.”

LUS has set up 14 locations with wireless capabilities for internal use. The company plans on expanding with about 40 more wireless locations for use by LUS and other city-parish government agencies, such as the police department.

It’s nice that the media has finally noticed that LUS is going to do wi-fi…TheINd blog covered Terry’s “anouncement” earlier this week and probably that report prompted the Advertiser comment. (It’s not new, just under-reported.) It sounds as if LUS is planning on rolling out wifi in parallel with the fiber and only offering wifi access when it starts selling network services in an area. We’ll see—an actual, full announcement on the wifi portion would be most welcome.