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Oregon town pushes high-speed plan

A small town in southern Oregon is moving full steam ahead with plans to become the well-wired city of the future.

A small town in southern Oregon is moving full steam ahead with plans to become the well-wired city of the future.

Ashland is a quaint college town with 19,000 residents, where neighbors greet each other as they stroll along Main Street. The town's claim to fame is its award-winning 63-year-old Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which attracts roughly 125,000 visitors each year.

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High-Speed Access: Pipe Dream or Reality?

But the town is making good on a $5 million plan to build out a high-speed network from its existing 12-mile fiber optic ring in an effort to connect schools, businesses, and citizens. The Ashland Fiber Network will offer high-speed Internet and data services, cable TV, and eventually telephone service, according to city officials.

Ashland's planned network is an ambitious undertaking, and some have questioned whether a small-town government should bet large sums on a virtually untested high-tech venture.

And although the city touts its service as offering locals more choice, it could end up being the only cable TV game in town if it manages to push out the local incumbent, Falcon, through its bundled services.

But Falcon, for its part, says it is ready for the competition.

"We're going to be very competitive," Ron Hren, divisional vice president for Falcon in the Northern California, Southern Oregon region, told CNET News.com in an earlier interview. "Our cable system is in the upper percentile for state-of-the-art cable systems in America."

The city recently entered into an agreement with the K-12 schools to build a local area network, according to city administrator Mike Freeman. The See special feature: Main Street goes high tech city's network also will provide the schools with a 10 Mbps Internet connection, and eventually the schools will be able to get phone service through the same line, Freeman said.

In addition, Freeman said the city is in the process of forming partnerships with local Internet service providers to offer residents high-speed Net access. Though residents will be able to keep their current ISPs if they want to, Ashland's partners will offer the cable modems users will need, along with repairs and services, Freeman said.

The city expects to begin offering consumer service in June. It already has about 20 business customers; Ashland's business plan called for about 30 to 35 business customers, but it will "far exceed that," Freeman said, adding that "well over half" of the city's current customers were not among those in the original plan.

The residential service will cost roughly $25 to $30, along with a $75 installation fee if the home is not wired for cable, Freeman said. Those prices do not include cable television service, which has not yet been priced. Businesses pay between about $650 and $2,000 per month, depending on the number of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses they require and their connection speed, Freeman said. Ashland will be able to offer speeds from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps, Freeman added.

Though Freeman touts the fast Net access as the most interesting part of the venture, its success hinges upon citizens signing up for cable TV service.

"Cable revenue is key to this project," Freeman said in an earlier See special feature: Much ado about fiber optics interview. "The data is the cool stuff and that's what we think the real advantage is, but the cable TV revenue is absolutely critical to pay this thing off."

The Ashland Fiber Network idea came from the need for the city's municipally owned and operated electric utility to prepare for deregulation, which is expected to hit Oregon following a state legislature vote this year, according to Pete Lovrovich, director of Ashland's electric utilities.

Other cities and towns are involved in projects similar to Ashland's, with varying degrees of both involvement and success. In Kentucky, for example, the Glasgow Electric Plant Board provides electric power and operates a "high-speed, city-wide communications network" that provides cable television and audio service, computer networking, and data services for the electric system, according to Glasgow's Web site.