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In the summer of 2021, Lakeland city commissioners voted 5-to-1 to strike a private-public partnership (P3) with Summit Broadband, part of a 10 year plan to expand broadband availability within city limits. But officials in this central Florida city of 112,000 have expressed growing consternation that the planned broadband expansion is behind schedule and more selective than expected.
“I think this is the right move for the City of Lakeland as it will accomplish what was my goal: to make it a smart city without the burden of bonding out our debt,” Lakeland Commissioner Bill Read said shortly after the project was announced. “The private sector can do a job much better than any public entity, better than our city.”
A year later and several city leaders don’t seem entirely sure.
Local news outlet LkldNow indicated last month that most Lakeland residents have yet to see service, and that Summit appears to have shifted its deployment priorities away from uniform house-by-house coverage, and toward select businesses and housing development developments.
Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said of the revelations:
I am not satisfied with the speed with which Summit is rolling out service to consumers in Lakeland and concerned that they may have de-emphasized that express concurrent desire of the commission. Whereas it has been our goal to provide commercial business with improved Internet service, the consumer emphasis was originally and consistently one of our highest expressed priorities and motivations.
City Officials Question Partners’ Apparent Shift in Strategy
Under the city’s 10 year agreement with Summit, the provider pledged to spend $20 million over the next five years expanding the city’s existing 350-mile dark fiber network. Under the deal, Summit will pay the city $144,000 per year initially, ultimately switching to paying the city 10 percent of gross revenue on Internet services.
This past summer, consultants hired by Lakeland, Florida, shared their opinion that the community has the necessary components to launch a broadband utility. In a recent opinion piece in The Ledger, city commissioner Justin Toller encourages Lakelanders to let their elected officials know that they want a public vote on the issue.
We’re Paying for it, Regardless
Toller, who has championed the broadband initiative as the chair of the Broadband Task Force, appeals to the public’s sense of value. He notes that, while everyone in the community has contributed financially to developing the existing 330-mile fiber optic network, only a small number of commercial entities use the infrastructure along with local schools, libraries, and public safety facilities. The city collects around $4 million per year in dark fiber leases.
By investing in the final connection, we can reduce customer costs in the long-term, because you are the owners and not just the users. To private providers, you are a source of profit; to our city, you are an investment in our shared community. That investment will create innovation, economic development, job growth, and a higher quality of life, while also providing a savings on your Internet bill.
Repeating the Past
Toller also notes how Lakeland decided as a community in the past to invest in the electric utility, the hospital, and the roads. He sees a similar path with fiber.
Today, the roadways of the future are not concrete; they are fiber. Lakeland has invested millions of dollars in building the current fiber network, and now it’s time to make the final investment to connect all Lakelanders. Keep in mind, whether we hook-up that fiber to every home and business or not, we all continue to pay for the existing infrastructure.
The city has done its due diligence by having a feasibility study. There have been numerous community meetings, a survey, a forum, and hundreds of public comments. In response, private providers have done what they do best, raise prices.
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:
This spring, Lakeland city officials began contemplating the future of the city’s dark fiber network with an eye toward making a firm decision on whether or not to expand how they use it. Rather than pursue a municipal Internet network, Commissioners recently decided to seek out private sector partners to improve local connectivity.
Too Much For Lakeland?
Kudos to Christopher Guinn of the Ledger for very thorough reporting on the issue. According to his article, the city will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solution that provides Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to replace the current speeds in Lakeland. Cable serves the community now with maximum speeds of 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and about 10 Mbps upload.
In addition to the difficulty of establishing an Internet access utility, City Commissioners appeared intimidated by incumbents:
“I look at us trying to develop and design a fiber-to-the-home (network), the marketing, the technical support and all that, and going up against current providers, and I don’t see it,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.
Pilot Won't Fly
One of the options the Commission considered was a pilot project in a limited area, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Commissioner Justin Troller advocated for the pilot project:
“I think we should have a test area. If that’s something that costs we can say we tried it, we invested in it, it didn’t work and we’re moving on and finding a private partner,” Troller said.
He added: “I’m not against going out and seeing what the private sector will offer us. I’m saying how do we know we can’t do it if we don’t do it?”
While a number of Commissioners agreed that high-quality Internet access is critical for both economic development and the residents’ quality of life, fear of facing off against incumbent Charter overcame any vision of how a municipal network could benefit Lakeland:
In August 2013, we reported on Lakeland, Florida’s dark fiber network that serves local schools, government facilities, and local businesses. Over the past year or so, community leaders have discussed whether or not to expand the use of Lakeland’s fiber resources.
A 2015 feasibility study suggested several other ways to use Lakeland’s existing 330 miles of fiber infrastructure to enhance connectivity for economic development and residential access. As the city examines its finances and its future in the coming months, city leaders are considering six avenues to meet the community’s needs. The options, some recommended by consultants, vary in type and investment and the City Commission will begin discussing the possibilities as they meet in the upcoming months.
Leaders Consider The Next Move
Lakeland is examining public policies that will encourage better connectivity, such as dig-once, permitting changes, and right-of-way regulations. With smart policies in place, Lakeland can lay the groundwork so they can build off progress made today.
In 2013, Polk Vision, a group of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals, along with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council developed the Polk County Broadband Plan. Another option is using the Plan as a guidepost and aligning Lakeland’s plan to support the goals set in the Polk County Plan. Connecting the schools to a larger network would be part of that plan.
Lakeland, like many other communities wants to give providers operating in the community today the opportunity to work with them to improve services. Another option the city will pursue is reaching out to providers in Lakeland and engaging in discussions to upgrade or expand services to better meet the needs of the community. (We haven't seen much success when communities pursue large incumbents, but smaller local providers are sometimes more willing to work with communities.)
Near the center of Florida sits Lakeland, the largest city between Orlando and Tampa with 98,000 residents. The area boasts 38 lakes, citrus crops, and a growing healthcare industry. Lakeland also owns a fiber optic network serving education, business, and government. To learn more, we spoke with Paul Meyer, Lakeland Electric City of Lakeland Fiber Optics Supervisor.
The city's municipal electric company, Lakeland Electric, began generating and providing electricity to customers in its service territory in 1904. In the mid 1990s, the utility began replacing older copper connections between substations with fiber-optic cable. Soon after, the Polk County School District asked Lakeland Electric to connect school facilities via the fiber network for video transmissions. By 1997, almost 50 school facilities were connected to each other via using dark fiber provided by Lakeland Electric. In 1994, the District paid $219,582 $84,737 to the utility to design, construct, and install equipment for video connections in four schools. The school received an indefeasible right of use for two fibers for twenty years. over which Verizon delivers data and voice services to the School District on its own lines.
Meyer noted that the fiber project likely cost more than the school paid but the installation gave them the opportunity to expand the network. Further expansion connected the police department, libraries, and water facilities. Over time, the electric utility has incrementally expanded to every building engaged in city business. The network is aerial, using the utility's own poles to mount the fiber.