Thanks to Jeff Hoel for this transcript of Episode 19 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews John St. Julien, a local organizer from Lafayette, on how the community overcame the lies of the incumbent provider to pursue a municipal network. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, a production of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and muninetworks.org . I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
In our 19th episode, Christopher Mitchell interviews John St. Julien from Lafayette, Louisiana. John is a local organizer who's heavily involved in the community's efforts to invest in a municipal fiber network. Christopher and John talk about Lafayette's struggle to overcome the lies generated by incumbent telecommunications giants. Cox and others wanted to stop the community's investment in its own fiber network. As a special treat for our audience, listen to an actual example from the many deceitful telephone push polls conducted as the referendum drew near. Eventually, however, the community overcame the lies, passed the referendum, and have never looked back. We include the complete telephone conversation on our website. Now to Chris and John.
Christopher Mitchell: John St. Julien, thank you so much for joining me on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. You are one of the main forces that was an influential organizing force in Lafayette throughout the many years in which there was a battle about whether or not to build a municipal fiber-to-the-home network. So, thank you for joining me.
John St. Julien: Well, thanks. Always a pleasure.
Chris: We learned about you from your prolific writings. And I think we'll get into that in a little bit. But first, can you tell us a little bit about Lafayette, for those poor souls that have not read my case study on it or aren't familiar with your LafayetteProFiber blog?
John: It would be a great idea for folks to read that study, incidentally.
Chris: Thank you.
John: Ah, I loved that. Lafayette's a -- I guess what people would call a mid-sized city. It's located deep in the South. But also deep inside Acadiana -- what we here call Acadiana. Which is Cajun culture and Creole culture. And that's something really worth understanding, I guess. That there's a real insularity here. In both positive and negative senses. There's a still-alive French culture. There's a still-alive alternate music scene that has deep roots. And those differences can be interesting, when they're played out against the background of big national and international causes, like telecommunications for municipalities and for local communities. Beyond that, the -- if you get a sense of this place, it's -- you can ** about places being flat, this is flat. We sit on an alluvial plain. I'm a hundred miles from the Gulf, and I think the elevation of my house is 22 feet. And everybody around me thinks I live on the ridge. So, it gives you some sense of how different it is. Major crops here include sugar cane. We have a unified city/parish government, which is a blessing and a bane.
Well, and an interesting difference that will relate to your podcast, I think, is that we have a local electrical utility, LUS Fiber, that's been around since the late 1890s. And that was put in in a very similar fashion. We're following a tradition -- at least created one -- by bringing in our local fiber utility in much the same way, under the same auspices as LUS Fiber. And that was a great resource to start with.
Chris: Well, actually, I think, if I just jump in, ...
John: Um hum.
Chris: ... I think the creation of the electric utility seemed to have played a major role in in turning Lafayette into what it is today. A hundred years ago. The -- it was an electric AND water utility.
John: At the time, when -- Lafayette's located on a river called the Vermillion. At the time, New Iberia to the south and Opelousas to the north of us were both much larger cities and towns. At one point, if I'm remembering correctly, Opelousas was a temporary capital of the state during the unfortunate War Between the States. [laughs]
Chris: Right. OK.
John: And -- but those were both much larger places. And Lafayette prides itself on that kind of **. They fought for a local university. And they fought for -- to become the center for oil and gas industry here. They fought -- literally fought -- for this electrical utility, when they -- when outsiders were not providing what locals felt like they needed. So, yeah, that's a big part of story, I think.
Chris: All right. We tell the story in the case study. And I don't want to rehash that too much, because your expertise is really in the organizing side. And I think people are really interested in how it was that there was so much community initiative. There was so much -- how -- there was so much just enthusiasm and outreach -- and within the community, in ways that I don't think we've seen in any other example of community broadband. We've certainly seen some examples. Um. But -- you know, maybe we can start by talking a little bit about what you learned by watching the Tri-Cities of Illinois, when they discussed the possibility, and ultimately had TWO referendums, both of which were beat down by Comcast and, I believe, AT&T.
John: Yes. I think that's correct. Yeah. The whole thing, I was in touch with some of the folks up there. They were an inspiration. And a source of cautionary tales. That was a big deal, I think, in the community of people who were interested in community broadband, to watch the Tri-Cities folks being beaten down so solidly. And to know that they came in with such a flood of money at the end. The ...
Chris: You say "they." It was the -- Comcast and the big companies that came in with the flood of money.
