Macon proposes fiber-optic phones for government-related groups

jgaines@macon.comNovember 23, 2013 

Macon wants state permission to open up its internal fiber-optic phone network to government-related agencies, at least those with offices near existing or planned city fiber lines.

The city sent an application to the Georgia Public Service Commission on Oct. 25 for a competitive local exchange carrier license, or CLEC. A related form says the city wants authority to serve business and residential customers, in addition to internal government service.

But Mayor Robert Reichert said the idea -- which originated with him -- is only to let government-related agencies make use of a telephone switch bought years ago under former Mayor C. Jack Ellis.

“As we consolidate the governments and are looking to include other governmental partners, Planning & Zoning or the transit authority or whatever ... and we charge them money to use our switch, we have to have a local carrier exchange license,” Reichert said. “That is what I contemplate. I certainly am not trying to compete with any other public exchange carrier.”

Speaking to local legislators Nov. 12, he said the telephone exchange unit now installed in the city’s Terminal Station can be used in an “entrepreneurial” fashion, by getting a CLEC license and opening the fiber-optic network to government-connected entities. Those entities would pay enough to cover the actual costs, he said.

The city’s application apparently drew a nervous reaction from Cox Communications, a local provider of phone service through its cable network.

Dan Slagle, Cox’s director of operations for Florida and Georgia, alerted The Telegraph to the filings. He attached articles and reports describing several cities that tried to build their own Internet and phone services for general public use -- and had fallen into debt. Some of them were later sold to private communications companies at a loss.

Washington Post technology writer Brian Fung reported this fall that cable companies have poured millions of dollars into defeating advocates of government-provided Internet and telecom services, or filing lawsuits against them when those systems were approved.

On Friday, Slagle deferred comment to Cox media spokespeople.

Mary Bowman Hampton, Cox’s communications director, emailed The Telegraph a brief statement.

“Cox is aware of the City’s application to become a telephone provider,” she wrote. “We have filed a request to appear in the case so we can monitor the application throughout the process and make sure the Commission has the information they need as they review this matter. Cox plans to continue discussions with the city to explore potential partnerships to address the community’s communications needs.”

Hampton declined to answer specific questions about whether Cox objected to the plan, simply referring back to her previous statement.

Reichert said the city does not intend to compete with Cox and only wants to offer phone access, not Internet service.

“This shouldn’t be causing them the level of heartburn that it has,” he said.

According to Stephen Masteller, the city’s Information and Technology Department director, any phone service would grow out of the city’s need to run fiber-optic line to its public safety locations, such as fire stations. Any government-related offices on the way would be able to sign on, but there’s no intention of laying fiber into areas where the city doesn’t already need to go, he said.

“We would definitely have to beef up a little bit of our infrastructure, but not significantly,” Masteller said. “The cost should be very reasonable.”

That’s all that is under discussion now, and the city doesn’t have the staff to do anything much larger in scale, so Cox shouldn’t fear competition, he said.

But it is “contemplated” that somewhere down the road -- there’s no time line as yet for starting even the currently proposed service -- the fiber network could be opened up to some private businesses, perhaps as an incentive to move into areas like the Second Street corridor that Reichert wants to redevelop, Masteller said.

And sometime in the future, if city fiber runs through depressed residential areas, the city might make it available to people who already qualify for various subsidies on phone service, he said.

“If we could help some lower-income people reduce their phone bill, that might be attractive,” Masteller said.

But again, that service wouldn’t be an attempt to go after Cox’s profit centers; and though the city can set up the basic system on its own, Masteller would welcome any partnership a private firm offered, he said.

“Right now we’re just looking at taking care of what we have internally and some of our neighbors,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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