Municipalities Incompetent??

Back during the Fiber Fight the incumbents and local opponents of the Lafayette fiber to the home project tried to convince the people that (obviously) little ole LUS was just too incompetent to actually run a modern telecommunications network. We really just had to leave that to the smart people at Cox or BS (now AT&T) and be content in our backward, backwood status until they favored us with the sort of network the thought was appropriate to our station in life. They talked down to Lafayette’s citizens using inane analogies that described the desire for a fiber network as being like wanting a big, powerful luxury car we didn’t need and would have to park in a junky old garage too small for it.

That sort condescension tends to get people’s backs up. They remember being treated like fools and dummies.

So it is impossible to pass on the opportunity to highlight just how competent the Lordly AT&T really is at building state-of-the-art telecommunications networks. From the ST. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Weeks after the first phase of the Wi-Fi network was originally set to come online, engineers from AT&T and the city still are wrestling with how to get power to the network of transmitters that would hang on light poles across St. Louis, said Michael Wise, director of information technology services for the city.

Most St. Louis streetlights are powered by bank switches — a single bank might control 90 of them — and there’s no way to get electricity to transmitters on them without leaving the lights on all day.

“It’s a problem,” Wise said. “It’s a major problem.”

It’s such a problem that it’s forced AT&T to delay the network’s downtown pilot project. It was originally set to launch in June or July. Now no one will set a date.

…engineers have spent months on the problem already, with no answer yet. AT&T wouldn’t say how much a solution might cost, or how long they’ll work before throwing in the towel.

Allow me to say it: Uh, that was really Dumb….You didn’t bother to figure out how to power your network before committing to a 12 million dollar contract to build St. Louis a wifi network? How could such a thing happen? Surely there is a good explanation.

There is.

AT&T is a monopolist and can’t keep itself from acting like one.

Instead of competing in a public bid process and winning the contract. And, oh yeah, doing all that hard work of actually planning the network. AT&T convinced the mayor and the city council to pass a special law saying that it didn’t have to compete to win the business: they could just have the contract. After all who could be more competent than AT&T? The city could just trust that AT&T would do a good job, couldn’t they?


Here’s my take on competence, LUS, and AT&T: I guess that NO public electrical utility that’s getting into wifi would be so dumb as to not check on how it was going to power the network before making the commitment. That kind of stupidity is reserved for the oh-so-smarter-than-thou big telecom companies.

Sometimes life treats you to a little bit of (just) desert(s).

More on Lafayette’s WIFi “Feature”

Blogging over at TheIND, Nathan Stubbs has announced Huval’s “announcement” of a WiFi “feature” for Lafayette’s fiber-optic network. As we covered here Huval’s mention of wifi at Tuesday night’s council meeting was pretty casual: he was responding to a question from Mouton touching on digital divide questions and worked the mention of wifi as a “useful addition” to the fiber-optic network for consumers. He also allowed that it might be useful as a lower-priced addition for some users.

Huval tells Stubbs that “marketing” is still to be worked out. Indeed—My guess is that LUS is adverse to marketing wifi as an alternative to its central, costly, vastly more capable network. His remarks are directed toward positioning wifi as an addition, a feature, of LUS’ retail network. It is, Huval says, “a convenience.” for customers. As such it would be offered at a minimal additional cost for users and postioned as an enticement to join the network. (And, not incidently, to block any attempt to outflank LUS by the incumbents.)

None of this is as a new as it might seem (I called it “the biggest story barely told” back in 05). As far back as October of 04 Lafayette official were talking about building a wifi network—”also.” Hopefully this time it will penetrate the consciousness of the public and the reporters that inform them: we are going to get wifi too. This is going to be bells and whistles, gold-plated, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink public network. (That’s not only a promise; it’s also a threat: now we have to find good ways to use all that capacity.—Didn’t you always feel just a little threatened when you got a good, really useful gift?)

The newest thing in the blogpost is the way in which the wifi network is made subordinate to the fiber network. Huval has told Stubbs that it just isn’t up to snuff as reliable network alternative:

Huval says that the difficulties associated with wireless almost always result in spotty coverage for city networks. Walls and even moist vegetation can block signals. “To sell a service for wireless without having some degree of assurance that customers can really enjoy, that is not something that at this point we would want to do,” Huval says.

I think he is right about that.

He adds that LUS’ city wifi will be more of a hotspot versus a mesh network. While there won’t be blanket coverage, the network – tied directly to fiber – will provide up to 1 megabyte download speeds in certain areas.

