EATEL, a cable, internet and phone service provider, was granted a franchise agreement by the Metro Council on Wednesday ending weeks of debate over what barriers to enter the market would be imposed on the Gonzales-based company.
At the same meeting, the council approved a new map for East Baton Rouge Parish’s council districts.
Since August, the council has debated approving a franchise agreement for EATEL that would allow the company to begin building the infrastructure to eventually provide service and compete with Cox Communications and AT&T.
Several council members have taken issue with the fact that EATEL’s initial contract did not include a build-out requirement, like the one in Cox’s contract.
Build-out requirements generally insist that a company guarantee it will eventually serve all customers in an area, rather than just cherry-picking profitable areas.
EATEL, and the Parish Attorney’s Office, have argued that recent Louisiana and federal laws have been enacted discouraging the use of build-out requirements, because they can create unreasonable barriers of entry.
AT&T, which was granted a franchise agreement in 2008, was not required to have a build-out agreement in its contract, but Cox, which was the initial service provider in the parish and is the current market leader, agreed to one before recent state and federal laws were passed.
On Wednesday some council members asked EATEL officials if the company would consider adding language to its contract stating that it would not avoid inner-city and low-income areas.
Assistant Parish Attorney Bob Abbott said federal laws also forbid companies from discriminating in areas based on income. But he advised the council against language that would force the company to offer services in specific areas.
“It’s a private business. You can’t force them to spend money if there’s not going to be a return on investment for them,” Abbott said. “But they can’t avoid low-income neighborhoods.”
Other council members argued that it was inappropriate for the council to ask for mandates already included in federal laws.
“How can you sit up here and say that it’s not good for EATEL to come to Baton Rouge? We will get more choices, prices will go down. We don’t need to mandate anything,” Councilman Chandler Loupe said. “We ought to send EATEL a Christmas present and say, ‘Thank you for coming into this parish.’ ”
Councilman Trae Welch made a motion to accept the franchise agreement, but to add language that repeated federal laws stipulating that EATEL could not discriminate against providing service based on income levels.
The motion passed, 10-1 with Councilman Scott Wilson dissenting. Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison was absent.
NEW DISTRICT LINES: In other business, the council unanimously approved new parish council districts that will apply to Metro Council members elected in 2012.
The new map addresses the 27,000 person population increase since the 2000 Census. It aimed to equalize the population in each council district with a goal of 36,681 people per district. The map is subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The shifted council districts will affect voters who may find themselves in different districts represented by a different council member. The new district lines could also affect people who will be running for a council seat in the fall 2012 election.
INSURANCE COSTS: Both council votes to approve a 3 percent increase in city-parish employee health insurance premiums and to defer the item two weeks until the administration could develop a plan to cover the costs, failed.
John Carpenter, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the administration will put the item back on the agenda for consideration, but does not think any more concessions can be made.
“We thought the change to 3 percent (from 5 percent) was very much a compromise,” Carpenter said. “I don’t know how we can find additional funding. We’re already using more one-time money to pay for a recurring expense than we’d like to.”