TALLAHASSEE -- In 2009, with more than a quarter of all Floridians without broadband access to the Internet at home, state officials lined up to get some of the $7 billion in federal stimulus money to finance state-based programs to increase access.
Enter Connected Nation, a little known but well connected Washington-based company. It won the Florida contract to use $2.5 million to map the broadband gaps for use by policy makers and telecommunications companies.
A year later, when the state won a second grant for $6.3 million to extend the broadband efforts, Connected Nation, a non-profit company, believed it had signed up to be part of a public-private partnership with the state that entitled the firm to a no-bid shot at that money too. But the Department of Management Services, the state agency that housed the project, disagreed.
DMS said the grant requires it to use some of the money to pay for three more years of broadband mapping and the rest to expand broadband access in libraries and schools. DMS hired eight contract employees to handle administration and provide services, paying them between $72,000 and $140,000 a year until the grant ends in 2014, and defended it as an efficient use of state funds.
That began a bitter feud between Connected Nation and DMS, an agency with a lengthy history of distrust among state budget leaders. In an audacious display of lobbying clout, Connected Nation got the Legislature to force DMS off the contract and steer the second grant to the firm.
Now, the broadband mapping contract negotiations are behind schedule; the federal government has warned the state that it could lose what’s left of the grant and Florida’s broadband expansion efforts lag behind many other states.
“It’s distracted and kept us from doing as much as we might have done,’’ said Bill Price, director of Broadband Services for the state.
Brian Mefford, CEO of Connected Nation, defends his company’s efforts in Florida. “We believe in what we do and we stand behind our record of creating value for taxpayers and citizens,’’ he said.
Connected Nation has created the model for getting federal funds — winning broadband mapping contracts in 13 states. The projects are part of a $350 million federal grant to map landline and wireless services throughout the nation by collecting information from existing Internet providers and other sources. Because much of this information is competitive, many states have hired non-governmental third-parties to shield the data from public records laws so that more companies would be encouraged to share accurate information.
But Connected Nation’s officers say its broader goal is really to increase broadband usage — the same goal shared by many of its telecommunications partners such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T.
Despite Connected Nation’s vast experience identifying state broadband holes, its record in Florida has not been error free. After repeated performance problems, DMS officials decided last year that they would not renew the broadband contract with Connected Nation when it expired in December and would seek new bids.
Meanwhile, Connected Nation sent its lobbying team to get the governor’s office to order DMS to halt the contract process until the program could be moved to another agency. The company then persuaded the Legislature to transfer the program to the new Department of Economic Opportunity, and the governor signed the bill authorizing the move.