I-Town Debate

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It's been promoted as bringing technology into the 21st century. But existing cable and internet providers see it as government-backed competition.

Several governments across West Virginia, including the Wood County Commission, already have approved agreements with the Virginia-based broadband company I-Town.

Parkersburg City Council Tuesday night, however, decided to send to the Public Works Committee an agreement which would have allowed the city to be part of the program.

I-Town CEO Keith Montgomery sees his company as a means of bringing competition for broadband services to the area, by making available fiber optic technology allowing numerous cable and internet services to set up through that technology, but existing companies trying to set up that technology on their own see it differently.

"They are setting up a separate entity to provide video services, cable television, telecommunications services, and internet services," says Ken Wilkinson, Broadband Services Director for Community Antenna Service. "So they will be a competitor to any cable company or any phone company in this area."

Wilkinson points out, however, that it isn't just the issue of competition. he competes with both Verizon and Charter Communications for internet provider services. But he notes his company and his current competitors both worked with cities for franchise agreements. Cities he believes will now be partners with yet another competitor.

"What this essentially says is, I'll give you a franchise agreement if you'll partner with me," Wilkinson says. "And if you give me all the concessions, I'll give you 10 percent of any revenue I'll make. To me, that's not fair."

Keith Burdette, President of the Wood County Development Authority, notes the technology I-Town is planning to install is similar to that which another opponent of this agreement, Verizon, is installing in larger cities.

Burdette told City Council Tuesday that having a seat on the advisory board, which is part of the agreement, would be an advantage for Council and the city.

"You could use your representation to lower your rates you charge consumers, or you could use it to buy a fire truck," Burdette said. "That's what boards are all about."

But the local president of the Communications Workers of America says there are disadvantages to competing companies who essentially have developed their services on their own.

"We're not saying there shouldn't be competition. Competition is good for everybody. But make it a fair playing field. When you've got a government subsidized competitor, it's not fair to the incumbents who have already been there."

While he says he has no position on i-town's involvement with the city, Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said Tuesday the system it's planning to build should bring more competition to the area, even among existing providers.