Florida Community Inches Toward Publicly-Owned Broadband

Commissioners say they would like to see a vote that would start measuring the costs of creating a fiber optics utility test area.

by Christopher, Guinn The Ledger / December 18, 2017
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(TNS) — LAKELAND — Commissioner Justin Troller indicated he will make a final pitch for the current city commission to take a step toward building a publicly owned broadband utility in Lakeland.

Four of his colleagues on the governing board — Mayor Howard Wiggs and Commissioners Edie Yates, Don Selvage and Jim Malless — have one official meeting remaining before the new group, elected in November and December, ascend to the dais Jan. 2.

For four years this commission has debated the broadband question, Troller said, and he would like to see it take a vote that would start measuring the costs of creating a fiber optics utility test area.

It's not clear yet what format Troller's proposal will take, but by engaging the gears of the professional staff it could set the agenda for the board and its new commissioners after they take their oaths of office.

"I felt this body should have been the foundation builders to the next commission," Troller said. "I don't know how my new colleagues are going to feel on this. I think it took us four years to get comfortable (from) educating ourselves on the issue."

Mayor-elect Bill Mutz and Commissioner-elect Scott Franklin have stated their opposition to building a public internet utility. Commissioner-elect Stephanie Madden has said she favors a partnership with a private company. Commissioner-elect Michael Dunn has been supportive of the public option.

Troller said he waited for a broadband task force headed by former Commissioner Keith Merritt and then Selvage to take decisive action on whether the city should build out its current fiber optics network to serve individual customers as a new, city-run utility.

Instead, the issue has lingered. The commission's majority position has been to find a private partner with which to work to utilize the city's existing fiber optics assets, but movement has been slow and expectations undefined.

Troller said Friday an upcoming search for a "public-private partnership" should be sidelined in favor of action toward testing the feasibility of the city building and operating its own service.

In October, Troller reignited the issue with a public presentation in which he compared building a public broadband internet service to the creation of Lakeland Electric, a cash cow for the city that pays for more general city services than the property tax.

Then, as now, he called for the city to start analyzing costs and geography to create a test area that would incorporate residential, business and low-income residential customers. This test area would determine the feasibility of taking the program citywide.

Wiggs said he thinks the political environment may have shifted in favor of building the public utility, especially as federal internet policy has become favorable to large telecommunications companies and state governments continue to restrict municipalities from building their own systems.

Opposition on the current commission from sympathetic voices like Wiggs and Selvage has focused on their unwillingness to risk the large capital investment necessary to start a service in a battle for market share against national companies like Frontier and Charter, the owners of FiOS and Spectrum, respectively.

But with that, Selvage especially has been vocal in his dissatisfaction with the companies' offerings and prices in Lakeland, especially as some cities across the country are benefiting from ultra-fast internet connections at lower prices.

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