Woodland Park retreats in local Internet war – Rick Langenberg

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A temporary time-out has been declared in a growing fight between the city of Woodland Park and the main local Internet provider over new proposed regulations dealing with infrastructure work along public streets.

Following a marathon meeting that nearly extended until midnight last Thursday, the Woodland Park City Council voted 4-1 to delay the adoption of several new laws that industry leaders contend could have terminated the operations of Peak Internet and killed the future prospects of super-fast, fiber-optic Internet service throughout the region, which offers five-fold increases in speeds offered by traditional telephone outlets. The hearing attracted a huge crowd, consisting of many Peak Internet employees and their supporters, including representatives from Park State Bank & Trust.

The city had proposed several new laws, aimed at developing a more uniform system for doing work along public rights-of-way, such as digging and boring in the city streets and doing work that affected Woodland Park’s infrastructure, utility lines and that of many residents. City officials contended that the new laws would protect its public rights-of-way and its infrastructure and provide a more equitable system for a variety of Internet and communications providers. However, Peak Internet proponents contended that the cost of complying with the new rules would put them out of business and have a negative impact on the region.

“We need to get this right,” said Woodland Park Mayor Neil Levy, following several hours of deliberation. “This is a broader issue,” added Councilman Bob Carlsen.

The council agreed to revisit the issue on Oct. 15. As part of this compromise, Peak Internet won’t submit any permit requests, until the details get worked out regarding the new rules.

But these pleas for a delay didn’t sway Mayor Pro Tem Carrol Harvey, who cast the dissenting tally. “This is not about Peak Internet,” blasted Harvey, who feared that the city was adopting a policy of favoritism with Peak Internet. She argued that the new rules were aimed at protecting the city’s public streets and rights-of-way and wouldn’t put a burden on private companies. “This is not an anti-Peak Internet ordinance.”

However, the attorney for Peak Internet, Teri Scott, argued that the company was handed a spree of new changes in the rules, including a provision for jail time if certain violations occurred, just prior to the meeting. “These are significant changes,” said Scott.

Scott and many pro-Peak Internet supporters expressed concern over why the city was so obsessed with passing the new public rights-of-way administrative laws so quickly. She contended that company was being put at a competitive disadvantage, when these rules didn’t apply for some of the work done previously by CenturyLink and other competitors.

Protecting Our Investment
Through most of the evening, city officials, including attorney Erin Smith, Public Works Director Bill Alspach and Utilities Director Kip Wiley, conducted a lengthy and extensive technical presentation. They maintained that the new rules, capped by a 24-page ordinance, were necessary to protect its infrastructure and investment. Many of the rules were targeted at contractors digging up streets, doing underground boring operations and trenching, and making cuts on pavement and sidewalks.

The rules were comprised of a variety of new fees and regulations for complying with new standards. Smith maintained that the proposed regulations aren’t that unusual for municipalities in Colorado. She and other officials noted that the city has to grapple with a limited staff and wanted to make sure that work done in public rights-of-way occurs with the same rules for every communications provider. They also noted that the city must brace itself for an increase in demand for Internet and communications services. “This allows the city to force people to adhere to standards,” said Alspach.

The council appeared to agree with the basic concept of the new ordinances.

Levy explained to the crowd that the council supports local businesses. “We are not pulling the plug on anyone,” said the mayor. “We want things done the right way in the right-of-way.”

“All we asking is that if they (an Internet of communications provider) make a mistake in the right-of-way, they fix it,” said Councilman Noel Sawyer, who expressed surprise that the new rules and fees would have such a negative impact on Peak Internet. “‘Is there something we should know about?” questioned Sawyer, in hinting that possibly a private agenda was involved.

But proponents of Peak Internet, which started a major fiber-optic expansion project in Teller County, disagreed with this analysis. Scott stated that the company wasn’t that concerned about the new fees, but has significant problems with the costs associated with complying with the new rules. “There is a domino effect,” said the attorney, who asked that the company be given an opportunity to have more direct negotiations with the city staff. “We would like to continue that conversation.”

Peak Internet owner Jayson Baker has estimated that the new rules would add more than $250,000 in the company’s costs to complete its fiber-optic expansion work. This work is already about 25 percent complete.

Why so fast?
During last week’s hearing, many customer supporters pleaded with the council to delay any decision and stressed the importance of Peak Internet to the community. Public comment, though, wasn’t permitted until about 10 p.m. during the evening of the hearing.
“It may go dark,” said resident Martin Guth, in outlining a scenario without Peak Inernet. “See what would happen if you pull the plug on that. It may become too expensive.”

Other residents, such as business owner Kristyn Cline, emphasized the bonus Peak Internet has provided to the community in setting the stage for home-based businesses and offering quality, and super-fast Internet service.

One of strongest pro-Peak Internet presentations came from Brad Spivey, of Park State Bank & Trust, which has helped fund the project. “This is a multi-million dollar expansion,” said Spivey, who noted that other major Internet providers aren’t jumping into the local arena. And he urged the council to consider the economic impacts of its decision. He said that if the cost of “compliance is too high,” then Park State and other creditors would be forced to shut the door on the company’s operations. “We just close the door on that line (of credit) that is funding the project,” said Spivey.

When Peak Internet approached Park State about assisting them in funding their expansion, he stated that company officials were presented with a set of regulations that didn’t present any new, tougher compliance rules. Now, he suggested that the city was changing the rules of the game in mid-stream.

“Creditors do not like uncertainty,” concluded Spivey, who received a strong ovation for his comments.

Spivey’s comments appeared to have an impact of several council members, including Carlsen.

Carlsen said he wanted to see Peak Internet succeed, comments that raised the ire of Harvey. She suggested he may have a conflict of interest. She continued to stress that the new rules had nothing to do with Peak Internet.

With the midnight hour approaching, Levy finally urged the council to delay any decision and to revisit the matter in two weeks. That way, he believes city officials and Peak Internet representatives may be able to craft a truce. In turn, he asked that Peak Internet put a hold on any permit requests.

“We will work with you, if you work with us,” said the mayor.