20081217-cover-0102.jpg
 LUS Director Terry Huval
 Photo by Robin May
 
Lafayette Utilities System’s fiber-to-the-home telecommunications business is a month away from being rolled out to customers. But despite all the bluster surrounding its initial announcement in 2004 ­— a state-of-the-art cable, Internet and phone system that would trump the competition with both its capabilities and price — you’ve heard very little about the project over the past several months. There have been no press releases or announcements. A newsletter feature on lusfiber.com that invites anyone interested to sign up for e-mail updates on the project has been dormant since it went up in the spring. The last time the city-parish council got an update on the project was during the city-parish budget hearings in August.

It’s not that there hasn’t been any activity. LUS has been busily preparing for January 2009, when it will begin serving its first customers. The public utility has been building out its fiber lines, setting its cable lineup, and finalizing details on which features to include, what prices to set, and how to handle promotions. According to its most recent budget information, LUS has now spent approximately $29.6 million on the project, a number LUS Director Terry Huval says is slightly under projections for this point. The budget comes out of the $110.4 million in bonds issued for the project in July 2007. 

20081217-cover-thumb.jpgMost of the details on the rollout of the new business have been worked out, and LUS has already wired several homes in Lafayette to test drive the new service. These “beta test” households were still being hooked up as late as two weeks ago. “We chose people we personally knew [as test households],” says Huval in an e-mail, “and who were in the areas where the system was available. Some are retired LUS employees. Others are people who have approached us wanting to help us test the system. We wanted to choose people who would provide us assistance in our effort to make our services as perfect as they could be once we begin providing services to new customers.” While Huval acknowledges homes are being field tested, The Independent Weekly could not confirm how many households are participating in the test program or when beta testers first began being hooked up. Huval says LUS has signed confidentiality agreements with all its beta test households, which prohibit both LUS and the people now using its telecommunications service from talking about the tests.

LUS is also testing the system itself at its fiber head-end facility, and last week Huval granted The Independent a brief tour of the operation (see “Head On In,” P. 19), revealing for the first time some of the features customers can expect from the new system. Access was limited. Photos had to be pre-approved, and Huval wouldn’t allow many, including any shots of LUS’ digital cable menu screen, or shots of any equipment that would disclose brand names or serial numbers. Huval also refused to talk about many aspects of the new business, including specific price plans and the rollout schedule. In January, LUS is scheduled to begin serving customers in the first phase of its two-year rollout schedule that will eventually cover the city of Lafayette. However, LUS has not indicated when in January it will begin offering the service or whether its initial rollout will include all residents in that first phase. 

Huval and his staff are also evasive when it comes to seemingly innocuous questions about the service. How long can your backup battery power sustain your head-end facility? How many servers do you have in your head-end facility? Roughly how many channels will your cable service offer? Will you offer music channels? These subjects are apparently too sensitive to talk about.

LUS has purposefully kept a tight wrap on the project so as not to show its hand to soon-to-be competitors like Cox Communications, AT&T and DirecTV. “This is a competitive business,” says Huval. “We’ve been very strategic and very careful in every step we’ve taken here, and we’re doing the same thing in this case.”

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Chief Communications System Operator Chase Delome with a rack of satellite receivers in LUS’ fiber head-end facility.
Photo by Robin May
 

Cox Communications and BellSouth originally fought LUS’ fiber-to-the-home initiative, both through government lobbying and legal challenges. Recently, the incumbent providers seem more willing to accept LUS as a competitor.

This year, Cox Communications has increased its number of high-definition channel offerings, as well as adding a power boost feature that increases Internet download speeds for large files. Cox contends that premier high-speed Internet subscribers can reach download speeds up to 20 megabytes per second with its power boost, with upload speeds up to 2 MBps.

Cox has launched a new Web site, innovatelafayette.com, in order to help better tell its story. Vice President of Governmental and Public Affairs Sharon Kleinpeter told The Independent Weekly in August that the Web site is meant to serve as a kind of public watchdog “for the spending and delivery on promises of the LUS plan.” The site also is set up to combat misperceptions about Cox Communications, including the false impression that the cable provider has no fiber optic cable in its network, she says.

