Mayor: Spectrum’s Enhanced Service Should Settle Broadband Debate

If there was any question about Mayor Bill Mutz’s position on whether Lakeland should build a fiber-to-the-home internet utility, an event Friday touted as a significant announcement about Lakeland’s gigabit ambitions should settle it.

In light of Spectrum’s nationwide rollout of internet services with nearly a gigabit of download speeds last year, Mutz said there is no need now for Lakeland to take on the “enormous financial and technological risks” to fill a market void with the creation of its own service.

The statement came during an event hosted by Catapult, the Lakeland Economic Development Council’s business incubator, in collaboration with Spectrum, an LEDC member. 

There, Spectrum announced it was spending $75,000 to equip Catapult’s new building north of Lake Mirror with gigabit-speed wired and wireless connectivity. Catapult is expected to open in January. 

The other purpose of the event was apparently to reiterate the services offered by Spectrum, particularly a package with 940 megabit per second download and 35 megabit per second upload rates. 

During his comments, Mutz said he was grateful for Spectrum’s commitment to improve its network, and that as a result, “we (currently) have the capacity to be a gigabit city.” 

“To think about — we don’t have to wait for this anymore, that we’re here — is exciting,” Mutz said. 

It’s not clear when Lakeland was included in the service rollout that started in select cities around the nation in 2018. In August 2018, the Tampa Bay Times reported that customers in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area had access to the new service. 

Video — Friday’s event at Catapult:

During a broadband town hall event in Lakeland in October, a Spectrum representative said the company did offer a gigabit service in Lakeland. It does not appear the change was broadly communicated by the company, with no mention of it on its website or its press releases. 

Spectrum’s gigabit download service costs $109.99 per month with a $199.99 activation fee, based on a review of multiple Lakeland addresses through the Spectrum website, though prices could vary by location. A customer service representative said that was the current standard rate, not a time-limited special. 

Though not described on the Spectrum website, the customer service representative said the upload speed on that service is 35 megabits per second, which may limit its value in home offices or small businesses that send large amounts of data like uncompressed photo and video files.

Spectrum’s regional vice president, Marva Johnson, said her company recognizes “high-speed broadband creates opportunities.” 

Allison Kinney, Spectrum’s senior director of state government affairs, added that as a result of the upgrades “Lakeland is ready for the Smart City revolution.”

The change comes as Spectrum continues to adopt a newer standard for coaxial cable connections to homes known as DOCSIS 3.1, which was finalized in 2013. DOCSIS 3.1 allows for download speeds up to 10 gigabits per second and upload speeds up to 2 gigabits per second.

The advances in the DOCSIS standard has given longer-than-expected life to “cable internet” networks like Spectrum’s where coaxial cables from the home connect to a fiber-optics connection at the edge of the neighborhood.

Fully fiber-optics networks like Frontier Communication’s FiOS service have fewer technical limitations that make it easier and more reliable for services to have matching upload and download speeds with rates of one gigabit per second and faster.

Cable has remained relevant for home users, however, and Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge says that will continue into the future as he touted his company’s $32 billion investment to its network. Spectrum is one of Charter’s brands.   

In a video shown at the event, Rutledge said he believes the company’s network will eventually migrate to a platform that would allow 10-gigabit download and upload rates. That network standard is known as DOCSIS 4.0, which was finalized in 2017. 

Mutz’s statements in support of Spectrum, which would likely see a reduction in its market share in Lakeland if the city were to build its own utility, should not be taken as a statement from the Lakeland City Commission. 

When asked about the topic of the announcement prior to Friday’s event, administrative and elected city officials said they were in the dark even as they waited along with everyone else in Catapult, for a short while still housed in the basement of the Bank of America building downtown.

Advocates for a municipal internet service don’t see Spectrum’s enhancements as a reason to give up the fight for a public utility. 

Hans Arndt, one of the leading voices in the LakelandFiberNow group advocating a public utility, says he doesn’t think the service changes will put Lakeland at the edge of the consumer technology curve. 

“I came (to the announcement) with an open mind because if a company wants to invest in our community, I think that’s great, but I didn’t really see that,” Arndt said. 

“Our primary goal is for us to bring in competition,” he said. “We want to see more competition in the area. One business can make promises, ‘We’re going to give you gig service’ and all that, but if you really want to hold someone accountable, you bring in competition.”

He said he believes the best route to that is with a publicly owned fiber-optics utility, like those built in Longmont, Colo., and Chattanooga, Tenn., because of Lakeland’s relative size compared to larger metropolitan areas. 

“We’re a small player in the grand scheme of things and frankly we’re getting left behind,” he said. 

He said his group will continue to canvass neighborhoods and push for a public vote. 

City Commissioner Justin Troller said earlier this week he will push for a vote on municipal broadband service on the spring election ballot.

After the event, Mutz said he believes the major part of the gigabit discussion — whether the city should spend around $90 million to build out its existing network and create a retail service — is essentially settled. 

But that’s not for him to say, he added, and the conversation about a municipal internet service provider will continue through the city’s Broadband Task Force, though he said he expects the conversation to shift away from the big ticket item to related digital access and education issues.

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