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City's fiber project goes to a vote

Citizens of Lafayette, La., will vote Saturday on whether to fund a citywide network to provide high-speed Net, telephony and TV.

The fate of a citywide fiber-optic project will be in voters' hands on Saturday as Lafayette, La., residents go to the polls to decide on a bond offering that will fund the project.

The city of 116,000 residents known for its vibrant Cajun culture has been planning to build its own fiber-optic network for more than a year. But local phone company BellSouth and cable operator Cox Communications have challenged the city-owned utility, which plans to build and operate the network.

After a legal tussle earlier this year, a special election was called to decide whether or not the city could issue $125 million worth of bonds to fund the project.

If Lafayette is successful in winning support for its network, it could help rally citizens in the 14 states where municipal networks have already been banned or limited, said Joey Durel, president of Lafayette Parish.

"What the cable and phone companies do a lot better than provide service to customers is work politicians," he said. "Unless towns like Lafayette get moving, I'm afraid that more states could pass laws limiting these kinds of networks. If this referendum passes here in Lafayette, I think we'll start to see some states undoing those laws."

Lafayette isn't the only city that has faced resistance from incumbent phone and cable providers when it wanted to build its own communications network. City officials across the country including some in Provo, Utah; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Philadelphia also have faced strong opposition from local phone and cable companies when they proposed building their own networks.

These cities view building their own network as a way to bring their citizens faster broadband connections at cheaper rates, narrowing the so-called digital divide. But the Bell phone companies and cable operators argue that government intervention in their business is not justified and say they are far better equipped to operate complex and far-flung data networks.

"We believe Lafayette is already well-served by Cox and BellSouth," said David Grabert, a spokesman for Cox.

Millions of dollars have been spent lobbying state legislators and fighting court battles on both sides of the debate.

The issue has become so heated in recent months that two separate bills have been introduced at the federal level. U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have introduced a bill that would guarantee cities the right to build municipal communications networks.

On the other side of the debate, U.S. Congressman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, recently introduced a bill that would ban cities from running communications networks that compete against private-sector telecom companies. Sessions, a former SBC executive, argues that local governments should not compete with private companies.

Durel said he is hopeful that the referendum will pass but that the city is unlikely to give up its fight even if the measure is voted down.

"If we happen to lose this vote, we'll regroup and see what our options are," he said. "The project won't be dead, at least not for me."

Cox's Grabert would not specify what his company's next move might be if the referendum passes and the city moves forward with its plans to build the network.

"We agree that the community should have an opportunity to weigh in on the decision," he said. "And regardless of what happens, we'll still provide the same quality service we always have."