Misinformation campaign working against broadband authority

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By Mark Scohier

The North Florida Broadband Authority, in the wake of dwindling customer support that threatens its ability to function, is pushing through in hopes that it will be able to pick up customers with new strategies formed in the next few weeks.

“Yesterday’s challenge,” said NFBA General Manager Richelle Sucara at a board meeting in Fanning Springs last week, “was building the network,” a system that is now in place and serves about 600 customers. 

Despite claims to the contrary, “The NFBA board has been good stewards of the taxpayer’s money,” Sucara said. “The board delivered what you promised … on time and under budget. It’s up and running and customers are being served today.”

But there aren’t enough customers, and, now, to keep from being torn apart as grant funds run out, she said, the NFBA needs to look at growing its retail presence and finding partners, issues to be soon discussed with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and newly elected Authority Chairperson Kirk Reams.

Prospects looked good for the NFBA back in 2009. The then-newly formed organization had been granted $30 million dollars in federal stimulus money to help bring high-speed Internet to rural areas of Florida. And if support was as strong as it had been, the NFBA would have today 25 counties and cities signed on as members of the authority, all helping through each entity’s involvement to provide “anchor” institutions such as schools and law enforcement agencies as customers. 

The NFBA doesn’t require membership from a county or city to provide service in the area, but representatives fear a lack of involvement by those entities will inhibit the willingness of prospective customers.

“Everybody was just clamoring for this service,” back then, Sucara said.

But four years later, things have changed. Eight counties and one city have pulled out from the NFBA, due mostly, according to Sucara and other members, to a handful of individuals, namely former contractors and a Columbia County blogger, who have orchestrated a smear campaign of “blatant lies.”

One reason, Sucara said, counties and cities have pulled out is because of an alleged lack of transparency on behalf of NFBA. The latest to pull out was Gilchrist County just a few weeks ago. Sucara said in a phone interview Friday that one of the commissioners even read directly from a printout from the website of the Columbia County blogger who has repeatedly claimed to have been denied access to public records.

“His focus is really to bring about the demise of the NFBA,” she said about the blogger who has written more than 40 articles on the organization in the last two years.

Sucara said public records requests are not being ignored, but that it has more to do with the volume of records requested, which, she said, to date have only come from two people.

“They continue to say we’re not responsive. I’m not just in the business of supplying public records to two people.”

The Bradford County School Board, who NFBA was hoping to be awarded a contract with, has also asked for records, she said.

“Bradford would like to go through every record personally and go through our computers,” she said, adding that there are only a couple of people to handle the request. “It’s gonna’ take some time, and it’s gonna’ cost some money.”

But, in the meantime, she said, people (including commissioners from neighboring counties who meet in private to discuss the NFBA) only hear about the organization’s lack of transparency.

The NFBA is currently challenging a decision by the Bradford County School Board to go with another, more expensive, Internet provider.

Jennifer Springfield, the NFBA’s attorney, said at last week’s meeting that the school board had, at one point, told NFBA representative Donny Lort that the contract for Internet service was theirs. But then a few of the school board members called an emergency meeting at night and, with no discussion, voted to go with the second-lowest bidder.

“No reason was given,” Springfield said. “Legally, they’re supposed to issue a written justification for not going with the lowest bidder.”

In fact, according to Lort, in most cases where the NFBA has submitted bids to school systems, it has been the cheapest. Still, only the Putnam County School Board has awarded the NFBA a contract.

“Mostly from political issues,” Lort said, or “when prices (NFBA bids) were handed over,” allowing competitors to offer a cheaper rate, even if service wasn’t as fast or as simple.

Also in attendance, Jeff Hendry, of the North Florida Economic Development Council, said he was shocked to hear about the school district deals.

“How can these school districts say to their taxpayers they had a lower bid with a better project, yet still go with another?”

Still, Hendry, also voicing his disappointment in counties and cities pulling out, said he’s confident the NFBA will pull through.

“This is not dead in the water by any stretch of the imagination.”

Sucara said Friday that the “crux of the matter,” she feels, has to do with the fact that the NFBA and its network were funded by President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan. “But we have this now,” she said, adding that $30 million shouldn’t go to waste. “It’s a great community asset. Let’s use it.”