City Hall Buzz blog: Library Board unveils awards, votes on 2015 officers _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- The new Main Branch library on Goodwood Avenue, which opened January 15, 2014.

East Baton Rouge libraries will not be laying down new high-speed internet lines in the near future.

Leaders decided not to pursue the project due to the cost of breaking their existing contract with Cox Communications, which has a termination clause the library board's vice president on Thursday called "draconian" but which the company's vice president called "industry standard."

The library system had investigated whether to participate in part of the FCC's E-Rate program in which the federal government picks up about 85 percent of the cost for schools and libraries to lay down fiber.

Ideally, the program could turn those sites into communication hubs that private companies can build off to continue spreading high-speed internet to businesses and homes. In the short-term, the aim is to provide faster internet access at centers of learning, and the schools and libraries own the physical lines, though they may receive service from a private internet service provider.

However, the libraries would have had to sign a new contract with Cox to make the change, and the company requires customers who break their contracts to pay the full remaining amount.

The library system pays $16,490 per month for service but receives a 70 percent discount through E-Rate. Library Director Spencer Watts told the board the system has about two years remaining on its current contract.

Because of the "restrictive termination clause," the cost to terminate the existing contract and start a new one "would not be beneficial enough to merit going to another solution right now," he said, though he praised Cox as "responsive and responsible."

Board Vice President Logan Leger, expressed disappointment in the decision not to pursue the E-Rate program.

"I was extremely excited about this prospect," he said.

Leger was critical of Cox and cautioned his colleagues to be weary of signing such an "unreasonable" deal in the future.

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Leigh King responded by saying the company's deal is not unique, and it must make a return on its investments. The vice president of Cox Business Louisiana said the company is providing good service for the libraries at present and is poised to continue to do so.

Despite having ownership, laying down new fiber may actually have cost the libraries more in the long term due to how the E-Rate system works, but the change would provide a higher level of service, Watts said. The full cost for such a program is unclear because the attempt was abandoned. 

Leger and Watts expressed concern that the E-Rate program may not be available when the current contract ends in two years if President Donald Trump's administration makes changes at the FCC.

"Some of the options that are available may have disappeared by then," Watts said.

Board President Jason Jacobs asked library staff when they plan to prepare for another run at the program. Watts said they will revisit the issue next year to give more time to make a decision accounting for the existing Cox contract and the E-Rate application.

The library director said they simply did not have enough time to make a decision this time around. The library system began the process last summer but faced delays. They put out a request for proposals, but by the time responses came in, there were just five days before they had to decide whether to re-apply for their existing E-Rate subsidy.

Cox responded to the RFP, as did Southern Light, Hunt Telecom, Eatel and AT&T.

E-Rate has been a topic of great concern across the state. In March, school leaders were shocked when only 11 of Louisiana's 69 districts signed on to collaborate with the Board of Regents to bring subsidized fiber to schools.

The effort would have been overseen by the Board of Regents' Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, of which Leger's father is executive director. Due to the lack of interest, the Board of Regents decided not to move forward.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.