Summit Broadband blames Lakeland's restrictions for delays in internet service

·6 min read
Lakeland's City Hall.
Lakeland's City Hall.

LAKELAND — Lakeland officials are wondering whether Summit Broadband has "overpromised and underdelivered" in its promise to bring broadband to the city one year into a 10-year contract.

Kevin Coyne, CEO of Summit Broadband, told city commissioners the company would roll out internet service to the first 1,000 homes in April, expanding to 5,000 homes by June. To date, Summit has provided internet services to roughly a dozen businesses.

Coyne said city and its construction restrictions have delayed Summit's rollout of high-speed internet in a June 30 email to Commissioner Stephanie Madden, chair of the city's Broadband Committee. He said those restrictions "significantly increased our costs to build and time to build."

"We were told that these restrictions are being put in place because of all the damages Frontier has done while building out their network," Coyne wrote.

Previously: Lakeland officials approve deal with Summit Broadband to bring high-speed internet to city

City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said it was "surprising" to hear of Summit's complaints, alleging it's the first he's heard of issues.

"It's disappointing he had that conversation with a commissioner and potentially with the public without bringing that to staff’s attention," Sherrouse said.

Lakeland employees said there have been some indications of growing friction in the city's private-public partnership.

On May 3, Lakeland's IT Director Oscar Torres said Coyne reached out to discuss potential bottlenecking of Summit's construction permits. The city held a May 9 meeting with company representatives to discuss the issues, the process and path forward, according to Torres, who said he was unaware of any further issues.

Summit Broadband has submitted 25 permit requests for city review since April 5, according to Ryan Lazenby, the city's engineering manager. Lazenby said each request covers a large geographic area spanning several city blocks impacting about 77.5 miles of right-of-way along city roads.

"It's monumental work," he said.

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The city has assigned one designer and one inspector to work full time, eight hours a day, reviewing these and similar requests. Lazenby said city staff notified Summit early that there were issues with the submitted plans that needed to be addressed to avoid delays.

Lakeland has given Summit three work permits to begin laying more than six miles of conduit for fiberoptic cable. Lazenby said the city will release additional permits to Summit when it restores the areas has dug up back to their original condition. This consists of filling in holes and trenches dug along roads to lay the fiber — often in residents' yards.

"We were upfront with them, we do this to everybody," Lazenby said.

City staff held a pre-construction meeting with Summit in which the city's requirements and policies were discussed without problems. Lazenby said he had one of his staff follow up a few days ago with the company.

"Their construction manager said, 'We might not even do work in the city anymore, your construction requirements are too onerous, which caught us by surprise," he said.

One point of contention is Lakeland's refusal to allow Summit to use a missile-boring technique to install conduits and fiber underground. Coyne estimated this is increasing the company's cost per foot by roughly 50% of its build out.

Lazenby said the technique not been allowed in the city for about 30 years. The pneumatic hammer used for missile boring is shaped almost like a javelin and uses compressed air to hammer the lines into the ground.

"The problem is you can't guide it really well," he said.

Frontier has been caught using the pneumatic hammer to install lines, Lazenby said, breaking a city water main along New York Avenue. He said it flooded the roadway and necessitated emergency repairs.

Lazenby told commissioners Frontier broke a city sewer main during construction last November. It caused raw sewage to back up in residents' homes over Thanksgiving weekend last year.

Polk County does allow construction firms to use a pneumatic hammer, according to Lazenby. He said the county is more rural and doesn't have the same density of underground infrastructure.

Anyone performing construction is required by law to call 811 to have city flag any water or gas utility lines that may be in the area. Lazenby said companies who are crossing over the utilities are expected dig to figure out the depth and safely avoid it.

These engineering soft digs to expose the city's lines cost about $2,000 per dig, Coyne said. If it can't be located, his company then has to hire a survey company to locate it.

"[Summit is] telling us it's unreasonable," Lazenby said. "We've done it for years; we do it for everybody."

Coyne cited additional issues with the city restricting Summit's construction crews to only working on two streets at a time, maintaining erosion control and run-off mitigation. There's also a complaint about not allowing any work on Fridays.

"These are not requirements we encounter in other cities," Coyne wrote in email.

Sherrouse said city staff has made every effort to communicate with Summit. The city manager said he's been in email contact with Coyne about the issues and hoped to have a follow-up conversation Friday.

"There are no villains in this story," Madden said. "These are contributing factors why it's more of a challenge than we first anticipated to get residents connected."

Commissioner Mike Musick, who owns a roofing business, said he felt like Summit was trying to shift blame to the city for its shortcomings.

"I think they overpromised, they've underdelivered," Musick said. "I think they are looking for an scapegoat and they are using the city and regulations as the reason for that."

Sherrouse said Summit Broadband is upholding its contract with the city and meeting all its financial obligations. Under the 2021 contract, Summit is to invest $20 million within the first five years to build out the city's roughly 350-mile dark fiber network and contribute at least $20,000 a year toward bridging the digital divide. The company is also to pay the city a minimum of $144,000 a year, or 10% of its gross revenue for internet services.

"Hopefully we're seeing a slow start and the pace will pick up," Sherrouse said. "The city will make sure Summit stays in compliance with the agreement."

Madden said Coyne has indicated Summit is is pursuing two difference avenues, possibly partnerships, to make broadband service in Lakeland more financially feasible. She was not given specific details.

Commissioner Chad McLeod asked city staff to meet with Summit's team to discuss issues and provide an update to the commission.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at swalsh@theledger.com or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl. 

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Has Summit Broadband 'overpromised and underdelivered'?