John: Big outside funds of money. Fighting against people who were pretty local. And, yes, there were lessons to be learned there. One of the lessons, I think that -- again, the folks I communicated with emphasized to me -- was not only was there a huge of money they were going to dump on you at the end, but you had to have the active support of your local authorities. Whoever was the respected authority in the community absolutely had to be full-throated FOR this.
Chris: Right. And that could be elected officials. It could be business people. It could be someone in academia. Who knows? But you're saying, the local authority, however defined. Right?
John: Tradition calls for -- always, in all places -- invests some individuals in the community with a sort of special sort of honors. If you can get those people behind you -- behind this idea -- you have a much more powerful **. And we were lucky enough in Lafayette to be able to learn the lesson of Tri-Cities. That -- just insist that it had to be that way. You had to be willing to get out in front of it.
So, one of the things that really did work very well for us was to learn those lessons.
Chris: As I understand it, there was a push for multiple directions. But it really -- this project really got going when Mayor Durel came in. And Terry Huval, with the utility, said, we are going to really start studying this, and we're going to see if we can make this happen. Is that where the organizing started on your part?
John: Probably s little bit before that, for me. Again, I followed the Tri-Cities thing. There had been some thought adrift in the air here that this would be a good idea. There had been a study group, several years before, that had been put together by LUS Fiber and LCG, the local Lafayette Consolidated Government, to study the issue. And they had come back with a report that said that it would be a good idea to build a fiber ring, especially to support the electrical utility. In the course of that study, some of the people -- most of them sort of mid-sized business people and some activist types -- had come to the conclusion that it would be even better -- fiber-to-the-home -- and to extend it out that way. That didn't happen at that time. But that wholesale ring that -- We put up a big wholesale ring, to put the governmental utilities on it, to take that business away from AT&T, and put it -- give that same business to the local government -- was strongly opposed by AT&T. AT&T withdrew from the local Chamber. There was a huge amount of outcry about it. And it all settled back down. Nobody wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Also -- on cable companies, at that moment. But that's part of the background. So that happened before. And it also left people with a bad taste in their mouth.
Chris: Was that bad taste in their mouth because there was a sense that AT&T was ripping of the schools? Or in some way not meeting their needs? Or just in the way they treated you as outsiders?
John: There was a sense that they were trying to be bullies. We are AT&T. We will WITHDRAW our support from the Chamber of Commerce. Aw, shucks!
John: That was sort of the response.
Chris: Right. And, actually, we should just clarify. This was BellSouth, which -- before it was AT&T. I really don't think it's much of a difference, but it's -- Really, BellSouth became AT&T. And so, it's the same people.
John: Right. It was BellSouth throughout the fight itself. In 2005. But it eventually -- shortly thereafter, the merger occurred. BellSouth became AT&T. You're right.
Chris: OK. So, let's talk a little bit about what was happening then. There was a study committee, and you knew several of the people who were involved with it. And there was this recommendation that they do a wholesale ring, when others felt that a fiber-to-the-home network was appropriate at that time. What sort of actions and organizing did you do at that point to start changing the discussion?
John: We became an active issue yet. Which did take place, as you mentioned. That it sort of got laid down in front of the back burner. When that -- You mentioned Joey Durel coming in, as a newly elected mayor. Incidentally, our first Republican manor in probably forever. He -- one of the interesting background pieces is that our Utility Director, Terry Huval, had actually endorsed his opponent -- his chief opponent. And Terry, I believe -- and he's told me -- that he was afraid that he was going to be fired. He got called into mayor's office early on -- the very first week. And what Terry actually wanted to do -- greatly to his credit -- was to ask everybody what he needed to do to keep it. [laughs] He was absolutely correct in this estimate that Terry Huval was a community resource, and not to be trifled with. And Terry, sort of, I think, in a stunned fashion, sort of trotted out, well, there is this plan I've had for quite a while and I've been really trying to push, but nobody's willing to listen to it. Look at this. And Durel sort of said -- Durel came from a very business-oriented background. He was put in by -- he was backed strongly, let us say -- by local Chamber interests, by local business interests, by a small group of four or five wealthy individuals in this town who have always been very influential.
Chris: Right. And Durel himself was a private business owner, and had been the Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, and was very integrated into the business community.
John: Absolutely. It was something -- it was a leap for him. And I think the famous quote is something on the lines of, I don't know about this, but if we don't at least give it a fair look, well, damn us.
Chris: Yeah. I think the expression he usually uses is, shame on us if we don't see how far we can take this.
John: So that was really the turning point.
Chris: So you didn't have to start by convincing your local leaders, which is tremendously helpful. But you have a large enough community that -- In our experience, communities of over about 50,000 people often are very skeptical of their local leaders, in ways that they're not in a smaller community. So, let's talk a little bit about how you started to do some outreach.
