Gainesville officials have shot down a proposal to use nearly $10 million in pandemic relief funds for an expansion of low-cost, city-run broadband internet despite years of discussion on the issue.
Instead, elected leaders said they would keep exploring options on the issue and would instead look at how to spend the American Rescue Plan Act dollars on affordable housing, an issue some city commissioners agree is Gainesville’s most pressing issue.
The city commission voted 2-5 to dismiss the broadband proposal Thursday with only commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos and David Arreola advocating for the plan, both of whom served on the city’s broadband subcommittee. Hayes-Santos said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of needing high-speed Internet service.
“People decide where to live based on the quality of the Internet,” he said. “We talk about lowering GRU bills and reducing taxes. This does this more than anything else we can do (to lower people’s costs).”
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The commission had hired a consulting firm to study a proposal to spend $9.6 million in federal ARPA funds for a pilot project to provide the Internet service through the city’s GRUCom telecommunications service.
The plan would have allowed high-speed internet starting at $30 a month to more than 5,000 potential customers, covering neighborhoods around Northwest 13th Street, including Stephen Foster, Oakview, Duckpond and North East neighbors.
When the Biden administration first floated the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act plan, and after its approval, the president noted that the city’s should take the opportunity to use the funding for municipal internet expansion to help struggling families and close the digital divide.
Bryan Eastman, the founder of Connected Gainesville, said ARPA funds don’t come along often and this is a prime opportunity to address the digital divide, adding that the city is already losing jobs and residents to Ocala, which provides the service.
“I think this is our best opportunity to move forward,” he said.
Hesitation with broadband expansion
City staff also expressed reservations about the broadband proposal despite looking at the issue for close to five years. They expressed potential hurdles that the city’s competitors could cause, including accusing the city of anti-trust law violations.
GRU general manager Tony Cunningham told commissioners that the utility is not prepared to take on the project right now.
Other cities, like Ocala, already offer a similar service and haven’t had major issues, said Hayes-Santos, adding that the service would bring in millions of dollars in revenue for the city and help alleviate other pressing issues. Magellan Advisors also that hundreds of cities have municipal broadband and have not had any lawsuits slow that process.
“There is always a legal risk, but if we’re talking about a legal risk that has never happened before even though hundreds of cities have done broadband, I think that is a little overblown in my opinion,” he said.
Some residents also expressed reservations about the plan.
Local NAACP chapter President Evelyn Foxx asked commissioners not to approve the plan, as did Ron Rawls, pastor of Greater Bethel AME Church.
Rawls, too, said the money would be better spent on affordable housing and said he was concerned about “throwing other people’s money in the wind by investing in a business that we seem unprepared to operate.”
Elected leaders said they will now look at other potential ways to potentially fund the broadband expansion project, though limited funding could prove challenging.
The discussion spiraled into a debate on other topics when Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who said the internet program was too risky, demanded to use about $8 million to address affordable housing.
She expressed frustration with her colleagues, despite not detailing a plan, saying which potential projects would be funded or noticing the public before wanting a vote.
“I think we need to take action today on this motion,” she said.
Poe, however, said he could not recall a time when the commission took such an action. “It was not on our agenda and it has not been discussed with staff,” he said.
The commission voted 5-2 anyway to designate the funding for affordable housing and to come back with a fully formed plan at a later date.
Poe and Commissioner Reina Saco were in dissent.