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Escambia Working To Expand Broadband Network

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Plans to set up a broadband network covering Escambia County are moving ahead, after a report that the county has huge gaps in advanced Internet services.

The Wi-Fi network would offer high-speed Internet to 3,000 underserved residents in north Escambia County. A connection to a speed of 150 megabytes per second would run about $80 a month. A speed of one gigabyte would also be available at a higher charge.

“I think that access to high-speed Internet has become a basic human right; not saying it should be provided, necessarily, but it’s become a basic utility to be a functional adult and a functional household,” said County Commissioner Steven Berry, who adds the need arose during the pandemic, which led to school closings and drove employees to work at home — oftentimes in cyber-underserved areas.

“We had a lot of state, county, and federal employees that were also needing to work from home; and I think that mix of need highlighted an issue that may not have been seen countywide, but then was seen with a lot of folks this year,” Berry said. “Everybody’s just being stuck at home having to work.”

One of the clear uses of the county’s portion of the federal CARES Act, says Berry, is expanding broadband Internet. That got the ball rolling with a feasibility study, and now the next phase that’s been awarded to Denver-based Magellan Advisors, for $645,000 from CARES.

“To do some more in-depth planning and design for what that might look like; then the opportunity part of that popped up again with the RESCUE Plan dollars the county’s going to be getting,” said Berry. “Broadband expansion is another clear line item in there as an eligible expense. I think you’ve got those opportunities met with a tremendous amount of need that really brought the discussion to the forefront.”

Magellan was selected from five companies bidding for the project. Since the work is in the very early stages, it’s not known just how long it will take, or even what the finished product will be.

The firm declined to be interviewed for this story.

“With the pandemic and everybody moving to work from home, and school systems trying to educate from the house, it really kind of shined a light on our community’s deficiencies as it relates to rural broadband,” according to Scott Luth, president and CEO of the Florida West Economic Development Alliance.

“We’ve got very good {internet] providers in this community from the private sector; but our gaps just really became relavant in the rural areas and some other areas that just don’t have the connectivity that our urban core has,” Luth said.

Regardless of the quality of the local providers, Luth says Magellan’s role will be as a consultant, to study ways to deploy a broadband strategy.

“It’s my understanding that they’re going to look at a private model; a public model, and a public-private partnership model,” said Luth. “Assessing that and giving good, solid advice to the county on a path forward. The company is not a provider of those services; they’re more of a consultant that helps the county actually make the determination of how to move forward.”

As mentioned, broadband connectivity — just as with location, utilities, and roads — has become one of the “must-haves” that companies look for when considering start-up, relocation, or expansion of their firm. Luth says that also applies to industry recruiting.

“Communities are expected to have that reliability, accessibility and affordability, but we’re competing really just across the communities and against our counterparts in other states that have that,” said Florida West’s Luth. “Having that countywide — and not just in certain areas — is extremely important.”

One factor mentioned by Commissioner Steven Berry, which he believes only involves his District 5, was an auction by the Federal Communications Commission last year for the Rural Opportunity Digital Fund grant program.

“Where the FCC identified through Census tracks, several thousand Census tracks in northern Escambia County that had no access.” Berry said. “And the FCC auctioned off and made awards to vendors and contractors to provide service to those areas.”

And that was the lone drawback, says Berry — uncovering the vast amount of unserved zones.

“But when I put the underserved areas where the FCC or somebody, a vendor’s grid, might show that they have access to it. In reality they don’t have access to it. So that would be even a much larger number that’s what you would consider underserved.”

Magellan has done similar work for 25 governmental clients in Florida, including Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and Seminole County.

According to northescambia.com, it will take about five months to deliver a final design and road map for Escambia County, including a business plan, engineering design and deployment guidelines.