John: Well, first, it probably should be said that Lafayette is a small large middle-sized city.
John: In that there is a huge amount of distrust of the local leadership. There's also really serious divisions within the community, both along racial lines and along cultural lines as well. We have the traditional racial issues, I think, that our country is burdened with. But we also have the division between French-speaking, French-descended and Americains. [laughs] And so, there's a lot of divisions, and a lot of reasons, and a lot of chess pieces in play, at any political moment.
The things that we did to start up -- And, to be frank, there were several things that tried to begin this. And, yeah, I knew one of the guys, especially, who had been on this committee. And we got together and we decided that we needed to get something going.
Chris: And that was Mike Stagg, right?
John: Mike Stagg. And we did different things. Like trying to arrange coffeehouse discussions. Didn't work.
Chris: Yeah. [laughs]
John: We called several meetings focusing on various people. Like the developer. Or the geekery. We would find ways. We would get in touch with our friends. We would pull together a list of 60 or 70 people. And invite them to a meeting. And while those all happened, and worked to some extent, it didn't reach takeoff, on their own. Each time we hoped they would. Each time they didn't. And so, to -- you know, it didn't just happen. What we ended up with was a large list of names of people who had expressed a positive opinion about this. Focused on the geekery. Focused on midsized businessmen. Focused, frankly, on people -- midsized -- political activists and midsized business people who were not gods of the Chamber. And we started a discussion list online. Started having more informal meetings. And pulled it together much more gradually. At the very beginning, it was a tough row to hoe. I think, in part, because there was simply no tradition -- in Lafayette, at least -- of economic-based activism. And I think that's probably lacking in a lot of places in this country.
Chris: And I think it's really important to point that out. I remember a formative moment in my education was on reading a biography of Mother Jones, the labor organizer. And realizing that she probably lost, you know, five or six of her organizing fights for every one that she won. And that we shouldn't get discouraged if we try to organize something, like in Tri-Cities, and get beat down. Because, fundamentally, the lesson to learn is that you get smarter, you get better at it. And you find ways of -- And sometimes, you know, maybe you just find the right community that wants to move forward with a project like this. But it's something that you and I have discussed a couple of times now, is that, you know, this was not inevitable in Lafayette. And when people look at Lafayette as a success story, it's hard sometimes, I think, to go back and look at all the ways in which you could have said, well, we gave it a shot; let's move on to something else. Right?
John: And that's -- I think it's a really fair way that you put it. And I would encourage anybody who's thinking about it themselves to be realistic in your assessment of the problems you face. But to not let it pass. We would never have succeeded if we hadn't learned the lessons of the Tri-Cities. So, even failures are not -- One of the big things we learned at the Tri-Cities, besides support of the leadership, demanding that it be vocal and obvious, and aware that they were going to get us to help them.
Chris: So that's the first lesson, right? Is making sure that you have the local leadership on the record, saying yes, we need this.
John: In sort of a -- in a pre-structured agreement, along the lines of, you need to be willing to speak up when people challenge you -- challenge the integrity of the community.
Tri-Cities also scared us pretty thoroughly about the power of the last two weeks. We did a -- I did a bunch of research -- all of us worked on it -- and we decided that we could never match it in terms of money, or in terms of a final flash of power. What we COULD do was inoculate the community. So any time they did anything that was a lie, or was stupid, or was condescending, we just went after it with hammers and tongs. And the phrase that we repeated quite often was that you really can't believe anything they say. You just can't believe a word they say.
There was a blogger that was -- didn't do a whole log of blogging on the issue. He used that phrase once. And I picked it up, and we all picked it up -- and beat on it! [laughs] And I think that was quite effective. The inoculation strategy, we used to call it.
Chris: I think the last thing we want to talk about here -- and I think it's important. There's so much to talk about in Lafayette that we will be coming back and revisiting this with you briefly, to talk about other aspects of it. But I really wanted to hit on a final lesson, I think, which is almost a jiu jitsu approach that you used. They had the ability to reach out and touch every last person. Phone calls and mailers and things like that. And even organized events. But it was one call in particular that you recorded. And, I think, not just the recording of it, but the way you distributed it afterwards, really turned their strength against them. And I can't emphasize enough how, I think, important it is. And so maybe you can just tell that story a little bit.
