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Environmental fears put brakes on Net

The Internet boom has spurred massive construction of digital highways to carry voice and data. But just as environmental issues challenged automobile freeways, so too have these concerns dogged communications carriers.


Environmental concerns halt high-speed Net construction

By Erich Luening
Staff Writer, CNET
March 27, 2000, 4:00 a.m. PT

It was a head-on clash of worlds old and new: In the rush to lay high-speed Internet lines, Qwest Communications International was digging a trench for fiber-optic cables near a Native American burial ground in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The Native American Heritage Commission informed the state of California late last year that Qwest's crews were approaching sacred territory in Santa Clara County without having done the required research for cultural consequences. Although Qwest said it was in compliance with the law, the state issued a "stop work" order while it investigated the situation.

"I know many firms believe Indians are trying to keep projects from going forward. We're not," said Larry Myers, executive secretary of the commission. "In fact, we don't care about the projects. We just want our cultural resources respected."

The explosive growth of the Internet has encouraged companies to build sprawling digital highways using fiber-optic technology to carry the rush of high-speed voice and data transmissions. But just as environmental issues once challenged the nation's interstate automobile freeways, so too have these concerns dogged communications carriers.

The complications have been felt on either extreme of the industry, from telephone companies like MCI Worldcom to next-generation communications firms such as Qwest. Such companies have encountered opposition from environmental groups and government officials on both coasts for laying sections of their high-speed networks in environmentally sensitive areas.

MCI Worldcom, along with two smaller companies, is weighing plans to run hundreds of miles of ocean-floor cable through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as part of its huge underwater network to provide high-speed Internet service along the West Coast. The company says research findings should be completed within the next two to three months, but that could be just the beginning of a painfully long approval process.

Conflicts like these are as old as the telecommunications industry itself. Fishermen up and down the East and West coasts have long battled with phone companies running lines through disputed territory. But as the demand for We don't care about the projects. We just want our cultural resources respected. ever-faster Internet connections accelerates, government officials say they are becoming increasingly concerned that communications projects will run afoul of laws aimed at safeguarding sensitive areas.

Given the industry's projections for growth, those concerns are not likely to fade. According to Forrester Research analysts, business demand for network bandwidth will continue to double each year through the next few years. Total corporate demand in 2003 is likely to be about 12 times what it was in 1999, analysts predict.

Environmental groups say Qwest, in particular, has acquired a reputation for disregarding local and state environmental protection standards. "In their ads, Qwest acts like this ethereal thing of the future, when in fact they're another corporation ripping up the earth," said Joe Browder, board member of the Friends of the Everglades, a nonprofit environmental group in Florida.

In 1998, after workers were seen digging a trench in one of the most remote areas of the Florida Everglades, local environmentalists tried to meet with the company. They wanted the areas in question, mainly those in the Big Cypress Swamp region of the national park, to be returned to their original state.

"We wanted to start a dialog with the company to make sure they returned the disturbed area back to the way it was before they came," Browder said. "We also wanted to work with their executives and help set up a company policy for future issues similar to ours, but they refused to meet with us."

Fiber for miles and miles
Communications carriers are digging trenches across the nation, installing fiber-optic cables to complete high-speed networks.
Carrier Planned miles Miles installed Estimated cost
Williams 33,000 26,000 $4.7 billion
Qwest 25,500*** 25,500 n/a
Level 3 16,000 9,334 $13 billion*
Broadwing 18,000 17,000 n/a
Enron Broadband 15,000 14,600 n/a
Nextlink** 5,000 4,235 n/a
Global Crossing 16,000 14,000 n/a
* includes European, Asian and U.S. costs
** includes only metropolitan area networks. Nextlink intercity network is same 16,000-mile network operated by Level 3
*** includes all of North America

Source: Companies
Qwest representatives said they do not recall any request for a meeting, adding that the company came into full compliance with Florida's regulations according to various government agencies.

"We worked with local branches of state government in terms of restoration and bringing the area back to what it was before we came," company representative Tyler Gronbach said. "There was clarification of the plan after some confusion about where the state wanted us to dig. It was mainly a communication problem."

The California Public Utilities Commission is investigating allegations that Qwest violated state laws by failing to check for Native American cultural resource areas before starting work in Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Clara counties.

After suspending work in Santa Clara County, officials required Qwest to develop a construction plan consistent with state regulations before resuming construction. The utilities commission recently lifted the suspension after determining Qwest's compliance, but the investigation continues.

If the probe, which was opened this month, finds any violation of state public utility regulations, Qwest could face stiff fines. "Penalties for violating a commission order range from $500 to $20,000 per violation; each day of a continuing violation represents a separate count," California officials said in a statement.

Stressing the gravity of the case, commission representative Armando Rendon said: "The burial ground is where we are focusing our attention. The investigation will take some time, followed by an overview by a judge. If he thinks it's necessary, hearings could also be called for."

Qwest executives say the company has met its legal obligations. "We've been working extensively with the state for sometime now and are in compliance with what the state has asked us to do," spokesman Matt Barkett said.

Similar confidence has been voiced by rival MCI Worldcom in its own It was mainly a communication problem. environmental challenges. In defending its choice of a national sanctuary for its cable run, spokeswoman Linda Laughlin said: "We continually try to look for sites along the West Coast to run the line. We have several environmental research companies looking over the proposed site to find out if it is viable."

Research findings should be completed within the next two to three months, Laughlin said. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, however, is reviewing the plans to see if it is even permissible.

"We're waiting to see what the final plan is before we make any comment on the issue," said Steve Webster, chairman of the council.

Although MCI Worldcom's proposal is only in its infancy, critics say the very notion of submersing a line in a national sanctuary speaks to a lack of environmental sensitivity among large communications companies.

Aware of such concerns, Qwest says it is working to develop new environmental policy. "We have put together a program of guidelines to deal with environmentally and culturally sensitive areas," Barkett said.

To satisfy state requirements, Qwest is introducing a program to give each employee a two-hour training course on environmentally and culturally sensitive issues. The company has also hired Native American observers to help it steer clear of further controversies.

Environmentalists say they don't want to stop the progress of technology; they just want to see more attention given to the environment as high-speed networks proliferate to meet the seemingly endless demands of the Internet.

"No one is disputing the need to bury cable to further better communications," Browder said. "But there is a responsible way to do things."  

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