Gainesville city commissioners are split on how to tackle municipal broadband

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High-speed internet may be coming to Gainesville as a public service, but city commissioners are split on how to implement it.

The city commission discussed three options for municipal broadband at a Thursday meeting. They include broadband as an amenity through fiber optic cable, as a public utility through wireless overlay or a private-public partnership between the city and a company. 

The initiative to bring municipal broadband to the city has been in the works since 2017. The Magellan Advisors, the group that prepared the presentation, previously met with a Gainesville Digital Access Committee to discuss business models for rolling out municipal broadband. 

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos put forward a motion to hear a final report from Magellan for business models on the amenity and wireless options. Although several commissioners initially opposed the motion, it passed 5-2, with Cynthia Chestnut and Desmon Duncan-Walker dissenting.

 Gainesville residents and businesses receive internet access from three internet providers: Cox Communications, AT&T and GRUCom, the city’s own fiber optic system. A 2019 CCG report found that Gainesville has some of the highest rates in the nation for broadband, cable television and telephone service. The report said Gainesville’s current prices can be attributed to the fact that the city is in a less competitive market. Rates tend to be lower in high competition markets.

Hayes-Santos said he strongly supports bringing municipal broadband to Gainesville. He said that the $9.6 million the city received under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 would allow the city to build out from high priority areas. The plan will start with a large chunk of East Gainesville called Tier 1 Area.

“We have an increasing number of people who are working from home, more and more education is online, and we have to provide better service,” Hayes-Santos said.

If the city were to implement the fiber optic option, Gainesville would make $70 million in profit over the next 20 years, Hayes-Santos said. He also highlighted that the fiber optic option would save families around $400 a year and that the city would try to make internet access free for low-income users. Bryan Eastman, co-founder of Connected Gainesville, an organization dedicated to bringing municipal broadband to Gainesville, advocated for the fiber optic amenity option at the meeting. He said this was the most feasible path as the city already has a robust fiber optic cable system through GRUCom.

Eastman said his work as vice chair of Grace Marketplace and his own access to the internet as he was growing up prompted him to get involved in this cause.

“It’s really heartbreaking when you talk to people who don’t have access to [the] internet.” Eastman said. “Particularly kids who can’t do their homework or parents that aren’t able to do work online, be a part of the digital economy.”

Hayes-Santos said he was adamant about pushing for broadband as an amenity, but some commissioners preferred the utility/wireless option.

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he was in favor of using only part of the $9.6 million to set up wireless in the Tier 1 Area and use the rest, likely around $6 million, for affordable housing.

“Wireless systems in neighborhoods that don’t have access otherwise are some of the most cost-effective ways to achieve that universal approach,” Ward said.

Chestnut said she was against the idea of using the funds for a fiber optic extension when they could be designated for affordable housing. She said the venture was too expensive to consider given that it is outside of the commission’s area of expertise.

“It is difficult to use broadband if you don’t have a house,” Chestnut said.

Commissioner Reina Saco responded to Chestnut’s concerns by stating that internet access is just as essential as food or water and  matters even if someone isn’t housed.

“[The homeless] need the internet to find homes,” Saco said. “They need internet to find jobs.”

Mayor Lauren Poe also disagreed with Hayes-Santos’ plan for citywide implementation, noting that using the funds to install full fiber in-ground was not realistic. He said the status quo was not working and there is a critical need in the community for full internet access.

Residents voiced their concerns over the implementation of a municipal broadband service. Many sided with Chestnut in urging that the funds be used for affordable housing and compared the situation to the biomass plant contract which led to increased electric bills for Gainesville electricity customers soon after its approval. The city eventually bought the plant in 2017 for $1.2 billion over 30 years to ensure electric customers weren’t further burdened.

“As I have repeatedly suggested to this commission, the $32 million of American Rescue Plan Act money should have been used to build affordable housing rather than squandering limited taxpayer resources and this once-in-a-generation gift from the federal government on broadband,” one resident said.

Other residents said they were concerned with the effects of building out past the funds. Several residents said that debt was an issue among cities, such as Chattanooga, that had also implemented municipal broadband.

About Thomas Rosilio

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

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