I’d take that hotspot metaphor with a grain of marketing salt. In order to serve his own people and the police and other public servants reliably the network will have to blanket the city and cover every street eventually. The economies that come from the investment in wifi for the city won’t be there if that doesn’t happen. The city will want to be able to cut itself loose from its expensive cellular and data connections and supply those services for itself at a considerable savings. And it will as soon as the system is up and running reliably.

What probably is true is that they know they don’t want to mess with trying to push the wifi signal into houses or through a lot of vegetation away from the street. That’s been the downfall of most city-wide wireless networks. What LUS is willing to commit to up front is wifi in public spaces, especially around the downtown core and they won’t say it is “officially” available unless they are confident they can offer the gold-plated experience of about a meg of connectivity. That way nobody will get the impression LUS is offering a “junky” service. I’d hope they’d leave the rest of the network open but not officially supported —a sort of “no promises outside our approved zones” sort of approach. That would mean that you’d be able to connect pretty reliably on the streets, as reliably as the police and the LUS workers find necessary. That might not be the 1 meg of the official zones but considerably less bandwidht would be usable for email and light browsing on the front porch. If you want to download a movie quickly you go indoors and use your “real” fiber connection. Not too shabby.

A handle on the digital divide angle might be got by keeping the “add-on” price very low, say a 5 dollars addition, to ANY LUS bill (including water and electricity at the most extreme.) That’d make really, really cheap connectivity available easily to anyone in the city whose current economic straits didn’t leave them homeless.

Should be interesting to watch all this marketing mature.

The trial network is up and in testing stage right now according to Stubb’s interesting post. That, you will recall, was to be built based on a wireless RFP issued early this year. That RFP called for a limited number of test points to be built out, presumably along the route of the already-existing fiber ring. Anybody seen any of these Tropos access points in the wild?

Wi-Fi in Chicago’s Tri-Cities

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If you’ve followed Lafayette’s fiber fight you know it was guided by lessons learned in Illinois’ Tri-Cities region where a determined pro-fiber band was beaten down by an ugly and dishonest campaign by the incumbent providers Comcast and SBC (which became AT&T and then bought BellSouth). The lessons learned there convinced many that only a full-throated battle that inoculated the people against incumbent lies stood a chance of being successful. Lafayette proved that if both city officials and local community activists were willing to stand and fight without compromise the battle could be won. Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles showed the way. Their loss became our gain.

Now, the Geneva Daily Herald reports, Geneva and St. Charles will at least be getting a wifi network:

Computer users in Geneva could have access to free citywide wireless Internet access by the end of the year.

The city council Monday signed a deal with Meshlinx to let the Texas company put Wi-Fi transmitters on utility poles and public buildings throughout the city.

The company, which also signed a contract with St. Charles a few weeks ago, expects to begin surveying the two cities in a few weeks to determine how many radio-frequency emitting devices to install.

…Meshlinx approached the city. It is also in discussions with the city of Batavia.

Good, they’ve earned a break. And Geneva has negotiated a deal whereby the whole city will be served. No cherry-picking.

But Collins, Geneva’s information technology manager, isn’t completely satisfied what they’re getting:

“This isn’t as good as fiber to the home, but it is some competition,” Collins said.

Even as Chicago gives up on its wifi hopes it is good to see that the stalwarts in the suburbs are getting some of what they’ve sought.

“Speed up, with fiber”

They’re figuring it out in Minnesota….

“The focus has changed. It’s really all about speed,” Garrison said. “Wireless is the icing on the cake. It’s not the cake itself.”

Last year’s must-have, municipal Wi-Fi – a relatively cheap and quick-to-install way for communities to get a broadband fix – is losing some allure.

Instead, this year more cities appear to be asking: Got fiber?


Fiber is the undisputed future of telecommunications, experts say…

Broadband advocates nationwide are realizing that what’s really need is fiber; something we’ve already acted on here in Lafayette. It’s nice to be out front on something other than obesity and rates of imprisonment.

Read on at Speed up, with fiber” at the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Worth the click.

Tidbits: Fiber Budget News & Wireless Police

Two Tidbits from recent news accounts that focused on topics other than Lafayette’s network but included interesting bits about it…

The Daily Advertiser coverage of the city-parish council meeting yielded this bit after news about the budget:

The proposed 2007-08 budget is not expected to include funding for the fiber-to-the-home network because bonds to build the project were issued after Lafayette Utilities System submitted its budget, LUS Director Terry Huval said Monday.

A special budget amendment will be considered by the council, probably at its Aug. 7 meeting, to address the capital needs of the project, Huval said.

