There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding concerning the expansion of GRUCom into providing residential service. The biggest misunderstandings surround how much it will cost and some very large numbers have been tossed around without much context.
The two studies that have been done so far spell out bottom-line amounts, but the real determining factor is how the project is carried out. Since GRUCom already has a working system, the costs should mostly be incremental and done in such a manner as to minimize the city’s financial risk.
Some broadband proponents are advocating a purely social needs-based deployment strategy where the budget is a secondary consideration. I believe that the most prudent approach is the one that industry currently uses and is commonly called “cherry picking.” This is where the service providers build out their system in neighborhoods where the number of people subscribing to the service is likely to exceed the number needed to break even on the installation costs (generally between a 40-50% take rate).
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I think that the city should start in this manner to provide a revenue stream that will help defray the costs of expansion in the underserved target areas of our community. This is something only a municipally owned system would do, as breaking even would be a very acceptable outcome for this service because it will benefit our entire community. Commercial businesses would not do this.
The biggest risk to the city is that as soon as GRUCom starts this project, you can expect a full-blown onslaught of misinformation and short-term pricing by Cox intended to protect this portion of their business. As a safeguard against this tactic as well as compel people to switch to this new service, I propose we offer a service benefit to all of these new customers.
The service would provide unlimited phone support for all of your computer needs, not just problems with your connection. Commercial ISP operators would never consider doing this. This service in itself would benefit the neediest parts of our community because as the world gets more complex and scammers come up with more computer related scams that prey on them. Imagine that the next time you get a nasty popup that you don’t understand, you could have someone connect to your computer, look into the problem, fix it if possible and explain what’s going on.
The best part of this plan is that it is going to create a wide variety of new jobs. The city should use this as an effective tool to give those that can’t find employment because they lack experience or have a non-violent criminal record. The city can train these people for the new jobs and more importantly employ them so that they have bonafide work experience. For many, this will be the start of a new life.
I know that many of you are thinking that the city shouldn’t take on such a task but when you look at all of the money spent on trying to help our east-side residents through the years on programs that didn’t seem to be very effective, it may not seem like such a bad idea. It is new, bold and if done properly, it would pay for itself.
The approximately $35 million federal grant that the city is considering how to use was intended for just this type of public works/infrastructure improvement project. COVID made it clear that the internet service is destined to become a utility just like our other basic needs but because of politics and the corporate profits involved, the federal government has been slow to make progress in this direction. This is our opportunity to make Gainesville competitive in our new economy by improving our connectivity as well as building a workforce with skills that new businesses need.
Currently, because of all of the misinformation around, it has been easy to let the priority of the broadband project drop below that of a proposed grocery store on the east side of town. We need to demand better from our government than old, re-hashed ideas that haven’t worked before.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite proverbs because I feel it fits this situation really well: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Greg Larvenz is the founder of the Gainesville Internet Action Group and lives in Gainesville.
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