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Lakeland, Fla., Pilots Fiber Optics Internet Service at Regional Airport

The airport was identified as a lower-risk alternative to an earlier discussed pilot program in downtown and surrounding residential areas that was considered too risky by the city's finance director.

by Christopher Guinn, The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. / May 26, 2016

(TNS) -- LAKELAND — Businesses at the Lakeland, Fla., Linder Regional Airport could be the first connected to a city-owned and operated fiber optics Internet service as part of a pilot program, commissioners agreed unanimously Tuesday.

The city staff will also price out other elements of a broadband plan, including an expansion of Surf Lakeland, its free wireless Internet service, and will prepare a request for private providers to propose a partnership with the city to bring faster broadband speeds to Lakeland.

The estimated highest price for the pilot program and the other items approaches $2 million. There may be state and federal grants available for the airport portion, which would be the majority of the price.

The broadband items could be included in the 2016-17 city budget, which will be approved in September. On Tuesday, the commission met for a strategic planning session that frames its desires for the next budget.

The airport was identified as a lower-risk alternative to an earlier discussed pilot program in downtown and surrounding residential areas that was considered too risky by the city's finance director.

Whether the city ends up building an Internet utility, "the investment we make at the airport will be with us much longer term," City Manager Tony Delgado said, since the city owns those properties and leases them to businesses.

But as it was presented without a residential component, some commissioners questioned the validity of the airport as a true pilot, saying it wouldn't accurately represent the risks of operating a consumer service.

"At the end of the day, the residents are going to be the bulk of the operation," Troller said. "I think there has to be a residential piece in the pilot."

IT Director Terry Brigman said a residential pilot program could be launched at a later date, as the equipment purchased to install fiber optics lines to businesses could be used in neighborhoods.

Starting with the airport adds a year's wait to achieving the best outcome Troller said, since presumably a residential pilot wouldn't happen until the following year.

Concurrently, the city will seek out private providers to explore how the city could leverage its existing fiber optics network to bring higher speeds to Lakeland.

Delgado recently met with representatives from Charter Communications, the company that purchased Bright House Networks, and will soon meet with Frontier Communications, the company that purchased Verizon's FiOS network.

"Those conversations are really preliminary," Delgado said.

But, "laying the foundation, we are looking for three things. A, access; B, affordable access; and C, impacting the digital divide we believe is in our community."

There is a fourth goal, Troller responded, a municipal broadband utility could make the city money, offsetting the tax burden.

Troller also opposed reaching out to private providers for a potential partnership, saying a deal would benefit providers at the cost to consumers, "and I don't think we'll realize the return on investment our community's going to require in 20 years."

By proposing a partnership, "I think sets us up for the easy way out."

Commissioner Jim Malless also opposed seeking a partnership while simultaneously building a pilot program, saying it could end up being wasted effort and dollars.

The time to put out feelers is now, Commissioner Edie Yates said, while there is a risk to private providers that a municipal Internet service could erode their local market share, but before a pilot program could provide lessons that a public Internet utility is untenable for Lakeland.

"I think this is the opportune time to go out and see what the private groups will do," she said." All we're really trying to do is get Internet access at an affordable price and right now we don't feel that's the case in the city of Lakeland."

"I think they had an opportunity to put their best offer on the table in the many years they've been in our community," Troller said.

Malless and Troller ultimately agreed to the multi-item proposal when their colleagues agreed to include a residential component to the pilot program. A location has not been identified.

Commissioner Don Selvage, the chairman of the commission's broadband committee, recently attended a broadband summit in Kansas City.

From that he said he realized it was a national movement, and that Lakeland is well-positioned with its existing assets: Lakeland Electric, which would run any future broadband utility, and 330 miles of fiber optics already installed.

"The more I listened to that the more I realized we are doing the right thing in the city and taking small bites at a time instead of jumping in all at once," he said.

"We've got to stay engaged," he added, "but I believe we need to educate our citizenry to create the demand, which is by attacking the digital divide, by educating people and working with schools.

"Justin (Troller) may be right, the answer may be municipal broadband, but I don't think we have the knowledge to take that step yet."

In the coming months the city will receive a final report from Magellan Advisors, its broadband consultant, on several strategies the city could pursue and the related costs.

©2016 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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