Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: LUS Fiber has lost its edge

LUS Fiber drive thru service center
Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

Building LUS Fiber was intended to make Lafayette more competitive. And for years it did, delivering better broadband for better prices, positioning Lafayette as one of the best places in the country for people and businesses that rely on access to high-speed broadband. 

But now, as LUS Fiber diverts its attention to expanding across Acadiana, it has lost its edge in delivering these benefits to the city of Lafayette. 

Case in point: Fiber no longer delivers better prices than Cox and AT&T.

I looked up what broadband services are available at my address and found that I could get 100Mbps — which is the lowest speed broadband available from these competing providers — for $55/month from AT&T or $50/month from Cox. And with a two-year contract, I could get 250Mbps from Cox for that same $50. Yet to get that 100Mbps service from LUS Fiber costs $62.95.

Now, all services are not created equal. Fiber’s services tend to be more reliable and deliver closer to their advertised speeds. Plus Fiber offers not just 100Mbps downloads but also uploads. Whereas Cox’s upload speed is only 5Mbps and AT&T’s website doesn’t even make clear how fast its upload speeds are. So while Fiber may cost more, it also delivers more.

Apples to oranges notwithstanding, this is still a problem. Because for average customers who just use the internet to surf the web, watch Netflix, do basic video calls, and send email, less reliable services from Cox and AT&T with slower upload speeds are probably good enough. So why not save ~$150 per year by choosing the cheaper service?

It wouldn’t surprise me if this shift in market dynamics is causing Fiber to lose customers. Because anyone who needs the best service has likely already signed up for service from Fiber. But now, anyone who is fine with good enough service has an economic reason to either not sign up for Fiber or to switch. This new reality threatens to erode Fiber’s customer base.

Issues around Fiber losing its edge extend far beyond local competition, as Fiber is also no longer giving Lafayette the same economic development edge that it used to regionally and nationally.

When Fiber first launched, it positioned Lafayette as a national leader in delivering the best broadband for the best prices. And even though we’re still better off than many communities without adequate broadband, Fiber has fallen behind the new standard for community broadband networks.

Like Chattanooga, Tenn., where the city’s slowest broadband package starts at symmetrical 300Mbps for $57.99/month. That’s three times faster than Fiber’s 100Mbps service for $5 less per month. To get 300Mbps in Lafayette would cost $88.95/month.

This gap widens as speeds increase. Because entrepreneurs, remote workers and companies that rely on high speed broadband can get symmetrical 1Gbps service in Chattanooga for $67.99/month, but that service costs $117.95/month in Lafayette. Plus Fiber limits its service with usage caps that can increase these costs further while Chattanooga’s doesn’t include any usage caps.

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Since launching 2008, LUS Fiber has missed its financial projections by $70 million. That puts it in a vulnerable position.

While very few companies or individuals would choose to locate in a community simply because it offers cheaper broadband, Fiber losing its edge does make Lafayette less competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining anyone who relies on high-speed broadband. Put simply: Lafayette’s no longer the national leader we once were.

And that’s not all, as we’ve effectively given up on a number of other ambitions we had for Fiber when we first decided to take on more than  $100 million of debt to build it. 

Fiber promised to close the digital divide. But there’s likely thousands of city residents who still can’t access LUS Fiber. According to the Census, 17% of city residents live in apartments with ten or more units, but Fiber has only connected a fraction of apartment buildings. Plus I’ve heard of multiple townhome complexes and even single-family homes that Fiber hasn’t built out to offer service to yet.   

Fiber promised to transform our community into a hub for innovation around the use of high-speed internet. This one’s personal to me since I moved to Lafayette to help this cause. Despite making some good projects happen — like telemedicine clinics and 3D render farms and health information exchanges — there’s still very little that’s happened to put Lafayette on the map as a hub for fiber-powered innovation, especially over the last few years. 

But rather than focus on figuring out how LUS Fiber can regain its edge in the city of Lafayette, our leaders are diverting their attention to an aggressive regional expansion plan that carries existential financial risk to Fiber’s continued viability.

What this all comes down to for me is that LUS Fiber was built by the city of Lafayette for the city of Lafayette. But in many ways it is failing to live up to its promised potential. And I think it’s time we admit that Fiber has lost its edge, so we can start figuring out if and how we can get it back.