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Polk County, Fla., Looks to Invite Broadband Providers to Community

Gradually shifting away from the idea of building and selling its own Internet service, the community will seek out a private providers to make higher speed connections available.

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

(TNS) -- Polk County's elected officials need to join together to bring better broadband internet to the county or get left behind, Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs said Wednesday.

Though professional government staff members have long met on the issue, it's the elected officials that'll be writing the checks, Wiggs said at the annual Polk Vision mayors summit at Polk State College.

He encouraged the eight other mayors in attendance and Polk County Commission Chairman John Hall to go back to their governing boards to select a representative from their municipality to participate in the talks.

Some Lakeland business interests have been cool to the idea, Wiggs said, but he thinks the demand for faster connections will grow and Polk County could be left on the outside.

"There will be a technology company that needs 10 or 20 or 30 (gigabits), or whatever the number is ... and then there will be a person in the home that just needs to find affordable internet for their child," Wiggs said.

Lakeland's governing board has gradually shifted away from the idea of building and selling its own internet service, but will seek out a private provider to make higher speed connections available.

"We all understand the need for reliable internet, high speed internet," Polk City Mayor Joe LaCascia said. "We all know we need it and we want it. … The one part I don't understand is what you want from us.

"What can we do after all?" he asked. "This is a Frontier issue or a Verizon issue — they are going to get there on their own time schedule. ... How can we invite them or make it better for them or easier for them to come to our cities collectively?"

There are many expensive options on the path toward faster connections, Wiggs responded, but like "eating an elephant, you start one piece at a time."

As an example, Lakeland and Winter Haven have taken opportunities to include fiber optics into other infrastructure projects, a so-called "dig once" policy to reduce labor and construction costs.

"We don't have the scale Lakeland has, but we have been working on this a long time," Winter Haven Mayor Brad Dantzler said.

"What we did was any time we dig up a road we spent the extra money and put the fiber in," Dantzler said. "Now we're getting a return on investment."

Winter Haven now has 10 miles of "dark fiber" that is not connected to the outside internet, but can be used by local organizations needing fast inter-facility connections.

Lakeland has about 330 miles of fiber optic cable in place, originally built to help manage Lakeland Electric's power grid.

Ultimately, the wired cities could connect with one another for collaborative efforts, like supplying Polk County schools with lower cost connections, leveraging it to private providers or making the leap toward running its own publicly-owned utility.

"If you sit around waiting for Bright House or Verizon to do it, you're going to be waiting a long time," Dantzler said.

Bright House Networks was purchased earlier this year by Charter Communications. Verizon's local internet service was recently taken over by Frontier Communications.

One advantage of Lakeland's discussion on building a municipal internet utility is that the city is getting calls it wasn't getting before, Wiggs said, and incumbent providers have been taking a greater interest in the services Lakeland desires.

Strength in numbers, Wiggs pitched.

"We're going to work together, we're going to make sure were collaborating together, and we're going to make sure (County Chairman) John Hall pays for it," Wiggs added.

Not so fast, Hall responded.

Hall said 62 percent of the county is in unincorporated areas — the costs for the government could be billions of dollars.

"We'd be willing to talk but not willing to jump into this pool just yet," he said.

Wiggs said he hopes to have the committee formed by the end of the year.

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

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