Justin Troller, who has devoted much of his final year as a city commissioner pushing for a broadband utility, came away from his next-to-last meeting today with a bigger win than he was angling for. His fellow commissioners rejected his motion to hold a public referendum on an internet utility, but went along with a more far-reaching plan to start a process aimed at making a decision on broadband as early as March.

One of the arguments made before commissioners voted 5-2 against holding a referendum in April or May — Stephanie Madden joined Troller in supporting it — was that it’s time for commissioners to act, not delay by holding a costly special election. Commissioners learned today that under state law, the referendum would amount to little more than a straw poll.

So Troller, who has reached term limits and leaves office at the end of this month, challenged the rest of the commission to act — and they took him up on the challenge.

But the commissioners also had another motive — to determine if two companies that have each approached the city about partnering on a broadband utility have serious plans.

The thought was that starting the march toward a final decision would motivate the two companies to “put up or shut up.”

Commissioner Scott Franklin and City Manager Tony Delgado acknowledged that the city has started talks with companies they would not identify, citing non-disclosure agreements.

Talks are very preliminary, Delgado said. The companies are assessing the city’s digital holdings, and a key component of the non-disclosure agreements involves maintaining the security of the city’s 330-mile fiber optics network.

Delgado described both companies as far smaller than Charter Communications, whose Spectrum Internet is the sole residential provider for the bulk of Lakeland residents.

Both companies have cited cities where they compete with large telecommunications companies similar to Spectrum, city Finance Director Mike Brossart said.

Both companies approached the city following an Oct. 1 public forum on broadband, Delgado said, adding that neither of them were represented publicly at that meeting.

Commissioners’ desires to learn more about the potential partnerships and to “start the clock” led to a unanimous vote on Troller’s motion to begin a process outlined in a state law — Florida Statute 350.81 — that describes steps a local government must undertake to offer communications services.

Among the steps are holding two public hearings at least 30 days apart. Commissioners are targeting February and March for those hearings.

The state law requires a local government to gather a lot of information, according to Acting City Attorney Palmer Davis. By the commission’s Dec. 16 meeting, he plans to be able to advise commissioners whether it will be feasible to schedule the first public in February.

At one of the public hearings, the city would need to present a detailed plan. One of the questions Davis will try to answer is whether the plan created by consultant Magellan Advisors this year at a cost of $150,000 will suffice.

The law sets other hurdles. The city will also need to address whether similar services are already offered in the community or if other providers are planning similar services.

The law is specific about funding mechanisms, with revenue bonds being allowed to pay for capital costs, but not operations, Brossart said. He suggested a procedure involving working with a financial institution to secure the funding and then validating it in circuit court.

If the communications service doesn’t reach profitability after four years, the city would be required to hold a public hearing and then decide whether to cease the service, partner with another provider or continue with the service.

Local broadband advocate Hans Arndt called that provision a “poison pill” in a blog post on the LakelandFiberNow website. In the post, he questions whether Lakeland would be grandfathered in under the state law since it has sold fiber services to businesses for a number of years.

The answer is no, according to the City Attorney’s Office Davis, who said he consulted on the question with a Holland & Knight lawyer who was involved with drafting the state law.

Several commissioners remain skeptical that the city should invest the $97 million that Magellan projects it will cost to get a broadband utility going, especially in the face of competition with Spectrum and at a time when communications technology is continuing to evolve.

A majority of commissioners have held out hope that a private-public partnership will emerge, perhaps with one of the companies that approached the city.

As the city follows the procedure the state outlines, it might discover a municipal broadband service isn’t viable, Mayor Bill Mutz said. He recently suggested that Spectrum’s moves to roll out internet service at near-gigabit speeds means Lakeland doesn’t need to take on the high risk of establishing its own service.

Commissioners today also passed a broadly worded motion asking its staff to identify options for the city to reduce the digital divide by offering more access to devices and Internet access to communities and individuals who lack it due to poverty, geography or other factors.

The broadband discussion lasted nearly an hour and fifteen minutes, not including public comments earlier in the meeting. Watch video from the meeting here, starting at the point Troller proposed a referendum on broadband:

City Commission Meeting 2019.12.02 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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