A second budget amendment to address the operations and maintenance of fiber-to-the-home, will be submitted prior to adoption of the 2007-08 budget Sept. 27.

And, related:

LUS is accepting bids to temporarily lease warehouse space to house the material needed for the FTTH enterprise.

LUS soon will be taking bids on the warehouse and head-end building that will permanently house the FTTH equipment, Huval said. Construction is expected to begin before the end of 2007.

Everything is moving down the tracks.

A bit more on the wireless network LUS is anticipating building from the Advocate’s news briefs “Around Acadiana.” Note that it is framed in terms of using these cars “no matter where they are in the city.”

Each of the units is also fully equipped with wireless equipment. Since the city is expanding its citywide wireless network for public safety workers, it won’t be long before police units will have wireless capabilities no matter where they are in the city.

I’m looking forward to universal coverage.

WBS: “Eyes on Lafayette Fiber”

What’s Being Said Department

From Broadband Reports comes an interesting piece of speculation: that Lafayette’s fiber may become more of a bellwether for the advocates of municipal networks now that the bloom is off the rose of muni wi-fi:

Lafayette, as you might recall, had to fight incumbent broadband providers Cox and BellSouth tooth and nail in order to deploy the project. On the heels of the very sudden press realization that citywide Wi-Fi isn’t magic pixie dust, we’ll expect that municipal FTTH will see greater attention, with Lafayette’s $110 million dollar project a major litmus test.

Here’s an even more speculative thought: that LUS will be in a position to salvage what can be salvaged of the muni wi-fi movement by deploying a wireless system that actually works as advertised. As we’ve tirelessly repeated here the root of the difficulty with most WAN (Wide Area Network) wifi systems, muni or not, is that they are undersupplied with bandwidth and very “gappy.” Both issues arise not from technology but from economics: suppliers are motivated to minimize costs and the number of connections to a full-strength backbone is a direct determinant of cost—and available bandwidth. LUS, because it owns a full-throttle fiber backbone, will much less motivation to minimize the number of those connections. Doing it right is an upfront cost, not a continuing expense.

Users will find Lafayette’s fiber network 10 to 100 times faster than what they’ve been experiencing. There’s no reason why the wifi network shouldn’t be that much more powerful than the typical WAN.

All eyes on Lafayette.

WiFi Hotspots…

Well, the Advertiser this morning has a picture of the principals of this site splashed across the B section. That’s not our fault. We were just innocently plotting the creation of a Lafayette Commons, the downfall of Western Civilization as We Know It and minding our own business when an earnest young reporter asked us if we liked the wifi there. We told him we liked the coffee and the conversation evolved from there…

The story is about wifi hotspots, not usually major topic here, but it is interesting and revealed a few places I didn’t know had wifi.

Otherwise the only remarkable note in the piece is a quote from Huval:

“As we deploy the fiber system, we may incorporate a wireless component as part of that (for consumers)…”

That “may” is strange. Huval has twice publicly said that there would be wireless network for residents (@ Fiber Forum, @ Martin Luther King) and isn’t hesitant to say so in person so I don’t know why he’d pull his punches with the Advertiser. Durel too has repeatedly revealed his plans for WiFi–an old post about the value of wifi in a fiber-based ecology has a discussion on that. I’d hoped that we were through with coy, cautious language now that the bonds are sold…but old habits apparently die hard.

The Daily Advertiser – – Lafayette, LA

Baton Rouge’s Downtown Wi-Fi Shuts down

JoVoGo, formerly Verge Wireless, is shutting down the wireless network in downtown Baton Rouge. Again. The Verge network was purchased by US Wireless two years ago collapsed in less than a year as a month-long outage destroyed whatever customer loyalty the network had and was subsequently bought out by JoVoGo a year ago. JoVoGo returned Carlo McDonald, the head of the original network, to the helm but with a pair of well-connected locals to grease the path as we reported last year. The original PR release proudly touted the ownership of the influentials:

Don Powers served as the Executive Vice President of the Chamber of Greater Baton Rouge where he was employed for 18 years. Most recently he was associated with Congressman Richard Baker of Louisiana where he served as Public Information Officer following Hurricane Katrina. He also assisted Spire Capital Group, LLC out of New York in analyzing the Louisiana capital area for potential Venture Capital investment. Prior to serving at the chamber, Mr. Powers was with HNTB Corporation, a national architectural engineering firm. Jim Brewer recently retired as Assistant Chief Administrative Officer from the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBRP) Mayor-President’s office where he served for the past 27 years. As Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Jim served as a senior advisor to the Mayor on all matters of public affairs, communications, and outreach to the general public and national community.

