Articles

Could City-Run Internet Answer a Florida Community’s Call for Service?

One Lakeland commissioner thinks so. But worry over buildout costs may prevail.

by Christopher Guinn, The Ledger / October 18, 2017

(TNS) -- LAKELAND — The city is denying its residents world-class data connectivity, affordable rates and a non-tax source of government revenue by neglecting to pursue the creation of a city-owned and operated, ultra-high-speed internet service provider, Commissioner Justin Troller said Friday.

He said it can start with a pilot program focused on meeting three types of goals for what could ultimately be a citywide fiber optics internet service:

  • To address the digital divide between the technological haves and have nots, the Parker Street neighborhood would be included in the pilot network.
  • To show its residential viability, the pilot would include the 10-acre property on the northeast edge of the downtown district that may become a 306-unit, multifamily neighborhood.
  • The starter service could also include the "East Main Street" community redevelopment area, a segment of the city that has received significant focus and investment by the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Troller urged his colleagues on the commission to delay their earlier decision to forgo the public option in favor of a so-called "public-private partnership." The idea there is to leverage Lakeland's existing 330 miles of fiber optics to attract a partner willing to improve internet-service options in Lakeland.

Instead, the city should get an estimate for the cost of building a pilot program serving the areas he specified.

"We, Lakeland, are unique, we have a rich tradition of being leaders and being on the forefront of stuff," Troller said to critics of the estimated cost. "This is just another thing."

In the past three years, support for making a public service has dwindled from a cautious six-member majority to a single voice trying to keep the flame alive.

Those concerns still dominate.

The price of building the service, estimated at more than $200 million, and competition remain the stumbling blocks, Commissioner Don Selvage said.

"While we can all see the advantage of a public utility," he said, "there is the cost, and we are charged primarily with protecting the taxpayers' investments in this."

Also, "I'm not convinced we can go head-to-head with the private corporations providing private broadband."

A representative from Charter Communications, the company that owns the Spectrum internet service, attended the meeting.

Troller's pitch Friday, though ostensibly related to a recent broadband conference he, Selvage and Assistant City Manager Shawn Sherrouse attended, was also aimed at the city's soon-to-be elected leaders.

At least three commissioners will be stepping down from the board at the end of the year, and perhaps four — a majority. Seven of the 15 candidates for City Commission attended the special broadband workshop.

In January, Troller will be the longest-serving commissioner still on the board, but institutional interests will continue to cast doubt on the feasibility of the project.

Earlier this week, Steve Scruggs, president of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, published a blog making a case against building a public broadband service.

Scruggs concluded the piece saying his group, a private business-advocacy and business-recruitment organization, did not see any economic-development benefit to building the service.

Rather, based on the group's research and "our own experience over the past 30-plus years, companies continue to focus on real estate, incentives and talent when making relocation and expansion decisions," Scruggs wrote.

Troller responded Friday.

"We continue to talk about attracting high-skill, high-wage jobs," he said. "However some think giving away taxpayer money is the only way to achieve it."

©2017 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.