Lawyers debate use of city fiber optic lines

Centennial City Attorney Robert Widner, left, advocates in favor of the city’s 2G ballot question as opponent Matt Larson, an attorney for the telecommunications industry, listens. The Oct. 4 forum at the South Metro Denver Chamber was moderated by Villager reporter Peter Jones. Photo by Peter Jones

Centennial City Attorney Robert Widner, left, advocates in favor of the city’s 2G ballot question as opponent Matt Larson, an attorney for the telecommunications industry, listens. The Oct. 4 forum at the South Metro Denver Chamber was moderated by Villager reporter Peter Jones. Photo by Peter Jones

Centennial’s 2G will ask voters for permission

By Peter Jones

“Come on, baby, light my fiber!”

So pleads the campaign literature in support of Question 2G on this November’s Centennial ballot. If 2G passes, the city would be empowered to lease 48 miles of publicly owned fiber optic lines – currently used for traffic-signal operations and connecting public facilities – to cable and Internet companies. The arguably underused city asset has been valued at $5 million.

Two attorneys – one representing the city, the other representing the telecommunications industry – debated the wisdom of Centennial tangentially entering the cable and Internet sectors on Oct. 4 at the South Metro Chamber in a forum moderated by The Villager.

Centennial City Attorney Robert Widner characterized 2G as a matter of self-determination. He said passage would free the home-rule city from the constraints of a state statute that currently prevents municipalities from entering the telecommunications market, unless the city’s voters decide otherwise.

According to Widner, Centennial would not plan to compete with the businesses, but would instead lease its fiber optic lines on a nonexclusive basis

“The intent of the ballot question is to partner with private industry,” he told the room of Centennial residents. “What we hope we will see is a good deal of competition. … What we are hopeful for is that we’ll get some innovative ideas out of the business community to use our fiber network to provide you services.”

Although the campaign literature supporting 2G has promoted “More choice, faster speeds and lower prices” as potential outcomes of its passage, Widner was more conservative, especially when it comes to claims of lower prices.

“It’s impossible to say,” the city attorney said. “In other cities, the experience is the service levels are higher. The prices might not be lower … [but] it could be [Internet speeds] 200 times faster.”

Matt Larson has his doubts about that. The attorney with the firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, has represented interests in the telecommunications industry.

He took the opposing position at the forum, arguing that passage of 2G might not be necessary if Centennial truly intends to simply lease its network to the industry, as Widner described.

“As voters, it’s a matter of figuring out, what is that the city wants to accomplish,” he said. “If the goal is simply to enter into small-scale public-private partnerships, can you do that within the existing language of the statute? I think that’s a possibility.”

Larson said he was concerned that a future City Council might use passage of 2G to justify taking things a step further and potentially competing with private industry.

“That’s the relevant point,” the attorney said. “This City Council has a vision for how it wants to carry out the authority it would obtain via this ballot measure, but this City Council will not always be in place.”

Widner said the word “direct” service was removed from the ballot question to ease such concerns about Centennial – long known for its contracted services and so-called “virtual” government – venturing into competition with private industry.

“It was never the intent of the City Council to provide that kind of service,” he said. “It would not be in our interest to create the new City of Centennial Comcast, for lack of a better name, with hundreds of Larry the Cable Guys coming to your house. That is not what this city is all about.”

Still, Widner conceded that a theoretical move into direct competition might still be technically legal under 2G’s language.

When asked why Centennial voters, who may be more concerned about price and service levels, should care about a corporation’s interests in fending off potential competition, Larson said cable and Internet should be left to the professionals.

“You got to consider who may or may not be in the best position to provide you with the best service. Is it private capital that has operations all over the country and all over the world, or is it a municipality?” he said.

Larson said any such foibles of inexperience could lead to taxpayer liability.

“If there is a failure – and I’m, not saying there’s going to be, I don’t mean to be threatening, it’s just a fact – then the citizens are potentially on the hook,” he said.

Widner said he would not expect the city to make a profit from any entrance into industry, but would most likely charge for network use at cost.

“Our goal is competition and to use our asset. Our goal isn’t to make money,” the city attorney said.

Mail-in Election Day is Nov. 5.

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