COLUMN ONE : Welcome to the Wiring of the City : Cyber-hype aside, what does it take to hook sprawling L.A. into the infohighway? Controversy. Confusion. Big money to build the network. And a giant leap of imagination to make it work.
They bolted in a piece of the information superhighway up the block from Rick Campbell’s house in Reseda last week. Actually, they wanted to put it in his back yard, but he demurred.
“It’s five feet high and six feet long and two feet deep,” Campbell explained. “Hank came by and told us how this was the infohighway we’ve heard about on TV and commercials. Which is great, but I just didn’t feel comfortable with it along my fence there.”
Hank, whose last name is Sheets, was accommodating. It’s his job at Pacific Bell to break the news to folks that the fiber freeway is coming to their doorstep, and he tries to be gentle about it.
The phone company must place one box--colloquially known as a “neighborhood node"--for every 480 homes to make its new interactive video, voice and data network operate right. It’s a year behind schedule, but the plan now is for 120,000 Los Angeles homes to be hooked up by December.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t usually notify the customer when we do upgrades on equipment,” Sheets said. “But if I have to go through every neighborhood in L.A. with this, I don’t want to leave a mess behind. I want people to understand what it’s about.”
From the cyber-babble of Newt Gingrich and Al Gore to AT&T;'s portentous “You Will” campaign, from Mayor Richard Riordan’s digital zeal to PacBell’s insistence that “It’s real, California,” all the talk of information turnpikes has inspired confusion, skepticism and some hostility among the masses.
But for all the marketing hype, political squabbles and technically unfeasible promises, the wiring of Los Angeles has begun. It is spawning new forms of competition between friendly neighborhood telecommunications monopolies. It is tearing up streets. And as the interlocking, overlapping web of fiber spins into institutions and residents’ lives, it is transforming the way the city works, plays and communicates--and is demonstrating, in microcosm, how the information highway is changing American society.
In Hollywood, seventh-graders at Alexandria Avenue School compulsively check their e-mail between classes. On the Westside, radiologists at the veterans’ hospital consult via a new GTE phone network that can transfer complex ultrasound images in seconds. On the Los Angeles Freenet, a not-for-profit electronic bulletin board, members swap gardening tips (“I saw a sign on I-5: Raise Earthworms for Profit. But I didn’t take the number down. Is there money in it?”) and get access to the Internet, the global computer network for $15 a year.
Businesses, especially, have developed an apparently insatiable appetite for “bandwidth,” as telecommunications capacity is known among the info-cognescenti. From the Atlantic Richfield Co., which transports oil field maps by phone rather than messenger, to the Hollywood studios, which offer movie clips and star gossip via the Internet’s World Wide Web, companies are finding ways in which the “infobahn” can help them sell more and spend less.
The construction of this digital highway is not as discernible as that of, say, the Century Freeway, which monopolized the horizon for miles around as it inched its way across the southern end of the county. Nor is its purpose--or how to get on--as immediately apparent.
Indeed, the building of this other highway requires a leap of the collective imagination as much as it does permits and construction cones. Phone companies and cable TV firms are spending billions to build a Jetsons-age communications network, but its ultimate shape will be determined as much by the people who use it as by its physical architecture.
There is still no shortage of controversy and confusion: Who gets hooked up first? Who gets credit? And who gets the profits? The complexity of the technology has caused delays. Cable firms, phone companies and regulators still are arguing over the rules for competition. The Los Angeles City Council recently declared that all residents should have equal access to the electronic highway, but how to ensure this remains unclear.
Still, difficult as it may be for the average freeway commuter to believe, its impact ultimately will probably be much greater than another east-west route across the city. Progress so far is impressive, and worth a close look.
First Regional Hub
A tour of the city’s new electronic topography might well start in the San Fernando Valley. The area was chosen as the first regional hub of Pacific Bell’s interactive network for the unglamorous virtue of having a high proportion of overhead lines, which are cheaper to replace than those buried under the streets.
Here Pat McChesney hovers like a general over his war map, sticking pins into node-spots (105 for the Reseda exchange alone), counting feet of cable laid so far (500,000) and marking off telephone poles visited (10,000).
The PacBell engineer keeps a length of fiber in his Reseda office as a reminder of the reason for all the fuss. One strand of the beaded glass the width of a pin can carry 32,000 conversations, replacing thousands of the copper wires that now make up the phone network. Fiber already carries traffic on main trunk routes, such as those that connect phone company offices; PacBell now wants to extend it to individual homes.
