With two 5-2 votes on Thursday, the Gainesville City Commission denied funding to a pilot broadband program for $9.6 million and instead directed staff to study funding housing assistance with $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
Commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos and David Arreola voted in favor of the broadband program that would use a business model to attract customers in a high priority area.
“I believe that we should move forward on it,” Hayes-Santos said. “I think it will be one of the best decisions we could make for our city, and I think if we don’t do this, it would be an incredibly detrimental mistake on the part of the commission.”
The commission set aside the broadband funding in the fall of 2021, forming one of the largest chunks of the $32 million in ARPA money sent by the federal government. The city has used ARPA to fund nonprofits at $7 million and language access programs for $500,000.
But Gainesville has investigated launching affordable broadband earlier than the pandemic-related relief funds. At a meeting in March, Magellan Consultants showed a timeline of its work with the city dating back to 2020.
Since then, the contractors presented three options to commissioners. The commission voted in March for the company to work with Gainesville Regional Utilities on a business model plan that used $9.6 million as a pilot in an area of concern.
At Thursday’s meeting, though, Mayor Lauren Poe said the proposed plan fails to meet the definition of a pilot program. He pointed to the micromobility program as an example of a pilot that can start and stop without issues.
“Once we make this investment, we can’t just end it and undo it,” Poe said. “And I’m glad that we can’t because I remain convinced that this is something we need to do not just citywide but communitywide.”
Alachua County has dedicated $15 million toward broadband, and the school district is looking to use state and federal funds to boost student connectivity at home. Both programs start with connectivity tests across the county.
Commissioner Harvey Ward also pushed against the broadband plan. He said the city needs to lead on housing and wouldn’t get far with ARPA funds.
“We’re barely scratching the surface, spending $10 million to scratch the surface,” Ward said. “I don’t think that makes sense.”
Both Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Cynthia Chestnut voted against moving forward with the broadband plan in March and opposed the finalized program as well.
Commissioner Reina Saco also opposed launching in a small area, calling it a half step. She said GRUCom, the fiber optic communications arm of GRU, needs to stabilize before taking on the project.
Hayes-Santos advocated for the program and said it could lead to future economic impact. People choose where to live based on connectivity, he said, especially as remote work increases.
“As we know, broadband is not a luxury—it’s a necessity,” Hayes-Santos said. “COVID showed us how important internet is.”
Commission candidate Bryan Eastman also supported the project during public comment, urging the dais to vote yes.
“You have a moment in time when you can take advantage of something,” Eastman said. “You can use money to move the ball forward, and this is one of those moments that we have.”
After the commission voted against the program, Chestnut proposed another motion to instead use $8 million in ARPA funds for housing.
Poe and Saco voted against the motion, stating that they hadn’t come to talk about housing during a broadband discussion. The motion passed anyway.
Commissioner David Arreola also added a second part to the motion—which passed unanimously—directing staff to continue seeking funding for broadband, especially federal dollars.
Now, city staff will bring forward housing options that the city can finance with the $8 million in ARPA funds.
The commission has a special housing workshop scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday.