I have to confess that it was bittersweet when the conference kicked off at precisely the moment that UK airspace was reopened, apparently due to a reassessment of jet engine resilience (UK Transport Chaos Minister Lord Adonis this morning made the curious claim that tolerance levels are now 10x what they were previously, but "previously" was a zero tolerance regime as far as I know - this is obviously some New Labour Math beyond my grasp). Or was it really because of the bold move taken by Wee Willie Walsh, or the spectre of a general election? Alas, I digress.
I was really thrilled to see this event come to fruition, and I was very pleased to see that comrade Benoit Felten actually eventually made it Stateside to represent the largely stranded European contingent, though he sadly missed his speaking slot. I assume he will be tweeting day two of the event, as will I.
I was also pleased to see the attendees being accompanied into the conference room by the sound of a swinging jazz quartet (twin fiddles - this is Southern Louisiana afterall - upright bass and guitar) playing "Honeysuckle Rose." It's good to be grounded in the past as a point of departure in considering the future (and the futuristic), so what better than analogue 20th Century music?
This was a theme which continued in David Isenberg's fascinating panel session with City Mayor Joey Durel, Director of Lafayette Utilities System Terry Huval, and Jim Baller. In a refreshing departure from the usual geek focus of fiber discussions, the panel took as its point of departure the historical and cultural aspects of Lafayette which made the development of its fiber network at least likely, if not inevitable, echoing some of the opening remarks which preceded the panel.
The short version is that Lafayette has always been a community of outsiders and mavericks. Mayor Durel pointed out that the first four ethnic groups to settle in the area were all refugees displaced from their previous homes, and this had created early on a tendency towards self-reliance. When electrification began in the late 1890s, no commercial entity viewed Lafayette as worthy of investment, so the city fathers took it upon themselves to make it happen. The utility they created eventually took the strategic and operational decision in the late 1990s to deploy fiber for internal use, but then realized that the cost differential of expanding their deployment from 12 fiber strands to 96 was only 20%, and that the extra capacity would open up option value to be captured at some future date.
That future date is pretty much now, not only in the retail space, but also in the collateral benefits starting to be delivered to the local university and research community, the creative/interactive community, and other knowledge-based enterprises. The founding fathers of the city, who took the decision to self-provision electricity, could not possibly have envisaged how that decision has subsequently developed, but neither is this an accident of history.
Yes, the groundwork was there to build on, but the city's progress to date has been a product of a recognition of common interest between the city government, commerce, educational institutions, and grass roots activists. As Mayor Durel pointed out, one of his motivations as a newly-elected mayor to back the fiber vision was "to keep our kids here," in other words to stem out-migration by the younger generation to places which might offer more obvious opportunities for economic advancement. Such a phenomenon has been the cause of premature death for more than one community.
As a candidate receiving donations from BellSouth during the campaign, this was a bold move, and the city spent more than $4m in legal, consulting and associated fees in defending itself from legal challenges by both the incumbent and cable. Ironically, the more strident the opposition from the duopoly, the greater community awareness became, and at some point, this tipped over into a popular resentment of "outsiders" trying to dictate to the residents what was in their best interest. Mayor Durel stated, "The legal fees were the greatest marketing dollars we ever spent."
My feeling as the first day ended was that this discussion highlighted something which is almost universally overlooked at fiber events, in favor of discussions of technical and topological discussions: what ultimately may dictate success or failure is the local community, its values, history, political development and institutions. All the connectivity in the world will not bring affluence and entrepreneurial vigor to an environment where the cards are stacked against it, or where institutional fragmentation and apathy are overwhelming. (I am reminded here again of my unsettling discussion over lunch with some Japanese telecom consultants three years ago. I was singing the praises of Japan's "fiber miracle" and found my hosts exchanging embarrassed smiles. "The only driver we can see for fiber adoption is cheap voice." I left the exchange thinking that Japan might not necessarily be culturally or institutionally equipped to see an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship simply because fiber is everywhere - a sobering realization to a Fiber Taliban member, as I then was.)
Lafayette has had some obvious advantages by virtue of its history, character, and institutions. These won't be replicable everywhere, but that doesn't guarantee failure for others or rule out alternative approaches elsewhere. Nor does it mean that success is automatic for the relatively advantaged. The key, from what I can tell so far, admittedly as an outsider stranded in London, is that the community had the vision and motivation to capitalise on its advantages, to develop a plan and execute it.
And it seems that, having gotten this far, they are still in the learning and exploration phase when it comes to exactly where this goes from here, but having taken the decision to invest, they now at least have the opportunity to define and influence what option value is created in future - which puts them decades ahead of where I currently sit.
I found the first day to be inspiring and thought-provoking, and while it might sound strange, I am genuinely looking forward to the 9.5 hour webcast today. Special thanks and honorary mention to Lane Fournerat, who fulfilled my wish for multiple points of view/value-added extras by live-streaming the tour of the LITE facility on qik. I believe/hope he may be doing the same today, so check him out.
Lastly, and apologies for closing on a downer, but if I have to name and shame anyone, it's telco professionals around the world. On yesterday's webcast, the highest number of viewers I saw was 27. Yes, twenty-seven. Here we have one of the most interesting case studies I have ever come across, and an event full of collective wisdom and experience which is truly stunning (and free for the taking), and fewer than 30 people, of whom I know at least five, can be bothered to tune in. Bizarre.
Summary soundbite: it's not just fiber of the optical kind, but the fiber of the community and its institutions, which will separate the winners and losers.