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Plan to run fiber optic lines along greenways has legal hurdles

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The city is looking at wringing greenbacks out of its greenways, possibly making them accessible to fiber optic networks to bury cables alongside the hiking and biking trails.

But at least some of the potential arrangements could pose legal problems and dissuade telecommunications firms from offering proposals, according to an industry trade group.

A request for ideas issued June 16 envisions scenarios that could include franchise arrangements, rights-of-way leases and revenue-sharing concepts.

For its part, the city hopes to lasso cash to help offset the cost of maintaining and expanding its roughly 60 miles of greenway trails in Marion County.  

To the extent a more robust fiber network could improve broadband service, the city could also benefit from additional economic development.

“We’re really at the exploration stage to just find out whether there is even any interest in this,” said Kurt Fullbeck, an assistant to Mayor Greg Ballard.

Responses to the city's request are due by July 30.

But utility companies are wary over litigation that erupted over the last decade involving rights of way use. One case involved the city of Gary's attempting to charge millions of dollars in fees to AT&T’s Indiana unit for occupying public rights of ways it had used for decades.

The telecommunications company ultimately prevailed after an Indiana Supreme Court ruling in its favor.

Municipalities retain the right to impose certain fees for managing a public right of way on a non-discriminatory basis but are blocked from issuing certain types of leasing rights.

“We think that it’s a nice offer, a nice thing the city is attempting to do. But in terms of payment of lease rates we have some issue with that,” said John Koppin, president of the Indiana Telecommunications Association.

Koppin, after reading the city’s request, said: “I think they would have a problem legally.”

That’s not to say the city couldn’t fashion something creative that addresses legal concerns. Koppin said he didn’t immediately know what corridors of the city’s greenway network could potentially be popular to telecommunications providers looking to fill a gap in service.

For years, Indianapolis has been ringed by numerous fiber networks. Companies have been trying to close so-called last mile gaps that exist between buildings and the loops that rely on slower, less-capable copper cables.

Some of the ideas have been down in the gutter—literally. In 2001 the city, under Ballard predecessor Bart Peterson, invited CityNet Telecommunications to deploy fiber optic lines through the city’s sewer system, which linked additional buildings to the fiber loop for voice and data.

Whatever, if anything, the city can structure around its greenway system to open it to telecom access, “the biggest challenge now is we don’t’ have the perception we’re tearing up greenways,” Fullbeck said.

“We have to make sure everybody can still enjoy the trail.”

The fiber lines could provide benefits to users such as the ability to transmit security camera images to better monitor trails.

Ballard has been a proponent of expanding the greenway system for uses such as walking and biking. In the last two years, he directed construction of six new miles of trails. Five more are planned in 2011.

The recent request left the door open to other uses.

“The city is also interested in hearing alternative scenarios for the use of greenways space, and would encourage firms to submit alternative scenarios, other than a fiber optic network.”


 

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