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Gainesville Residents Uncertain On City’s Quest To Build Its Own Internet Network

Anna Considine says accessing the internet at her home in southeast Gainesville is a struggle.

“It’s difficult for my roommates who do more computer work,” said Considine, 27, who works as a farmer at Siembra Farm. “They say it’s pretty spotty – and it’s really hard to get a better price or to get a faster speed.”

They pay about $30 per month to Cox Communications for internet service, she said.

“They’re pretty much a monopoly around here, because it’s really hard to get another service provider,” Considine added. “It would be nice to have some competition for Cox.”

The Gainesville City Commission is considering whether to build a municipal broadband network in a quest for cheaper and faster internet for local residents and businesses. Whether there’s sufficient public support for such an initiative is anything but certain, according to a recent survey.

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe has sent letters to surrounding municipal officials and other entities to see if there’s interest in collaboration. State law mandates that Gainesville would need its residents to approve a referendum on a bond term longer than 15 years.

A telecommunications consultant hired by the Gainesville City Commission conducted a residential survey of 370 potential internet customers to gauge interest in a city-owned network.

The survey found that 38% of respondents support the idea of the city operating a network. Thirty-five percent said they needed more information. Twenty-seven percent did not support it.

According to the analysis by CCG Consulting, when asked why they wouldn’t support the initiative, some respondents were concerned about having to pay more taxes.

“I wouldn’t support that because I think internet is something that should be optional,” Gina McDonald of Gainesville told WUFT News. “And I wouldn’t want to have to pay for everybody else’s internet, regardless if I have that company’s service or not. I don’t need any more taxes.”

In his presentation to the commission in June, CCG Consulting President Doug Dawson said bond financing for the network could cost between $116.7 million and $213.5 million.

“That’s hard for any city to borrow money,” Dawson told WUFT News. “So that’s going to be a giant issue.”

CCG’s survey also looked at how residents responded to the city’s goal of operating its own network. Sixty-two percent support the idea of bring more competition and choice, it found.

Pamela Cunningham, who lives in southwest Gainesville, is hopeful that more options will become available for those looking for affordable internet.

“I feel like if you have more options, more competition, then prices are somewhat going to be lower,” Cunningham said. “You can have more of a choice of what you want.”

Kevin Herron, 22, a part-time student at Santa Fe College, agreed.

“There needs to be some form of competition with Cox,” Herron said. “I think that the best competition that we could have is not really through a company, but through a public service.”

Cox spokesman Cam Johnson told WUFT News in June that the company has worked with Gainesville on multiple programs, such as Connect2Compete, to improve internet access.

Johnson says he hopes the two parties can continue their partnership into the future.

“We’ve been to the digital subcommittee meetings and we’ve been a partner with them on a lot of different projects,” he said.

CCG’s survey also found that 84% of households supported the city’s quest for the lowest prices for broadband in the United States. Only 30%, however, supported its desire for gigabit speeds, though 56% would “definitely or probably” buy gigabit broadband from a city network for $50.

Gainesville resident Daniel Young, who has a background in information technology, said there is not a significant need for gigabit internet in the city.

“The demand to stream 4K videos 24/7 to your household – we’re still not really quite there yet for that,” Young said. “To see the city really take that on, I would see them having a very hard time competing with people like Cox Cable.”

Shael Morgan, a food and beverage director at a local Hilton hotel, would consider paying for cheaper and faster internet service from the city for her household.

“It’s attractive because of the lower price,” said Morgan, who pays around $120 per month for Gigablast service from Cox. “But it would still have to be a high-quality network.”

CCG also polled whether households would pay for service from a city-owned fiber network. It found that “only 16% said they would definitely buy from the city,” but that 22% would not.

Aria Yamasaki, who creates content on Twitch, a streaming website popular with internet gaming enthusiasts, said he is somewhat supportive of the idea. He is hesitant, however, about Gainesville Regional Utilities possibly becoming an ISP.

Yamasaki, 28, of Gainesville, who spends about $200 per month for high-speed internet, said he wants to see another provider in the market to make prices fair for customers.

“Lesser of the two evils: I would prefer it not to be in GRU’s hands because I don’t like how they operate entirely,” Yamasaki said. “But I’d rather GRU do it than nobody do it.”

While Gainesville is seeking more information to fulfill its internet goals, CCG said the commission needs to carefully look at the pros and cons of a city-owned network.

“They have to really understand all the risks and all the benefits before they say yes,” Dawson told WUFT News. “You definitely don’t take my report and go out and borrow $100 million.”

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