COVID-19, Legal Constraints Shape City Commission’s Ongoing Discussions On Municipal Broadband

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The Gainesville City Commission is inching closer to providing high-speed, low-cost internet access for local businesses and residents amid unexpected changes caused by COVID-19 and legal qualms.

The commission’s Digital Access Committee met Monday via Zoom to discuss these updates and map out a clearer timeline for its municipal broadband project.

Costs of the municipal broadband venture are still being estimated as the commission and the city manager’s office jointly assess several key factors: inclusivity, privacy and practicality.

At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Gigi Simmons emphasized using the potential broadband to combat the digital divide in accessibility across Alachua County. With rising COVID-19 cases, this ability to be electronically connected is more vital than ever, according to Simmons.

“There’s a digital divide in our elderly population,” Simmons said. “Because we’re having telecommunication and people are not going to their primary care physicians on a regular basis, this is the future.”

Last year, the commission, along with a local consulting team, conducted a community-wide broadband study that explored Gainesville’s intricate needs and opportunities surrounding internet access and affordability.

On Monday, several commissioners suggested revisiting those results and potentially re-surveying both Gainesville’s most vulnerable populations and those most impacted by COVID-19 to see if these needs have shifted.

“I want to see better data,” Simmons said. “Because of the pandemic and everything that has taken place after the study, we need a better understanding of what we are facing right now. In the way that they went about collecting the data, I think there was a large segment of the population that was missed.”

Rolling out more surveys and finalizing a focused business plan may loom near the $50,000 allotted for this stage of the project, according to Assistant City Manager Dan Hoffman. With this in mind, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos noted a potential partnership with UF Health to assess needs regarding COVID-19, technology and “telemedicine.”

Additionally, Commissioner David Arreola addressed financial concerns related to launching a second, deeper data investigation.

“The crux of this whole matter is the business plan,” Arreola said, “whether or not we can feasibly introduce this fiber to enough houses at a competitive price, and we don’t get boxed out of the market. I don’t want this to get too expensive, especially at the very beginning.”

Monday’s meeting follows a June memorandum from the city attorney’s office that recommended against the city moving forward with the project due to outside risks — chiefly local competition and ability to retain adequate customer support.

The attorney’s office flagged the project per a Florida statute that “prohibits  the  City  from  subsidizing  broadband  by  using  revenues  from  sources  other  than  the communications  services  system,  such  as  revenue  from  other  City  utility  systems, ad valorem taxes or sales tax.” This statute significantly constrains the city’s ability to set prices low enough to be competitive with commercial broadband providers and threatens to make the cost of the project unsupportable.

In addition to questions surrounding the project’s data-driven targeted goals, the committee discussed plans for an upcoming RFP, the city’s “request for proposal” document that solicits contract work for the broadband’s installation. The city manager’s office predicts having a solidified, detailed RFP out by September with 30 to 45 days sanctioned for response time.

Additionally, the committee revisited its February meeting discussion on data privacy and what legislative actions could be taken to strengthen this throughout the broadband’s implementation.

“I’m particularly concerned about things like utility records,” commissioner Ward said. “There’s a lot you can right now find out about citizens of Gainesville that maybe aren’t the healthiest things for the entire world to be able to know. That’s a discussion we’ll have at the next meeting.”

According to Hoffman, in order for the municipal broadband and other “smart city” projects to actually succeed, communication must be transparent. He said that where other cities with similar goals have failed is in lackluster, underdeveloped community engagement.

“I want to make sure that whatever we’re putting out, everyone’s aware of it and comfortable with it and that they understand the benefits of it,” Hoffman said. “It’ll be a conversation that starts with the needs and wants of a place. I think it’s incumbent upon us to go meet their need as opposed to me showing up with a bunch of shiny objects and saying ‘Don’t you want this?’ I want to hear from them and what their concerns are.”

Further discussion on digital inclusion and future legislative actions will take place next time the Digital Access Committee meets, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 10.

About Megan Wordell

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

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