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November 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

City, Comcast settle dispute City, Comcast settle dispute (November 19, 2004)

Municipal fiber-optic network, Emergency Alert System will be ready in six to eight months assuming City Council approves deal Monday night Municipal fiber-optic network, Emergency Alert System will be ready in six to eight months assuming City Council approves deal Monday night (November 19, 2004)

by Bill D'Agostino

A fiber-optic network that will digitally connect numerous local schools and cities will likely be ready to go live for the next school year, assuming a settlement with cable giant Comcast is approved by the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night.

The fiber-optic network, known as the "I-net," will let one teacher broadcast real-time lectures to students at numerous area schools, among other possible innovations.

Also thanks to the proposed settlement, local cities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park will soon get access to a system allowing them to override television shows to send important announcements in the event of a local emergency.

The I-net and the Emergency Alert System were supposed to have been in use by July 2003.

But Comcast did not, according to Palo Alto city officials, meet all of the technical requirements for the terms of the "franchise agreement," which grants the company use of the local airwaves in return for giving the cities various fees and benefits. Comcast disputed the allegations, putting the I-net and Emergency Alert System on hold while officials negotiated the newly announced settlement.

Palo Alto was the lead negotiator for all the local agencies, which also includes East Palo Alto, Atherton and Menlo Park. The deal allows all sides to avoid a potential lawsuit.

David Ramberg, the cable franchise manager for Palo Alto, estimates it will take six to eight months after the deal is approved Monday night for the I-net and the Emergency Alert System to be ready for use.

As part of the settlement, Comcast will compensate the area schools and cities with a $175,000 grant to help schools set up the I-net and new fiber optic lines and digital equipment, estimated to cost around $800,000. One term of the franchise agreement that Comcast was accused of violating was not constructing enough fiber lines to various buildings.

For not meeting the terms of the agreement, Comcast -- which purchased the franchise from AT&T in 2002 -- faced a possible $1.6 million fine. Due to the "uncertainties" and cost of litigation, city staff is recommending that the City Council accept the negotiated settlement, according to the city manager's report.

Currently, the cities and schools buy telecommunication networks to connect their buildings, paying hundreds of dollars a month for each line. The I-net will be free, have much greater bandwidth capacity and connect schools outside of the individual districts.

"I think down the road we'll learn a lot with it," said Marie Scigliano, the director of education technologies for the Palo Alto Unified School District, which currently pays for T1 lines to connect its schools.

In addition to remote lessons, teacher training could also be broadcast over the network, Scigliano noted.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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