Broadband Forum: Speakers Differ; Commissioners Seek Partnership

City commissioners heard Tuesday evening from 21 citizens with strong opinions about whether the city should launch a broadband utility at a public forum attended by about 100 people. But commissioners spoke last, so they had the last word. And the words were: public-private partnership.

At least four commissioners out of the six who spoke mentioned “p3,” shorthand for public-private partnership.

Mayor Bill Mutz seemed to be addressing Charter Communications, whose Spectrum Internet is the sole provider for many Lakeland residents, in his remarks. His message, essentially, was that Charter should improve its service and speed in Lakeland, perhaps in partnership with the city, if it wants to avoid having a broadband competitor.

“It’s very important from my perspective that we utilize the P3 conversations and that we talk to the private sector and that we work alongside them and encourage them that if they want us to avoid doing this (launching a municipal utility), then they had better get some of the things in place that need to be in place in short order to prevent that.”

See the presentation given at the forum here or at the end of the article

View video of the forum here or at the end of the article.

A Charter representative, Florida Government Affairs Director Chris Bailey, observed the 100-minute forum from the back of the room, Sikes Hall at the RP Funding Center, but did not speak publicly.

Afterwards, he was asked about Mutz’ plea for a joint project. His response: He doesn’t know what Mutz has in mind.

But he told several people that he’d like to correct a statement by Commissioner Justin Troller. Contrary to Troller’s statement, Spectrum does offer gigabit Internet speeds to residential customers in Lakeland, he said.

Charter’s online rate card for the Tampa Bay area shows “Spectrum Internet Gig” at $125.99, excluding taxes and fees. Bailey said the service is symmetrical — the same speeds for uploads and downloads — and can be achieved with existing coaxial cable, noting some homes may need cable upgrades.

Note to readers: Do you have a home Gigabit connection through Spectrum? Are you satisfied with it? Was it hard to get? What’s the total cost? Let us know.

The city’s consultant, Magellan Advisors, projected the city can offer the same speed for $99.99, excluding taxes and fees.

With six commissioners offering comments at the end of the meeting — only Commissioner Scott Franklin remained silent — at least four urged restraint because of the anticipated startup costs for a broadband utility. Magellan estimates initial costs at $17 million and sees the city spending $97 million before breaking even, possibly in year 10.

City commissioners, along with the city attorney and city manager, listen at the beginning of the forum as Communications Director Kevin Cook described the issues.

Two commissioners — Bill Read and Phillip Walker — suggested the voters decide on a broadband utility in a referendum.

Troller, who has three months left in his final term in office, remains bullish on a broadband utility. He compares it with City Commission action in the first decade of the 20th Century to establish a hospital and buy Lakeland Electric. Those decisions have benefitted city coffers with nearly $1 billion, he said, adding, “The foundation we can leave is technology.”

Commissioner Stephanie Madden spoke of broadband becoming a necessity as more devices become interconnected. And while private businesses can provide luxuries, she said, it might become necessary for government working on its own or in partnership with the private sector to provide the necessity of greater connectivity in the event private providers are unwilling to do it on their own.

The audience at the RP Funding Center’s Sikes Hall listens as OnDrew Hartigan appeals for 5G wireless connectivity.

The members of the public who spoke at the forum were divided in their approaches, but the majority of audience members seemed to favor expanded broadband. Speakers who favored a municipal utility received applause; silence followed those who opposed it.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification, but of the 21 people who spoke:

  • Ten favored a municipal broadband utility.
  • Eight opposed it.
  • Two urged the city to look beyond fiber-to-the-home and implement 5G wireless connectivity.
  • One urged commissioners to do extensive research.

Arguments in favor

Among those urging the city establish a broadband utility, the main points included:

  • Competition is needed to keep consumer prices lower.
  • Customers with issues will be able to appeal to officials they elect instead of a corporate CEO answerable to stockholders.
  • They were willing to absorb a small increase in property taxes for several years or an assessment for a utility that will benefit many.
  • They anticipate they won’t experience the same large price increases they experienced with Spectrum introductory plans.
  • The city is already investing its 33 in education, bridging the digital divide and a “smart cities” initiative, so this is a logical extension.
  • Residents will support the plan if the benefits are explained adequately.

Arguments against

Among those urging the city not to establish a broadband utility, the main points included:

  • Government should not compete with private industry.
  • The money spent on a broadband utility could be better spent for things like public safety.
  • A utility based on fiber connections is a foolish investment since the technology will be eclipsed by wireless connectivity.
  • Florida law makes it illegal for municipalities to establish Internet utilities. (The city’s legal staff thinks agreements that predate that law exempt Lakeland.)
  • Lakeland will need to spend a lot of time in money in court defending its right to establish an Internet utility.
  • People who don’t use city broadband shouldn’t be taxed to support it.
  • It’s a risky proposition that could leave taxpayers “on the hook.”
  • Charter is likely to undercut the city in pricing and then take over the system when it fails.

Want to give your opinion? The city has established an online survey that has been filled out by 500 residents so far. Find it here. In addition, the city has set up a Broadband information page.

In his comments to LkldNow after the meeting, Charter’s Bailey spoke of pending system improvements that don’t involve the city. The company will be rolling out 10 Gigabit Internet over its existing infrastructure in the next two years, he said.

In addition, he predicted that more competition will enter the market as 5G wireless rolls out in the next few years.

The presentation that began Tuesday’s forum:

Video: Tuesday’s Broadband forum

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