Escambia County may look to pivot from its current plan to build its own county-wide fiberoptic network and instead incentivize private sector development of high-speed internet in the north end of the county.
On Thursday, commissioners accepted a detailed plan from Magellan Advisors — a firm it paid $650,000 for the work — and scheduled to hear a presentation of the plan at their next Committee of the Whole meeting, as well as committing $10 million to fund broadband development north of 10 Mile Road.
Accepting the plan means the county doesn’t have any issues with the work Magellan Advisors did for the county. However, Commissioner Steven Barry expressed skepticism that the county needed to be the one to own the network as envisioned in Magellan’s plan.
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The plan calls for building a county-owned fiberoptic network across the county connecting various public buildings and creating wireless nodes to deliver high-speed internet to residential customers. The county had set aside $22 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for the project.
Barry said he had no issues with the work of Magellan Advisors, but worried about the risk the county would be taking if it owned the actual network in the ground.
“If something happens (to change the internet marketplace), after we kind of step off and take that financial risk, then whether it’s us sitting on the dais or very likely a new swath of folks in say 10 years, I don’t want to leave something in the ground that’s going to be a huge burden, or that we then have to try to fire sale,” Barry said. “Or if something just doesn’t go like the best-case scenario. I always hoped for the best-case scenario. … (But) many of the paths that we’ve gone down have not ended up in best-case scenarios.”
Barry proposed splitting the project in two, with $10 million dedicated to the county north of 10 Mile Road and $12 million dedicated to the southern half of the county.
For the northern half of the project, rather than the county owning the fiber network, the $10 million would be used to obtain another $5 million grant from the state and then be used to incentivize a private company to build the fiber network.
Barry said the idea would be rather than wireless access to the network, the private company could run the fiber directly to people’s homes.
“I want my constituents to finally have access to real high-speed fiber internet in their homes,” Barry said.
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David Deliman, market vice president for the Gulf Coast region of Cox Communications, told the commission his company was interested in partnering with the county on the project.
South of 10 Mile Road, the county would work with the Florida Department of Transportation to co-locate the network to wire the new traffic light control system that will be built at the Escambia County Public Safety Department.
Barry said having the Magellan Advisors study puts the county ahead of other communities who may compete for grants.
Commissioner Lumon May expressed concern the focus on rural areas may overlook the underserved urban areas of his district.
Deliman told May that in his district the issue isn’t access to high-speed network but rather affordability. He said Cox offers discount programs and even free internet service to qualifying low-income homes, but the challenge is informing people that they qualify for those programs.
May said that is good to know and he wanted to look at ways the county could help get the word out.
“In many of the neighborhoods that I serve there’s sewer, but people can’t connect,” May said. “So if the broadband is there and people just can’t afford to connect, then there’s a different conversation over resources that I should be providing.”
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.