Vidalia can learn lessons from Lafayette

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 30, 2006

VIDALIA &8212; As Vidalia weighs the pros and cons of the fiber optics business, leaders don&8217;t have to travel far to find an example of what they can expect from the process.

Lafayette passed an ordinance last summer that authorized the city to sell $125 million in bonds with which to build a fiber optic network from which to provide its residents with Internet, telephone and television services.

This set Lafayette Utilities System, which provides the city&8217;s water, electricity and wastewater services, to become a telecommunications company as well, director Terry Huvall said.

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The way Huvall and other proponents saw it, if they wanted to step into the future of a fiber optic city, they were going to have to do it themselves.

&8220;In the early 1900s, only large cities were getting electricity,&8221; he said. &8220;Smaller places had to build their own.&8221;

One product of that is the Louisiana Electric Power Association, a group in which both Lafayette and Vidalia belong.

After doing their homework and a feasibility study, Lafayette leaders decided they had enough interest to make the investment work.

At close to 120,000 people &8212; in 45,000 households, the measure of preference in feasibility studies &8212; Lafayette has a pretty big potential market.

It also had a bit of fiber optic infrastructure already in place, courtesy of a mid-1990s upgrade to the telecommunications system that controls the 14 electric substations the city depends on for power.

&8220;Since the cost of the cable is relatively small, we put in more strands (of fiber) than we needed,&8221; he said.

The original plan was to use the excess capacity to provide municipal facilities with service and wholesale access to commercial providers.

The plan changed in 2004, when the city decided it could make the numbers work.

It&8217;s now 2006, and Huvall and city leaders still think it can work.

The residents of the city thought so, too, voting by a 62-percent majority to approve the sale of bonds to get the project going.

The vote was the result of a lawsuit filed by Bellsouth, which stands to lose business if Lafayette goes into the phone and data transmission business.

Bellsouth lost that suit but won (the appeal) of a second suit protesting the bond ordinance.

&8220;Instead of appealing to the (Louisiana) Supreme Court, we changed the ordinance,&8221; Huvall said.

The new ordinance passed the city council and is being advertised for four weeks before it can be voted into action.

&8220;If we can keep them from suing us again,&8221; Huvall said.