Flagler County government is looking to the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, a separate federal fund through the Federal Communications Commission and potential subsidies for money that may finally underwrite expansion of broadband internet service to some 400 West Flagler households that have been clamoring for service for years. The county will focus on service delivery by low-orbit satellite and cable.
“We’re going to come back to the board to recommend some funding for broadband through the American Rescue Act fund allocation,” Jorge Salinas, county government’s chief of staff and the point man on the issue since March 1, told county commissioners this morning. FCC money, $169 million of which was allocated to Florida, would be potentially available later this year or early next year. Those grants require 40 percent of targeted locations to receive service by Year 3 and 100 percent by Year 6.
The county’s stepped-up efforts are the combined result of commissioners making broadband access a priority and a sustained effort by a group of residents on the west side of the county, led by Katie Biancaniello, to keep the issue in the forefront, principally through an informal working group that has met from time to time and to which Salinas is now the county’s liaison.
But numerous steps remain. Salinas’s presentation today was essentially the first time that the initiative has been framed as a working priority beyond the working group’s scope. It was lucid, systematic, and free of frills or back-patting. It’s a victory of sorts for the group, which had until recently worked with Commissioner Joe Mullins, who’d made his own efforts to give the issue its due. But the group had become frustrated by inaction and repeated promises that seemed to lead nowhere–and rounds of grant funding that the group missed for lack of administrative support from the county. (See: “It’s a County Priority, But Quest to Bring Broadband to Flagler’s West Side Runs Into County Hurdles.”)
That may be about to change, with Salinas now tasked to be the face of that administrative support. Salinas was assigned the role on March 1. “Having our chief of staff has been like putting glue to all the important pieces, bringing them together,” Mullins said. Today’s presentation took stock of where the matter stands, laying out possibilities rather than projecting anything certain just yet. So much remains in the realm of hope.
Salinas summarized the state of legislation–for instance House Bill 753, which establishes a “Broadband Opportunity Program” within the state Department of Economic Opportunity and sets certain standards for grants and grant funding, and Senate Bill 1560, a mapping initiative. Both those bills died, however. But some of 753’s provisions were incorporated into a bill that passed–HB 1239, which, creates the grant program to “fund the installation or deployment of infrastructure that supports broadband Internet service in unserved areas,” according to a legislative analysis. Applicants eligible for grant awards include private for-profit and non-profit corporations, limited liability companies, general partnerships and political subdivisions. “The Office may not award, directly or indirectly, grants to a governmental entity or educational institution or affiliate to provide broadband Internet service to any residential or commercial premises,” the analysis states, “unless other broadband Internet service providers have not deployed service to an unserved area.” That would suggest that West Flagler is eligible. The grant amounts the state program would make available are not yet clear.
Salinas cited some federal funding opportunities that the committee has already studied, plus potentially new opportunities that the latest federal stimulus plan has made available. He noted three private companies that got dollar allocations to extend broadband to underserved areas, among them Comcast, which got $1.2 million to do so. “As we were looking into this, there was a surprise,” Salinas said. “I was surprised by the fact that if you look to the west side that yellow block is actually Daytona North, which has Charter Communication provides broadband services to that location today.” Salinas suggested that Charter should be able to extend service “to a large majority of the folks outside that currently don;t have it on the south and southwest part of the county.”
He said the company is interested in furthering the effort (“they plan to continue to extend even if SpaceX has blocks that they have allocated,” Salinas said) though the county administration staff has also met with Spectrum, the city of Palm Coast and Magellan advisers to better understand how broadband might be extended in the county. Palm Coast currently has no plans to extend much beyond its borders.
Based on research compiled by Marvin Clegg, one of the working group’s members, the average downloading speed in Bunnell is almost half what it is in the rest of Florida and 61 percent slower than the national average.
High-orbit satellite-enabled service is less reliable and less speedy, at least for now, than cable. It’s also prohibitive, with customers paying up to $200 a month for spotty service, according to Biancaniello. Sgnificant improvements are expected through SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. (Most mobile devices rely on 4G and 5G, with 4G providing speeds of about about 100 to 300 megabits per second, and 5G at about 10 times that speed, which satellite cannot provide.) Still, one of the main options will be satellite service. “We’re going to be looking at potential help with the initial investment for the resident as a potential option, if the funds can be used for that,” Salinas said. “My understanding is that it’s between $300 and $400, the device to be able to receive the signal.”
“It is for sure a solution and the real rural areas. Absolutely,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said. But he asked for more quantified measures in the future to better understand the scope of the challenge–specifically, the number of households that are underserved, which potentially could mean that a mere line extension could reach them, as opposed to households that are unserved, which means they’re out of reach by all providers at the moment. Then there’s the matter of affordability, even if, for instance, satellite service were (and is) available.
“There’s a providing the service and then there’s affordability of it,” Salinas said, “and there is additional legislation coming down that would offset some of the costs for lower income folks through their part of the SNAP program and others.” SNAP is the acronym for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program more commonly known as food stamps: its means-tested eligibility criteria can be applied to other needs. (The irony was left unspoken, of course: Mullins does not acknowledge Biden as the president and has often spoken derogatorily of government subsidies, though the county is now realizing his cherished broadband extension to the west side through both the recue act and means-tested programs.)
Salinas and Mullins acknowledged the role Biancaniello–who was in the audience–has continued to play.