BY JENNIFER CABRERA / AUGUST 20, 2019
During the August 15 Gainesville City Commission meeting, the commission heard a presentation on the recommended next steps if the city wants to keep moving forward on the municipal broadband plan. As we’ve reported here, the city’s consultant made a presentation to the commission on June 20, summarizing their report on what it would take to launch a successful broadband network in the area.
The recommendation in the presentation was for the City Attorney’s office to determine the public purpose of providing 1 gigabit broadband and to work with the county to “understand County’s intent for the use of additional sales tax for the project.” This was estimated as 80 hours of work for City Attorney staff. In addition, GRU staff is expected to spend 150 hours vetting the models and calculations in the consultant’s report, and GRUCom staff will spend approximately 40 hours meeting with city commissioners to learn more about the “digital divide,” including what pricing might be offered to “digital divide households” and what product might be offered to those households.
Following the presentation, the commission discussed what to do next. Commissioner Helen Warren came out against proceeding with any further analysis of the plan: “I just think the cost of this system that we’re trying to put in place is really prohibitive and not a priority for what our money should be spent on in the next 5 years… I feel like the people that can use this broadband the most are the businesses, and they have access to that service already… As for the digital divide… Cox [is] able to provide that service for $10 to customers who qualify for food stamps, but what I’ve seen in many homes is that they don’t have the equipment to really make use of that… You can get the internet for $10, but then you need $100 or more for a tablet or the phone, and I just feel like this is a really noble project to take on, but the cost… to accomplish that would be taking on bonds that would be going for 10 to 20 years… I feel like there’s an opportunity to ask if we need the staff to continue working on this at this time. Is this the use of the money that we want in the face of our budget reality?… I’m really talking about no action… I just don’t see this as the path to take at this point.”
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, who has championed the broadband initiative from the beginning, disagreed, saying they needed more information and that reducing the cost of broadband service would reduce the cost of living in the area. “In terms of … economic development, there would probably be nothing we could do that would have a bigger impact on creating jobs and economic development than doing this.” Hayes-Santos also said the initiative could lower taxes, but the consultant’s report indicated that there would be a trade-off between providing broadband at very low rates to low-income households and making money that could subsidize other government services.
Commissioner David Arreola said, “We need to be looking at what a business plan would look like, because that’s going to determine the success or failure of any venture. So I am interested in the digital divide study and analyzing what some of the costs would be to serve the underserved areas, and particularly going back to some of our earliest conversations, my interest has been working with the county, because they have many, many rural areas which are completely underserved, and that holds back all of Alachua County, when you have areas and cities that don’t have broadband access… Let’s move with intention, and let’s take this step by step.”
Commissioner Gail Johnson recommended slowing down the process: “The report… the consultant really gave me pause. I think that there were quite a few risks that we need to
consider… I said the last time that for me to be fully supportive of this, I would like to see other
partners involved in this. And the county has since… stepped forward to say that… there might be a referendum. But I also feel like.. the cart is before the horse right now. Like we really need to have some of those partners more solidified before we move forward. So, my question with this is, is there a rush with this? Is this something that we can put on hold in order to develop some of these relationships and have some more conversations before we move forward with staff time and with potentially these costs? And I don’t know if I’m correct about this, I just estimated it. But we have 80 hours in the attorney’s office, and I’m low-balling this… but I’m saying like $150 an hour on average and that comes out to about $12,000. And then the 180 hours… divided amongst the other folks and staff, I think it’s pretty significant at this point. So my question really is, is this something that we can put on hold until we have more substantive discussion with the county and other partners?”
Mayor Lauren Poe said that broadband “exacerbates our equity issues in our city… I applaud Cox for their $10 sort of entry-level access, but so many of our residents don’t qualify for that. Because of, you know, past credit issues, or other barriers that don’t give them access to that program.”
The requirements for Cox’s Connect2Compete program can be viewed here. Its main limitation for low-income households is the requirement that the household include a K-12 student. The program does not exclude households with credit issues unless they have an outstanding debt with Cox itself.
Poe continued, “We also need to engage with the university. Out of all of the people that will be using this service if we end up building it out and deploying it, approximately 60,000 of them will be either UF or Santa Fe students.” This statement is incorrect because the vast majority of these students live in apartments, and apartments are specifically excluded from the cost estimates that were discussed by the consultant: “The study excludes large apartment and condominium complexes and buildings. Residences included in the study include single family homes, duplexes, townhouses, and small apartment buildings of four units or less.”
Commissioner Warren said that, in her opinion, reducing commercial electric rates would attract more businesses than inexpensive broadband. “We can definitely do something about the electric rates. But there are others who can do something about the broadband.” She also cautioned the commission to consider how rapidly technology is changing: “I really hesitate and caution my colleagues to really consider what you lock yourselves into for many years, when technology is changing so fast in a few years.” She pointed out that if the sales tax referendum passes and the county builds a solar installation, the drop in revenue to GRU will affect the General Fund Transfer and the city’s financial situation. She said that people who have credit problems with Cox will have credit problems with other providers, and mentoring could be a better solution to that than broadband access: “Just putting a computer in front of somebody is not going to solve these problems.” She recommended pursuing partnerships with the private sector instead of building their own broadband network.
Commissioner Hayes-Santos said that the only way the city can currently reduce commercial utility rates is to raise residential rates but that broadband could bring in more revenue. (Jo Beaty later responded to this during citizen comment: “ Mr. Hayes-Santos says there’s not much to do about the electric rates. You could start by looking at the budget and cutting the budget and cutting the [General Fund Transfer].”)
Commissioner Johnson pointed out that the consultant’s report showed that GRU and the city are not viewed positively by area residents: “Are they going to buy internet from our utility? I’d like to know that. Because I think that that could be a challenge.” She asked whether Cox would be able to remove the “significant barriers” people face in getting the Connect2Compete service.
Commissioner Warren said the commissioners need to have a discussion about the major needs in the city and then prioritize those needs before committing to a broadband initiative.
During citizen comment, a Cox representative said that it would be good to know how many people are affected by barriers to service and what those barriers are. She said that Cox is interested in continuing to partner with the city on community centers and that they have given away computers. She said the Connect2Compete program is reviewed every year and that review is currently ongoing, but the program is national, so she doesn’t have the ability to change the rules locally.
The agenda item did not require any decision to be made, but by moving on to the next agenda item, the commission, by default, approved the 270 hours of staff time that were recommended in the presentation.