Five years after it initially announced its intentions to build a state-of-the-art, fiber-to-the-home network to serve Lafayette residents with premium phone, cable and Internet service at bargain rates, Lafayette Utilities System finally sent out the announcement yesterday that it was “officially open for business.” Ready to sign up? Not so fast.

After a slight delay (LUS had pledged to begin serving customers in Jan. ’09) in reaching agreeements with some cable providers, LUS has now released its full cable lineup . As of today, it is sending out mailers to a select number of Lafayette residents who are eligible to begin receiving service. Connecting the service will take approximately two weeks from the time an eligible resident calls in to subscribe. Billing will begin March 1. LUS Director Terry Huval will not say how many mailers will be going out through the week, or how many people LUS is ready to begin providing service to. “That’s something we want to keep close to the vest,” he says. “We don’t need to have our competition knowing how fast we’re going into the field.” Huval adds that other telecom providers do not reveal details on their market penetration and that he will always be reticent to discuss LUS’. However, as a public entity, LUS will be required to release financial data that will give a general indication of its subscriber base.

As far as a timeline for its rollout, LUS is sticking to its initial projections. Last year, LUS released a build out map breaking the city down into four rollout phases. Huval did say that all residents in Phase I will likely be able to receive service by the end of this year. Beyond that, he says only that LUS expects to have offered the service to everyone within the city limits by the first quarter of 2011. “That’s the objective we’ve set for ourselves.”

The slight delay in the rollout was caused by lengthy negotiations with some cable providers, according to Huval. Originally, LUS intended to join the National Cable Television Cooperative of independent cable providers, which already has negotiated deals with cable channel providers. However, shortly after LUS received its bond money for the fiber project, the NCTC issued a moratorium on new members. “We may be the first city having to do all of this programing ourselves with our own people,” Huval says. “That made it a lot more difficult. In the end, it’s going to be a better thing for us because now we’ve built relationships with all those providers through the whole negotiation process.” In addition to delaying the process, not being a part of the co-op also lessened LUS’ bargaining leverage, raising the price on programming. LUS still hopes to join the NCTC; The organization opened up to new members again last month, and LUS is now waiting for word back on its application.

For those customers who do receive service, Huval says he expects they will notice the difference in quality that comes with fiber. “The quality of our system is going to be pristine by all standards,” he says. With an all-fiber network, customers should never experience the kind of TV picture pixelation or delay that sometimes occurs when cable providers push their bandwidth to the limit. “The picture quality even on standard definition is significantly superior to what I have seen on standard definition on other providers,” Huval says. “In fact, in some cases, our standard definition doesn’t look too much different than what you would see on high definition. It really has a difference.”

Huval says LUS’ controlled rollout is due in part to its commitment to quality service. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “We’re hopeful that our customers will be pleased with our customer service, with our constistency, with our reliability,” he says. “To start up an initiative like this - that’s so complex and so involved - and to have the breadth of channel lineup that we have on day one I think is an impressive start, but it is indeed a start.”

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