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Individuals frustrated with the lack of affordable high-speed internet in Monticello and Jefferson County can take a little hope that local officials have taken notice of the problem and are beginning to take steps to address it.
On Tuesday evening, Dec. 3, the Monticello City Council adopted a resolution that aims to bring the problem to the attention of state leaders and recruit their help to ameliorate the situation.
Addressed to the Governor and Cabinet, and members of the Florida Legislature and the Public Service Commission, the resolution asks the named state officials to provide funding for the “last mile” of infrastructure for Monticello and other rural communities.
The phrase last mile – as widely used in the telecommunications, cable television and internet industries – refers to the final leg of telecommunications networks that deliver telecommunication services to the individual homes and businesses.
Providing reliable and affordable high-speed internet to rural areas is in fact one of the Florida League of Cities' top legislative priorities for the 2020 legislative session, a point that the Monticello resolution underscores.
The resolution holds that affordable high-speed internet is a necessary and critical component for economic development and quality education in a technology-driven modern world. The converse, goes the argument, is that the lack of affordable high-speed internet in Florida's rural communities is hindering progress and making for less than quality education.
The resolution, moreover, holds that federal and state laws, as well as regulations and policies, have in effect limited rural communities' ability to obtain affordable high-speed internet service. And where internet service is available is rural communities, it is unreasonably expensive in comparison with other parts of the state.
Monticello, in particular, according to the resolution, is unable to provide high-speed internet services or fund the necessary internet infrastructure because of it small population and lack of the adequate financial resources.
The resolution specifically asserts that the lack of reliable and affordable high-speed internet in Monticello and Jefferson County “impedes economic development, by limiting the ability of existing businesses to conduct daily transactions and compete for online sales and services; limits educational opportunities for young people, who must compete in a technology-driven economy; hampers the ability of Monticello and Jefferson County to attract new residents, such as professionals and others who could work from home, thus lowering the value of residential real estate and the city's ad-valorem tax base; and otherwise significantly inconvenience residents...”
City officials are not the only ones seeking to expand internet connectivity. Since mid 2018, county officials have been trying to bring broadband to select areas of the county via some $1.2 million in Restore Act funding stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The idea, as initially presented, was to undertake the project in partnership with CenturyLink, which would do the actual work of improving the county's fiberoptic infrastructure network.
“The proposed project will expand Jefferson County's position as a location for business, as well as create new educational opportunities for Jefferson County students,” read the plan's original language.
It then went on to state that “Access to high-speed internet service would allow businesses to locate in Jefferson County and existing businesses to grow, therefore benefiting the economy.”
The broadband service also, according to the plan, would allow for additional education opportunistic that would grow Jefferson County's workforce skills.
Earlier this year, however, the county received word that the U.S. Treasury, which is overseeing dispersal of the Restore Act funding, was questioning why the county was looking at CenturyLink as a sole source provider of broadband.
Bottom line, the county had to put the contract out for bids, even though CenturyLink is considered the only available provider in the area, in effect delaying the project.
“We're going to have to put together a Request For Proposals to bring broadband to areas of the county that we've been talking about,” Commissioner Betsy Barfield, who represents the county on the Gulf Consortium, told her colleagues in July 2019. “That should push the project back two to three months.”
The Gulf Consortium is the 23-county entity created in the aftermath of the spill to oversee the distribution of the BP monies in Florida.
The four areas that have been identified as having unmet fiberoptic infrastructure needs and that have been targeted for broadband accessibility are Lloyd, Lamont, the Sanctuary development near Lloyd, and U.S. 90.
At the time, CenturyLink had selected the four areas based on their population densities, barring the City of Monticello, which already has Internet accessibility.
The project was then expected to cost $1,130,000, with additional funding to come from broadband providers.
“CenturyLink is paying for most of the cost and we're supplementing it,” Barfield said at the time.
British Petroleum in 2015 agreed to pay $5.5 billion for its part in the petroleum disaster, which monies were to be dispersed to the five affected states in three pots over the next 15 years. Those five affected states are Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
So far, Jefferson County has received $3.4 million in pot 1, and it’s slated to get $12.7 million for pot 3.
The BP oil spill began on April 20, 2010, and lasted more than four months, releasing upwards of 200 million gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. The spilled oil wrecked havoc on estuaries, harmed commercial fishing, marred beaches and adversely impacted the region’s general economic viability and its tourism.