Lessons from Lafayette - Fiber with a Plan

Last week, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution hosted a gentleman named Terry Huval. Huval is the Director of the Lafayette, LA, Utilities System.

In the morning, before other scheduled activities, he graciously met with a group of people from around the Cape region. Topic? How Lafayette ended up in the broadband business.

As it turns out, not only is this city of 125,000 in the broadband business (http://www.lusfiber.com/), but it also offers one of the highest speed, lowest cost broadband packages in the country.

With some strategic thinking, it is also leveraging its investment to attract business and grow the economy -- as well as providing key services to residents and business.

With the emergence of the OpenCape Corporation and its $40M NTIA-funded middle mile infrastructure project the question looms: is Lafayette's approach one that the Cape, Islands, and SE MA might borrow from?

Lafayette (http://www.lafayettegov.org/) long ago made the decision that infrastructure was important and that it was a task the city itself wanted to embrace in order to control its own destiny and improve the quality of life for its residents.

When I say a long time ago, I mean a really long time ago.

Up here in the northeast, we are pretty biased sometimes, and we don't tend to think of Louisiana as being forward thinking ... but more than a century ago, Lafayette was.

In 1896, a majority of the population petitioned the mayor and city council to call an election to bring forward the question of city electricity. Yes, you read that correctly, 18-96.

By 1897, the Grant Street plant was completed and generating electricity. Water and waste-water services followed soon after.

Today, LUS employs more than 500 people (in a city of 125,000). The city has one of the lowest residential electric utility rates in the state and returns something the range of $19 million of in-lieu-of-tax to the Consolidated Government General Fund each year.

Not sure about you, but I'd say lower power rates + jobs + funds to support police, fire, and other services is a pretty good success story.The city lobbied rail and highway decision makers as well, fighting for proximity to those infrastructure investments, fully understanding that they were all key pieces to economic health.

Fast forward a century and the same tale - only a different technology - was playing out. By 2000, it was clear that broadband was going to be the economic driver that electricity, rail, and highways had been previously.

The companies delivering broadband to Lafayette weren't offering the kinds of service the city knew it needed to remain competitive. And prices were going only one way: up.

Layette decided, again, to control its own destiny and improve the quality of life in the city. And so it began the path toward laying fiber, creating both middle mile capacity and last mile fiber to the premise.

Not surprisingly, the incumbent telecom and cable providers began lobbing high-dollar high-powered political and legal bombs. Huval and the city's Mayor kept moving forward, much as their predecessors had done in the 1800s.

The utility's broadband arm, LUS Fiber, raised $110.5 million through the sale of bonds by early 2008. It rolled out a four-phase city-wide build-out plan.

On February 5, 2009, LUS Fiber officially opened for business and began serving its first group of customers. The city expects the whole city to be connected by 2011.

So, is Lafayette's approach one that the Cape, Islands, and SE MA might borrow from?

There is no clear answer.

OpenCape (http://www.opencape.com) is constructing the missing middle mile infrastructure in the region, infrastructure that wasn't profitable enough for the incumbents to invest in, infrastructure that is the base for this century's growth and sustainability.

It's a big barrier to overcome - but that process is underway. The construction project will begin, it will end, and the capacity will be here.

We need to be ready.

Fiber to the premise, regional municipal networks, services to consumers and small businesses, public safety applications, K-12 uses, health care services, and yet-to-be-imagined services are all open for discussion.

The strategy and execution for leveraging all these - both the middle mile capacity and the basket of TBD services - is on the table too.

How we do as a region create a healthy economy, build a brand beyond beaches, improve the quality of life for our population - and control our own destiny, whatever that destiny may be?

In Lafayette, the city took the leadership role. On the Cape, on the Islands, in SE MA and the Southcoast, who will lead? What is the vision? Where are taking all this technology? What can we build upon the infrastructure?

There is no clear answer.

What is clear, however, is that the capacity will be here in just a few short years. And that we - as a region - need to start crafting the answer.

Just because it's never been done - here - doesn't mean it can't be done. After all, back in 1896, no one had done electricity in Lafayette, either.

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