Many people living in Gainesville have spent more time than ever at home in 2020, with some wishing for better internet reliability during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been a year when more people could have benefitted from the option of a municipal broadband network.
In Gainesville, that’s not yet an option.
Discussion to provide high-speed, low-cost internet access for homes and businesses in Gainesville has continued for four years. The average person’s increased reliance on the internet has not accelerated Gainesville’s push toward offering a municipal broadband network. A high public cost of the infrastructure required to build it combined with an uncertain customer base remain the biggest hurdles. The pandemic, as with much else, has also slowed down the process.
Still, the city manager’s office is now working on a revised business plan and proposal outlining what the city might do next to realize such a network.
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos was a driving force on the City Commission to start this project when he was first elected in 2016. In a recent interview, he said he continues to believe this is an essential need in the community.
“We’re taking a look at the study we did before and seeing how we can make it actually work for our city,” Hayes-Santos said.
He stated that the project has progressed slower than he wanted but believes it needs to be better thought out and organized before moving forward.
The city’s business plan to eventually bring affordable internet to every home and business is expected to be available in spring 2021.
Hayes-Santos said would-be municipal broadband customers living in the city should make their voices heard to the commission if they want to see this move forward.
Cox and AT&T currently serve as the dominant broadband internet providers in Gainesville, although not everyone in the city has the option to choose between the two, as their service areas don’t entirely overlap. For that reason and others, Hayes-Santos said, the private sector is not meeting the city’s internet need in its entirety.
“Right now, people don’t have any real choice in who they pick as their internet service provider,” he said. “We have some of the highest prices in the state of Florida.”
New providers entering the city, offering residential internet, could offer more options and help reduce prices, he said.
Cox spokesperson Cam Johnson said his employer welcomes competition in the markets they serve. Hayes-Santos said Cox has not supported the city moving forward with municipal broadband in the past.
City Commissioner Harvey Ward is the current chairman of the commission’s digital access committee, which has helped to guide the initiative forward. He, too, expects opposition from other internet providers.
The committee’s most recent discussions on the subject have produced slim progress in providing more internet options to the community, though much of that is attributable to discussions about how to control the COVID-19 pandemic dominating meeting agendas, he said.
“There are many, many other things we’re working on right now,” Ward said, “but that’s unfortunately not near the top of the list.”
The ironic twist, Hayes-Santos noted, is that COVID-19 has emphasized the need for affordable and reliable internet with so many people working and learinng from home.
“It’s not a luxury to have internet anymore,” Hayes-Santos said. “It’s a necessity.”
A spokesperson for Alachua County Public Schools, Jackie Johnson, said the pandemic magnified the issues with internet connectivity that already existed.
“All of our schools have Wi-Fi,” Johnson said. “The issue is, our kids need access when they are at home.”
The public school system began addressing students’ needs on a smaller scale by placing school buses around the community equipped with Wi-Fi. In spring, they identified 50 sites where they thought the school bus Wi-Fi would be most effective.
They also distributed individual hotspots to students who did not already have internet at home.
“It is a challenge,” Johnson said. “There’s no question about it.”
The city also collaborated with the school system in the past to set up computers at a community center for afterschool programs.
Internet access gaps have “been an issue for years,” Johnson said. “Nothing has really been achieved at this point” regarding long term solutions.
Ward agreed the project is a challenge and said municipal broadband “is a major undertaking.”
“This is a multi-year project,” he said. “This is not something that we can turn around in months or even a year.”
Still, Ward isn’t sure the network would have enough support from the five other commissioners besides he and Hayes-Santos to move forward.
“I still would like to see this happen, but we’re not in a position where it’s going to happen quickly,” Ward said. “There isn’t something on the table to work with.”