Escambia County eyeing its own broadband network to combat connection issues


Last year, a Microsoft study found 162 million Americans lack broadband internet. That’s nearly half the US population.

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Escambia County is considering creating its own broadband network for residents and businesses, propelled into action by slow connection speeds hindering work and school in the county’s more rural areas during the pandemic.

Internet connections are often either spotty and too expensive or, in some areas in the north end, nonexistent. A study the county commissioned recently, completed by Magellan Advisors for about $180,000, found that about 50% of the county’s land area — the sparsely populated north end — doesn’t have any connections that would meet the definition of broadband. The study found many connections in the more populated southern end also are lacking.

The most prominent barrier in providing high-speed internet is infrastructure, as fiber cables would need to be run underground or boxes connected to telephone poles, for example, to allow for a stronger signal in those areas.

The cost of that work is often prohibitive for private companies, according to Magellan’s report, as they generally don’t see enough revenue from those few customers to justify the cost of running the lines. But that’s where the county could come in and pay for the infrastructure to connect its own residents.

Escambia County commissioners recently approved setting aside $650,000 in CARES Act funding to further investigate the option of providing its own broadband network with design and engineering plans that would better lay out the details of the network.

An early estimate Magellan provided the commissioners found a roughly $22.7 million investment into underground cables or a $10.9 million investment in wireless fiber would be needed.

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Both models showed that if residents and businesses paid for the service as projected, capital and operating expenses would be paid off within four years, and a positive cash balance would be in the millions 20 years from now.

Commissioner Steven Barry, whose district covers that northern portion of the county, has been the most outspoken in pushing for this measure, saying the pandemic has magnified the issue.

“With many people working from home, and so many children taking classes on their computers, if you do not have a fast, strong and reliable internet connection then you simply cannot be successful in work or school,” he said. “Access to fast, reliable internet has become an absolute must, not a luxury.”

Barry said the Magellan report didn’t surprise him, as he’s been receiving frustrated messages from constituents for years.

“While the county is not the grantor of any franchise rights or permits for internet or cable activities, it is such an important problem that we have to do everything we can to find a solution for our citizens,” he said.

While the other commissioners supported the initial CARES Act allocation, they were skeptical about the feasibility of moving forward and becoming essentially a utility for residents.

“We want to be supportive of the folks in rural communities with horrible and expensive service, but it has to make sense for all the citizens of the county. … I’m very, very reserved on this and I’m going to approach it with great trepidation,” Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said Wednesday, adding that he’s not sure government involving itself in the issue is the solution.

However, counties and municipalities creating their own broadband networks isn’t new. Cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, were early pioneers years ago and are now boasting booms in economic development with the draw of high-speed internet at a fraction of the cost of private companies.

Chris Mitchell, the director of the community broadband network initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said there are several different models being used nationwide to provide municipal broadband and each has its own risks and benefits.

In recent meetings, Escambia County commissioners have discussed three main options for providing broadband access: building the infrastructure and maintaining it in-house like a utility; funding the infrastructure and leasing the equipment to internet companies to essentially eliminate those companies’ funding hesitation in running lines to rural areas; and building the network and then selling it off to a private company completely.

Networks can be money-makers for counties, but there also can be risks as far as competing with the bigger companies.

“I’m sympathetic to local officials that do not want to be competing with AT&T or Comcast, local governments have plenty of challenges and many don’t want to take this on, but I think it’s wrong to think about this just as the technology,” Mitchell said. “If a government builds a network, it has the chance to keep upgrading, whereas a private owner might just sell it or might want to keep prices higher because they have different incentives. … Places that have privatized have seen prices go up and customer service decline so there’s a real trade-off.”

Mitchell said he’s seen all three models have success, but there are numerous local factors that come into play.

A public-private partnership, in which the county would own the infrastructure and lease it to companies like AT&T, seemed favorable to the commissioners in recent meetings.

Bergosh said that option would give those companies some “skin in the game” and give the county an opportunity to pay back its investment, without being in fierce competition with technology experts.

Commissioner Lumon May is in support of the measure as a benefit to the whole community, but said he too is waiting to hear more on the specifics of the studies.

“In that northern rural part, they’re in desperate need of broadband, anything we can do to advance technology and being prepared for post-COVID is going to enhance the community,” he said Wednesday.

Santa Rosa County is also in early stages of the same studies. The commissioners there talked about the issue in mid-January, and like Escambia County, see the connectivity decrease the farther north into the county they travel.

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Commissioner James Calkins, who represents Santa Rosa’s north end, hasn’t brought anything official to the commission yet but said he’s following Escambia’s lead and is in discussion with some of those same advisory companies to assess the feasibility in his county.

“I will advocate it to the board as something that is a necessity for the safety and well-being of our citizens,” he said. “For our students that can’t go to school and our workers living in rural communities, it’s very important. It’s one of those things when you live in a populated area that you take for granted, but it’s very important out here.”

Magellan’s initial feasibility study showed McDavid, in northern Escambia County, had internet speeds running 97% slower than the national average. About 8,000 Escambia County residents lack access to a wired service provider with broadband speeds — defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 mbps — and 4,000 residents lack access to any wired provider.

In its January presentation to the Escambia County commissioners, Magellan also pushed the need for reliable, fast broadband as an economic development draw.

“Through the deployment of fiber technology, Escambia County can designate these areas as being fiber-ready, allowing any business moving to Escambia County to recognize that fiber services are readily available and prevalent at competitive rates,” the study reads.

Mitchell said in his work, he’s seen the economic development piece often used as a selling point for creating a publicly owned broadband network and having multiple broadband options in any area is becoming the norm.

“There’s more and more places that have that (fiber connection), so it’s not that the county would be unique in having the ability to provide fiberoptic service to an industry, but they will not even be considered if they don’t,” he said.

He said moving forward, his advice to the county is to communicate with other communities that have done the groundwork already, like Ocala and Gainesville in-state, or Opelika, Alabama, and Chattanooga.

“You’ve also got to be clear about the goals and how to know if you’re successful three or four years down the line,” he said. “The most natural thing will be judging based on revenue, which isn’t the goal I’m guessing, it’s probably just to pay for itself with the fundamental goal of better connection and economic development.”

Escambia County officials are now in the stage of drafting requests for proposal for the design and engineering work commissioners have already approved, but there is no timeline for that work’s completion.

Emma Kennedy can be reached at [email protected] or 850-480-6979.

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