Consultants: Lakeland, Florida, Should Get Serious About Muni

Late in June, consultants hired by Lakeland, Florida, reported to city commissioners that the community is well situated to launch a broadband utility. Lakeland has drifted between options in recent years while making investments that ultimately have contributed to their current footing.

We last reported on the city’s activities in October 2016 when community leaders chose to seek out a private partner, issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP). Decision makers were intimidated at the thought of facing off against Charter Spectrum, citing the task of establishing a municipal network utility as too risky with aggressive incumbents willing to undercut prices.

Even though they were concerned with how a large monopoly cable company might react, commissioners agreed that Lakeland required high-quality Internet access in order to stay competitive. To set the stage for future improvement commissioners adopted several actions, including implementing a dig once policy, seeking allies among other local governments, and actively marketing their dark fiber network.

Darkness Reigns Supreme

The city's 330-mile fiber infrastructure currently serves the Polk County School District, local libraries, and public safety facilities. Like other communities that have existing fiber infrastructure, Lakeland began deploying their network in the mid-1990s to connect electric facilities. Seventy-five city facilities are on the network along with 220 traffic intersections, reducing pile-ups and pollution. Lakeland’s network also offers dark fiber connectivity to large companies and institutions, such as the Lakeland Regional Medical Center. In 2016, the network generated $4 million annually from leases.

Consultants envision the publicly owned dark fiber network as the basis for a Lakeland broadband utility. John Honker from Magellan Broadband told commissioners in June:

"A major part of this process, and what makes utilities and cities successful in deploying broadband, is the availability of existing resources. Lakeland has a lot of fiber. You have more fiber in the ground and on the poles than many utilities have or ever have. It’s a major benefit."

Survey Says…

Earlier this year, consultants and the city surveyed residents and local businesses to learn more about how incumbents are doing in Lakeland. Approximately 850 residents responded; while half stated that they were satisfied with their current Internet access company, almost 35 percent said that they were unsatisfied. Results from 149 businesses, almost all being those with fewer than 50 employees, polled at similar rates.

Reinvigorating the Initiative

Commissioner Justin Troller has pushed his colleagues to re-examine the potential of broadband as a public utility in Lakeland. In addition to the prospect of competing with a large Internet access company, community leaders have shied away from the project due to the estimated costs. Past consultants have put deployment at $220 million to connect every premise in the Lakeland Electric utility service area and $110 million for premises in the city limits. The city's Broadband Task Force has continued moving forward, studying possibilities in order to help city leaders make an informed decision.

In October 2017, Troller suggested the city begin with a pilot project focused on shrinking the digital divide, proof of concept, and economic development. When local elections resulted in significant changes in the commission, Troller became the senior member on the board. He found his new colleagues more open to the idea of a public investment to improve local connectivity.

Since reviving the matter, Troller has held neighborhood meetings, workshops, and other public sessions to spread the idea to people living in Lakeland. Troller’s position on the commission ends at the end of 2019 due to term limits; he wants to have a plan established before he leaves. “I think the initiative is worthy of keeping alive. It has and will secure the future financial prosperity of our community,” he said at a 2018 Broadband Task Force meeting.

In August, Magellan will provide a detailed business plan draft that will include cost estimates for deployment.