City settles lawsuit over fiber optics

A high court ruling is pending on a similar case with national implications.
Wednesday, September 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

A formal settlement that ends a lawsuit by CenturyTel against the city of Columbia should ease tension between the two over whether the city should provide fiber-optics service to local businesses.

The settlement, approved last week by the Columbia City Council, will suspend the issue until the U.S. Supreme Court reaches a decision on a larger, but similar case in its 2003-2004 session. The high court’s decision could affect the way many businesses nationwide choose their fiber-optics service and could decide whether cities would be able to compete as service providers.

In the local lawsuit, CenturyTel said the city violated state law by providing fiber-optics service to First National Bank. Under the settlement, the city will be allowed to continue that service but can enter into no similar agreements. The city would be able to enter other types of leases allowed by Missouri law, but would be obligated to notify CenturyTel so the company could raise any legal objections.

CenturyTel spokesman Don Neely said the struggle between the city and his company boils down to one of competition between cities and private telecommunications firms.

“The bigger issue is the ability of state legislatures (to allow) cities to enter the competition,” Neely said.

Fiber optics, or “dark fibers” as they are technically known, allow high-speed connections to the Internet and let groups or businesses establish local networks, also called intranets.

Even though the local lawsuit has been settled, a larger case involving the Federal Communications Commission and cities in several states is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Missouri Municipal League is challenging the state law that removed cities’ ability to provide telecommunications services to private businesses. The main cities the league represents in the matter are Columbia, Sikeston and Springfield.

“They provide electric, gas and water,” Bill Johnson, deputy director of the league, said of those cities. “It’s just another utility.”

Many public utilities across the country are providing fiber-optics service to local businesses, said Ben Johnston, electric distribution manager for the Columbia Water and Light Department. Johnston said it doesn’t cost much, and “we want Columbia to be a progressive city.”

CenturyTel and other telecommunications companies worry that cities can provide the service cheaper because they aren’t seeking a profit. “The city appears to be able to provide service at a lesser price,” Neely said.

While City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said he doesn’t think the city would compete heavily for fiber-optics customers, telecommunications companies don’t seem to want to take that risk.

Neely said the city is “jumping the gun” by offering its services to First National Bank.

Jim Stock, senior vice president at First National, said his company uses both city and CenturyTel services and plans to continue doing so. The city, he said, provides the fiberoptics necessary to link all eight of the bank’s Columbia branches — a service Stock says CenturyTel can’t match. CenturyTel, however, meets many of the bank’s other communication needs.

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Brandon Harper October 7, 2009 | 1:30 a.m.

I am a wisp that started highspeed wireless for a county in arkansas before centurytel decided to, was running good till they brought it into the county, local loop started having major downtimed while seeing customer base drop like flies, due to failure of local loop, I am looking for other wisp willing to start a lawsiut against them for interrupting service to gain customers. I am still running in the process of getting off of there local loop to avoid furure downtimes, they have managed to take about 300 customers while leaving bonded T1 down for weeks at a time. I am still at the moment having these isues with them with the logs and ticketts. the customer base left is for as long as I keep going they have taken all they can take from me, the customers left know what it was like dealing with there dialup before I came along and are staying, I have a location that has been almost down for 3 months depending on them for the loops.

(Report Comment)
Brandon Harper October 7, 2009 | 1:49 a.m.

Also forgot to mention they have refused to let me on the fiber to resolve the issue that has come up with the local copper loops failing. Black Fiber Verision owns some light some not that was completed in about 2001 to local exchange telco Centurytel.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2009 | 5:00 a.m.

Centurytel is now CenturyLink a much bigger company now.

The one thing I would not like about the City taking over all Internet is the potential for tighter restrictions on traffic. That is the worst case scenario about all of this.

With Centurytel there is not much if any restrictions to what a customer can do. MediaCom is well known for cutting off your internet with out any warnings at all and that could or might actually be the case if the City took over the local ISP provider slot.

Just like the City providing wireless on the City Buses just how restricted is that going to be and how well monitored?

The same goes for the City providing ISP services.

(Report Comment)

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