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Convention dials Qwest cliffhanger
The telecom giant has given Democrats the biggest cash pledge. But what it wants in return could prove dicey.
By Chuck Plunkett and Andy Vuong
Denver Post 
Saturday, December 2, 2007

The biggest pledged donation for the 2008 Democratic National Convention is the subject of continuing rocky negotiations as the result of a crosstown rivalry between two telecommunications companies.

Even before Denver won the chance to host the convention, officials with the city's host committee had secured pledges from Qwest and Level 3. Qwest's pledge of $6 million in cash and services is the largest promised donation.

For that pledge, Denver-based Qwest wants an exclusive right to promote itself as the telecommunications, broadband and data provider for the convention, according to numerous sources who asked for anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing. Broomfield's Level 3 isn't competing for exclusivity, but does want a portion of the contract. Both companies have invested millions to boost their fiber-optic networks in their race to win dominance.

Qwest sees an opportunity to promote itself as the provider of perhaps the most important infrastructure piece of the media-intensive spectacles. The company has a similar corporate presence and convention pledge in St. Paul, where the Republicans are staging their national convention.

But while the strategy makes sense for Qwest, it also makes sense for Denver's host committee officials to gather as many donations as possible as they work to raise the $55 million in cash and services needed to bring the Democrats to town.

To that end, the host committee gladly accepted a pledge of $1 million in video and data services from Broomfield's Level 3. Sources familiar with Qwest's contract negotiations say that offer is complicating talks.

"Like any contract negotiation, there are highs and lows," said Chuck Ward, president of Qwest Colorado. Ward did not discuss competition with Level 3, but addressed the talks with the Democratic National Convention Committee in Washington. Those discussions are to continue at a meeting this week in Denver.

"We've been very strong supporters for getting the convention," Ward said.

Contracts ahead of '04

Qwest expects that at least the cellphone component will be offered to a separate provider. But sources say the company is strongly objecting to Level 3's involvement.

Officials at the national convention committee declined an interview, but spokeswoman Natalie Wyeth said in an e-mail that talks with communications providers are much further along for this convention than for the event in 2004 in Boston. Wyeth said contract talks for that event didn't begin until the spring before it was held.

David Pasafaro, the president of the Boston host committee, said his city's experiences taught him that negotiations need to start earlier and be resolved quickly.

"It's not something that you can just pull off in a couple of weeks," Pasafaro said.

And the process adds a layer of complexity, said the Boston host committee's executive director, Julie Burns. Though it is the host committee's responsibility to find a provider willing to donate the telecommunications piece, it is the national party's job to hand out the exclusive provider contract.

Much ado backstage

In Qwest's situation, other unidentified telecommunications companies also are competing for the prize, sources said. And while Denver's host committee which already has received an undisclosed cash donation from Qwest advocates for the Denver company, it is the national committee that calls the shots.

Boston's Burns says it's a tricky situation.

"To me, if they're willing to provide $6 million, they have the right to ask to be the exclusive provider," she said.

Verizon donated $3 million in cash and services to Boston, Burns said.

New York-based Verizon was the primary communications services provider to both the Republicans' convention in New York and Democrats' in Boston in 2004.

Verizon issued a news release about the services it would render for those conventions just weeks before they took place. But Verizon spokesman Kevin Irland said the contract "was probably executed and signed far in advance of the actual convention."

Chuck Plunkett: 303-954-1333 or cplunkett@denverpost.com

http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_7612922