Suwannee Democrat

Local News

December 5, 2012

Broadband authority gives presentation on Monday to select few

Live Oak — On Monday at 10:30 a.m., at the Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative building in Live Oak, Donny Lort, senior project manager for the North Florida Broadband Authority, as well as several board members held a meeting to inform several attendees about the program and to answer questions regarding the NFBA.

The meeting on Monday was by RSVP only.

The Democrat obtained an email announcing the meeting just days before it took place.

According to the email, the meeting was designed to "provide an update about the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) and communicate how public and private agencies/organizations, businesses, and/or residences in Suwannee County may be able to gain access to significantly enhanced, reliable, affordable Broadband services and specifically, connectivity to high speed Internet services."

According to the NFBA, the company is a government entity, established specifically for the purpose of bringing broadband services to the North Florida region. It operates much like an independent water, sewer, or electrical utility, but instead provides high-speed broadband access.

Jeff Hendry, a spokesperson for the NFBA and executive director of the economic development partnership, said the purpose of the NFBA is to promote economic development. As a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the NFBA was awarded $30,142,676 to make this project happen. 
“The government was handing out $30 million dollars, and if we didn’t go after it, that money would be going somewheres else,” Hendry said.

Addressing a room of about 30 people, Hendry said the reasons why this program is vital to Suwannee County is it will improve economic development and the quality of life. Businesses will have access to Internet with a higher speed. Residents could have Internet at reduced costs. Schools will be connected to high speed broadband.

The NFBA was initially funded with a grant from the National Telecommunications Information Administration and 20 member counties and municipalities each contributed in-kind assets, including the use of existing towers and other infrastructure. Using grant money, two data centers were established and four distribution hubs were placed in NFBA region. A reliable, cost-efficient wireless network, similar to the networks that carry cell phone service, then distributes the service across the region.

The counties that could be served by this utility include: Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Putnam, Suwannee, Taylor, Union and Wakulla. Four counties have recently withdrawn from the NFBA.

DirectCONNECT is NFBA’s new high-speed broadband service specifically for community anchor institutions including schools and libraries, hospitals and clinics, and government and emergency service providers. Most residential and business users will purchase high-speed service from NFBA’s retail partner, Suwannee Valley Internet Corporation of Chiefland.  

Progress regressed last fall when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Acquisition and Grants (NOAA) suspended funding to the NFBA due to allegations of waste in the project. The Government Services Group and Capitol Solutions, two private companies who were contracted for the NFBA, resigned last October.

GSG remained onboard to assist the NFBA during its reorganization. The NFBA submitted a plan of corrective action, as directed by NOAA, and awaited the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to restore the project’s funding. Some surrounding counties haven’t been happy with progress thus far of the NFBA and fear they aren’t getting the necessary information they need. Columbia County became one of many counties to pull their name from the hat on Nov. 1, when the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners decided in a 5-0 vote to withdraw from the NFBA.

Suwannee County is considering to withdraw as well, all for the same reasons. 
On Tuesday, Dec. 4, Hendry addressed the Suwannee County commissioners and gave a short presentation on behalf of NFBA, but left the board with more questions than he was able to answer.

Board member Phil Oxendine asked Hendry why other counties have withdrawn from NFBA, and his answer was “I don’t know.” The Democrat and other news sources have cited a lack of communication and information as reasons why counties have decided to withdraw from the authority. Hendry, however, said that the media and bloggers are at best, “inaccurate.”

County Administrator Randy Harris expressed his concerns to Hendry. 
“First of all, I don’t see a business plan. I don’t see a plan on how Suwannee County would benefit from this,” said Harris.  

Secondly, Harris noted that he, nor any member of the board, has seen a copy of the financial report that was supposed to be sent 180 days within the end of the fiscal year, according to the contract.

Thirdly, Harris told Hendry that he has not seen a copy of the budget. 
“Surely, you’ve got to be operating off of a budget. We would like to see a copy of the budget,” Harris said. 
According to sources, other counties have requested to see this information but have not been granted it.

Oxendine asked Hendry, “Isn’t it true that you made $10,000 in one month from the NFBA?” Hendry stated that it was true and noted that his company currently makes $7,500 per month from the organization. 
According to Henry, the NFBA, which started out with over $30 million, is currently operating with about $5-6 million left.

“I don’t think we would have gotten the $30 million if there wasn’t a need here for broadband,” Hendry said.

NFBA board member Sherry Millington said that minutes from meetings for the past two-and-a-half years do exist and is in her possession. The concern of the commissioners, though, is that they have not heard or received information they requested from the organization.

So far, Suwannee County hasn’t put a dime into the project.

The board elected to table further discussion until their next meeting on Dec. 18, at 4 p.m. Hendry said that the NFBA would have someone present to answer questions that the board may have.

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