Gainesville Earmarks Rescue Plan Funds for Citywide Municipal Network

In August we reported on the effort to bring municipal fiber-to-the-home service to Gainesville. At the time, city commissioners were wrestling with whether to spend a portion of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to start construction on the first phase of a citywide fiber network.

After postponing a previously scheduled vote on how to spend the money at a meeting in October, city commissioners earlier this month voted to set aside $9.6 million of the city’s $32 million in Rescue Plan funds to extend its existing fiber network to connect over 2,000 businesses and nearly 10,000 homes in areas of the north central Florida city identified by planners as neighborhoods where service is most needed. Those neighborhoods include Springhill, Grove Street, Oakview Duckpond, Stephen Foster, Lincoln Estates, Duval, and Highland Court Manor.

“This is a huge step forward for our community,” said Bryan Eastman, founder of Connected Gainesville, a citizen-led advocacy group that launched in 2017 pushing for the city’s utility company to build out its existing fiber network to serve all of Alachua County.

Our city residents are tired of the status quo and are ready for a more connected future with better Internet [access] options. Thank you to our city commission for investing in this future. This is not the final vote on this, but it's the biggest step we've taken yet.

‘Powerful forces’ Lurk Behind-the-Scenes

While city commissioners voted to “set aside” the ARPA funds for broadband expansion, it was not a final vote to fund the project. The final vote is slated for January 6, 2022 after commissioners hear from city staff on how they intend to roll out the initiative.

Eastman said that while the final vote seems likely to pass, now is the time to keep pushing.

“There are still powerful forces that don’t want this to come to fruition, so we’re doing everything we can to get citizens to reach out and tell their commissioners they want municipal broadband in Gainesville,” he told us earlier this week.

Majority Believe Expanding Broadband Access is ‘Essential’

Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU) has already deployed over 600 miles of fiber throughout the city, and for the past two decades, its subsidiary GATOR NET has been offering symmetrical gig-speed service to some area businesses, apartment buildings, government agencies, and community anchor institutions.  

While the city is served by Cox Communications for cable, there are still many residents in Gainesville and in Alachua County without access to high-speed Internet service. And even for those who do have access, they are paying a premium. A 2019 study conducted by CCG for the city found that Gainesville “has some of the overall highest rates we’ve seen for the triple play [telephone, internet and cable TV] in the country.”

The high prices and lack of competitive options hasn’t gone unnoticed by Gainesville residents. A recent study by the ETC Institute found that 76 percent of the city’s residents believe that expanding broadband access is either "very important" or "essential" for the city to address.

Meanwhile, Connected Gainesville estimates that if the network is built-out it will save households over $500 per year and potentially generate over $3 million per year in revenue for the city.

County Support

As city commissioners consider whether to give the project final approval to move forward using federal ARPA funds, another source of support can be found among Alachua County officials. In an op-ed published in The Gainesville Sun earlier this month, Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell explained why the county has allocated up to $15 million of its ARPA funds to expand broadband access and how over the coming months, the county “will be working with local municipal governments and private sector providers to make a determined effort to map and identify opportunities to improve and deploy broadband throughout Alachua County.”

“For the last 30 years, most individuals and businesses that wanted Internet access received it primarily from either private telecommunication companies or private internet/cable service providers. This privatized model is based on density and profitability and has worked well for most providers; however, it has not worked well for large segments of the public at large,” he wrote, concluding that “as we enter the new year, we know the need is great and the time to act is now.”

One potential challenge Gainesville may need to stare down: the state’s preemption laws as it pertains to municipal broadband. As the Coalition for Local Internet Choice explains, “Florida requires municipalities that wish to provide communications services to conduct at least two public hearings at which they must consider a variety of factors, including ‘a plan to ensure that revenues exceed operating expenses and payment of principal and interest on debt within four years.’ Since fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) projects, whether public or private, often require longer than four years to become cash-flow positive, this requirement either precludes municipalities from proposing FTTH projects or invites endless disputes over whether or not a municipality’s plan is viable.”  

Municipal fiber projects should already be planning to hold public meetings prior to committing to a broadband strategy, so that is not a problem. However, some local leaders get hung up on the requirement to develop a plan for profitability in 4 years. Close observers have noted that while cities have to develop this plan, they are not obligated to sell the system or otherwise dispose of it if that plan does not hit all its targets. As such, the restriction is not as bad as many cities in Florida have chosen to interpret it.

Header image of city sign: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic (CC BY 2.5)

Inline image of Broadband Priority Areas map couresy of Magellan Advisors

Inline image of Connected Gainesville announcement courtesy of Connected Gainesville