Okeechobee County leaders look for ways to improve internet access

Posted 5/27/21

44% of Okeechobee County internet users do not have broadband service.

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Okeechobee County leaders look for ways to improve internet access

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OKEECHOBEE – The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standard for broadband internet service is about to change, and much of Okeechobee County doesn’t even meet the current standard.

At their May 27 meeting, the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners discussed ways the county can change that.

According to the Broadband Feasibility Study presented by Dustin Jurman, CEO of Rapid Systems Corporation, at the May 27 meeting of the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners, 44% of Okeechobee County internet users do not have broadband service.

While grant funding is available to improve broadband service in rural areas, none of the internet service providers who – according to their FCC licenses – serve Okeechobee County have applied for funding to improve service here.

Some internet service providers who list Okeechobee County in their coverage areas on their FCC licenses do not offer residential service. Two of them don’t even currently offer any services here.

The survey found only one provider offers the current FCC standard for broadband of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) upload and 3 Mbps download speeds. Two business providers can build out fiber connections to some locations “depending on the size of your wallet,” said Jurman.

The county is currently leasing all network connections for government offices and has no county fiber assets.

The current definition of broadband is going to change, said Jurman. In five years, the FCC requirement for broadband will be 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload. In 10 years, the standard will be 1 Gbps (billions of bits per second) for residential service and 10 Gbps for businesses.

The survey of the FCC registered internet providers for Okeechobee County showed:

• Brevard Wireless advertises 50 Mbps/50 Mbps business service for all of Okeechobee County on the FCC 477 form, but according to phone requests about service, this company does not provide internet service in Okeechobee County.

• Century Link DSL advertised upload speeds for residential and business service ranging from 1.5 to 20 Mbps and upload speeds ranging from .5 Mbps to 2 Mbps. Cost is $49 per month plus a $15 per month modem fee. Their service map covers most of the county, with the exception of the northwest corner. “Century Link did a good job with the outdated technology,” said Jurman. But it stops at 20 megabits and every time there is a bad bend in the cable, your speed goes down. “It doesn’t meet the definition of broadband,” he said.

• Century Link/Lumen has no residential service. The website advertises business service of up to 1 Gbps direct internet service. On their FCC 477 form, they advertise 0 Mbps/0 Mbps service in Okeechobee County. Their service area map indicates service on the east side of the county. “The size of your wallet gets you internet,” said Jurman.

• Comcast (Xfinity) advertises 25 Mbps download residential service (with speeds available up to 1.2 Gbps) and 35 Mbps download/5 Mbps upload service for businesses (with speeds available up to 1 Gbps). Service area is most of the south central portion on the county. Residential rates start at $35/month plus $14/month modem fee. “Comcast does a good job of providing some broadband,” said Jurman. But it only covers part of the county.

• Crown Castle does not offer residential service, but offers business service starting at $1,000 per month. On their FCC 477 form, they advertise 0 Mbps/0 Mbps service in Okeechobee County. Their coverage area map includes portions of the eastern side of the county and a portion of the southwest area. “Crown Castle who bought fiber from other providers,” explained Jurman. “You can get it, if you have $1,000 per month plus the build-out fees.”

• PDMNet advertises 30 Mbps download/30Mbps “burst” upload residential and 30 Mbps upload/30Mbps for business. The 30 Mbps residential service is $150 per month, plus $175 installation fee, plus $260 modem purchase. Commissioner Kelly Owens noted she has PDMNet and pays $50 per month for 12Mbps/2Mbps.

• Windstream includes Okeechobee County on its FCC477 form and their coverage map area indicates a small area on the eastern side of the county, but per phone inquiry this company does not provide any service in Okeechobee County.

The Okeechobee County Schools do meet the FCC’s short term requirements and they are putting in some infrastructure, according to the study.

Jurman said most families have multiple devices using the internet and this can further slow down service. “If you don’t have that minimum 25 Mpbs that is not going to work,” he explained. “You are going to have to start turning off TVs.”

Jurman said broadband access is important not only for entertainment but also for education, business, health care and agriculture. New technology used by farms will require broadband access.

He said during the pandemic, many families whose children were required to use remote learning had to go to hot spots for internet access.

“We bought a large number of hot spots,” explained Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. He said the county put in public WiFi hot spots and also had individual hot spots that could be checked out from the library for two weeks at a time.

Burroughs said families should not have to leave their homes to find internet access for their children’s education.

Many Okeechobee families can’t afford internet, added Commissioner Owens.

“There has to be a way of getting broadband and making it affordable,” said Jurman. “$1,000/month is not going to make it.”

He said there are millions of dollars in federal grants available for improving rural interent service, but no one has applied for funding to improve service in Okeechobee County.

He encouraged the county government to take the lead in improving local internet access.

“You can assist in providing infrastructure,” he said. “No single provider is going to fix the problem in Okeechobee. It’s too big.

“You guys need to make maximum use of all of the grant opportunities to change the landscape here,” Jurman explained. “You can move forward on multiple infrastructure projects at the same time."

One option would be to add Terragraph equipment on county buildings and existing fixed towers. Terragraph is a technology that operates on 60 GHz unlicensed band delivering fiber-like speeds. The range of a Terragraph device is about half a mile.

Another option would be to start adding fiber, using existing power poles or underground.

Jurman noted the county with countywide broadband, the government offices could save part of the $180,000 a year currently spent on telecom services.

“National Association of Counties Broadband Task Force is working to change the federal requirements for funding,” said Burroughs. “The FCC – they give money to service providers who do nothing.”

“The hard work has to start with day one,” said Jurman. “You’ve got to make the commitment to do it and to move forward.” He recommended the county move forward with putting in a Terragraph system and finding multiple fiber contractors.

“By layering the technologies and pulling triggers at the same time you could fix that problem,” he said.

He suggested they use the Economic Development Corporation to create a business plan to take advantage of the grant opportunities.

“We don’t want to be in the telephone business,” said Burroughs. “We would support getting grants. We would find somebody to put this system in relative to whatever business plan the board would agree to.

“We would have to bid this out or find an opportunity to sole source it out to a company and say “What do we need and what is it going to cost?” he added.

“I don’t want to sit through another COVID-19 and watch kids have to sit at McDonalds to do their homework,” said Burroughs.

Commissioner Owens noted American Rescue Plan funds might be available but they will have to follow stringent federal requirements.

“We need to be careful with ARP money and CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) money,” agreed Burroughs.

“We need to be proactive,” he said.

Commissioner David Hazellief said “a lot of different entities have fiber in our county but we can’t tap into it.”

Jurman said the Department of Transportation is not allowed to share fiber. “I think Okeechobee is the place to crack the DOT fiber,” he added.

Jurman said if the county doesn’t take action, the problem is just going to keep getting worse

“As people keep adding apps and more devices to their homes, and your car is connected, it’s a constant surge,” he said.

The next step is for the board to come up with an RFP (request for proposals) for companies to bid on adding the infrastructure needed in the county and bringing countywide internet access up to 100 Mbps/100 Mbps.

“One gig is a goal, but 100/100 is something we all agree to,” he said.

“With coronavirus we learned we needed more upload,” said Jurman. “Before you were only receiving content. Now you are part of the content.”

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