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Pasco, Hernando leaders gather at PHCC to discuss boosting broadband access

NEW PORT RICHEY — Katherine Johnson admits to not being much of a techie.

"But when I have students saying they can't get on the Internet, that strikes a chord with me," the president of Pasco-Hernando Community College said.

Johnson and her west side campus played host Thursday to more than 60 leaders in business, government, education, health care, law enforcement and nonprofit agencies from the two counties who met to discuss how best to capture some of the $7.2 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for increasing Internet broadband capacity. Florida's share is estimated to be $450 million.

The group agreed to pursue the federal money and form a consortium to file applications.

The first round of those are due in mid August, a deadline that will be virtually impossible for the group to meet, said facilitator Phil Halstead, chief executive officer of Florida LambdaRail. The statewide group is coordinating broadband proposals across Florida. However, more money will be doled out in early December and in the spring.

"It's heavy lifting," Halstead said of the application process. "It's very complex, very arduous, but you have the expertise in this room to make this happen." The grants require a 20 percent local match, but in-kind contributions can count toward that amount, which Halstead said makes the process much easier.

The federal government is emphasizing improving service to rural and underserved areas in its grant program. In the communication realm Pasco has historically been hindered by its size and the fact that it has three telephone area codes and calls from one end of the county to the other are not considered local.

However, the area's cable providers started laying down the cable to provide high-speed Internet access toward the end of 2001. Verizon later installed FiOS, its multibillion-dollar effort to replace the copper wires of its telephone network with high-capacity fiber-optic lines, so the area might not qualify as rural or underserved, said Alfred Barr, general manager of VCS Interactive LLC, a Tampa company that has partnered with Motorola and others to offer increased wireless capability.

"You will be rejected" on that basis, he said.

However, the area also could qualify if its proposal were aimed at connecting different institutions, such as hospitals, social service agencies and schools.

The more multiple uses you can show, the better, Barr said.

Outlining benefits

During the nearly five-hour gathering, leaders talked about what access they had now and what benefits they could see from increased broadband.

For example, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office could put devices in each patrol car that would let deputies identify suspects by a fingerprint.

Pasco Regional Medical Center could have better connections with its headquarters in Naples and fellow hospitals.

Development officials could use the improved capacity to lure businesses and aid entrepreneurs, who they say are becoming a much bigger part of the area's economic landscape.

"It's become as important as electricity, as essential as water and sewer," said Mike McHugh, Hernando County's business development director. "It's just that critical."

However, getting competitive service providers such as Verizon and Bright House on board might prove challenging. Location of infrastructure is considered proprietary information.

Verizon representative Bill Reid said he wasn't sure the company would participate in vying for stimulus money.

"There are too many strings attached," he said. Reid said when it come to serving remote areas, the future is more likely in wireless.

"Building a network on a street to serve two people doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "It's tremendously expensive."

However, Bright House representative Anthony Russello pledged his company's support.

Despite all the visioning and plans there are no guarantees the area would win a share of the grant. However, any effort that would ultimately improve infrastructure would be far from useless.

"Plans you do now will not go to waste," Halstead said.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Pasco, Hernando leaders gather at PHCC to discuss boosting broadband access 07/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 11:24pm]

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