Commission Support for Broadband Utility Remains Soft

The city of Lakeland is planning a series of public meetings on whether it should create a municipal internet service provider even as support on the commission remains limited.

As presentations on a business plan prepared by the city’s broadband consultant near their end, the elected officials Monday discussed the “will we or won’t we” question with the most candor since the swearing-in of four new commissioners in 2018.

Commissioners Justin Troller and Stephanie Madden and Mayor Bill Mutz remain the most enthusiastic supporters of the project — with Mutz expressing some caveats — but comments by the other four officials harked to concerns that sunk Lakeland’s “gigabit city” ambitions under earlier leadership. 

Broadly, Troller said the purpose for undertaking the project is manifold, among them addressing the so-called “digital divide” between rich and poor areas, to create a non-tax source of city revenue, to offer services to Lakeland consumers cheaper than sold by private sector providers and to build essential infrastructure for the current and future economy.

Magellan Advisors, the city’s broadband consultant, estimates it would cost about $100 million to connect homes and business in the city to a new internet utility. (See their presentation here or at the end of this article.)

For Madden and Mutz, the infrastructure angle is their most important concern, they both said. 

“Getting faster, cheaper (internet service) isn’t my first aim,” Madden said. “My first aim is to have the infrastructure for the tsunami of data that’s coming our way.” She said higher-speed internet remains a problem for some of her business’s telecommuting employees. 

Mutz, in particular, was less interested in pitching the plan as a way to close the digital divide — which is less pronounced in Lakeland than originally thought and could be addressed currently, he said — or as a source of revenue.

Though Lakeland operates naturally monopolistic services, like water and sewer, he said he worries about undertaking the project “primarily to get revenue replacement. I step way back on that,” he said. “I don’t want to do $100 million of risk in that process (of building a utility) for that reason alone.” 

Even among the most reluctant members of the commission, there is little faith the incumbent providers — Spectrum and Frontier — will provide gigabit-speed internet services at an affordable price to the entire city, but they are reluctant to go toe-to-toe with those companies. 

“I firmly believe broadband is a piece of infrastructure that is as critical as water and electricity,” Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said. “I completely concur with that.”

But, she added, “I don’t want to go get into a dog fight with the private sector; we will lose. But I do think the private sector needs to come up and participate actively and not just say ‘Yeah, yeah yeah, we have it.’ That’s fantastic — it’s not serving our community.” 

While Spectrum does not offer fiber-optic service to residential customers in Lakeland, a company representative told commissioners at today’s meeting that Spectrum has laid extensive fiber here.

Commissioner Bill Read outlined six sticking points, from investigating the outcomes of recommendations made by Magellan Advisors to other cities, to financing, and “if it’s good, is it sellable? If it’s bad, how do we get out of it?”

Commissioner Scott Franklin echoed others’ concerns about competing against private sector providers. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.

He also questioned the number of assumed advantages. “It’s nice to pitch to everybody and it’s kind of like what I hear in political debates. When you’re trying to get something, you promise everything to everybody and hopefully they’ll come along and not ask too many questions,” he said. 

He added that he did not think the topic was ready for public debate until some of the verbalized concerns were addressed. 

Commissioner Phillip Walker took a different position, saying that it was time to get public input. 

“I do not care to move forward until we have more public discussion,” he said.

The city’s communications department will begin preparing those public meetings. The dates have those meetings have yet been announced.

Magellan Advisors Presentation Regarding a Business Plan:

View the full meeting:

Broadband Task Force 2019.08.19 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

Lakeland skylineSupport Independent Community News. We rely on people like you to invest in the community by supporting this non-profit service. Please donate now.