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Lakeland, Fla., Weighs Feasibility of Fiber Optic Broadband

Five of the city's seven commissioners said they would consider creating a publicly owned and operated Internet utility, depending on the results of an upcoming financial analysis and risk assessment.

by Christopher Guinn, The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. / May 6, 2016
Gigabit Internet supporters turned out in force at a rally supporting Chattanooga, Tenn.'s FCC petition to overturn a state law that restricts the city's ability to expand its high-speed broadband network. Shutterstock

(TNS) — LAKELAND — If the City Commission decides against starting a publicly owned Internet service utility, it won't be because of a philosophical disagreement with the idea, commissioners agreed Wednesday.

Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs and Commissioner Don Selvage sought consensus from their colleagues following a brief discussion of the "gigabit" issue, in which the city would leverage its existing fiber optics assets to improve broadband connection speeds in the city.

"It's a philosophical argument nationwide," Selvage said. "I don't want staff to do all the work if philosophically there is no way we will make this a (public) utility."

National business groups have fought the expansion of municipal broadband at the state and federal level. A representative from the industry-backed political advocacy group Florida TaxWatch attended the last fiber optics discussion, and Bright House Networks hired a court reporter to record the meeting.

Five of the seven commissioners said they would consider creating a publicly owned and operated Internet utility, depending on the results of an upcoming financial analysis and risk assessment.

Commissioners Phillip Walker and Bill Read did not join their colleagues.

Read later told The Ledger he wanted to see the results of the report before making a decision. He said his preference is for the city to seek a partnership with a private company, but will remain open minded.

A final report by the city's broadband consultant, Magellan Advisors, is expected within the next two months.

"I'm trying to be patient and waiting for the report," Commissioner Justin Troller said, but "I think we should own it … I'm already convinced."

Presented with a list of options that could improve broadband speeds in Lakeland, "it's been my observation that people want to jump to the (public owned and operated) option immediately," Selvage said.

"I think we're on the right path but we have to be patient because people want to go immediately to that (public) option and I'm not sure we have a consensus," he said.

Commissioners instructed Terry Brigman, the head of the city's Information Technology Department, to look for a new territory to run a pilot program.

An earlier attempt at defining a test area quickly grew in size and cost. Based on the figures provided by Magellan, that pilot area relied on razor thin conditions for success, earning a thumbs down by Finance Director Mike Brossart.

"There's some caveats and qualifications that you could frame it that would make an all-city utility more palatable," Wiggs said.

A smaller downtown test area, primarily focused on downtown businesses, is a likely target region, as is Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, where Airport Manager Gene Conrad said interest would be strong.

For the time being, the commission will wait.

"I think we need to finish the Magellan report," Commissioner Jim Malless said, "then we need to sit down and have the big discussion about whether we're going to do the test — and then if we're going to own the test."

And, he said, "we need a business plan before we do the test … The key element is voting on the business plan."

The commission will hold another broadband workshop in the future. Depending on the outcome there, the commission could include funding for a broadband.

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

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