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Lighting Dark Fiber Could Raise Legal Challenges in Columbia, Mo.

Government officials in Columbia, Mo., want to light and expand the city’s dark fiber infrastructure. But incumbent Internet service providers may raise unfair competition claims if the plan goes forward.

Columbia, Mo., wants to light its dark fiber infrastructure and create an open access network for businesses to use in the city. But its plan to do so may be challenged at the state level by incumbent Internet service providers that claim such a move would violate state law.

Kevin Czaicki, area operations manager for CenturyLink in north-central Missouri, testified at a Columbia City Council meeting on Aug. 18 that if the city went forward with its plan, it would violate the spirit of a state law that forbids local governments from competing with private businesses, according to the Columbia Tribune.

Under current state restrictions, Columbia can’t become an ISP and offer Internet service to customers directly, but it is permitted to use the fiber to connect its local government offices. In addition, other governmental entities, hospitals and schools may lease the fiber connectivity. Columbia can also use its dark fiber for “Internet-type purposes,” which is what the city is currently doing and proposing to do more of, according to Ryan Williams, assistant director of the city’s Water and Light Department.

Columbia will soon release an RFP for an outside firm to develop a business plan to expand the city’s fiber infrastructure as a way to both generate revenue and encourage competition for telecommunications services in the region.

Williams explained that Columbia wants to offer bandwidth that businesses and customers need. Currently Columbia leases its excess dark fiber, but the companies provide their own equipment to access the bandwidth. Under the new proposal, the city would provide the equipment to access the network and “peel off” the bandwidth -- use a portion of the network for Internet access.

Potential customers on the city's fiber network could include local Internet service providers and may free-up bandwidth for a variety of other businesses in the local area.

“That will allow us to potentially condense customers and manage customers on our fiber system that will allow areas where we currently have bottlenecks to open up,” Williams said. “This could make our system available to more people than we currently have.”

Patrick Lucey, policy program associate with New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in an email to Government Technology that Columbia’s approach isn’t novel. Although he didn’t have any specific examples to point to, he noted that lighting up dark fiber and leasing it is something other communities have done in the past.

Christopher Mitchell, community broadband expert and director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, scoffed at Czaicki’s claim that Columbia’s open access network plan violated state law. Instead, he felt the move would encourage competition among ISPs that otherwise could not connect businesses and/or residents because they do not have access to the capital required to build a fiber network themselves.

“This will lower prices, improve services, and perhaps even encourage CenturyLink to invest more," Mitchell said, "because when faced with competition, it will have to improve its game to keep its customer base rather than relying upon [the notion that] its customers have no other real options."

Moving Ahead

Williams told Government Technology that the city hopes to select a consultant for the project by the end of the year. But he anticipates it taking “two to five years” to have additional fiber in the ground.

Columbia officials are meeting with incumbent service providers this week to discuss its forthcoming RFP. Williams explained that in the weeks following the city council’s vote, there was some “misunderstanding” between the city and incumbent providers on what Columbia wants to do with its fiber network.

As a result, Columbia invited all ISPs in the local area to come take a look at the city’s RFP process and what it seeks in terms of the business plan, staffing level, deployment areas and things that need to happen as it moves from a dark fiber provider to an open access network.

Williams was adamant, however, that the city would remain just the entity that lights the fiber. Columbia has no plans to be an ISP, he said. It just wants to provide the pipeline to allow others to provide additional services.

Despite the city’s intent, Williams admitted he’s heard rumors that some of the incumbent ISPs will be lobbying state lawmakers to tighten up the current Missouri statute that limits how active the city can be with its fiber network.

Mitchell said he felt Columbia needs to identify solid ISPs that will offer services on the expanded network in the future, and make sure to engage the public so they know what the plan is and what benefits they can expect to gain from it. He added that city leaders should also start strategizing about how to respond to potential legislation that would prohibit Columbia from lighting its dark fiber.

Columbia appears ready for the challenge, however. Williams explained that the city is “well aware” of the telecommunications issues between providers and local governments in recent years. As a result, Columbia has begun efforts to educate state legislators about what the city is trying to accomplish with its plan.

“We’re not intending to directly compete with the incumbent providers,” said Williams. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be additional competition that could be fostered by having us as the pipeline provider and making it open to other entities that may come in.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.