Sept. 24, 2010 05:21 PM

As Lafayette Utilities System wraps up the buildout of its citywide fiber to the home network, there are no immediate plans to advance what many view as the logical next step for LUS: a citywide wireless network built on top of the fiber infrastructure.

As Lafayette Utilities System wraps up the buildout of its citywide fiber to the home network, there are no immediate plans to advance what many view as the logical next step for LUS: a citywide wireless network built on top of the fiber infrastructure.  LUS Director Terry Huval stresses that the nascent LUS Fiber telecommunications business is on a tight budget and must now focus all its resources into successfully building up a customer base for its core cable, phone and Internet services.

"We do plan to deploy wireless but we still have the deployment of our fiber system and deployment means hooking up new [customers]," Huval says. "And while we have the high degree of activity related to accepting new customer orders and running crews to be able to provide those services to customers, we want to keep our focus on that. Once we're at a point that that starts to plateau some, then we can maybe move more quickly with expanding wireless. As far as the timing, I would expect that within the next year we're going to be making some faster strides with putting up wireless."

Huval did not say what form of wireless service LUS may offer, but has indicated in the past that a citywide wireless Internet service might be something packaged as an add-on service for LUS Fiber subscribers. Huval also noted that LUS currently has over 40 wi-fi hotspots in Lafayette, used exclusively by Lafayette Consolidated Government field vehicles.

Meanwhile, LUS Fiber's chief competitor, Cox Communications, is also moving deliberately with its planned wireless cell phone service. Cox announced last year it would be entering the cell phone business. The company has since been testing its service and has indicated it will probably launch this year in select markets in Virginia, Nebraska and California. Cox Greater Louisiana spokesperson Ann Ruble says the service isn't scheduled to hit the Lafayette area for another 18 to 24 months, but that rollout plans are constantly being re-evaluated.

For its part, LUS Fiber has mainly focused its wireless plans on wi-fi Internet, as opposed to cellular phone connectivity, though that may be changing. "One of the options we see emerging is greater interactivity between cellular connectivity and wi-fi connectivity," Huval writes in an email. "For example, many of today's smart phones will use an available wi-fi network for e-mail/texting/Internet access instead of using the cellular network. A similar capability is emerging for voice traffic. With access to a city-wide wireless network, a person could make all in-city calls on the wi-fi system and not have to buy so many minutes from a cellular provider. Such an arrangement will save money for many cell phone users, especially for people who make most of their wireless calls from in the city."

In addition, LUS Fiber is exploring other options related to cellular connectivity, specifically, partnering with a wholesale cellular provider or carrier that could then offer an enhanced wireless/cellular signal in Lafayette. "It's an idea that's been floated," Huval says, adding that LUS Fiber has gone so far as meeting with a couple of cellular wholesalers to discuss the possibility, though he declined to name which companies. "We've had multiple meetings with each one of these companies but we're not in any contract negotiations at this point," he says. "We've made the decision that we want to continue to focus on the continued deployment of the fiber system, that's the key. I don't want to take our technical and business resources we have away from the target that we're dealing with now with our fiber to the home deployment."

In related news, the Federal Communications Commission has just approved for use the largest expansion of unlicensed spectrum in more than two decades, a move expected to pave the way for the development of stronger wireless networks across the country. Huval applauded the move, stating, "The FCC action to open up more unlicensed spectrum is a very positive development, in our opinion. From an overall consumer perspective, it opens up new wireless options in an era where more and more smaller wireless providers are being gobbled up by the large cellular giants."