Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Telecom plans air in Lebanon

Business model, advisory board among options

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — The city's latest attempt to bring its telecommunications system under control will likely mean hookup fees for all newly built homes, and possibly even new phone service for them by December.

        “But that's going to take diligence on the part of council and staff,” Councilman Mark Flick said.

        As Mr. Flick's finance committee prepares a business plan for expanding the system, other council members are considering a citi zens advisory commission.

        The unusual city-owned system, completed two years, has cost Lebanon $10.5 million, Auditor Greg Dixon estimates — most of it borrowed. That includes only cable television and high-speed Internet access.

        From the start, phone service has been central to the plan. Officials would like to reduce the cost of calls from Lebanon to Dayton and Cincinnati.

        Other likely services include automated meter reading and Safe City technology, in which fire alarms would instantly transmit to the fire department.

        The finance committee is devising a plan to show the

        costs and payback of adding features to the system.

        “To do one piece of the puzzle and not deal with the total would be totally irresponsible,” Mr. Flick said.

        Phone service has more profit potential than cable and Internet, he said, because it is more necessary.

        The problem is that adding more services will require more investment. Phone connections for each home cost more than $2,000 apiece, City Manager James Patrick said — or $14 million if all 7,000 existing houses received the boxes at once.

        That's not an option, officials agree. Instead, Mr. Flick's committee is looking at charging builders to add the technology to new homes as they are built.

        He doesn't think higher fees will dissuade people from moving to Lebanon: “I see (telecom) as an amenity that in the long term will be very attractive.”

        In addition to the boxes, it also would take about $1.8 million in system upgrades to kick off phone service this year, Mr. Flick estimated. The city would need to spend an additional $2 million in the next five years as homes are added.

        Councilwoman Amy Brewer, however, said before council makes any more decisions about telecom, she wants to create a commission to look at it and make recommendations. She will introduce the proposal at today's meeting.

        “The puzzle pieces are not coming together,” she said. “A lot of people are doing a lot of talking, but the big picture doesn't seem like it's coming together.”

        Mr. Flick opposes starting a commission, saying telecommunications needs to be run like a business.

        “I just see it as another possible political arena that would slow down anything that happens,” he said.

        The idea, however, has at least two other supporters on council: Ben Cole and James Reinhard.

        “It's unfortunate the (citizens) commission wasn't set up before the system even started two years ago,” Mr. Cole said.

        Mrs. Brewer agreed.

        “City Council has a lot of power, a lot of responsibility,” she said. “A commission could validate some of the things we are doing.”

        City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. today at 50 S. Broadway.


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