Bringing High-Speed Internet to Cajun Country

  • submit to reddit

When reporters from Moyers on America visited Lafayette, Louisiana in 2006, residents and officials had taken on the phone and cable companies to build their own fiber-optic broadband network after the firms refused to bring true broadband connections to the community. BellSouth — an AT&T company — and Cox Communications lobbied the state legislature to block Lafayette’s plan, citing unfair competition. Ultimately, lawmakers voted to let residents decide. The measure allowing the community-built network passed overwhelmingly. BellSouth then filed suit, delaying construction by more than a year, before losing their case in court.

Watch what happened in Lafayette and what officials hoped a fiber-optic network might mean for their community.

In 2009, the city’s fiber network came online and by 2012 it was paying for itself. In an interview this week, City-Parish President Joey Durel predicted that soon, the fiber network may actually turn a profit for the city. Lafayette — about two hours’ drive west of New Orleans, deep in the heart of Cajun country — now offers residents and businesses one of the fastest Internet connections in the nation, with speeds up to 100 megabytes per second, about four-to-five times faster than broadband connections in most of America.

The FCC recently endorsed controversial plans to provide high-speed Internet to cities across America. At the core of the debate is a discussion over whether Internet access should be provided by government, like water and sewage utilities, or sold by private sector telecommunications companies.

In Lafayette, “The common argument was — because we’ve all been taught this in civics — that government shouldn’t compete in the private sector,” says Durel, a Republican and former chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, who entered office in 2004 as a first-time politician. “And I saw this as not so much government competing with the private sector — I told my citizens, I didn’t see BellSouth as the private sector. I read somewhere that they got more government subsidies at that time than any other corporation in America. That’s quasi-government, in my opinion. That’s not the little shoe store on Main Street.

Joey Durel

Joey Durel, City-Parish president

“I saw [fiber] as very positive for business,” Durel continued. “Just not real positive for the monopolies that were fighting us.”

Since Lafayette’s fiber network has come online, the city has attracted numerous entrepreneurs and businesses, including programmers, engineering firms, a visual effects house from California and an oil-related technology company from Houston. But Durel believes it would be much harder today for cities — including Lafayette — to build the network they started in 2007. Politicians are more “weak-kneed,” he says, and the corporate opposition is stronger.

“One town I went to was very interested,” Durel recalled, “[but] the president of their chamber of commerce was the president of [telecommunications company] Qwest in that state. When I left, I said, ‘Ain’t no way they’re going to get that support from their Chamber of Commerce.’”

According to the media reform group Free Press, 19 states have passed legislation that prohibits municipalities from competing with phone and cable companies the way Lafayette did. Some of those laws are based on “model legislation” authored by ALEC.

“They’re putting their states at competitive disadvantages,” says Durel. “They’re bolstering up the monopolies to not have to invest.”

“I think that 80 percent of America will not have what we have today 20 years from now.”

  • submit to reddit
  • aMUSEher

    I wish I had the money to help them.

  • Jim H

    How do I email this to my local newspaper so I can get this in my town? We should be doing this all over the US. It is like the interstate system of 1950.

  • ccaffrey

    Isn’t it interesting that the big internet companies fought so hard to prevent services in communities THEY REFUSED to serve?!. My guess is that they didn’t want examples of how little they provide for the exorbitant rates they charge (even WITH subsidies). I wish people would finally get it. Public services exist to serve…the public! Private corporations exist to serve themselves…to maximize profit. It’s in their charter. Taxes are what we pay for services, spread out so that all people can benefit..and where even minority “shareholders” actually have a voice and the ability to change things..
    As mentioned in this article, people also need to understand who the Chamber of Commerce represents. Thinking that big business and small business have the same interests is like thinking that agribusiness and small family farms do. More often than not, big business looks to swallow up or put out of business competitors and be the only game in town. Ask some of the small business owners who’ve had a Walmart move into their town.. Pretty soon, Walmart becomes not only the only place to shop…but the only employer, at whatever wages they want to pay, and after wresting subsidies from local taxpayers for the “privilege.” Talk about your “company store”!…This constant worship of “free market principles” is such a smokescreen when big business works so hard to fix markets, or destroy competition altogether.
    It should surprise no one that big telecom companies have a long-standing and VERY active role in ALEC. ALEC continues to have an ENORMOUS role in eroding democracy and fair trade! Nothing like turning state legislators into corporate lobbyists!

  • ccaffrey

    See the orange “share” button right above the comment section? There is an option there to email it to someone. Go for it!

  • Pat Elgee

    Communications pays big bucks in bribes to the US Congress. The unfair competition is that the people can not compete with big business to get legislation out of Congress that is favorable to the people. They want our votes, but vote against us. Corruption is rampant and will only get worse.

  • BBroussard

    It should be noted that Lafayette’s high-speed initiative actually started under Joey Durel’s predecessor, Walter Comeaux, who gave his utilities director the green light to treat fiber optic and internet access like electricity, water and natural gas.

  • John St. Julien

    Honestly, no. Comeaux did not have anything to do with giving the “green light” to retail services. That came after Durel was elected when, rather famously, Huval who had supported Durel’s opponent was called into the new mayor’s office for what a reasonable person might have feared would be an exit interview.

    Instead Durel asked what it was that Huval wanted. Huval pitched the fiber network. Durel promised to consider it. And so it came to be. (Well there was a _LOT_ more between there and here but that’s how the idea was floated.

  • Jan Klincewicz

    Journalists … Please learn the difference between MegaBYTES and MegaBITS.

  • Carroll

    Could the reference in the article to Quest “software company” actually have referred to Qwest — the 14-state regional monopoly incumbent company (more recently bought out by CenturyLink)? Another point is that in addition to whatever subsidies the incumbents receive, there is the fact that for a long time ILECs (incumbent local exchange carriers) operated under a protective government umbrella whereby it actually was illegal to have a competing company get into business. That is more like a “state industry” than free enterprise….

  • Mike Havenar

    The blatant interference of Bell South in this event is proof perfect that these corporations need a leash around their necks. “Unfair competition?” They exemplify it.