Lakeland Public-Private Broadband Project Faces Delays, Frustration

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.

Under the terms of the deal, Summit handles all installation, maintenance, billing and customer service. Lakeland officials stated they’d be paying $250,000 per year over the first five years of the contract to support the network expansion. Summit also pledged to spend $20,000 annually to ensure equitable access to low-income communities in the city.

Orlando President Kevin Koyne told Lakeland city commissioners in February the company would soon deliver service to 5,000 residents of neighborhoods between downtown and Edgewood Drive. But residents in those areas have yet to receive service, and Frontier Communications has instead been the one pushing fiber to some of these areas as part of its post-bankruptcy pledge to do better on meaningful fiber investment after years of criticism.

“Summit Broadband has been working diligently to launch services in the city of Lakeland,” the company told LkldNow. “While service to individual homes is not currently available, we are currently offering service to businesses and multi-family communities. In fact, we’re excited to already be serving more than a dozen local businesses in addition to becoming a provider of Internet services for the Surf Lakeland project.”

Stephanie Madden, chair of the commission’s Broadband Committee, told the outlet she was “not at all encouraged” by Summit’s response to the city’s concerns.

The agreement between Summit and Lakeland automatically renews if Summit fulfills its deployment promises. Neither Mutz nor Madden responded to repeated requests for comment from ILSR as to whether the delay and strategy shift qualified as a breach of that arrangement, or what steps Summit has taken to restore city officials’ faith in the project. 

Public-Private Partnerships Are Not Easy 

Lakland’s embrace of a public-private partnership dramatically differs from other Florida cities. Fort Pierce, Florida, for example, has fully embraced building its own open access fiber network, hopeful that numerous providers will come to the city to compete in layers, driving down prices while improving service for the entire city. 

Lakeland’s 330-mile fiber infrastructure already served the Polk County School District, local libraries, and public safety facilities. As early as 2019 consultants employed by the city had argued the city was perfectly positioned to launch its own broadband utility

As earlier ILSR reports have indicated, P3s aren’t always the quickest, easiest, or cheapest way to attain uniform broadband expansion, and conflicting motivations and incentives do, on occasion, leave municipalities holding the short end of the stick. Although ultimately, there is no easy path to universal high-quality Internet access. 

Inline image of Lake Mirror in downtown Lakeland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)