Suwannee Democrat

October 19, 2011

Broadband progress assessed

Board looks for change to get funding restored

Jeffry Boatright
Suwannee Democrat

Live Oak — The North Florida Broadband Authority seeks to reorganize after its funds were suspended due to allegations of waste in the project, the agency supplying the funds has said.  

Extremely fast Internet at competitive rates remain a possibility for the area through NFBA, as part of President Obama’s stimulus plan.

NFBA is a collaboration of 14 North Florida county governments and eight municipalities, including Suwannee County. It is focused on creating an infrastructure that should deliver high speed broadband access to improve economic development, education, and access to advanced healthcare services, according to the NFBA website.

As a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has overseen the broadband projects through the newly formed Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP).

NFBA is only one of many broadband collaborations across the United States. The NTIA has been provided with $4.7 billion of the $7.2 billion appropriated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to increase broadband access across the nation. Of that $4.7 billion, $30,142,676 have been awarded to NFBA.

The purpose, according to the NTIA website, of being allotted $4.7 billion is to provide support to schools, libraries, health care providers and other organizations while improving broadband access to public safety agencies and stimulate a demand for broadband.

Through the BTOP, there will be three categories of the project introduced. Those categories are comprehensive community infrastructure, public computer centers and sustainable broadband adoption.

“This project is supposed to bring high speed Internet service to rural North Florida and will enhance competitive rates,” Live Oak City Administrator Bob Farley said.

However, there have been ups and downs with the project. Just recently, it was made known at the NFBA meeting that the board would part ways with Government Services Group (GSG) and Capitol Solutions. GSG and Capital Solutions are private companies who contracted for NFBA.

Since GSG offered their resignation during an Oct. 7, NFBA meeting, the governing board took action to remove delegating authority from GSG and Capital Solutions and will be reorganizing to carry on with the project.

According to GSG CEO Robert Sheets, his company will remain on board with NFBA to assist in the 45-60 day transition.

“Right now we are waiting on the Department of Commerce to receive a response from the NTIA and restore the funds to move forward with the project,” Sheets said.

NFBA funding has been suspended by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Acquisition and Grants (NOAA) due to allegations of waste in the NFBA project.

The funding was suspended pending the development of an acceptable corrective action plan by NFBA, as directed by NOAA.

The corrective action plan was submitted by NFBA on Oct. 10, in response to a Sept. 21 letter from NOAA. The letter was addressed to NFBA Chairman Stephen Fulford and addressed the concerns and allegations.

In addition to accepting the resignation of GSG and removing delegating authority from them, the board selected Pat O’neal as operational manager, Stephen Fulford as administrative manager and Wendell Johnson as financial manager. These managers shall serve as a transition team until NFBA employs its own staff.

The third measure of action taken by the board was to appoint Richelle Sucara as interim manager of the project.

Jacobs Project Management and Engineering will be overseeing the project in the future and will be the only private entity working directly for NFBA.

The NTIA maintains the project will provide job training to the unemployed or under-employed, help school children access the materials they need to learn and allow rural doctors to connect to more specialized medical centers.

“The project should be completed within a year once funds are restored,” Sheets said. “This project will offer the most positive impact of anything I have seen.”

To learn more about the project, visit the NFBA website at http://www.nfba-fl.org/.