Municipalities can prepare for increasing demand for internet bandwidth and the economies connected to it or they can watch others pass them by, Lakeland City Commissioner Don Selvage said.
Christopher Guinn @cguinnnews
LAKELAND — Municipalities can prepare for increasing demand for internet bandwidth and the economies connected to it or they can watch others pass them by, Lakeland City Commissioner Don Selvage said, speaking at a roundtable discussion on the “digital divide” Thursday.
The discussion — featuring Lakeland IT Director Terry Brigman, neighborhood organizer Sallie Brisbane, Polk County Schools IT Director Tina Barrios and Leah Brown, Charter Communications’ government affairs director — focused on the expected participation and economic gap between those with inexpensive, reliable access to the internet and those without.
“There is a revolution happening across this country and across the world,” Selvage said during the meeting sponsored by the city and Charter Communications. “It is becoming startlingly obvious those cities and counties that ignore this revolution will be left behind in the 21st Century.”
And within those communities there are divides between those who have access, the equipment and the knowledge to use them, and those who don’t, he said during the roundtable discussion about the issue.
“Thirty-four million Americans lack access to internet,” Selvage said. “This is America. We can’t allow that.”
For Charter Communication’s part, Brown touted the company’s new Spectrum Internet Assist program, a basic internet service package for $15 a month or $20 with Wi-Fi connectivity. The service comes with 30 megabit-per-second downloads and 4 megabit-per-second uploads, which it says is three times faster than other providers’ similar programs throughout the country.
“Charter has taken a leap in the industry to make sure it’s a robust offering,” Brown said. “It’s not us trying to sell something. It’s us trying to address the digital divide.”
More information about the program, which is available to households in which one member is eligible for free or reduced price lunch at school, or is over 65 and receiving a Supplemental Security Income benefit from the federal government.
Existing Spectrum customers cannot switch to the program unless they have been without the service for more than 30 days.
More information can be found on the company’s website at www.SpectrumInternetAssist.com or by phone at 844-525-1574.
The company also presented a $2,500 check to the city for the Neighborhood Association Coalition, the organizing hub of the city’s many active neighborhood groups which Brown said will be at the forefront of helping residents without access or skills to participate in the digital world.
Brown also spoke of the company’s new $1 million Spectrum Digital Education Grant Program to provide funds to service organizations that teach people who to use the internet and connected devices.
Commissioner Justin Troller asked Brown during the question-and-answer portion of Thursday’s event why the company has the 30-day limit on the low-cost service, which he said was “amazing, by the way.”
But he questioned whether it would prevent disadvantaged customers with tight budgets already making the financial commitment from making the switch to the low-cost service.
“At the end of the day we are a business so we did not want to cannibalize our existing customers,” Brown responded. “I absolutely do anticipate people might drop off and come back on. We certainly don’t frown about that. … The idea was to get truly new broadband adopters.”
Brown added that it is a question that comes up often and may be changed in the future, but “at this time it’s for new adoption; I hope that would evolve in the future.”
Troller said he hoped Charter could be the first company with such a program to make the change.
“I would love that,” Brown responded.
Deane Palmer, a resident attending the meeting, added to that line of thinking, saying some people who receive other fixed income benefits could benefit from the low-cost service, not just those on Supplemental Security Income, and are currently doing without a connection.
For those, “there isn’t enough to go around for many of them,” Palmer said. “This should not be a luxury, cable in the first place shouldn’t be.”
With so many services only accessible on the internet, those people are being left out, she said.
For example, “they’re absolutely isolated from the medical information they can get on the internet. … We’re touting ourselves as an age-friendly community and there’s a ton of information for seniors, but they can’t access it, and that’s a shame.”
For his part, Brigman, the city’s IT director, spoke of the library system’s computers and lendable “hot spots” which provide Wi-Fi connections and can be checked out like other library resources.
The city is also preparing to upgrade its free Wi-Fi service “SurfLakeland,” which will likely be expanded to include non-government service organizations in the future.
The city is also soliciting a partnership with a fiber optics retail provider, an effort to increase competitive pressure in Lakeland with the goal of having very high speed broadband connections offered to residents.
Christopher Guinn can be reached at Christopher.Guinn@theledger.com or 863-802-7592. Follow him on Twitter @CGuinnNews.