Othello to review fiber optic ordinance after contentious meeting

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OTHELLO — The fate of high-speed Internet in Othello hung in the balance on Monday as the city council decided to review city rules that require all new communications lines in the city go underground.

The council agreed to review the ordinance after Noel Communications, which provides high-speed Internet services over fiber optic cable to mainly business customers in Othello, applied for a variance to string more fiber on telephone poles and expand its service.

Jim Schuler, operations manager for Yakima-based Noel, was asking for a blanket variance to string more wire in Othello, but added that the company would only use existing telephone and power poles, and would not extend above-ground fiber in new developments or places where the utilities are already underground.

“We want to expand fiber in Othello,” Schuler said.

The matter, however, was contentious, with the city council debating the request for nearly an hour, first rejecting the variance in a 4-3 vote, then rescinding its rejection, and finally approving the company’s request in another 4-3 vote.

“I don’t want variances,” said council member Genna Dorow. “I don’t want to make business hard in the city, but if it is, we should look at the ordinance rather than grant the variance.”

“The spirit behind the ordinance is to get the wires underground, not to keep adding to it,” said council member Corey Everett.

Schuler presented a list of five businesses that have requested high-speed Internet services, all of which would pay significantly more for that service if Noel Communications had to bury all of its fiber optic cable.

“The businesses of our city will foot the bill of the ordinance we have, and make it cost-prohibitive to do business for them,” Schuler said.

Council members also acknowledged that the original ordinance, which was intended to promote the development of underground Internet, has largely failed, and left much of the city without high-speed access.

“You need to fix the problem,” said resident Bob Carlson. “98 percent of this city does not have high-speed Internet for most of its residents. If the poles are already there, what difference does it make to hang one more line?”

After approving the variance request, the council agreed to review the current ordinance at its Nov. 12 meeting.

“We need to come to the council with a motion for a new ordinance so we don’t have to keep approving these variances,” said council member John Lallas.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com.

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