Commissioners Differ on Urgency of Digital Divide Request

City commissioners differed today on how fast to move on a pilot project to bring free wifi to some of Lakeland’s poorer neighborhoods. Some commissioners urged urgency to help students do homework and seniors access telemedecine; others wanted to make sure plans for free access won’t detract from a private vendor’s pending efforts to market high-speed Internet.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden led the charge for urgency on projects to bridge the “digital divide” that separates Internet haves and have-nots. As head of the city’s Broadband Committee, she sat in on the recent initial meeting between city staff and the private provider, Summit Broadband of Orlando.

In her mind, there’s no conflict between the free-wifi pilot project and Summit’s plans:

  • Summit will start building its network in areas of the city with greater demand for broadband speeds needed to power smart homes with multiple connected devices, she said.
  • The much slower 30Mbps speeds envisioned for free wifi will help people who rely mainly on smartphones to conserve their limited cellular data, she contends.

She picked up support from Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioner Phillip Walker.

However, Commissioners Scott Franklin and Chad McLeod said they wanted to be sure the wifi project aligns with plans that Summit is still developing. The other commissioners, Bill Read and Sara Roberts McCarley, did not attend today’s workshop.

The wifi pilot project was presented to city commissioners Oct. 5 by the Rev. H.B. Holmes and the Rev. Eddie Lake, representing the minority-focused Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Lakeland.

Their idea: Place a tower with wifi antennas at Harmony Missionary Baptist Church, 1645 N. Webster Ave. to serve homes in three nearby neighborhoods. Holmes says he will provide the tower and asked the city to provide a fiber connection and Internet service.

Holmes has already placed an 80-foot tower at his own church, Rhema Word of Faith Church in the Skyview area of east Lakeland. It provides free wifi to an estimated 200 low- and moderate-income homes nearby. 

Rhema Word of Faith’s wifi tower

When the pair proposed the pilot project earlier this month, commissioners asked their staff to estimate the cost to the city.

The preliminary estimate is $12,000, City Manager-designate Shawn Sherrouse said today.

City Information Technology Director Oscar Torres cautioned that his staff still needs to review its contract with fiber network provider FiberLight and talk with company representatives to make sure the plan is sanctioned.

In essence, Holmes’ request would make the city of Lakeland the Internet Service Provider for Holmes’ organization, a role that would be new to the city, Torres said.

Since the city would not control the wifi connection, a binding agreement would be needed to “cover user access, service levels and restrictions against monetary gain,” Sherrouse said.

City staff thought it might be more cost-effective to contract with an existing Internet Service Provider such as Spectrum to provide the connectivity needed for the pilot project, Sherrouse said. Spectrum was approached but wasn’t interested because of issues with a similar arrangement it tried, he said.

If the pilot project is successful, Holmes told commissioners earlier this month, he can envision more towers at up to 10 churches in under-served communities.

That potential expansion raises questions about whether the additional neighborhoods served might overlap into areas where Summit will provide its initial services, “and that is a concern to Summit,” Sherrouse said.

The city’s previous digital divide efforts have focused on grants that extend the city’s SurfLakeland wifi network into non-profit agencies serving low-income communities.

Agencies receiving the grants have included the Dream Center, Parker Street Ministries, Boys & Girls Club, and New Life Center Ministry.

At the end of today’s workshop, commissioners asked Sherrouse to have his staff continue gathering information about costs, equipment and feasibility.

Today’s workshop: