A Clear Path?

LUS' bond sale could finally free it to begin its fiber-to-the-home project in July.

LUS' long-awaited bond sale for its fiber-to-the-home project should be complete by the end of the day Tuesday, June 12. Closing on the bonds will be June 28 and LUS should finally have the funds to move forward with the project by the first week of July.

Last month, Officials with LUS and Lafayette Consolidated Government met with bond rating agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's in New York to give a detailed presentation on the fiber project. LUS Director Terry Huval fielded a number of questions from the agencies on everything from state law and lawsuits affecting the project to the overall financial health of LUS, LCG, and the regional economy.

Louisiana state law provides LUS can only indirectly back the bonds on the project, through fair market loans to its new communications division. "We're plowing through a lot of new territory here," Huval says. "I don't know if there's been very many entities that have issued bonds for a communications system like this. So there's a lot of attention being given here."

At the end of the day, Standard and Poor's gave the project an A- rating and Moody's awarded an A2. Both ratings are only one step below LUS' regular utility bond rating of A and A1. But with bond insurance, purchased through XL Capital, LUS will still receive a AAA rating with investors. That translates into an interest rate slightly under 5 percent for the approximately $110.45 million in bonds LUS is selling for the project.

"We were very pleased with those results," Huval says. "We've got the best rating we could have hoped to have gotten out of this." He adds that the bond agencies spoke highly of both LUS' ability to handle large projects, such as the two new generating plants that were built on time and on budget, as well as the merits of the fiber initiative. "They commented favorably about our commitment and vision on the project," Huval says. "I think they also saw that this could be a very powerful thing for a community to be able to do."

LUS' bond sale faced multiple lawsuits related to the public utility's ability to back up the sale on behalf of its communications start-up. Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of LUS on the issue, allowing it to move forward with its bond sale. LUS first introduced its initiative to operate a citywide network offering phone, cable and high-speed internet to residents in 2004. City voters approved a measure to allow LUS the ability to issue up to $125 million in bonds for the project nearly two years ago, in July 2005. Huval says the legal delays, brought both by BellSouth and mysterious resident-opponent Elizabeth Naquin, have unintentionally helped the project in some ways. "Technology-wise and know-how wise, we now have a number of advantages as a result of the delays," Huval says. "There's a lot more experience that folks have and the engineering company we brought in, Atlantic Engineering, is already providing us a lot of insight."

This summer, LUS will work on preparing a bid package for construction of the project, which should be under way before the end of the year. LUS hopes to begin serving its first customers starting in 2009.