John: Sure. It was a great tale. A local person who had been involved in the ** -- We built sort of an organization of volunteers that started with an organizing committee that met weekly. A fairly large number of people. And it tiered out to a lot of people who were active supporters. And one of the active supporters was a photographer. He was geekish. And he got a phone call, and had the pr- -- he knew it was happening because we had blasted out, there's this phone -- there's this misleading phone call coming; watch out for it; tell us exactly what they say. You know, that kind of thing. So we blasted that out to our e-mail list, which was in the hundreds by that time. And he was one of those people. When he picked up the phone, he turned on a voice recorder. Which is legal in Louisiana. One side recording. And he recorded the whole thing. Twenty minutes of it. And he was wonderful! I can't imagine doing as well as he did.
Chris: Right. We have the audio of it. And I'm going to put it up, so people can get it as well. Because it really is just a terrific back-and-forth.
John: It's wonderful. And he goes back-and-forth. And he pricks on it, and he picks on it, and he pushes him to the edge, to where they're about ready to hang up, and he backs off. [laughs] Oh, no, no, no. Tell me some more. Or, let me talk to you supervisor. Or, whatever. And -- so he did a wonderful job. And I think he got about -- if I recall correctly -- about 20 minutes worth. What we did was, we took a snippet or two out of it, broke it up into very small fragments, and turned it into a viral e-mail. This is before we had Facebook. Dark Ages. 2005. And any other easy to pass it on, except e-mail. But it went blasting out through our e-mail list, and we encouraged them to blast it on out to their e-mail list. And I got it back enough times that I know they just blasted their personal e-mail list. And it was hilarious. It was a -- I think one of the parts that we sent out was the idea that since we have scheduled water regulations here -- we ask people not to water the lawns except on alternate days, by your house number, that kind of thing. Since they regulate your use of water, don't you think it would be, you know, a similar thing for this, and, you know, for fiber.
Chris: To watch television.
John: And control what you watch.
Phone Poll Questioner: Our government has no business getting involved in what we watch on cable TV. Given the way that courts have been ruling on the separation of church and state, some judge may rule that we can no longer receive religious programs on a city-owned television system. Does that make you want to vote for or against this proposal?
Phone Poll Answerer: Well, I tell you what. Again, it's a ridiculous question, because there are all kinds of programs everybody -- probably taking an open channel, which is funded by the government. And nobody stopped them.
PPQ: How -- well, how would you respond to this question, though?
PPA: The author of the question is an idiot. That's how I'd respond to the question.
John: And so you get the -- not only do you get the silliness in. You get the silly thing labeled. Right there, in the moment. When that went out, it went around and around. So that was really quite a wonderful thing. You can turn lemons into lemonade.
Chris: I think it's important, also, to not that there were some really silly questions. But there were some really dirty, horrible questions in there too, where they were trying to stir up racial animus within the city with that call. And it's just incredibly destructive, the kind of things that they were willing to do. And you might say another lesion is, never underestimate the lengths that some of these companies will go to in order to stop a project. Because they have just engaged in the dirtiest tactics.
John: Absolutely. And that part is the part that really enraged me. I mean, we have a north side and a south side. I live on the north side, which is mostly black. And that kind of stuff is so destructive to the local community of people trying to build. What would you say if we told you that they were never going to build it in the north side of town -- on the black part of town? And that was so completely opposite. People who were really for it, that's what -- a large chunk of why they wanted it, was to try and unify the city for. And -- so that stuff, yeah, they will unbelievable things. And be aware, too, that that kind of push poll is not just intended to influence folks directly. It also serves a secondary purpose. What will work? What will make these people CRAZY -- in the last two weeks? They're PLANNING to be ugly. They're not just being ugly. They're planning to be uglier yet.
Chris: Well, the short story was that you ultimately ended up winning the referendum pretty handily. I believe it was 64 percent? 65 percent? Something like that?
John: Yeah. 64? 63? Something like that.
Chris: We'll touch base with you again. And we will continue the story, because there's a lot more to talk about, the ways this community was organized. And a lot of lessons for everyone else. One of the things that we want to talk about in a future show is, I think, ideas for people who are in a community where they might be the real tip of the spear, where they're trying to figure out how to get the whole thing started. So, that's something that people should look forward to.
John: Would love that.
Chris: Terrific. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
John: And thank you.
Lisa: That was Christopher and John St. Julien of Lafayette, Louisiana. Be sure to follow John's blog atblog.lafayetteprofiber.com . We look forward to talking to John again, about organizing a network movement at the local level. You can also read more detailed coverage of the story of Lafayette in our case study, "Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks." The report is available for free from ilsr.org and muninetworks.org . If you have any questions or comments, e-mail us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org . Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets . This show was released on October 30th, 2012. Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is called, "Got My Modem Working."