Speaking at the recent National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors annual meeting, Federal Communications Chairman Thomas Wheeler endorsed Lafayette, La.’s municipal fiber optic system—or more specifically, he endorsed the idea of the Lafayette Utilities System’s effort to bring competition to that southern Louisiana city of some 121,000.

Here are his remarks about LUS Fiber (full text of his speech here):

“I love the story of Lafayette, La. where the local incumbent fought the city’s fiber network tooth and nail, bringing multiple court challenges and triggering a local referendum on the project. Thankfully, none of the challenges managed to prevent deployment – 62 percent of voters approved of the network in the referendum, and the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously sided with the city – but they did delay deployment almost three years. When the network was finally built, the community experienced the benefits of competition, as the local cable operator decided to upgrade its network. Local choice and competition are about as American as you can get.”

Everything Wheeler said was true, but he didn’t finish the story. That might be because of the doubts it would raise

As I reported last year in a case study on the Lafayette muni broadband project:

  • LUS Fiber is some 30 percent short of its revenue projection as set out in its business plan;
  • Is more than $160 million in debt;
  • Struggles to compete with cable, telephone, wireless and satellite service providers in terms of price, performance and service options;
  • Is relying on bigger government contracts to grow revenues.

In addition, LUS Fiber did not bring competition to Lafayette. If anything, it was a late entrant. Cox and the company then-known as BellSouth (now AT&T), were established as phone-cable-Internet providers. DirecTV and Dish Network were additional players in multichannel TV. Since LUS Fiber came on line, the upgraded broadband capabilities of wireless service providers have only added competitive pressure. In this environment, LUS’ 2004 feasibility study prediction that it would achieve 50 percent share of the market seems risible.

Even from a social good perspective, LUS Fiber has failed to deliver. Its biggest promise—the one that justified its $160 million bond issue—was that it would deliver 100 Mb/s fiber connections to all residents, including low-income households that the Lafayette government said incumbents were ignoring. That universal 100 Mb/s offer never appeared. In its first years of operation, LUS Fiber offered a $19.95 Internet-only plan, but found that it could not afford the cost of running fiber to a residence that was going to generate revenue that low. It then offered a 3 Mb/s connection at $19.95 per month for an introductory period, but that required purchase of a more expensive triple-play package. LUS ultimately ended the introductory offer in August 2012.

As of last year, the cheapest Internet-only rate LUS Fiber offered was $34.95 for 15 Mb/s. For whatever reason—most likely, the commercial realities discussed above—LUS Fiber has decided not to offer low-cost high-speed Internet service to poor households.

This is no surprise to those who have followed municipal broadband over the years. Of the hundreds of communities that have spent millions of dollars on such projects, LUS Fiber is one of the four that actually got viable FTTH service up and running (Chattanooga, Tenn.; Bristol, Va. and Provo, Utah being the other three). That’s still no guarantee of success. Bristol needed a $22 million grant from the Obama stimulus. Provo’s muni system was operational for seven years and never came close to payback. The city was more than happy to have Google Fiber take it off its hands for $1.

Wheeler’s shout-out to Lafayette comes as he’s pushing for federal pre-emption of state laws that prohibit municipal broadband projects where commercial service providers are already competing.

Certainly government can provide “competition.” But at the end of the day, it almost inevitably amounts to being a redundant broadband supplier, inferior to private-sector alternatives and entirely dependent on taxpayer resources to cover economic shortfalls. Muni broadband has been a long-term drain on city resources that could be applied more productively elsewhere.

Originally published Oct. 13, 2014 on the R Street Institute blog.