When a local government and a private company comingle logos, palms and adulation to cheer a job-producing venture at a joint announcement, like the one Palm Coast government hosted with Evansville, Ind.-based Metronet at City Hall this afternoon, there’s generally been a deal, an incentive, a tax subsidy–something that brought the company in. Usually something that puts taxpayers on the hook. And the deals, in Flagler County anyway over the past many years, have tended to favor the company more than the public, or to have crashed, burned and embarrassed.
Not this time.
Metronet, a decade-and-a-half-old privately held company pledges to have the city’s entire 550 miles of residential streets wired with high-speed fiber optic within two years–starting at the end of this summer–making Palm Coast a “Gigabit City.” The service will provide speeds of up to 1 gig across town, with so-called “symmetrical” uploads and download speeds, rather than the typically slower upload speeds in most residential services. The speed compares with 100 to 400 mbps offered by other providers currently, who offer 1 gig only in select areas.
Metronet is getting no deal in return from the city. Only the assurance that the city will work with Metronet to ensure efficient permitting in what will be a $50 million construction project. But it’s looking at Palm Coast as a regional launching pad, with Bunnell and Flagler Beach in its sights.
“Collaboration is really the key,” John Cinelli, MetroNet’s CEO, said at the joint appearance with Mayor David Alfin and city and company leaders today. “We have had such a warm welcome here. That makes such a difference for us, helping smooth the path, helping remove obstacles, being business friendly.” Palm Coast had been one of three cities the MetroNet board was considering as the second Florida city where it would expand. It chose Palm Coast. He described the “warm embrace” the company got from Interim Manager Denise Bevan and her staff.
“It took us approximately six months to get to yes,” Jason DeLorenzo, the city’s development director who shepherded the project, said. “He’s had other communities that took 18 or 22 months to get to yes.”
It started in late June or early July when Eddie Massengale, the company’s director of business development, was scouting new cities for MetroNet’s expansion. (He’s always lived in Chattanooga, a gig city that attracted Volkswagen and Amazon, among others, along with a culture of remote work.) He was looking for a new city to branch out from Tallahassee, currently metroNet’s only Florida territory. “When I reached out to the city, it becomes a whole nother game with the city: is the city receptive? Are they willing to work with you? We have a statewide franchise, so we could come in and pull permits and build fiber. But with the operation of a city, we go from a five year build-out to a two-year build-out.”
Massengale placed the call to Palm Coast. It went to City Clerk Virginia Smith, who relayed it to Jason DeLorenzo. He handled the rest. There was a zoom meeting by way of an introduction. MetroNet provided references. The city background-checked the company, which has some 250,000 customers in 14 states, checked references in other communities, “had positive feedback,” DeLorenzo said, and so scheduled another meeting to understand their process. From that point on, it was a matter of details.
In that regard, there was something the city provided: the assurance of smooth service from its own end, and what could be interpreted as custom-made, or bulk, permitting. “We worked on a process with them. How they’re going to build is not generally how we handle a right of way permit,” DeLorenzo said. “Usually a right of way permit is a couple of thousand feet, not an entire neighborhood.”
MetroNet will submit a permit application for 300 to 500 homes in a group, or the equivalent of 23,000 linear feet per permit. “So we worked with them on process, we worked with them on what our inspections will look like, and those inspections are handled by the engineering department, and we worked on protecting the citizens and the right of way damage by having a bond in place during the construction.”
The broadband lines will be buried in place, and overhead in others. The company has secured an agreement with Florida Power and Light to use its infrastructure–its poles–as cable-carriers. MetroNet’s original “hut” or switching station will be co-located with Water Treatment Plant 1 on Utility Drive–the city will generate some income from that lease–so initial connections will branch out from there.
There was an option for some profit sharing, with money flowing from the company to the city. “We decided that we didn’t want to go that route as a partnership because we already have other providers in the community, even though this service is faster than any provider we have as far as I know,” DeLorenzo said. “But it was more important to be able to deliver fiber directly to the citizens than to make money on the project.”
The city has had its own broadband operation for years–Fibernet, which has at times struggled to assert itself and was never meant to serve residential areas–only businesses and other governments, such as the school board, the clerk of court, and so on. Palm Coast Internet is a reseller, using the network.
Fibernet and MetroNet will not be competing. “Obviously this is a huge opportunity for the city, a great economic development booster,” Doug Aikins, the city’s information technology director, said today. “As far as Fibernet goes, it allows us to better focus our offerings to municipalities. There’s probably a lot we can do to partner with Flagler County and other municipalities, that’s probably what our focus is going to be moving forward.”
Cinelli said the company currently offers a $50 plan for 100mb, and, as a promotion–which suggests the price eventually rises–$59 to $69 for 1gb. “The goal is to provide choice and competition, right? And whoever provides the best service to the end user is the person who wins,” Cinelli said.
As for 5G, Cinelli described it as “complementary” to the broadband infrastructure, not something that would displace it or make it obsolete–especially since 5G depends on a solid fiber infrastructure for connectivity. “Because you know, the need for bandwidth keeps doubling and doubling and doubling and doubling,” Cinelli said. “wireline is always the best way to deliver that kind of bandwidth. And we’re talking about fiber and light. The amount of bandwidth you can send over that is unbelievable.”
Alfin, of course, was basking in the glow of that light to come. “I can tell you without reservation, that this truly is a defining moments in the history of our city of Palm Coast,” he said at the beginning of the 15-minute joint announcement, organized with
Residents and businesses interested in MetroNet services may visit MetroNetInc.com/iwantfiber to indicate interest and to receive updates on construction. MetroNet also has plans to establish a retail storefront in Palm Coast for customers to have direct access to customer service and sales. Cinelli said the company’s local, permanent workforce will be around 25 employees, more during the construction phase.