Google Fiber

Metro Council unanimously passed an ordinance Thursday night that could further entice high-speed Internet providers — such as Google Fiber, among others — to expand broadband infrastructure in Louisville, despite the opposition of Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and their workers with the local Communications Workers of America union.

The ordinance would streamline the process for Internet providers to install equipment on utility poles in the city’s rights-of-way and move other companies’ equipment while doing so. In the past, a company’s equipment could only be moved by that company, creating delays of up to six months for attachments to a single pole, with up to four different companies converging on it at the same time when they do so.

The administration of Mayor Greg Fischer pushed hard for the ordinance — with Louisville Forward chief Mary Ellen Wiederwohl making a rare appearance at the Democratic Caucus and Committee of the Whole meetings before the full council meeting to make her pitch — believing this was a crucial reform needed to entice Google Fiber to bring service to Louisville. Google announced last year that Louisville was one of its finalists to expand to next, which would make Internet speeds up to 20 times faster.

However, both Time Warner Cable and AT&T voiced objections to Metro Council and the mayor’s office this week, hoping to convince the council to amend or table the ordinance. TWC’s attorney wrote in a letter that the ordinance would deprive the company of its constitutional rights, permitting contractors not approved by TWC to move its equipment, and arguing that only the Kentucky Public Service Commission can regulate the terms and conditions of pole attachments.

AT&T also objected to the ordinance, saying it could disrupt service, as well as negate a contract with their employees in the Communications Workers of America union, which gives those workers exclusive rights to work on their equipment and poles.

Matthew Embry, the president of CWA Local 3310, addressed the Committee of the Whole meeting shortly before the council meeting, saying this ordinance would violate their contract and could result in job losses, as non-union contracts may now perform this work, which could also present safety and quality concerns. Other union members from the Louisville Central Labor Council were present at the meeting but did not come out for or against the ordinance, instead hoping a compromise would be reached.

In the Committee of the Whole meeting, Kentucky AT&T President Hood Harris distributed the language of an amendment they wanted to attach to the ordinance, which would require a 60-day prior notice to a pole user if a company wanted to move its equipment. Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, sponsor of the ordinance, told Hood this would negate the intent of the ordinance and was unacceptable.

Chris Levendos, Google Fiber’s director of expansion, was at each of the meetings on Thursday, telling council members the ordinance would make the process of expanding high-speed Internet throughout the city much easier, should they (or any other company) decide to come to Louisville. He also said that because AT&T owns so many utility poles in Louisville, they would need the partnership of that company and CWA workers to position their infrastructure on those poles.

Embry of the CWA responded by saying he would welcome a discussion with Google Fiber about unionizing their workers if they come to Louisville. Other council members stressed that the expansion of high-speed Internet infrastructure in Louisville would be a massive project, and such jobs would be more likely to increase dramatically.

Despite objections, Metro Council passed the ordinance by a 23-to-0 vote, eliciting cheers from the large crowd of supporters who stayed throughout the long meeting. One additional last-minute change was made to the ordinance, requiring any company that moves the equipment of another company to notify it within the next 30 days, and to pay for any damage that might have occurred during the process.

The council also passed an uncontroversial measure allowing an Internet provider to make one franchise agreement with Metro Government, instead of separate agreements with the many small cities in the county.

Mayor Greg Fischer praised the vote in a statement, saying it “puts Louisville one step closer toward becoming a Google Fiber city — and lays the groundwork for expansion of gigabit services by other providers. This was also an affirmative vote to grow the economy and jobs. I applaud Metro Council for approving this important step for our city’s future. I especially thank President Yates and Councilman Hollander for helping lead this effort to make Louisville a globally-competitive city.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]