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Proposed Fiber Network In Jackson County Hinges On Outside Funding

A print room operator at Catalyst Fabric Solutions ensures the ink is setting properly on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Valerie Crowder
A print room operator at Catalyst Fabric Solutions ensures the ink is setting properly on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

County leaders are seeking state and federal grants to construct a multi-million dollar fiber network designed to deliver broadband to under-served homes and businesses.

Without broadband, hundreds of jobs in rural Jackson County wouldn’t exist.

Catalyst Fabric Solutions, located on the outskirts of Marianna, makes custom blankets, pillows and other home decor and ships those items directly to online shoppers. “Fast, reliable internet is crucial for us,” said Jim King, the center’s operations manager. “If I don’t have it, I’m completely shut down.”

The fulfillment center employs almost 300 people, King said. It’s not the only major employer in town that relies on high-speed internet. The Family Dollar Distribution Center also needs broadband to operate and employs almost 600 people, according to the county’s Economic Development Committee's website.

At Catalyst, all day, every day, the company’s servers download large image files, which are then transferred to computers connected to industrial printers. Orders have increased by more than 300% with more people shopping online during the coronavirus pandemic, King said. “Our business has gone way, way up.”

Internet speed hasn’t slowed manufacturing at the center. But outages halted production during last year’s holiday rush. “We had two in the fourth quarter, which is my busiest time,” King said. “We were shut down for four hours.”

Right now, the company subscribes to two cable internet service providers. King says one of them is for backup in case nearby construction disrupts service. “The problem is sometimes they share the same line,” he said. “If both are cut, then now I’m really in trouble.”

The Federal Communications Commission estimates at least half of the county’s roughly 48,000 residents lack access to high-speed internet, which is fast enough for four devices to stream HD video simultaneously without interruption. Among the underserved, some are stuck with service that’s barely fast enough to browse the web and others can’t get broadband at all.

Jackson County isn’t the only rural county in Northwest Florida where a significant broadband gap exists. In Holmes, Washington and Liberty Counties, most residents lack access to high-speed internet. This puts those communities at a disadvantage when trying to compete with urban and suburban areas for jobs and people. The resulting socioeconomic gap is known as the “digital divide.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, this divide has manifested in new ways, with many rural students and professionals struggling to study and work from home, said Jackson County Administrator Wilanne Daniels. “Even just here at the Board of County Commissioners, there were some employees who had a hard time connecting and working remotely because of a lack of broadband.”

County leaders are seeking funding to build a fiber network that would connect underserved homes and businesses to speeds much faster than what’s possible using DSL, cable or satellite internet. The infrastructure would cost roughly $50 million, which is more than the county can afford, Daniels said. “The most I’m ever aware of us financing for anything was 10 million dollars for roads, and then recently a 20-million-dollar line of credit to get us through hurricane [recovery], but that’s money that’s being reimbursed.”

The county has applied for three grants to finance the first phase of the project, which would cost roughly $8 million. While leaders were recently denied a federal grant, they received $1.8 million from the state earlier this year, Daniels said. She says she’s waiting to find out if they’ll receive a roughly $7.5 million from the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund to provide the rest of the funding.

Last year, the Board of County Commissioners hired Lit Communities, a broadband consulting firm and fiber network builder, to survey residents, develop a business plan and design and build the network.

“They don’t have fiber connectivity that goes to every town throughout the county,” said Brian Snider, CEO of Lit Communities. “They literally have complete broadband deserts.”

Snider says almost 1,500 county residents have responded so far to the online broadband survey and internet speed test. He says that data is important for the county to apply for grants and to identify businesses and homes that need service.

Snider says he estimates it could take five to six years to complete the fiber network. "Because they’re out in the rural area, it takes a while for us to build the fiber to get to them," Snider said. "We look at certain scenarios where we might set up a wireless service first to get them at least better service than what they’re getting. Then we build out fiber to them."

Fiber exists in the downtown areas of Marianna (the county seat) and Sneads. Residents there will likely get connected first, Snider said. Over time, the revenues from customers who sign up will help finance the project's completion, he said.

Executive Director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Tiffany Wilson-Garling says there’s “strong support” for increased broadband availability among the local business community. “Each and every business in this community needs access to broadband in order to function.”

About 700 businesses operate in the county, ranging from locally-owned restaurants and car washes to farms that stretch across thousands of acres.

“People don’t always think of the need for broadband in an agricultural operation, but with the advances in technology, access to internet and fast speeds are very important,” Wilson-Garling said. “They use GPS technology on their equipment for spraying and pinpointing where they’re planting.”

Several of those farms are located near the Alabama and Georgia state lines, where service is often slow, Wilson-Garling said.

The county has missed opportunities to attract new businesses because of limited broadband, Wilson-Garling said. “We really would have a challenge trying to recruit a very IT-heavy business here or even a cyber-security business here,” she said. “We’d be a great location because we’re out away from a city center.”

But Wilson-Garling says the county currently lacks the broadband infrastructure to attract high-tech firms.

At Catalyst Fabric Solutions in Marianna, Jim King, the operations manager, says the company has looked for ways to prevent internet outages from halting production. The company’s owners are seeking a direct connection to broadband, but their remote location, which is about 60 miles from the nearest city, makes that option too costly, King said.

The county’s proposed fiber network would offer another solution to the company's problem if the line is buried instead of strung across utility poles, King said.

“We would love to get to a point where there’s underground fiber.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.