LIVE OAK — As he attempts to lure new businesses to Suwannee County, Economic Development Director Jimmy Norris has plenty of positives at his disposal.
However, the reports on the top site locations in the county continue to show one glaring problem: the lack of a good telecommunications infrastructure.
So Norris and City of Live Oak Mayor Frank Davis have begun looking for ways to solve that issue, including holding a telecommunications infrastructure accessibility forum Thursday at Live Oak City Hall with 11 members of the business community as well as government officials and representatives from Windstream and Comcast, the two largest internet providers in the community.
Davis said the forum’s purpose was three-fold: to determine the existing capability of providers offering high-speed internet and telecommunications infrastructure in Suwannee County as it relates to economic development; a needs assessment; and to determine what steps need to be taken to fill in the gaps.
According to Dusty Shaw with Windstream and Ted Schwalb with Comcast, there is little problem with delivering high-speed internet, in almost any amount, to the City of Live Oak.
But it becomes more difficult and costly the further into the rural county one goes.
That is definitely a problem Norris has uncovered in his position as economic development director.
“Telecommunications is just as big a part of that infrastructure as anything else,” Norris said, adding it’s on the list of questions prospective businesses ask in considering a location, right alongside water, sewer and electric availability.
And the county’s top prospective economic development sites have received high marks in those other areas, Norris said, but the grade for telecommunications was a D-minus, according to Shannon Roberts, with the county.
That grade eliminates Suwannee County’s sites from a lot of prospective companies’ lists before the search even really begins.
“They’re not going to fight the battle when there’s other communities that are putting it in and the building and everything else for free,” Norris said.
Added Roberts: “Somebody always has something that’s cheaper, better. We’re fighting uphill all the time.
“When the county can’t do (telecommunications already place), we’re competing with one hand tied behind our back.”
But when asked by Roberts and Bruce Tillman, with Jordan Insurance Agency and a member of the Live Oak Community Redevelopment Agency board, what would be the cost of extending the network to outside the current footprint, particularly areas near the county’s interstate interchanges, both Shaw and Schwalb noted it would be expensive.
Shaw and Schwalb also noted that currently those costs would essentially be incorporated into the customers’ bills.
John Langford with the Spirt of the Suwannee Music Park knows that well. Langford said the park has a dedicated fiber line of 400 megabytes but when the park is full for a festival, that is not nearly enough for all of their customers.
“We’re paying a fortune,” Langford said. “When that park fills up and I have 10,000 people all trying to upload Facebook, life is not fun. It’s impossible to do on a 400 meg link.
“We can’t provide to our customers because we don’t have enough coming in because the cost is astronomical.”
And while other questions included the possibility of municipalities taking over providing telecommunications, both Norris and Roberts compared telecommunications in today’s world to electricity in the early 1900s.
“It changed from something that was a luxury item to a lot of people to a need, a basic need,” Norris said. “And I think that’s the way we see telecommunications going. I think it’s going to become a need for every single person.”