Remembering Greg Palser
By Ed Parker
Greg Palser was a smart entrepreneur who pioneered the way to use public fiber-optic cable to expand broadband services to rural Oregon communities. He started an internet access company in Newport Oregon in the early 1990s. He understood the limitations of dial-up internet access and the benefits of broadband for rural economic development.
He started two broadband companies, one a fiber optic cable installation company and the other a communications carrier to provide broadband service. He was a key participant in setting Oregon legal precedents that allowed municipal governments and local entrepreneurs to provide broadband services to rural communities that monopoly telephone companies were unable or unwilling to provide.
He proved that entrepreneurial competition was vastly superior to established monopoly for achieving economic development goals.
His company, Coastcom, was the commercial contractor for Coastnet, which won regulatory approval to make public sector fiber optic cable available for commercial use and persuaded the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) not to regulate the lease of dark fiber.
Central Lincoln Peoples’ Utility District (CLPUD) transferred dark fiber rights to Lincoln County for economic development purposes. Lincoln County delegated the management of the fiber to the Economic Development Alliance of Lincoln County, a non-profit corporation supported by county tax dollars. The Alliance obtained grant funds sufficient for the electronics needed to light the dark fiber and contracted with Coastcom to operate the network to provide broadband service to local businesses.
That complicated path was not a smooth one. The Oregon PUC initially ruled that the Coastnet plan required both Lincoln County and the Alliance to be licensed by the PUC to transfer rights to Coastcom. Then, after opposition from major telephone companies, the PUC denied both license applications.
Rob Bovett, then a young attorney who was deputy county counsel for Lincoln City who now is legal counsel and legislative director for the Association of Oregon Counties, took on the challenge. He filed a court appeal to the PUC decision that, if granted, would have restricted the PUC’s discretionary powers. He then successfully negotiated with the PUC to settle the case by reversing their decision and granting the license applications.
Two telephone companies who didn’t want the legal precedent of allowing municipalities to compete with them appealed that decision. Rob won that court case. One of the telephone companies accepted that decision and became a Coastnet customer for dark fiber because they had run out of fiber capacity needed to serve one of their commercial customers on the Oregon coast. The other telephone company continued the appeal process.
The outcome was a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court that it was legal for Oregon municipal governments to become telecommunication service providers both within and beyond their jurisdictions. That legal precedent was the key permission needed for Oregon municipal governments to provide telecommunication services themselves or join public-private partnerships to achieve their economic development goals.
Along the way, Coastnet and a major telephone company also persuaded the PUC that a party leasing dark fiber was analogous to the seller of the electronic equipment to light the fiber and that neither supplier needed a PUC license for the transaction. That ruling permitted Coastcom to lease dark fiber directly from the CLPUD.
The path of early telecommunications entrepreneurs, like many start-up businesses, was not smooth. But Greg Palser had the smarts and the perseverance to succeed. His work in the 1990s made the path easier for governments and businesses that followed in his footsteps.