Thus far, the Cox blog has taken aim at LUS contractors’ hiring of Spanish-speaking workers, promoted UL football broadcasts on Cox, and questioned a quote from City-Parish President Joey Durel that LUS would be providing 100 MBps peer-to-peer service to its residents for free. (Durel says he was referring to a free bonus feature for LUS subscribers).

Huval remains cautious of his competitors. Despite LUS being a public entity, Huval says the Local Government Fair Competition Act — the state law passed in 2005 that sets certain guideline on LUS’ telecommunications venture — affords the public utility confidentiality when it comes to certain marketing information. The section pertaining to LUS’ required reports to the Louisiana Public Service Commission states, “commercially sensitive marketing information disclosed by local government for purposes of this Subsection shall not be a public record.”

LUS’ staff has been directed not to talk about certain details of the project outside the office.

Even many city-parish councilmen are in the dark. Chairman Don Bertrand says that doesn’t bother him. “I trust Terry Huval,” he says. “He is always going to err on the side of caution, and that’s what’s helped make our utilities system one of the best. I’m fairly confident everything is going to run right on schedule. I’m looking forward to signing up.”

When Bertrand might be able to sign up remains unclear, but Huval is confident that LUS’ fiber launch won’t go unnoticed.

“This isn’t like a new retailer coming to town,” he says. “You got to consider the fact that a new retailer comes to town and many people do not even know who they are. They haven’t had four years of press coverage like what we’ve had with this system.”

Huval doesn’t assume everyone in Lafayette knows about the fiber project. “But many, many, many people do,” he says. “Many people have been quite interested and engaged as to what we’re getting ready to do. And for us to start talking about any specifics basically shows our hand before we need to do so. So at the right time, we’re going to put out our pricing, information about the various products we’re going to offer in greater detail and specifics about how we’re going to actually roll out the system to serve customers. We know what that answer is.”

Here’s what we do know about what LUS plans to offer.

LUS will sell phone, cable and Internet services individually, but Huval says the better deals will come with ordering the “triple play” combination package. That service of expanded basic cable ­— more than 80 channels — local phone service, and Internet service with a download and upload speed of 10 MBps will sell for approximately $85 a month. It will also include 100 MBps speeds for peer-to-peer Internet communication (when two LUS subscribers communicate with each other). Huval adds that on average LUS’ prices will be 20 percent less than the standard rates now offered by its competitors.

From the few special features Huval did reveal, it’s apparent LUS’ service will merge home media in new ways. Your phone can ring and show the caller ID on your TV. And your TV can access the Internet with LUS’ custom digital cable set-top boxes that will include built-in Web browsers. A keyboard (not included) plugs into the back of the cable box to enable users to compose e-mails and conduct Web searches. Huval believes the TV Internet browser will be the first of its kind in the country.

The TV browser is limited. It will only display Web sites that are Personal Display Assistant-optimized. PDA-optimized Web sites are largely text-based with limited graphics and pictures, and LUS’ TV browser won’t allow for any online videos. Huval explains the feature wasn’t put in place to allow subscribers to go to YouTube.com and watch a series of videos on their TV.

 20081217-cover-0104.jpg
A contract crew from Kentucky runs overhead fiber lines along an Adele Drive residence.
 


“It’s a light browser,” he says. “It’s not designed to have the kind of horsepower that you would have on a PC. It’s not to say we couldn’t do [online videos], but we’re the first ones in the United States trying this, and I don’t want to be pushing our system this early in our new business.”

Huval says the TV Internet browser bridges the digital divide, the gap that exists between lower and upper income families’ access to technology and the Internet. “The idea is that if a home or a child does not have a computer at all, and never has had access to the Internet, now just by buying LUS cable TV service, they now have access to the Internet to do basic research. All they have to do is attach a keyboard to the back of a set-top box.”

The digital cable box allows for other interesting features. Its main menu screen is designed more like a home Web page, with menu options that include Internet, news, weather, and My Community. Select weather and the screen gives you a real time local weather report. The My Community page is similar to a community message board, displaying bulletins of local events. Select news from the menu screen, and you can instantly scroll through local headlines and news articles.

These features also have some apparent limitations. For instance, the news page will only display articles from local media outlets that LUS partners with; subscribers can’t customize the page to display their preferred news sources. Again, Huval says these features can always be enhanced over time, but for now the utility is focusing on delivering its core services.

