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By late spring of 2004, the District government plans on having about 80 percent of its DC-NET system up and running. The much-ballyhooed high-speed communications network, city officials have said, will pull city government into the modern world—and save some money, too.

But one private carrier says the District has been saving itself a little too much money. In a lawsuit filed in federal court on Nov. 14, Verizon Washington, D.C., Inc. accuses the city of helping itself to some of the company’s underground telecommunications ducts—which carry lines for phone, cable, and Internet service—in violation of free-market laws. Verizon, the largest telecom provider in the District, wants the city to start ponying up like a private company.

Most of the conduits in question are underground clay pipes, running parallel to the ground and between 4 and 16 feet below city streets. The oldest were built around the beginning of the 20th century and have occasionally changed company hands in the past 100 years. A large portion of the pipes currently belong to Verizon.

Other companies that need to use duct space typically lease it from Verizon. Accessing the system by manhole, they run their own smaller, plastic inner ducts—housing fiber-optic cables for phone or Internet service—through the pipes.

The city has been using Verizon duct space to build part of DC-NET. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Peter Roy says having its own telecommunications system will save the city $10 million annually. The District will need to pay a private company to run its large network, but the cost will be reduced by parties competing for the city’s business. “The pricing is very attractive,” says Roy.

Verizon and the District government initially butted heads in late 2001, when the city’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) informed Verizon that the city had a right to use Verizon’s duct space free of charge. OCTO cited a 1902 District statute, which allows the city to use space in private conduits, at no cost, to update fire and police communications.

“What we’re trying to do here is improve the public-safety infrastructure of the city,” says Linda Argo, spokesperson for OCTO. “We learned on Sept. 11 that we needed our own high-speed fiber-optic network….That’s why we’re in the conduit. We have a legal right to be in the conduit.”

But Verizon says the District is using the tunnels for much more than fire and police communications. Citing an August 2000 press release from OCTO, the lawsuit alleges that the District plans on providing phone and Internet service to “semi-governmental and private entities of the District’s own choosing”—among them the Convention Center, Penn Branch shopping center, and St. Elizabeths Hospital. Argo declines to comment on whether private companies could receive service from the District.

Verizon claims in the lawsuit that in January 2002, shortly after each side laid out its argument, OCTO ordered Verizon to give the city a free ride in its ducts, threatening to cut off Verizon’s access to its own ducts “unless it complied with the District’s ‘free conduit’ program.”

“The D.C. government [should] play by the rules that every other provider does,” says Harry Mitchell, a Verizon spokesperson. “The government is not doing that, and it threatens our network. It puts government at an unfair advantage over other companies.”

Furthermore, Mitchell says, the District is violating its contract. In April 2002, according to Verizon, the city entered a licensing agreement with the company, agreeing to pay for conduit space. The squabble intensified shortly thereafter, when, according to Verizon, the District repudiated the contract.

The dispute escalated this past summer. According to the lawsuit, a District contractor informed Verizon on Aug. 12 that the city planned on working in one of Verizon’s manholes with or without the company’s permission. Soon a rumor surfaced that Verizon had removed District cable from the Verizon network at Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown. The city’s contractor then left a voice-mail message for a Verizon official:

“Have a major problem here. Uh, I understand, uh, you pulled one of our cables out…. Uh, you’re not allowed to remove our cables. Now I’m going to send somebody down there to remove your cable before it’s terminated if that’s the way we want to play this game.”

Two weeks later, Verizon says, the parties came to an agreement: While they would try to settle the question over whether the city should pay for using the conduits, the District would at least notify Verizon when it intended to do work in the company’s network. Citing safety concerns, Verizon said that one of its representatives should be on hand whenever the city did work in its conduits.

But the geniality didn’t last. According to Verizon, the city began working in a Verizon conduit without permission by early November.

On Nov. 7, the day after the city finished constructing its own inner duct in a Verizon conduit, Verizon workers went underground and tore it out. Hours after Verizon removed it, city contractors went back underground and rebuilt it.

The following week, Verizon filed its lawsuit.

“We’re merely asking that D.C. government behave in the same fashion as other communications [providers],” says Mitchell. The city, he adds, is still working in Verizon’s ducts. CP