Digital divide as City Commission considers utility-managed fiber optics
TaMaryn Waters, Tallahassee Democrat
It was clear from Wednesday’s workshop where commissioners stand on whether the city of Tallahassee should get into the high-speed internet business.
Commissioners Jeremy Matlow, Elaine Bryant and Dianne Williams-Cox favored wanting to issue a request for proposals on a feasibility study and continue talks, along with developing options.
Mayor John Dailey and Commissioner Curtis Richardson were a hard no, each saying they couldn’t get behind the $280 million price tag to create the necessary infrastructure.
Matlow, a freshmen commissioner, requested to workshop the topic after hearing from residents about the possibilities of fiber optics on the campaign trail last year.
“A lot of people see what other cities are doing, such as Gainesville and Chattanooga, and asked why can’t we do that here,” he said. “That’s the question we’re trying to answer: Can we do that here?
“When we look to the future, are we really laying out the infrastructure we need to be competitive on an economic basis,” he added. “We try to recruit companies here that require high speeds so there are a million different ways to enter this, including public-private partnerships.”
Dailey said the estimated cost represents a third of the city’s entire budget. He added, underground power lines, which would cost nearly $2 billion according to City Manager Reese Goad, could be more of a priority for the city than fiber optics since there are several private sector carriers already providing high-speed internet service.
“I’m against this and ready to pull the plug right now,” he said, during the Wednesday workshop. “At the end of the day, I do not see the city of Tallahassee creating another utility to provide broadband service. It is cost prohibitive. We simply cannot afford it.”
Dailey said the undertaking would require the city to borrow a significant amount of money and, most likely, raise the millage rate.
Four other Florida-based municipalities own and operate broadband networks that require the infrastructure for fiber optics. The cities are city of Ocala (since 1995), city of Gainesville (since 1995), city of Palm Coast (since 2005), and city of Fort Pierce (since 1994), according to the city.
No other municipality has pursued broadband service since the Legislature implemented regulation requirements in 2005.
In Tallahassee, 16 carriers provide broadband service of 25 Mbps or greater to residential and business customers, a city report said. The vast majority of that service comes from five major providers, including Comcast and Century Link.
Paul Watts, CEO of Electronet Broadband Communications, said his company, which has about 500 commercial customers, was the first to bring high speed internet to Tallahassee.
When asked why now is not the right time for talks on fiber optics, Watts said there’s “too big of a risk involved.”
“I want to see us be on the cutting edge. I think we’re pretty close to where we need to be in terms of technology,” Watts said. “We have a very competitive market here. We have multiple carriers here … I’m concerned about the cost it would take to deploy it, because I build fiber. I know how much it is to build underground and I know how much it cost to build aerial.”
While the city hasn’t made any firm decisions, several commissioners were open to learning more and exploring how Tallahassee can position itself to be more competitive when attracting new companies and industry.
“We can not stay in the space we are now. We have to move forward. I think it’s worth putting it on the table for discussion,” Bryant said. “We need more information.”
Williams-Cox questioned the need for the city’s role in the broadband service, but wasn’t ready to decide. She said it may be something that comes to the city in the far future.
“Let’s look at it and research it,” she said, “and look for funding sources for this.”
Contact TaMaryn Waters at email@example.com or follow @TaMarynWaters on Twitter.