The cost is $1,000-plus per home. But when the massive project is complete, the utility expects to save $50 annually per line in maintenance and set-up costs alone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission, PacBell hopes to compete with California’s cable firms, pumping TV shows through the magic fiber, which can hook up to the television as well as the phone. The company also plans to supply interactive programming such as home shopping, games and movies on demand.
Appealing as that may sound to the masses who hate their cable company, the idea has not gone over well with the municipalities who now get a piece of all cable revenue. Plus, there’s the question of those unsightly nodes.
After some wrangling with City Hall, PacBell is paying the salary of a Los Angeles city engineer to speed up the permit process. In Inglewood--also blessed with an abundance of overhead cabling, and next on PacBell’s rollout map--city officials are planning a trip to San Diego, where the first node is operating, before they let the utility go further.
“Our constituents are not exactly clamoring for this. We have to be convinced it’s worth it before we’re going to go through the hassle and disruption . . . of putting in these 70 boxes,” says Assistant City Manager Norman Cravens. “We want to know what they look like and what they sound like.”
As PacBell weaves its way into cable territory, the region’s three largest cable providers--Continental Cablevision, Century and Cox--have all made major acquisitions in an effort to create the economies of scale needed to build their version of the highway.
Continental, which has 300,000 subscribers in the Los Angeles area, is spending $50 million in California over five years to build a network that will handle phone service. And alternative phone service providers, not subject to the same regulations as the traditional utilities, are getting in the highway game too.
One of them, Metropolitan Fiber Services, has moved aggressively into PacBell’s and GTE’s territory, offering often-lower rates to businesses eager to pump up their telecommunications capacity and able to afford leased lines.
“Every day it’s somebody new walking through the door asking us about the policies of Los Angeles and about their desire to be a major provider of the highway on-ramps,” says Susan Herman, general manager of the city’s telecommunications office. “And they all want construction permits.”
Undeterred, PacBell’s Sheets and his deputies are fanning out across Reseda, leaving flyers on doorknobs that warn of streets being torn up and overhead lines torn down with the message: “We promise, it’ll be worth it.”
LAPD’s Own Loop
At the nearby West Valley police station, Capt. Valentino Paniccia is promising his officers the same thing. His is the first of Los Angeles’ 18 divisions to be wired into the department’s own loop on the infohighway--and it has not been easy.
With much fanfare, the private Mayor’s Alliance for a Safer L.A. has raised $13 million to bring the LAPD into the modern age. The group says computers and telecommunications services will save the department 640,000 staff hours a year.
But the stations were not built with cyberspace in mind.
Twelve miles of pink computer cabling runs across the wall of Paniccia’s office and throughout the station. Behind the front desk, where reports are taken in pencil, the new PCs have evicted officers from precious desk space, driven homicide detectives to dig into the coffee money for supplies to build their own shelves, and converted a restroom into a telecommunications garrison.
“How do you wire a shower stall?” demands Detective Craig Crosby, who’s overseeing the operation. “Do you coil a cable around the hot water faucet or just go ahead and hang it off the shower head?”
Still, Paniccia says having information easily accessible on-line is already speeding daily tasks. Arrest warrants, previously sealed and handed to him personally to maintain confidentiality, now arrive via e-mail. “This way I can say, ‘Let’s do it, go for it,’ and I put a note on the e-mail, and there’s no delay,” he says.
Traveling south from Paniccia’s digital redoubt, an electronic tourist will next stumble over an abandoned pipeline that once belonged to Mobil Oil Corp. Inside it lies the beginning of a 58-mile fiber loop, worth about $10 million, that the city got for free in a deal that didn’t make PacBell too happy.
Metropolitan Fiber Services wanted to lay in fiber lines over the Sepulveda Pass to serve businesses in the Valley. But digging ditches would have been prohibitively expensive. So the city traded access to the pipeline for a loop of its own fiber--provided by MFS.
The loop parallels the Golden State Freeway into Downtown, then goes out to West Los Angeles and south to Los Angeles International Airport. Susan Herman and her deputy, Carles Holt, are trying to figure out how to extend the city-owned highway to the harbor. And there’s still a question about who will operate it once the city scrounges up the funds to “light” it, scheduled to happen later this year.
One thing they know is there will be no shortage of information to send over it. Riordan, accustomed to a business environment in which basic e-mail and local area networks are not considered rocket science, has endorsed an overhaul of the city’s obsolete computer systems, as well as a not-so-futuristic vision in which residents don’t have to trek to City Hall and wait in endless lines to do business.
