This is a great inside look at how one community built a globally competitive broadband network (probably the best citywide network in the US) and the barriers they faced from incumbent providers Cox and BellSouth.
Terry Huval, the Director of Lafayette Utilities System in Louisiana, spoke to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Businesses Entrepreneurship on April 27, 2010, on the topic of: "Connecting Main Street to the World: Federal Efforts to Expand Small Business Internet Access." Huval's full testimony is available here.
Huval's presentation told the back story of LUS Fiber, focusing on the barriers to publicly owned networks in Louisiana.
The FCC National Broadband Plan, on page 153, includes Louisiana as one of 18 states that “have passed laws to restrict or explicitly prohibit municipalities from offering broadband services.” While the Louisiana law did not prohibit Lafayette from providing broadband services, its mere presence provided, and continues to provide, a fertile playground for BellSouth (and its successor AT&T), Cox and their allies to create mischief, resulting in discouraging local governments from stepping in to provide these services even when the private telecom companies refuse to do so.
Louisiana, as with many other states including North Carolina, has powerful incumbents that claim there is an "unlevel playing field" and that local governments have too many advantages in building broadband networks (incomprehensibly, they simultaneously claim that local governments are incompetent and publicly owned networks always fail). But state legislators - who hear constantly from the lobbyists of these wealthy companies, have passed laws to discourage publicly owned networks.
Huval details just some of the disadvantages the public sector faces in comparison with the private sector (we detail many other disadvantages in our "Breaking the Broadband Monopoly report).
For example, while Cox Communications...
One of the focuses of the recent FiberFete conference is what do communities do once they have built a next-generation network. Lafayette had lots of ideas.
Let's start with counting new jobs. Lafayette Pro Fiber recently discussed one of the employers adding jobs. The post acknowledges that the fiber network is not the sole reason for these particular jobs, but it does play an important role:
You have to know if you've been down to "the egg" at the LITE building that they're not going to put 100 cubicle workers in that facility. No way they'd fit. However they do have to do the tedious work in Louisiana to get those credits. So some large percentage of those 100 workers will have to be off-site. But they'll have to be able to do their work as if they were in the same building with, at a minimum, the 100 megs of connectivity that standard ethernet LANs provide. That, of course, is exactly what LUS provides on its justly acclaimed 100 meg intranet. A person setting behind a nice workstation setup on Moss Avenue with a nice VLAN setup could work within the Pixel Magic network as if they were just down the hall from the boss's glossy corner office (something both would probably prefer). The ultimate in working from home. I'll not be surprised if Pixel Magic opts for an offsite work center like NuConn did—but there too LUS' fiber-to-every-nook-and-cranny make it possible to shop for the cheapest appropriate location rather than the cheapest location that has something close to real connectivity. In that sort of situation it would be easy and damned inexpensive to leverage LUS Fiber to provide a gig or several of commercial grade connection between the two points.
This is only one of several employers who have added many jobs in Lafayette because of the publicly owned fiber network.
Another avenue Lafayette is exploring is high-bandwidth classrooms. They have created a specific FiberKids program (which was discussed at FiberFete).
The project is intended to test live streaming, high-definition capabilities for school conferences, lectures and field trips.
Students are encouraged to explore the uses of fiber-optic technology in the classroom....
FiberFête, a conference in Lafayette celebrating "our connected future," continues today. The press release is below for more information, but be sure to check out the agenda and tune into the FiberFête free Live Stream.
This is a terrific collection of folks dedicated to building next generation networks - and many people who have built impressive publicly owned networks are here. Additionally, we will be learning a lot about how Lafayette plans to use their network.
FiberFête Conference Launches Tuesday
Technology and Community Leaders to Dream up Possibilities for Our Most Wired Cities
LAFAYETTE, La. (Apr. 19) – FiberFête, a conference featuring Internet innovators from around the world, will be held April 20-22 at Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE) in Lafayette. FiberFête celebrates Lafayette's deployment of a community-owned fiber network and explores the potential of fiber-powered communities.
FiberFête brings global technology entrepreneurs and activists together with local community leaders to explore how fiber networks can help other cities like Lafayette enhance economic development, community participation and quality of life.
