Florida Broadband Authority:
The NFBA road show traveled
to an unprepared Columbia County with misinformation,
half truths, and just plain lies
Project Manager Donny Lort and General Manager Richele Sucara field questions from Columbia County.
Posted October 9, 2012 03:50 am | Part XXVI
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday night the North Florida Broadband Authority's road show, minus the $10,000 a month NFEDP's Jeff Hendry, the man in charge of Community Outreach for the NFBA since 2010, traveled to Columbia County. They came to ask for free tower space and answer questions. Other than a few hardball questions, the County Commission, unprepared as usual, acted like they were reading from a script of prearranged questions and mostly soft peddled the failing Authority that had squandered millions of taxpayer dollars through mismanagement and worse.
The NFBA's $88,000 a year project manager, a remnant of the former project management team, GSG, came to the microphone to explain the NFBA.
Mr. Lort explained the reason that the network was wireless was "because of rapid deployment." Instead of digging and burying cables, the NFBA uses radios.
AS the questioning got under way, GM Sucara was all smiles.
The NFBA has been rolling along with nothing but problems since the beginning of 2010 and has blown through approximately 24,000,000 stimulus dollars. There are only a handful of customers on the network.
Mr. Lort explained that the purpose of the NFBA was to bring broadband into rural communities in North Central Florida.
Neither Mr. Lort, nor the NFBA Board Chairman, Tommy Langford of Gilchrist County, nor the NFBA's General Manager Richele Sucara told Columbia County that the network is still not reliable; that most industry insiders are waiting for the network to implode once the federal spigot of funds is shut off; or that one of the two recently contracted last mile providers has packed his bags and gone home.
Instead, Mr. Lort said that in February the project will be live and sustainable.
Mr. Lort claimed that the federal government asked the NFBA to connect anchor institutions, but left out the fact that most of the anchor institutions – governments, schools, colleges and health care facilities – already have private sector internet service providers, which the NFBA is actively working to replace with itself.
The NFBA – A Model Project?
Board Chair Tommy Langford talks about the last mile as Donny Lort looks on.
Mr. Lort explained that the NFBA's customer acquisition plan was presented to the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration) and that the Assistant Secretary of the Dept. of Commerce and head the NTIA, Larry Strickling, was very supportive and told the NFBA, "This has become the model project for the 121 BTOP programs."
The NFBA is down to one last mile provider, SVIC, and can find no one to service the network equipment.
Mr. Lort explained that the NFBA is enhancing the network to "beef it up because of the demand on the network."
Longtime County Commissioner, Ronald Williams, asked when Internet would be available through the NFBA in the "extra rural areas... I thought this was the purpose."
Mr. Lort said it was the purpose and that the NFBA had already gone out and ordered equipment for the rural community of White Springs. Mr. Lort did not explain where the equipment was going.
Commissioner Williams followed up, "Can you give me a time frame when there will be coverage in the entire county? Can you tell me when my constituents will have high-speed Internet?" "If you can't tell me, tell me that."
As the questions got tough, Ms. Sucara's expression changed.
Government bureaucrat and NFBA General Manager, Richelle Sucara jumped in. She said, "That would be a policy decision of the [NFBA] Board... The objective of the grant is to service the unserved and underserved and that is a policy decision that my Board [NFBA] has made and one that Donny and I continue to implement, as we look at how we are going to reach more customers."
There's never been a public meeting where the NFBA Board approved the kind of policy or made decisions based on the kind of policy that GM Sucara explained.
Commissioner Williams continued, "So you are going to skim the cream off the top and what's left, we get -- when ever."
GM Sucara, "To the extent we recognize there's going to continue to be unserved customers, I will take back to my Board those pockets of unserved and underserved and ask them to make those decisions to reinvest... We need to have system revenues to do it. Once this grant dries up, that's it."
More Game Plans
Mr. Lort told the County, "You're limited with $30 million. What that $30 million was able to do was bring it into the communities to start with... We can put a game plan together and we can reach everybody... Baby steps before you run and that's where we're at."
Since the beginning of 2010, the NFBA has been putting game plan after game plan together, with all plans overseen by Larry Strickling's NTIA. Every plan has failed. The icing on the cake is that the NFBA has squandered millions and millions with the result that the folks that need Internet connectivity the most are now least likely to get it.
Mainstreet and its business plans through the eyes of the NFBA
Mainstreet was the NFBA's prime and only business partner and was clearly seen as the savior for the NFBA before it went bust.
NFBA General Manager Sucara weighed in on Mainstreet: To the extent that Mainstreet was a last mile provider of ours... I don't know what their business plan was; I don't know why they went out of business; I don't know what their business model was; I don't know how they compensated their employees; I don't know how much money they paid for the tower sites... We are here with our hands held out. We're going to hang a federally funded asset on one of your assets that was more than likely constructed with taxpayer dollars."
The GM said she is looking for more grant money "through Mr. Hendry's organization (NFEDP)."
Commissioner Rusty DePratter asked how much revenue the NFBA had coming in. Mr. Lort answered he didn't know and GM Sucara added, "Not enough to be sustainable."
When Commissioner DePratter asked if there was any way to get the "number", GM Sucara told him, "It's not very much."
GM Sucara told the County, "The one problem that a lot of these networks are experiencing is once the network is built they don't have customers. We were getting customers two years ago."
GM Sucara did not explain how it is that the NFBA had customers for the past two years and no revenue to show for it. She told the County that without in-kind assets the NFBA could not get customers.
GM Sucara explained that Mainstreet left the marketplace and "that was a hard hit for the NFBA."
Commissioner Stephen Bailey asked how many customers the NFBA had. Mr. Lort told him two. One was a last mile provider and one was a direct connect. Commissioner Bailey asked who NFBA's direct connect customer was.
Mr. Lort answered, "We don't want to put out names." GM Sucara told Com Bailey, "It's our account."
The NFBA is a government run business and its customers should be public knowledge.
The NFBA was asked why other municipalities pulled out
GM Sucara said, "Dixie County withdrew because they didn’t like the way the NFBA was being managed... Dixie County left their assets and they just kind of went away quietly, is what I was told by Mr. Cassidy. But we still have access to their assets."
This was clearly not true. (Dixie County pulls out)
GM Sucara told the County Commission the federal government said they didn't find any waste, fraud, and abuse.
This is also not true. The federal government has been either waiting for the grant to end before moving forward or covering up its own investigation.
None of Columbia County's Commissioners were in favor of leasing any tower space to the NFBA, but unlike the other municipalities that stood up and pulled out, Columbia County looks like it made another Columbia County good ole boy deal and agreed to drag its feet until the NFBA goes under.
On January 31, 2013, the spigot controlling the Obama stimulus funds stops. As of August, the NFBA had zero revenue. Estimates from industry sources calculate that the authority will need a minimum of $300,000 to $500,000 a month in revenue to cover its expenses.
Without further intervention from the federal government, everyone in the know is predicting that the NFBA will go belly up soon thereafter.