(Herald-Sun (Durham, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 26--DURHAM -- City Council members have OK'ed a contract that helps clear the way for AT&T to begin installing gigabit-speed Internet service in some parts of Durham sometime in 2015.
The 5-0 decision didn't come without some skepticism, expressed most forcefully by Councilman Don Moffitt.
"All of this is vaporware until we start seeing connections," he said, adding he was "reminded of 'The Simpsons' episode where they came in and sold the town a monorail."
But because the deal doesn't give AT&T an exclusive service area, or require any monetary investment by the city, council members saw little reason not to go ahead.
"AT&T is the organization that is ready to bring forward some offerings to the community," Deputy City Manager Wanda Page said. "We will be providing equal access to Google or any other company similarly situated."
The deal grew out of the efforts of a consortium of six cities and four universities to recruit companies who can provide Internet service that's much faster than the standard sort of broadband connection.
Eight responded, not counting Google, which is separately evaluating the possibility of installing its own fiber-optic network in Durham and other Triangle cities.
Time Warner Cable has acknowledged being among the eight firms that answered the N.C. Next-Generation Network consortium's call for proposals. The identities of the remaining six remain undisclosed.
Some "maybe have dropped out, others may still be in" negotiations that could lead to deals similar to AT&T's, City Manager Tom Bonfield said.
Moffitt's questions came in part because some residents have voiced a suspicion that AT&T's is mostly conducting a public-relations exercise, without the intention of making the sort of large financial investment a true gigabit-speed network would require.
Company representative Walter Wells, however, said AT&T is redirecting spending from other programs and intends to build a network in Durham from scratch.
"We're already in the engineering and planning stages for Durham in anticipation of being able to move forward," Wells said, adding that AT&T intends to expand service in 100 North Carolina communities.
What the company is getting from the city is access to public rights of way and a promise to expedite the regulatory review of its cable-laying plans.
Moffitt said elected officials "have to be prepared" for complaints about the company's above-ground switchgear, which has sparked appearance-related controversy elsewhere in the country.
He and Councilman Steve Schewel also asked how big a burden the expedited permit reviews will place on the Public Works Department.
Its director, Marvin Williams, said that's currently an unknown. He added that it's possible some department employees will have to work overturn or put other business to the side to handle the new load.
Moffitt said permit delays already cause some applicants "a lot of heartburn" and indicated he's worried those delays might be more common as officials process AT&T's requests.
"Sometimes when we speed up processes for some things, I wonder why aren't they always speeded up," Schewel added.
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