Broadband authority may get help from private company


Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 5:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 5:58 p.m.

In March, the North Florida Broadband Authority was scrambling for support in hopes of signing up enough customers for its 15-county network to be self-sustaining by the time its $30 million federal grant expires Sept. 30.

At the time, General Manager Richelle Sucara was in full failure-is-not-an-option mode before conceding in an interview to the "what if" — that private companies could buy the network infrastructure to continue providing broadband service in the rural counties if the authority was not making enough money.

With the deadline imminent and few new paying customers since then, another option has emerged: The authority is negotiating with a private company to operate and expand the network while the NFBA would have a continuing role securing service for local governments and underserved rural areas.

Sucara said the authority's board has always wanted to engage the private sector as much as possible but would have been in a better negotiating position with more customers.

"At the end of the day, the public-private partnership is a win-win for both organizations," she said.

The authority issued an invitation to negotiate in May. Sucara said multiple firms inquired about negotiations, and two submitted official responses, with the authority deciding to negotiate with Affiniti Inc. of Austin, Texas.

Affiniti was created with the financial backing of lenders to manage the fiber and wireless networks of two struggling broadband network providers, according to Bob Roland, senior vice president of sales and marketing. As such, it operates regional networks in nine states with customers in 22 states.

The company also is negotiating with the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance, which, like the NFBA, was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to expand broadband deemed crucial for modern business opportunities in rural areas.

While the grant expires Sept. 30, Sucara said the authority had 90 days to secure a final agreement with Affiniti.

In the meantime, she said the authority is working out a short-term transitional agreement.

The authority will update its board of directors — made up of representatives of local government partners — at 10 a.m. Monday at Bronson Town Hall in Levy County.

The NFBA was created by the North Florida Economic Partnership to apply for the grant with the goal of spurring economic growth. It built out the network that includes antennas on 94 towers to provide wholesale "middle-mile" broadband at a discount to "last-mile" Internet companies, which provide retail service directly to customers.

Currently, Suwannee Valley Internet Corp. provides service to more than 600 customers — many in Putnam County — and another 110 "anchor" institutions, including schools and colleges, courthouses, libraries, local governments, hospitals and medical clinics that pledged interest as part of the grant application.

The NFBA also has a last-mile agreement with WebKraft Wireless of Williston.

Affiniti would serve as the middle-mile provider.

The Department of Commerce suspended the NFBA 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 NFBA has had trouble overcoming negative perceptions about the suspension and anti-federal sentiment toward the stimulus program, with eight of the 15 original counties and the city of Perry withdrawing membership over complaints about a lack of transparency. The authority still provides service in all 15 counties but was counting on the credibility the support would bring to build its customer base.

Since Gilchrist County commissioners pulled out in March, two cities — Fanning Springs and Bronson — have pledged support.

Sucara said politics came into play when the Bradford County School Board bypassed the authority's low bid for network and Internet services in the spring. After filing a bid protest, the authority reached a settlement with the School Board that will allow it to bid for the services next school year.

Although Alachua County is not included in the 15-county region, the authority made a presentation to the county's Economic Development Advisory Committee about the possibility of bringing broadband to rural areas of Alachua County.

The NFBA's network passes through the county.

"I think it will benefit Alachua County and the city of Gainesville even though they weren't part of the core grant," Roland said of Affiniti's pending agreement.

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