Voters approve citywide fiber project

Residents of Lafayette, La., vote to fund a citywide network to provide high-speed Net, telephony and TV.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Voters in Lafayette, La., on Saturday approved a bond offering to fund a citywide fiber-optic project, an issue that was the source of considerable friction during the past year.

Voters approved the measure 12,290 to 7,507, or 62 percent to 38 percent, according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

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 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 the city could issue $125 million worth of bonds to fund the project.

Fiber 411, the citizens group that opposed the project, characterized the loss as a victory.

"I think we won," Tim Supple of Fiber 411 told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser. "We started off wanting to get people the right to vote. We accomplished that. We tried to get people to understand the issue. We accomplished that, I hope. We won."

Lafayette's approval of the project 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. Rep. 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.