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Forget the competition

Forget the competition

Whether the City of Columbia decides to — or is allowed to — lease some of its optical fiber lines to third parties reminds me of incidents during the 20-year struggle to bring cable television to Columbia that followed a languorous pace until July 22, 1977, the day the system finally went into operation. Cable TV here was originally designed to supplement the paltry troika of local channels by importing stations from Missouri’s two major markets. The selection later increased exponentially as hundreds of options snared from communications satellites became available. This marked the first time since the telephone company was allowed to affix some of its lines to city-owned utility poles that an outside entity — then Columbia Cablevision, now Mediacom — was allowed to sign a pole-attachment agreement to string its cables on the Water and Light Department’s infrastructure of utility poles.

Microscopic strands of glass, a development pioneered by the Corning Glass Works some 50 years ago, can transmit the entire spectrum of visible light ranging from ultraviolet to infrared over considerable distances. This highway of virtually infinite communications vastness — compared to the FM broadcast band, for example — came along just in time to accommodate the vast, cybernetically induced thirst for more capacity and higher Internet speeds.

Costs for fiber and the associated hardware including lasers have plunged. If you live in Columbia, fiber might already be in your neighborhood. CenturyTel, the successor to legacy telephone company GTE, has been weaving Columbia with webs of fiber for several years. Mediacom, the legacy cable TV outfit, has been close on its heels; now there many areas of the city where an embarrassment of fiber riches prevails: a choice of high-speed service from two competing firms. Here, too, is the irony that both firms offer giga-bandwidth Internet service while crossing aisles to invade each other’s original turf by providing telephone and video options.

Now comes the city with its municipally-owned fiber network, salivating at the prospect of securing another revenue stream as a boost in these financially challenged times. Columbia would like to lease its unused, or “dark,” fiber capacity to outside parties to directly compete with CenturyLink and Mediacom. Obviously, the city would like to feast on a number of huge accounts and get started with the University of Missouri and its medical complex. This reminds me of times more than 40 years ago when the cable issue was hopelessly stalemated, and it was suggested that the city build and operate the cable system, then called “CATV,” which stood for community antenna television. Voters later overwhelmingly rejected another scheme in which the city would own and operate a technically flawed “translator” system that would offer a modest increase in the number of channels residents could receive over the air.

Whether the city decides to compete with CenturyLink and Mediacom is up to the City Council. Maybe a court somewhere will have the final say. State Sen. Kurt Schafer has weighed in with a bill that would forbid municipalities such as Columbia from leasing its dark fiber capacity to outsiders where it would compete with legacy providers. This issue more recently has moved into at least one federal courtroom, and in a larger and more threatening way, the Federal Communications Commission recently decided to regulate the Internet much as it has done since July 1, 1934, for the legacy telephone and telegraph industries, at the same time forbidding efforts to curtail municipal competition with legacy providers.

The FCC’s reckless meandering into this forest of maliciousness against the Internet may already be docketed before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the appellate body that has jurisdiction over this quasi-judicial agency. Among the horrors to come may be efforts by the FCC to regulate Internet content much as is the case for conventional radio and TV broadcasters the agency has jurisdiction over through the licensing and renewal process.

As for the Columbia, the city has no business competing with CenturyLink and Mediacom or any other provider of Internet service for that matter. Allow them to continue to operate unfettered while pocketing the pole-attachment fees they remit to you. Let’s not fall into the pattern, to paraphrase comedienne Lily Tomlin, of, “We are the City of Columbia, and we are omnipotent” — because you are not.

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