“The people of Lafayette have led the country in equipping their community with fiber,” says FiberFête co-producer Geoff Daily. “Now they're committed to driving the conversation around what innovative things fiber can enable them to do.”
Welcoming FiberFête guests Tuesday will be Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret and Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel. “We have a story to tell, to share with America and the world,” says Durel. “The future of fiber optic networking isn’t a dream. For us, it’s a reality, it’s here, it’s working, and it’s an example of what is not only possible, but of what will be the future in America.”
FiberFête speakers include representatives from Google, Cisco, Harvard University and Case Western Reserve University, as well as municipal officials from Seattle and San Francisco. A full agenda is available online at www.FiberFete.com.
While an invitation-only event, FiberFête is also open to the world live via the Internet....Read more
Mike Schuster absolutely gets it right in his dismissal of public relations stunts to attract Google's Gigabit network:
Bear in mind, these stunts aren't even guaranteed short-term fixes -- they're one-in-a-million half-court shots. How can consumers expect to pay affordable rates for 100 Mbs download speeds when state governments would rather bet on the Google horse and act like fools than risk alienating their corporate ties and provide an open market?
I had also written about the Google networks, fearing that communities would get distracted by this longshot rather than focusing on how they can solve their own problems.
The Minnesota House of Representatives once discussed a "gig bill" -- looking at how to get 1Gbps connections to Minnesota, but corporate lobbyists and timid politicians watered it down and created a Task Force instead that largely came up with ideas that benefit lazy incumbent providers. The entire process showed a total lack of vision on the part of the state.
I would hope that a company as smart as Google will not prioritize BS PR stunts but rather build in places that will actually innovate on the ultra-fast network. But communities emphatically do not need Google to be innovative - witness Lafayette's 100Mbps to all subscribers for in-network traffic.
Moving forward, communities can choose whether they organize to win a Gigabit sweepstakes or figure out how to build their own, with a much higher chance for success.
Seattle, which was recently getting some tips from Tacoma, has now turned to Lafayette for more advice on building a publicly owned FTTH network.
Lafayette's Mayor/City-Parish President, Joey Durel, was in town and spoke with both Mayor McGinn and the excellent broadband reporter Glenn Fleishman who wrote about Durel's visit.
Durel, who is not one to back down from a challenge, argues that the public fight with incumbent providers helped educate the public:
A public fight over fiber meant the public knew more about fiber. Durel said the cable and telecom incumbents “were their own worst enemy. The more controversy they made out of this, the more they educated people.” The local newspaper covered the legal battle fairly, Durel said, and most people understood what they’d get from the new network by the time it launched.
I think this is a good insight - communities should not shrink from incumbent attacks but use them as an opportunity to educate. In the case of Lafayette, a few people formed a group that strategized on how to respond to incumbent attacks. This is one of the reasons these projects need champions - people who are willing to put lots of time and energy into the effort as a major priority.
We have frequently noted the benefits of competition -- incumbents lower prices and often invest more in their networks following a community network. Durel notes additional community benefits:
Incumbents step up. After the network started being built, incumbents have kept rate increases low, while donating more to the local community. “I can tell you: some of the providers here are doing more for the community than they have ever ever done for this community: not a little bit, but millions of dollars, for our university, for various nonprofits and things like that,” Durel said.
In an unrelated post, Central District News discusses the City's plans for an open access network, putting them in context with Seattle's history:
This wouldn't be the first time that Seattle had decided that the city could step in and provide what private industry was failing...
Joe Abraham, from the University of Louisiana, recently addressed the LUS Fiber network in Lafayette. This is possibly the fastest and most affordable network in the entire country. Apparently, Joe has been asked by friends if they should switch to the new municipally owned network. His answer is an unequivocal yes - backed up by several points like it is a faster, cheaper service that strengthens the whole community. But really, I like this point:
Inherent in democracy, in the First Amendment, and in free markets, is a central concept: we have no idea what these things will produce. We only know that they are the means-- they are the how-- to produce an endless supply of very important & valuable things. The Internet has proven to be the same, it produces a continuous stream of innovative, valuable things. It should be obvious that building the most advanced community Intranet will attract a lot of innovative people to our city, and encourage our own people to be innovative, as well.
