Absent a clear vision for their broadband ambitions and eager to capitalize on recent prodding for information by communications technology companies, commissioners agreed Friday to issue an open-ended request for proposals to firms willing to create a partnership with the city.

Though much of the discussion in the past two years has been on whether the city should or should not go into the internet service business, in December the board returned to a familiar place: in search of a middle option between investing almost $90 million in direct competition with nationwide telecom companies and doing nothing. 

The companies pitching ideas to the city will be asked to submit their best ideas to work with the city in expanding high-speed broadband access to residents and businesses. The criteria of the request will be fairly vague, but will highlight a few goals agreed to by commissioners Friday. 

As summarized by City Manager Tony Delgado, the proposals should seek to leverage the city’s current network of around 350 miles of fiber optics “with the ultimate goal that every resident and business has reasonable access at a reasonable price point.” 

As far as defining the word “reasonable,” it will be up to the commission which will make the final decision. 

Mayor Bill Mutz said the goal should be to increase data throughput enough to become a “smart city,” a term used by advocates for broadband expansion to describe networks hefty enough to interconnect municipal and community services.

Low on the priority list is creating a strong revenue stream for the city. The promise of profitability had been a selling point for former Commissioner Justin Troller, who had spent his last years on the commission pushing for the city to build its own fiber optics utility.

Troller often said a utility, which would compete with private sector providers Spectrum and Frontier Communications, could replace Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center’s lease as a major source of revenue for the city.

Other than Commissioner Stephanie Madden, who took over Troller’s position as the chair of the commission’s broadband subcommittee, commissioners’ interest in building a new utility remains minimal.

And with that reduced risk, there should be reduced expectations for returns, Commissioner Scott Franklin said. 

“I want to dispel the myth that this is a replacement for the hospital lease because it just isn’t,” he said. 

The request for proposals should go out soon, Delgado said, with a 60- to 90-day period for companies to respond. He said commissioners should expect to see the proposals around April or May, at which time the commission and other experts will whittle the proposals down to a shortlist. 

By putting the onus on companies to show what they could bring, rather than specifying how the city would like to create a partnership, Commissioner Chad McLeod said, he expects it will expand the commission’s idea of available technology and partnership structures. 

“I think it allows companies to paint a picture on what some of these things look like,” he said. “Inevitably we will see things in those proposals we didn’t think of.”

On evaluating those proposals, McLeod said he will ask about each: “How is this a better deal than what we have today?”

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