City manager: Vidalia must closely review fiber optics proposal

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 22, 2006

VIDALIA &8212; The town will look carefully before it even thinks about leaping into the fiber optic cable business, City Manager Kenneth Davis said.

&8220;We&8217;re going to take a real close, hard look at this and determine &8212; before any feasibility study is authorized &8212; whether or not it is remotely financially feasible,&8221; he said.

Call it a feasibility of feasibility study.

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In Tuesday&8217;s meeting, the Vidalia Board of Aldermen heard a proposal from Advanced Micro Technologies to allow it to conduct a feasibility and engineering study as first steps in getting Vidalia into the fiber optic game.

AMT estimated the city could sign up 7,000 subscribers and net in the $500,000 per year range from the endeavor from providing cable, high-speed internet and phone service.

While Davis called the possibility &8220;intriguing,&8221; he said there were a lot of considerations to be made.

Chief among them is the number of potential subscribers.

&8220;We only have 2,200 households,&8221; he said.

Then there&8217;s the initial expense of setting up a fiber optic network. AMT told the board that their feasibility and engineering studies would cost the town nothing if federal grant money didn&8217;t help pay for the system.

But, when it is all said and done the expense isn&8217;t in the studies so much as the infrastructure of setting up a fiber optic company in city hall.

There&8217;s the 72 miles of right of way the town would have to secure in order to tie into the nearest network, which is in Alexandria.

The cable doesn&8217;t lay itself, of course, and there&8217;s programming to negotiate, technicians to train &8212; &8220;this isn&8217;t your normal utility service&8221; &8212; none of which comes cheap.

And even if some grant money did appear &8212; very iffy these days &8212; a sizable chunk of the expense would probably fall on the city.

And then, assuming Vidalicom got up and running, there are the typical growing pains associated with startup businesses.

&8220;Most systems incur tremendous losses in the first few years; that would have to be addressed,&8221; Davis said.

While Vidalia is currently under contract with Cable One, it is non-exclusive, making the town free to get into the business if it so chooses.

That doesn&8217;t mean the town is rushing into anything, however. Davis said he is following the progress of places such as Lafayette, Bristol, Va., and Cedar Falls, Idaho as they work toward starting their own fiber optic companies. He said he is also tracking New Smyrna Beach, Fla., the last of which is in the process of selling the system it started.

No matter what comes of his research, the public will have ample opportunity to speak out on the matter.

From public hearings and meetings to a citywide referendum, nothing will be done without the public&8217;s consent.

&8220;It&8217;s not something that&8217;s going to be jumped into,&8221; he said. &8220;This is going to take a lot of investigation.&8221;