The current article in the Advocate says the system will be shutting down Sunday “for at least a few months.” and mentions the discouraging earlier history of failure and McDonald’s involvement. That becomes significant when McDonald talks about his (new) company acquiring a network “last year” whose equipment was “nearly obsolete.” That should have been no surprise since it seems very likely that was equipment McDonald originally installed. Shutting down the network seems nearly an afterthought as McDonald described the decision to take it down immediately as a consequence of the fact that service had become so “spotty.” Why hadn’t the network been upgraded as the PR release a year ago anticipated? But even more puzzling McDonald is now talking as if the connections that the JoVoGo venture were founded on were never pursued:

MacDonald admitted that he never specifically asked for a financial investment from the city. But he claims to have discussed the potential of a partnership several times over the years with members of Holden’s staff and other city-parish agency officials who seemed interested.

That makes it sound as if the former head of the local chamber with federal connections and a long-time administrative officer for the city-parish not only didn’t produce but didn’t even try. In the words of the ad: Wassup?!

My guess is that the Baton Rouge wifi net is dead and won’t be coming back from this second burial.

It ought to be clearly noted that this is a simple business failure: the private groups that ran this network couldn’t get it running well enough to attract retail subscribers and failed to find other institutional and public supporters to help fund it. It failed even after two business collapses surely reduced the capital cost to pennies on the dollar compared to the original investment. If it does resurrect itself again it will be on the basis of public support, not private financing.

Community support—and even community ownership—is essential to the survival of community resources like a publicly-available telecommunications network. Pretending that it can be done on a purely private basis (even by the well-healed and well-connected) has proven a questionable model, and not only in Baton Rouge. It would be far more sensible at this point for Baton Rouge to buy up the existing, installed base a fire-sale prices, use it for (entirely legitimate) public safety purposes and gradually build out a competitive wireless network to invigorate its still struggling riverfront downtown area.

Except, of course, that AT&T and Cox wouldn’t like it — and that their 2004 “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” makes it nearly impossible to do anything so sensible without engaging in a major knockdown-dragout fight with deep-pocketed and influential opponents.

So, likely, nothing will be done. And Baton Rouge and cities like her will have to do without a valuable resource.

Good Deals From AT&T

(Just don’t let them rope you into anything more than an 18 month contract if you live in Lafayette. 🙂 )

AT&T recently announced two possible price savers for those of us in its footprint. One is a $10.00 (cheap!) low speed DSL plan and the other is free wifi for those with expensive DSL plans.

$10.00 DSL
The cheap DSL is being offered in fulfillment of obligations that the Feds laid on AT&T as a condition of the BellSouth/AT&T merger. The plan is being very quietly offered, this is not being advertised and is not easily found on the website. (But hey, I dug up the AT&T link for you.) The AP story notes:

The $10 offer is available to customers in the 22-state AT&T service region, which includes former BellSouth areas, who have never had AT&T or BellSouth broadband, spokesman Michael Coe confirmed Monday. Local phone service and a one-year contract are required. The modem is free.

If you have already cut your umbilicus to the phone company and so aren’t eligible don’t despair, your day is coming:

Another concession to the FCC is yet to come: a plan for DSL that doesn’t require local phone service. AT&T has another six months to introduce that option, which should cost at most $19.95 per month.

However, if you are having a little fantasy of using your new DSL to replace your landline phone you probably should reconsider: the service only offers “download speeds of up to 768 kilobits per second and upload speeds of up to 128 kbps,” probably not enough for reliable VOIP. That’s too painfully slow to get you to move off cable if you already have it. But if you are still on on dialup, haven’t tried DSL before, don’t have access to cable, and are close enough to a phone aggregation point to get DSL (admittedly a small group of people) then this might be a good deal for you.

Free WiFi:
At the other end of the financial scale—if you’ve got one of those nifty iPhones (like some lucky locals do) and are unhappy, as many are, with AT&T’s slow network then you’ll be interested in the potential for hooking up with AT&T’s WiFi network for free. It’s available in McDonalds and Starbucks and WiFi apparently makes the iphone user experience an ecstatic one. The possible dealbreaker here is that you have to pay up for one of the higher speed DSL packages (meaning such has to be available to you) and AT&T’s network, while extensive, is not nearly as widespread as others–nor, like T-mobile’s, is the VOIP WiFi integrated into the cellular plan.