Legal bills mount as Louisville defends 'Google Fiber' ordinance
Louisville Metro taxpayers have spent nearly $165,000 so far on outside lawyers to defend a utility pole ordinance passed more than a year ago at the behest of Google Fiber despite few signs that the super-fast Internet service will be installed here anytime soon. On Tuesday, lawyers for the city and for telecommunications giant AT&T will square off.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Louisville Metro taxpayers have spent nearly $165,000 so far on outside lawyers to defend a utility pole ordinance passed more than a year ago at the behest of Google Fiber despite few signs that the super-fast Internet service will be installed here anytime soon.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the city and for telecommunications giant AT&T will square off in U.S. District Court in Louisville. The question: whether Metro government had the authority to enact a so-called “One Touch, Make Ready” ordinance in February 2016.
The Louisville law allows for new telecommunications providers like Google Fiber to move and rearrange existing providers’ equipment on utility poles.
In other words, Google Fiber contractors could rearrange the wires belonging to AT&T and cable company Charter Communications as they install Google’s equipment instead of waiting for AT&T and Charter to schedule their own crews to do the work.
Louisville officials say the policy minimizes disruption on city streets and sidewalks as one crew can do the work instead of two or three. But AT&T and Charter worry about damage to their equipment and service outages.
Judge David J. Hale of U.S. District Court in Louisville will preside over an oral argument scheduled for Tuesday morning as he prepares to rule on motions from AT&T and Metro government to decide the case.
Google still “committed” to Louisville
Google Fiber backs Louisville in the case, saying in a court filing Friday that it could “potentially” bring the ultra-fast Internet and TV service to Louisville.
But Google Fiber hasn’t begun building its network here 19 months after announcing that Louisville had been added to its list of expansion cities.
Last year, Google Fiber announced a “pause” in its plans for most of its expansion cities, though there has been no change in Louisville’s status as one of nine “potential” fiber cities.
“We are excited to bring fiber to Louisville and are still figuring out the path,” Google Fiber said in October in a statement issued through Mayor Greg Fischer.
Google Fiber reiterated that in a statement on Monday: "We remain committed to bringing Google Fiber to Louisville and are excited about the future. We’ve made great progress and we will have more details to share soon as we continue to work with the Mayor’s office to find innovative new ways to deploy superfast internet.”
Grace Simrall, the city’s chief of civic innovation, was traveling Monday and unavailable.
"The city continues to work with Google to bring the service to the city," Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Fischer, said Monday.
Councilman says ordinance is ‘good policy’
But regardless of whether Google Fiber enters the market, the utility pole ordinance is “good policy,” said Metro Council member Bill Hollander, who sponsored the measure.
For example, Hollander said, the “one touch, make ready” approach reduces the number of crews working on poles when cellular providers string fiber that connects to cell towers.
“We have more and more utilities working in our rights of way… We’ve got all kinds of fiber companies on our streets right now,” Hollander said.
Through March 8, Louisville Metro had spent $127,252 on outside lawyers with telecommunications expertise to defend the ordinance’s legality in the AT&T lawsuit, according to Josh Abner, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office.
The city has spent another $37,534 on contract lawyers in a similar lawsuit brought by Charter Communications, the local cable provider, in September 2016.
The county attorney’s office has hired Spiegel & McDiarmid, of Washington D.C., to defend both lawsuits.
Abner said the funds come from Louisville Metro's annual allocation to the county attorney's office, which has multiple funding streams.
In a decision dated March 30, U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson allowed Charter’s challenge to Louisville’s utility pole ordinance to continue, saying Metro government had not made a convincing argument that it should be dismissed at an early stage of the case.
Google: ‘Incumbent’ providers stall to delay competition
Louisville’s battle with AT&T has garnered national attention.
Nashville – where Google Fiber is already in service – passed a similar ordinance last year, also drawing a lawsuit by AT&T.
The Federal Communications Commission weighed in on Louisville’s behalf last fall, telling the judge that the city’s ordinance does not conflict the FCC’s pole-attachment regulations.
Meanwhile, over the last two years AT&T has wired much of the Louisville-Southern Indiana area for its own AT&T Fiber service, which offers speeds on par with Google Fiber.
In its brief filed last week, Google Fiber said Louisville’s ordinance allows for a “streamlined approach” that’s better for the community because it means faster network installation with fewer trucks blocking roads and sidewalks.
Otherwise, Google Fiber argues, it has to rely on “incumbent” providers like AT&T and cable companies to have their own crews make way for Google Fiber on the poles. And those providers are “not always eager to complete work that will allow rival entrants to offer competitive services,” according to Google Fiber.
In fact, it can take “months or even years” for Google Fiber to get access to a single utility pole because of delays in other providers moving their equipment, Google argues.
Google Fiber said one unidentified “incumbent attacher” in one of its fiber cities takes an average of 81 days to move its equipment to make way for Google’s service.
“When this occurs, the cumulative impact under the serial approach can be severe,” Google Fiber said.
In a court filing last year, AT&T argued that Louisville’s ordinance illegally deprives the company of the right to make sure its equipment is not damaged and ensure “continuity and quality of service to its customers.”