LUS plans to wire each subscriber’s home with an obscene amount of bandwidth. Each subscriber gets two separate 100 MBps ports, or feeds, into his or her home. One is dedicated to the digital cable service; the other is for the Internet. A separate phone port runs over the same lines but will not detract from the cable or Internet speeds. Anyone who has gone out and bought a $1,000 high-definition TV only to come home and see the picture on their HD channels continuously pixelate or freeze up understands the importance of bandwidth when it comes to cable service. Often, HD picture problems occur when a cable system gets stressed with large amounts of data being transmitted. This same issue also often causes cable providers to limit the number of HD channels they provide.

Huval says LUS will have a “purer” cable signal than its competitors. With the typical HD channel broadcasting 10 MBps, Huval notes that in order for an LUS subscriber to begin maxing out his cable signal and noticing any possible picture degradation, the subscriber would have to have 10 HD TVs sets on in his home at the same time, all tuned to different HD channels.

LUS will also break ground by having the first fiber network in the country to offer 100 MBps peer-to-peer Internet connectivity, allowing LUS subscribers to communicate with each other at incredible speeds. Videos, multi-track recordings, detailed medical records and images, complex surveying data — all able to be uploaded and sent across town in a matter of seconds through the network. Video-conferencing and live video feeds will also become much easier. “I think there’s been a limitation,” Huval says, “on how people have used the Internet, especially in business, because of the slow speed. [The fiber system] will allow for many things to get done in ways that don’t try your patience; it’s all practical.”



Head On In

The head-end facility for LUS’ new fiber-to-the-home telecommunications system is located at the end of a wooded, dead-end road off Acadian Hills Lane near the I-10/I-49 intersection. The building itself resembles a bunker. It’s a relatively small, beige pre-fabricated concrete building, built to withstand 155 mile-per-hour winds, with virtually no signage. In the gravel driveway is a blue dumpster piled high with cardboard and other packaging material. Adjacent to the driveway are two rows of satellite dishes, all angled up to receive their cable video feeds. A fixed metal antennae tower and a large telephone pole with antennae attached, both used to pick up the signals from local broadcasters like KATC and KLFY, loom overhead behind the facility.

While it hardly looks like a high-tech center of 21st century innovation, LUS has never been accused of being overly luxurious. As a public utility, it’s required to abide by tight budgets and public bid laws, part of the reason, along with today’s high construction costs, LUS had to downgrade its original plans for a custom building.

The head-end facility is wired to different substations throughout town, which will then route service to customers’ homes. In order to test its own service, LUS has to loop cables from a substation back to the head-end facility where it plugs into an Optical Network Terminal, a shoebox-sized case identical to the ones that will be placed on future customers’ homes.

A small front room has been set up for LUS to do its cable testing. A Samsung flatscreen TV sits on a table. It’s hooked up to a digital cable set-top box with the top removed, exposing its inner circuit board and wires. There’s also a larger Panasonic TV on a stand draped with all the different types of TV connection wires. “We’ve got to test them all,” says Chance Delome, LUS’ new chief communications systems operator.

In the main head-end room, there’s the constant drone of fans running to keep the room’s equipment cooled to a precise temperature. The building has 40 tons of air conditioning. Four rows of cabinets are stacked with servers, “enough to run a city,” according to Delome. The main telephone switch is a box lined with approximately 20 metal components the width of a piano key, each of which is capable of processing 10,000 phone calls.

Delome, 33, manages the head-end facility. His relatively short electrical engineering career has already taken him through Europe to California to Monroe and now back home to Lafayette. He’s worked for Nortel, a wireless broadband startup, and CenturyTel phone company.

Delome says while working in Monroe he began following news about LUS’ fiber-to-the-home initiative and knew immediately that he wanted to be a part of it. After joining the team in June, he found several of his other old classmates from the UL engineering department also had made their way back to work with the project.

“There’s a whole group of us [from UL],” Delome says. “It’s been great re-connecting with people.”

Delome acknowledges the challenge ahead, but he won’t talk about his biggest concerns. “What I’m excited about is what this is going to bring to Lafayette,” he says, noting that the Hub City will be a pioneer when it comes to resolving the digital divide. He also says the fiber network will put Lafayette on the map in the tech sector and will likely foster economic development and research from high-tech firms looking to test new applications on a high speed peer to peer network. “There’s going to be many opportunities that are going to present themselves,” he says.

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