To the extent we require these networks to produce profits, they will not be the "how" of the new economy. Infrastructure rarely pays for itself directly, but pays for itself many times over indirectly.
He also has a response to those who fear the public should not compete with the private:
But what if, instead of public vs. private fiberoptic lines early in the 21st century, you find yourself in the early 18th century, and the question is building state-owned roads and bridges that will decrease the profitability of privately-held services?
What if you live in the early 19th century, and the question is building public libraries that will compete with for-profit bookstores?
What if it is the early 20th century, and the question is creating public schools that will pull students from private institutions?
Well done, Joe!
Another article from the same paper interviews Director of Utilities for Lafayette, Terry Huval. This is a guy that understands the value of publicly owned fiber networks:
In addition, we will launch a digital divide product that will provide Internet accessibility in homes where there are no computers, and no Internet services today.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come, and much of those are...
Readers undoubtedly know that Google has proposed a limited fiber-to-the-home open access network rollout that will offer gigabit speeds. Communities are applying to be considered -- all we know at this point is that Google envisions ultimately serving some 50,000 - 500,000 subscribers.
Parts of this announcement are very exciting for those of us working to create better networks that serve community interests. I think the long term impact of it being open access may well dwarf the impact of having gigabit speeds available to some at "competitive" rates (though one wonders how rates can be competitive when the service is unlike any other?).
The idea of open access -- where the network is an infrastructure that supports independent service providers, creating a true market for broadband services -- is a game changer. Unfortunately, the number of people served by open access networks in the U.S. has been too small to prove the model (as I discussed here). If Google connects half a million people with an open access network, it could change the landscape of broadband networks, pushing us toward a non monopolistic world... but probably not in the first year or two. These changes take time.
Beyond that, the gigabit test bed will be very interesting. Lafayette's LUS Fiber has been experimenting with the 100Mbps network and now Google will be upping the ante. Given the number of people who are excited and the number of communities announcing their application, it is clear that the telecom carriers are not meeting community needs.
Though I think the experiment interesting, I hope it is limited. My fear, which I do believe is premature but has poked its head up nonetheless, is that Google may launch another round of Earthlink Wi-Fi free-lunch hopes from local governments. Those who once pinned their hopes on an outside company building the network they wanted have now recognized the folly. Even though Heinlein's TANSTAAFL warning came half a century ago, few seem to have internalized the lesson. There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
10 years ago, Google was a different company. In 10 years, we have no idea what Google's interest will be but we can be sure that communities will need connectivity that puts local citizens and businesses before profits. Will Google's network serve...Read more
Good news out of Louisiana - the LUS Fiber deployment in Lafayette is running considerably ahead of schedule. This is especially important because Louisiana law makes requirements on publicly owned networks to break even within a relatively short time period, explicitly favoring private companies in law.
The city should be fully passed this summer, allowing anyone to take one or more of the triple play services. Fortunately, many are taking the full triple-play:
Although LUS is not releasing the exact number of customers who have signed up for fiber services, Huval said it is "many thousands" and that a higher-than-expected number are signing up for all three services at once.
Networks succeed financially when they generate high amounts of revenue per user - ARPU in industry terms. Because the fixed costs are so high to connect users, the low revenues generated by only a single service (like telephone) may take many years to pay off the connection expense.
The schools are also making use of the network:
Besides serving residences, LUS Fiber is also being offered to businesses throughout the city, and the wholesale numbers have been at or above expected, Huval said. All Lafayette Parish public schools also are connected to the system, and the technology was used for a partnership among Carencro High School, LITE, Louisiana Public Broadcasting and a San Francisco, Calif. school system, during which students were able to teleconference and collaborate with each other.
Terry Huvall, the head of Lafayette's municipally owned fiber to the home network, discusses the history and motivations behind the community fighting for four years to build their own network. Lafayette has a strong tradition of publicly owned utilities -- they were the first community in Louisiana to build a municipally-owned water and electricity utility, voting to tax themselves to fund it in 1896.
That investment allowed Lafayette to prosper and surpass other communities in the following decades. This investment will have the same effects.
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