An 80-foot tower at Rhema Word of Faith Church in east Lakeland provides free wifi to an estimated 200 low- and moderate-income homes nearby. The pastor who erected the tower envisions more churches joining his crusade to bridge the digital divide, and is seeking help from the city of Lakeland in a pilot project.

Rhema‘s leader, The Rev. H.B. Holmes, was joined by Pastor Eddie Lake of New Bethel AME Church Monday at a meeting of the Lakeland City Commission. They represented the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Lakeland, an organization headed by Lake.

Their ask: Extend the city’s fiber optic network to Harmony Missionary Baptist Church, 1645 N. Webster Ave., and provide a high-speed connection. In turn, Holmes said, he will donate a tower and repeaters at the church that will extend wifi connections to at least 75 homes in three northwest Lakeland neighborhoods: Providence, Webster and “The Lower End,” an area of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard north of 10th Street.

Commissioner Phillip Walker had two questions for Holmes:

  • Is Harmony Baptist Church the best location to reach the most homes in the area? Holmes responded it is well-situated because it’s near the crest of a hill and it’s the most cost-effective church location because it is just 1,100 feet from the city’s fiber hub.
  • What is the cost to the city? Holmes suggested a cost estimate could be provided by the city’s fiber optics supervisor.

After discussion, city commissioners asked their staff to report back with cost estimates and determine if there are obstacles to the project.

The staff report should be ready for the commission by the end of the week, Interim City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said this afternoon.

Holmes called his proposal a pilot project and said he can envision towers at as many as 10 churches to reach the neighborhoods with greatest need.

Reliable Internet connections have become even more important in the wake of the coronavirus since schoolchildren have been tasked with adapting to e-learning and health organizations are rapidly implementing telemedicine, Holmes said.

He expressed disappointment that the city has done little to extend its SurfLakeland wifi network into lower-income areas, as recommended by the city’s broadband consultants in 2015.

The tower with wifi repeaters at Rhema Word of Faith International at the corner of Skyview Drive and Reynolds Road
Harmony Missionary Baptist Church sits near the crest of a hill on Webster Avenue.

The city in recent years has extended high-speed connections to faith-based organizations in low-income areas such as Parker Street Ministries, The Dream Center and New Life Center, but Holmes claimed those are used mostly to serve clients when the facilities are open rather than provide 24/7 connectivity to the broader community.

And he said he was disappointed in August when the city chose to negotiate with Summit Broadband Inc. of Orlando over two other companies for a potential broadband partnership.

Summit’s proposal did not address digital divide concerns, Holmes said, whereas Metronet of Evansville, Ind., proposed to work with him and local non-profit organizations on expansion of broadband into low-income neighborhoods.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden urged the other commissioners to take Holmes’ request seriously and said the city’s negotiations with Summit should not preclude creative solutions to extending broadband into low-income areas.

Negotiations between the city staff and Summit are about to begin, Sherrouse told city commissioners Monday. One avenue of discussion might be whether or not they would welcome a digital divide partner, he said.

“This is a commission that’s very much in favor of eliminating the digital divide,” Mayor Bill Mutz told Holmes.

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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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