April 27, 2015

Northeast Florida

Northeast counties internet service coalition frays

| 1/2/2014

As billions of stimulus dollars flowed from the Obama administration during the financial crisis, 14 rural north Florida counties banded together to try to bring faster, more reliable broadband service to the region.

In 2009, with the help of the North Florida Economic Development Partnership, the counties and eight municipalities formed the North Florida Broadband Authority, an independent governmental entity similar to a utility. The authority hired Tallahassee-based Government Services Group to serve as general manager. The firm helped the authority secure a $30-million federal grant in 2010 to build a network to support the effort. The authority also hired Tallahassee- based Capitol Solutions to work on grant compliance. The counties were to provide $9 million in land and existing communication towers. 

The authority, whose board comprised representatives from each county, was supposed to set up the infrastructure — putting antennas on towers, establishing fiber access points and data centers — and then contract with a provider to bring broadband service to customers.

Within two years, however, the effort was a shambles. In 2011, the federal government suspended the project over concerns about conflicts of interest and mismanagement of funds. General Services Group and Capitol Solutions resigned. The suspension was lifted later that year, and the authority started hiring its own staff, beginning with general manager Richelle Sucara, who did not return calls for this article.

John Thomas, a commissioner with Gilchrist County, which voted last year to leave the project, says he couldn’t get answers to his financial queries. “What did our $30 million get us?” Thomas asks. “Well, I never really got an answer.” 

An unaudited balance sheet dated March 2013 on the authority’s website provides a list of assets, liabilities and expenses, but the CPA firm that compiled the information said “management has elected to omit substantially all of the disclosures required by accounting principles generally accepted.” 

Former broadband authority Chairman Tommy Langford says the authority was unfairly targeted. Documents submitted to the federal government say the network has 95 tower sites and is “more than 50%” complete.

In October, with the original grant funds depleted, the authority had to find a private company to take over the network. Austin-based Affiniti has signed what Langford called a “partnership agreement” that includes paying the authority a $15,000-permonth “rights fee.” 

The authority says it can provide broadband in the north Florida area — whether a county is participating or not. But it now lacks some of the donations of land and equipment promised when the other counties joined. 

BUSINESS BRIEFS

GAINESVILLE — Sideris Pharmaceutical, a spinoff from a University of Florida research lab, secured a $32-million venture capital investment that includes an agreement to give exclusive rights to Novartis Pharmaceuticals to acquire the company and its technology. The Gainesville City Commission voted to make a $400-million offer to purchase the city’s new biomass plant. The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center had told the city it planned to seek investors or sell the plant outright if the city didn’t make an offer.

GILCHRIST COUNTY — The owners of Blue Springs Park are planning to sell the iconic property in High Springs, known for its springfed swimming hole and campgrounds. Kim Davis and brother Matt Barr’s family had owned the land since 1958. The 400-acre property is listed for $10 million.

Tags: Around Florida

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