Hopes for rural broadband are dimming


Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.

TRENTON — The agency charged with bringing high-speed broadband service to rural North Florida is facing a crisis of credibility as it tries to get more paying customers so it can function beyond the life of a $30 million federal stimulus grant that expires in September.

The Gilchrist County Commission voted unanimously Monday night to withdraw membership from the North Florida Broadband Authority, making it the eighth of 15 member counties, along with the city of Perry, to have opted out over the past year over concerns about a lack of transparency, among other issues.

The authority still provides service in all 15 counties, but those involved in the project are concerned that without the local government support that helped create the agency in the first place, customers might be reluctant to sign on.

Authority staff and supporters of the program are blaming a misinformation campaign by a former board member, former contractors and a Lake City blogger alleging fraud and waste, among other issues, along with a current rash of anti-federal sentiment toward the stimulus program.

Authority attorney Jennifer Springfield said the program also has had trouble overcoming negative perceptions that arose after the Department of Commerce suspended the program in August 2011 over concerns about a conflict of interest between companies contracted to supervise the buildout before the NFBA hired its own staff and resumed that October.

The authority was created by the North Florida Economic Development Partnership to apply for funding made available by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The coalition's main focus was to spur needed economic growth by providing a service deemed crucial for modern business but lacking in rural areas that often are overlooked or underserved by private providers.

Once awarded $30 million, the authority went about the task of building the network to provide wholesale "middle-mile" broadband at a discount to "last-mile" Internet companies that provide retail service directly to customers.

Currently, the authority and three last-mile companies are providing service to more than 600 customers, said Donny Lort, senior project manager for the authority.

That includes nearly 100 "anchor" institutions receiving service directly from the authority, including schools and colleges, courthouses, libraries, local governments, hospitals and medical clinics that pledged interest as part of the grant application.

The authority is in the process of hooking up more institutions — 175 total — as it spends down the remainder of the $30 million federal stimulus grant.

At their meeting Monday, Gilchrist County commissioners echoed the concerns of other county commissions that have withdrawn from the alliance.

Commissioner Ray Harrison Jr. said answers to their questions have not been backed by proof.

Commissioner John Thomas said he has never seen an accounting of where the money has been spent.

The authority brought in the feds for support.

Anthony Wilhelm, associate administrator of the federal Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications that is overseeing the grant, attended the meeting to express the need for broadband so rural areas don't fall further behind urban areas.

County Clerk Todd Newton asked how the authority can become sustainable when the last budget he saw showed $150,000 in monthly expenses and $14,000 in revenues.

"That's part of the reason we're down here, to look at the business model and cut costs and raise revenue," Wilhelm said.

Authority General Manager Richelle Sucara, who was hired in October 2011, said she can provide the commission with information and suggested it appoint commissioners to work with her on a regular basis.

"It sounds to me like most of it needs to be communicated better," she said. "I never know what the level of involvement has been over the years."

Sucara said the authority has worked hard to keep its staff small and has been frugal enough to afford an additional fiber access point at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars.

Thomas said he would reconsider Gilchrist County's involvement after he sees the books.

Commissioner Todd Gray said he would volunteer to work with the authority.

Prior to the commission meeting, the authority held a board meeting in Fanning Springs that resembled a pep rally with 10 board members from the counties and cities that remain in the program touting the need for broadband in their areas and the improved Internet service the authority already has brought.

Representing Madison County as an alternate, Sheryl Rehberg, executive director of the North Florida Regional Workforce Board, said her agency is able to access information about jobs and training for job seekers faster.

With a new hospital coming to the area, she said broadband will be needed to provide online training.

Board member and Putnam County Information Technology Director John Rundgren said county satellite offices and remote rescue stations have had problems with no service or spotty service from existing carriers.

"If it gives us an alternative to people we've been unhappy with for many years, if it's cheaper, let's do it," he said.

Gilchrist County Tea Party President Charlie Perez said he met with Gilchrist commissioners one on one to express support for the authority. While acknowledging that many people were against the federal stimulus plan, he said, "We don't want the NFBA to waste $30 million of taxpayer money."

If the authority is not sustainable after September, Sucara said in an interview that private companies could buy the infrastructure to continue providing broadband service.

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