West Flagler residents and the County Commission for years have been talking about forging or improving broadband coverage for that part of the county. But it’s been more talk than action. Then two things happened: Jorge Salinas, the relatively new deputy county administrator and an IT specialist, took over the initiative on the county’s behalf. And the federal government started throwing billions in subsidies at broadband expansion.
Between Salinas’s focus, federal money and a broadband provider signing on to provide the infrastructure, broadband expansion in western Flagler is no longer talk.
On Nov. 15, the County Commission approved negotiating a no-bid contract with Charter Communications–or more technically, its subsidiary, CCO Holdings–to develop a three-phase, $7.43 million plan over several years. Charter is fronting $4.6 million of that, thanks largely to federal government subsidies. Flagler County is fronting $1 million thanks entirely to American Rescue Plan subsidies, part of the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion Covid-rescue package.
Phase 1 consists of two parts that, combined, amount to a $5 million plan to build 124 miles of broadband cabling, with a total of 823 connections, also called “passings.” Phases 2 and 3, which would account for 215 connections, still have a $1.8 million shortfall, with Charter fronting $430,000 and the county devoting $219,000 of its $1 million to that part of the plan.
Phase 1 will cover the majority of underserved residents in Daytona North, or the Mondex (the yellow dots in the map below), as well as two quadrants at the south end of the county, in pink in the map below:
Phase 2 would cover areas in the central portion of the county, such as Espanola, including the U.S. 1 corridor near County Road 304. Phase 3 would cover the westernmost parts of State Road 100 as it approaches Putnam County. (Unserved homes are defined as those that have download speeds of less than 25 Mbps.)
Keep in mind: these subsidies are to extend the infrastructure–the backbone–of broadband access, not to subsidize the monthly cost of subscribers getting the service. The plan is attractive to companies like Charter because they are able to defray the cost of infrastructure largely through federal subsidies, then lock up a customer base that presumably will subscribe for its own services. But there are also ongoing programs, again subsidized by the federal government, that help poorer customers with subsidies to pay their broadband bills.
“Right now, we’re focusing on moving forward project phase one, and then we’ll continue to work at the same time on phase two and phase three,” Salinas said. He worked with Chris Bailey, director of state government affairs for Charter Communications, to develop the plan. “As Phase 1 starts we’ll continue to work on preparing for Phase 2 and 3, and the other step that we’re working on will be the development of a deployment schedule for Phase 1, along with Charter Communications.”
But the timeline of the project, even Phase 1, is not immediate, or entirely certain, as Bailey described it. “Obviously, there are things that are certainly out of our control, like permitting times, pole-attachment agreements, and obviously the shortage of equipment that could potentially delay things,” Bailey said. “But we’re essentially looking at the end of 2023, possibly the early 2024 to complete all of phase one. Now, that does give us the opportunity as we are looking forward to continuing a partnership with the county that we can begin looking at Phase 2. Obviously we see a shortfall in the funding for Phase 2 and Phase 3, we can go ahead and begin reaching out to other grant programs.” He said, for example, that the USDA’s Reconnect Program has “billions of dollars” available. He said his company is also attempting to get state subsidies to replicate what the federal government is doing. That effort was not successful this year.
The discussion took place just as the Biden Administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan finally passed Congress and got the president’s signature. That plan includes another $65 billion for broadband for underserved areas. “So there is no doubt there is going to be a significant amount of money coming down,” Bailey said. “How that will be dispersed among the states and the counties, municipalities, I don’t know just yet. But I think there’s going to be many opportunities for us to to go after those funds, and continue building out to those currently unserved.”
The no-bid contract is allowed by law, Holly Durrance, Flagler County’s purchasing director, said. “If the agencies determine that they have a service or contractual service or item that they feel is only accessible from one vendor, we can solicit out publicly,” she said. “We are required to put it out publicly.” The county did so through vendorlink.com and a newspaper legal advertisement, and got no responses. Robin Polletta, one of the few residents who addressed the commission on the item last week, commended the expansion plan, but also wondered it if would be potentially “a long-term permanent monopoly” and asked about the cost of service, without subsidies. A recent report pointed out significant disparities in Charter prices between areas that are served by multiple providers as opposed to areas served only by Charter. Monopoly service, in other words, is a harbinger of higher rates.
Salinas recognized, among others, Katherine Biancaniello, the West Flagler resident who had been chiefly responsible for keeping broadband on the commission’s agenda, gathering some 54 “hardship letters” from residents and collecting 300 signatures in support of broadband improvements. Her Facebook group helped coordinate residents’ involvement, as did what became semi-regular meetings with county and business officials, though until Salinas’s arrival, the meetings had become frustrating retreads of proposals lacking the right point man in Bunnell.
On paper, Flagler County has 99 percent broadband coverage. But as with so many things in Flagler, the figure is disproportionately reflective of the east side of the county, where the population is overwhelmingly concentrated. The actual number of people without broadband is very small, comparatively speaking, but those few hundred residents are spread out over a large portion of the west and southwestern part of the county.
Charter Communications is the second-largest cable operator in the country behind Comcast, with some 26 million customers. It is known locally as Spectrum. In December 2020 Charter was awarded a $1.22 billion federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant to improve broadband coverage in 24 states, including Florida. “The new initiative is in addition to Charter’s existing network expansion plans, including numerous state broadband grant projects, as well as the Company’s previously planned privately funded expansions,” the company said in February, noting that the expansion would also mean Charter would add 2,000 employees to its ranks in the 24 states. “The network Charter will build in these rural areas will offer 1 Gbps high–speed broadband access to all newly served customer locations with starting speeds of 200 Mbps, enabling consumers to engage in remote learning, work, telemedicine and other applications that require high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity. ”
“This is such an exciting opportunity and project for us and for Flagler County,” Bailey told commissioners. There are set timelines attached to some of the grants, which explains the “enormous opportunity for expansion, we certainly don;t ant to let it go,” he said.
The commission’s vote was approval for the contractual framework of all three phases, but each phase will return to the commission for a vote, once funding is secured.
Curiously, if unsurprisingly, Joe Mullins, the county commissioner, falsely said that “private organizations is the answer to this,” even though he had just sat through Salinas’s and Bailey’s explanations that, in essence, sum up the financial impossibility of getting the job done without the relatively sudden influx of billions of dollars in federal subsidies. He did, however, acknowledge that “there’s a lot of federal money still coming,” though he of course did not acknowledge the role of the Biden Administration, whose legitimacy he has questioned. His claim that “we are Lightspeed ahead of other counties in getting this done” is also incorrect: The federal government 13 months ago announced a list of 386 companies that were qualified to do what Charter is doing, and in December awarded contracts to 180 of them, all of whom collectively were tasked with extending broadband to some 5 million underserved customers.
That reverse auction that netted Charter $1.22 billion left $6.8 billion on the table. “The $6.8 billion that wasn’t awarded in Phase I will be rolled over into the future Phase II auction, which now has a budget of up to $11.2 billion for targeting partially-served areas as well as the remaining unserved areas that did not receive funding through Phase I,” according to a Fierce Telecom release–another indication that funding for Flagler’s unfunded phases may not be as difficult to secure as it had been in previous years.
“The goal is to have ubiquitous broadband,” Bailey said. “Now, will we be able to attain that goal? It’s certainly my goal to, but there may be certain outliers that are just too expensive reach, but I doubt that number is going to be exceptionally high by any means.”