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Neighboring Cities, Other Entities Weigh Partnering With Gainesville To Improve Internet

CCG Consulting President Doug Dawson presented the results of a nearly 200-page report in front of the Gainesville City Commission on June 20. (Joseph Hastings/WUFT News)
CCG Consulting President Doug Dawson presented the results of a nearly 200-page report in front of the Gainesville City Commission on June 20. (Joseph Hastings/WUFT News)

Gainesville’s bid to seek partners for building a municipal broadband network is getting mixed initial reviews, with officials from surrounding cities expressing either a willingness to collaborate or hesitancy – at least until they have more details.

Representatives for the Alachua County Commission and Alachua County School District said those entities are open to such a partnership, but they also want to learn more about the plan first.

High Springs Mayor Linda Jones said she was unsure if her city could contribute enough funds.

“That’s a lot of money,” Jones said, referring to a telecommunications consultant’s assertion that it could cost between $116.7 million and $213.5 million, depending on where the fiber is built.

“They may not charge us – the city directly – but somebody is going to pay for it,” she added. “We would have to look at it carefully as to what expenses it would be for us.”

The Gainesville City Commission voted last month to pursue partnerships with neighboring municipalities – as well as the county, the school district, the University of Florida and Sante Fe College – in its quest for cheaper and faster internet for local residents and businesses.

“This partnership will be an important contribution to the effort,” Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe wrote in a letter sent recently to leaders of the potential partners.

In the letter, Poe said additional information is required to know what factors would impact service and rates and or create more opportunity and equity for all constituents involved.

“Analyzing and answering these key questions will require further resources, possibly including critical investment in public education, more in-depth engineering estimates, and planning and budgeting for operational readiness to ensure we can implement world-class community broadband service,” the mayor wrote.

He ended by asking the recipients to express interest “in helping to further invest in our efforts to understand the implications of expanding broadband service in our shared communities.”

At a city commission meeting on June 20, CCG Consulting President Doug Dawson presented the findings of a monthslong analysis that found, while it is feasible for Gainesville to build its own fiber network, the city would have to deal with obstacles in the process. Dawson’s study looked at four different potential service areas: the Gainesville city limits, the rest of the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) service territory, the urban reserve and surrounding cities.

Dawson said bond financing for a broadband network would be necessary to pay for the initiative. That alone caused the commission to hit the pause button and seek partnerships.

As Poe stated in his letter, the city staff has until October to look deeper into state laws concerning broadband expansion by the city, and to consult with bond counsel while also seeking new funding possibilities. The commission also wants two surveys conducted: one would focus on market research to better define a pricing structure for broadband internet service; the other a digital divide study to see what price points would achieve the greatest reach.

While several representatives in surrounding cities are interested in the initiative, Mayor Iris Bailey of Archer – where GRUCom, the all-fiber-optic network operated by GRU, exists in its city hall – said she is not entirely on board with the potential network. Like Jones of High Springs, Bailey wants to know more before agreeing to collaborate with Gainesville.

“It’s not something that sounds appealing to me,” Bailey said. “If it does come down the pipe, it’s something that we would need to research and look at.”

And in what may be an unspoken sentiment shared by those in other cities, she added: “If it’s owned by Gainesville, that means we’re going to be, again, Gainesville customers.”

Waldo also has GRU in its city hall, and the service is available in its library as well. City Manager Kim Worley said Waldo could potentially be interested in partnering with Gainesville.

“The council would have to hear it, know what the costs are and those type of things,” Worley said. “But anything they (Gainesville) do to offer better things for our citizens, of course they (Waldo officials) would be interested in, if it’s affordable.”

Worley said she will have the letter in hand at the next Waldo City Council meeting on Aug. 13.

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said his city had a study done about two years ago to look at improving internet access for residents. Although the city could not create a broadband network itself, Marlowe is willing to collaborate with Gainesville to fix internet problems in Newberry.

“The one commodity in this day and age that no one can get enough of is data,” he said. “It’s a continual uptick of how much we want to consume online. So, if we can partner with the city of Gainesville, then the city of Newberry would be very grateful.”

Hawthorne Mayor Matt Surrency said he’s had informal discussions with Gainesville District 4 Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos about improving broadband for his city’s residents.

“We’re definitely interested in it, because it gives us more opportunity out here,” Surrency said. “It allows us to be connected and decreases that digital divide we have, especially in eastern Alachua County.”

The county commission is open to exploring all options, said Mark Sexton, the county’s communications and legislative affairs director.

“This day and age, citizens are at a great disadvantage if they don’t have access to have high-speed internet,” Sexton said. “I know our board is supportive of moving forward with whatever effort it takes – be it the federal, state, local, private sector. Our board wants to be part of that conversation and is supportive of the effort.”

Jackie Johnson, public information officer for the Alachua County School Board, spoke positively about Gainesville and the school district potentially working together on the initiative.

“Certainly, internet access is an important one,” Johnson said. “For all of us.”

Poe also wrote to Charlie Lane, the University of Florida’s chief operating officer. Spokesman Steve Orlando said UF would await a partnership proposal to see “if anything can be done with broadband going forward.”

Attempts by WUFT News to reach representatives at Sante Fe College and the city of Alachua to learn of their interest in the potential broadband partnership were unsuccessful.

Poe said in an interview that high internet prices faced by constituents across north central Florida necessitate the evaluation of any potential solutions.

“That is really holding many people in our community back: our young people, our students, our businesses,” the mayor said. “But we also need to make sure we consider all the risks and take action that is in the best interest of our residents.”

Joseph is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.