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FiberFete Celebrates City’s Efforts To Build Its Own Information-Age Utility

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LAFAYETTE, La., April 20, 2010 - To the extent that the city of Lafayette is famous for anything, it’s probably for its cultural status as the throbbing heart of America’s Cajun country. This week, the burg of 120,000 hosts an annual music and performance arts festival that celebrates its Francophone heritage.

Thousands will fly in from all over the world to attend the event. But among them will also be those who are flying in to both celebrate and to share experiences about building ultra-high-speed internet networks. Those people include urban planners, network engineers and policymakers from around the world who are coming to toast Lafayette’s unlikely achievement of building a 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) peer-to-peer broadband network directly to every single business and residential premise within its city limits.

“While Louisiana is known for its Cajun food and Mardi Gras, we have a lot more than that,” says Joey Durel, Lafayette’s Republican city-parish president. “We’re not some backward town.”

For the past five years, Durel and a motley crew of bipartisan citizen-activists have been pushing to publicly finance the build-out of the city utility’s fiber ring in order to attract new businesses and to retain an educated and creative workforce in a state that is suffering severe brain drain.

The city floated $110 million in municipal bonds in 2007, fought telecommunications companies that cried foul over the move, and proceeded to build the network in addition to a sophisticated 3D imaging center used by Hollywood movie companies to render their animated films into 3D images.

“We had a unique opportunity because we have our own utility company that already had a fiber optic loop that was already in the wholesale end of this business,” says Durel. “This project was about doing something great and raising the bar.”

Like the 57 other public entities in the United States that are building out fiber-to-the-home networks, Lafayette is indeed raising the bar. The city is now offering businesses up to 100 mbps for just under $200 a month. Residents have a choice of 10 Mbps, 30 Mbps or 50 Mbps for their high-speed internet connections. The project is being financed by revenue-backed municipal bonds, so taxpayers won’t be directly paying for the build-out.

The celebration will take place at FiberFête, a three-day invitation-only Woodstock of telecommunications engineers, civic leaders and policy experts from around the world who are meeting to examine Lafayette’s pioneering effort, and to hammer out ideas for emerging applications in the fields of health, education, energy and economic development.

“What Lafayette can show to the world is how to create a network that’s just about state of the art, and that the whole community supports,” explains David Isenberg, FiberFête’s co-organizer along with journalist Geoff Daily. Isenberg is a long-time advocate of such community-driven telecommunications networks. “Lafayette’s leadership also realizes that they need help, that you can’t just hang the fiber on the poles and miracles will happen – they know there’s a lot of expertise out there, and they’re hoping to bring people with a clue into town.”

Speakers at the conference include the prime movers who pushed the process forward to enable the financing of the network, public officials from The Netherlands who have also built broadband utilities, an executive from Google who is involved in its Google Gigabit Project, and San Francisco and Seattle’s chief technology officers.

The conference is a timely one since the Obama Administration has just released its National Broadband Plan, a national blueprint for how America can stay competitive in the global race to get connected to anyone else in the world through high-speed internet networks. Durel hopes that the city can serve as a model for other cities around the nation.

Editor's Note: Travel and accomodations for this series of stories was provided by the organizers of FiberFête.

Sarah Lai Stirland was Contributing Editor for until April 2011. She has covered business, finance and legal affairs, telecommunications and tech policy for 15 years from New York, Washington and San Francisco. She has written for Red Herring, National Journal's Technology Daily, and She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in San Francisco.

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