Town talks about fiber optic plans

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 16, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Getting cheaper and more reliable &8220;cable&8221; television, phone and Internet service, video conferencing and more over one fiber optic cable sounds good.

But the question Vidalia officials debated Tuesday night is if the town itself should get into the fiber optic business itself, from laying the cable to billing customers.

Brent Atkinson of Natchez-based Advanced Micro Technologies pitched it like this to Vidalia aldermen at their Tuesday night meeting:

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AMT would study the feasibility of laying fiber optic cables throughout Vidalia. AMT would also do an engineering study necessary to apply for state and/or federal funds for the project.

The studies would cost the town nothing, and neither would be laying the system if the state and federal funding didn&8217;t come through, Atkinson said. &8220;We only get paid if you get the funding,&8221; he said.

The contract AMT asked aldermen to approve Tuesday would only authorize the company to do the studies and obligate the town to apply for federal and state grants or loans.

In cases where towns have not received government funding, some have issued bonds to pay for the cost, which Atkinson estimated at $20 million to $35 million.

AMT would train Vidalia&8217;s existing utility crews to lay the cable. The town would maintain the cable and could either subscribe people to the services and/or lease space on the cable to other communities.

Atkinson estimated the system could pick up 7,000 subscribers, between Vidalia residents and residents of other towns through which the cable would run on its way from a bigger city. He estimated Vidalia could net $500,000 a month from the system.

He also said having a fiber optic network in place could help attract high-tech industries.

There were some concerns, however.

Town Manager Kenneth Davis said the estimate of 7,000 subscribers sounded high.

Town Attorney Jack McLemore questioned what would prevent bigger companies from installing their own networks through Vidalia and stealing its business.

&8220;And this is a huge project,&8221; he said, adding that for aldermen to approve the contract &8220;with only an hour&8217;s discussion is not the proper way to do business.&8221;

In the end, aldermen voted to table the matter until April to give them a chance to study it. And Mayor Hyram Copeland said he, Davis and McLemore could travel to Lafayette in the meantime to see how that city&8217;s fiber optics project is coming along.