A three-dimensional digital model of the city’s infrastructure--sewer systems, street lights, building stock, public utility locations--is in the works and will be accessible on-line. Already, the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting--which has no way of telling when lights are out or blocked other than calls from passersby--has taken its Operation Bright Lights to the Internet, asking residents to send e-mail about problems to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
That gibberish at the end of the e-mail address has been a source of considerable indignation at City Hall, to the point of prolonging the city’s stay in the pre-digital world. Jim Crain, the city’s information services chief, led a contingent that wanted to hold out for a more, well, intuitive Internet address.
“We wanted LA.GOV, or LACITY.GOV,” Crain says. “You can probably figure out that [ci.la.ca.us] stands for the ‘city’ of ‘Los Angeles’ in ‘California’ in the ‘United States.’ But try explaining our Internet ID over the telephone to a citizen, or even another Internet regular. It’s ridiculous.”
To foster electronic democracy, it would help to have an address people conceivably could remember. But appeals to the White House were bounced back to the Internet Registry, which insisted that Crain’s preferences would lead to confusion between Los Angeles and Louisiana. The fight goes on, but Los Angeles has finally joined San Francisco, San Diego and Eureka on the World Wide Web.
At https://www.ci.la.ca.us, residents can access the weather and maps summarizing the Fire Department’s work over five years. The mayor himself will be at email@example.com after seismic retrofitting of his office.
Up the street from City Hall--and a few clicks from its page on the Web--is the Electronic Information Magnet School. Here girls with combat boots and purple hair check their horoscopes on the Web, while Britt Beaubian and Cameron London download photographs of “Area 51" for their cherished three-ring binder on extraterrestrial life.
“We think they’ve had alien contact there,” Beaubian says gravely. The two are planning a trip to the Nevada site next summer with fellow true believers they’ve found via the Internet.
Hastily formed last summer, the Electronic Information Magnet School does use the Internet for educational purposes too. Students get White House news releases on-line and incorporate them into social studies reports. And they’ve written their own home page, making a place for themselves on the Web.
The school is one of a handful in the Los Angeles Unified School District that’s connected to the Internet. (“You really backspace well,” Elizabeth is told by a student at Garfield High School across town, a classic cyberspace pick-up line).
Teacher Paul McGlothlin says students ask him questions via e-mail they would never ask in class. And the affinity of young people for computers makes doing research more enjoyable.
The district hopes to get all its schools on-line. Several--like the Alexandria Avenue School--have received their own grants for internal bulletin board systems and even high-speed Internet links.
Wiring schools is expensive, and some parents and teachers question the need. But to Nick Pattengale, 16, a sophomore at the Electronic Information Magnet who stayed at school till he got kicked out by the janitor one recent night, it’s pretty obvious. He was taking pictures of the Crab Nebula with a telescope at the Mt. Wilson observatory--via the Internet.
“It’s like virtual reality, except it’s real reality, and I’m controlling the telescope from 50 miles away,” Pattengale explains. He just learned that his application for a summer job at the observatory has been accepted.
This month, the school was connected to the Los Angeles Central Library, which in turn offers Internet access free to all residents.
From Downtown, the electronic tour could go in almost any direction.
To Compton, for example, where the MTA and Caltrans are planning a “televillage” at the Blue Line Metro Rail station, using the fiber built into the rail system itself to hook South-Central residents into telecommuting, medical and education services.
To the Alondra area, near Long Beach, where GTE has just completed the second phase of its “asynchronous transfer mode” network, the broad-band switching technology that allows voice, data, interactive video and imaging information to travel phone lines simultaneously at lightning speed.
To the House of Blues, a club on Sunset Boulevard that recently broadcast a Count Basie orchestra concert over the Internet. To the Latin American Professional Women’s Assn. on North Broadway, one of a dozen nonprofit agencies in the Southland that have been given a modem and phone line by Latinonet, a group using on-line services to organize the Latino community.
Or, leaving behind familiar geography, to the virtual Los Angeles materializing in cyberspace, you can check the latest traffic report (https://www.scubed.com/caltrans/la/la _ transnet.html) or get answers to your genealogy questions on the Freenet (lafn.org); swap O.J. Simpson jokes, order the Simpson exercise video (https://188.8.131.52/home/torn-page/simpson.html), or even dial into TimesLink, this newspaper’s on-line service, where you can complain about what this tour left out.