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North FL Broadband Authority: The Termination   Bad Feelings – No Kind Words – Broke

4 years after it began, the Original 14 counties of the NFBA had dwindled to 4.

NORTH CENTRAL, FL – Almost 4 years after it began, the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) is winding down, broke, and seemingly without a future, as it helplessly awaits its fate, hoping someone else will bail it out. The NFBA squandered a $30,000,000 Obama stimulus funded Broadband Technology Opportunity Grant (BTOP) to build a wireless middle mile broadband network in North Central Florida to most places that already had, or were soon to have, wired internet connections. Country folks, living in the boondocks, without internet service, were never the intended recipients of the grant.

On September 29, 2013, in desperation, the failing NFBA met and agreed to turn over the NFBA and its network to Affiniti FL, a private company.

A year later in Lake City, on September 29, 2014, the NFBA met. It was broke. The NFBA Attorney, Jennifer Springfield, was now being paid by Affiniti, the company that contracted to take over the NFBA.  When your reporter asked Attorney Springfield who was paying her fees, her response was, "It's none of your business."

Attorney Springfield had in her possession an undated document from Affiniti, a document which she did not make available to the NFBA Board either before or at the meeting, which stated in part, "After significant investment to explore the business viability of owning and operating the NFBA wireless network, Affinity has made the business decision, in consultation with the NFBA, to exit the partnership."

The NFBA hadn't made its decision yet.

The Termination/Consultation

At the September 29, 2014 meeting, Attorney Springfield presented the termination agreement to the NFBA Board. She did not email it to the board beforehand, a practice for which the NFBA, under the management of former General Manager, Richelle Sucara, and Attorney Springfield had become notorious.


NFBA Chairman, Kirk Reams, kicked off the Termination Agreement discussion. He told the Board, "About two weeks ago, Darol Lain and Jeff Youle [Affiniti] – they both came to my office – Jeff was the one putting the money into the venture for Affiniti. Came to my office in sort of a last minute thing and informed me they were interested in ceasing our relationship. It's very disappointing. For the last two weeks I have pretty much been in constant contact with the NTIA. At times, I felt like a ping pong ball between Affiniti and the federal government. The NTIA understands the reasoning behind Affiniti's decision."

In 2009 Jim Selby (photo) and Darrin Mylet submitted the plan that could have built out the network to the rural underserved. In Gilchrist County, Mr. Selby as well as Rapid Systems appeared before the Board.

Chairman Reams continued, "I kinda got a feeling that they were going to be more active in helping us find some opportunities, but based on some of our last calls with them, that tone changed a little bit. They said, 'you guys can do this'."

Attorney Springfield added, "We've completed the grant and the closeout process. The NTIA doesn't have much of a relationship with us."

Board member Berlon Weeks, from the Town of Bronson, was not happy. He asked, "Is there anything in the agreement that will force them to help us moving forward?"

Attorney Springfield explained that the termination agreement was Affiniti's proposal. She said, "It takes us outside of the termination provisions of the existing agreement. Basically, it does not obligate Affiniti to do anything or spend any money with regard to the NFBA."

Mr. Meeks: A year ago they told us they would take care of this responsibility. Now after a year they found out that it really is not as profitable as they thought it was going to be, so now it’s our responsibility again?

Attorney Springfield:  Probably, the biggest outstanding condition that hasn't been met (regarding the existing contract with Affiniti) is the transfer of NFBA assets to Affiniti... where we are today with them is a factor of the assets having not been transferred.

Mr. Meeks:  But they did assume the responsibility for the contractors and the other vendors we had, correct?

Attorney Springfield: They did, but it was conditioned on certain things being done, one of which is transfer of the assets and also them being able to work out settlement agreements to their satisfaction.

Unidentified Board Member:  Why haven't the assets been transferred?

Attorney Springfield:  Primarily, because when we got to the point of being ready and able to do so, Affiniti decided...

Unidentified:  They got cold feet.

In 2011, Bradford County's Chris Thurow claimed there was no oversight at the NFBA.

Attorney Springfield:  And that was several months ago. They were unwilling to accept the transfer.

Unidentified:  Because as soon as they took it they knew they were on the hook.

Chairman Reams:  One of the things they want to do – which has caused heartburn for the NTIA – is to go in and just start deactivating everything. The NTIA does not want to do that. If we move forward in this direction Affiniti won't do anything without us telling them what to do.

Attorney Springfield assured the Board members, "I think that if we had somebody identified [to operate the network] within the next 30 days – I think Affiniti would continue to hold off on shutting down or taking down anything. They're not gonna shut down – take down any equipment that's currently serving existing customers."

Mr. Meeks asked, "Where does it say that?"

Attorney Springfield answered, "It doesn't say that... They tell the same thing to the federal government, which is a little more – you know – assurance."

Chairman Reams added, "They've given us a transition plan based on their decision. I think the transition plan right now is based on the network bein' shut down, but that's not necessarily goin to happen."

Affiniti threatened to sue for default; agreement based on trust?

Attorney Springfield followed up, "Right. I think I have to tell the Board that, that Affiniti has given us this proposed termination agreement. We have asked for certain provisions to be added that they refused to add. They have also refused to follow the termination provisions under the existing agreement and they have threatened to sue us for default under the existing agreement."

Mr. Meeks:  How have we defaulted?

Chairman Reams:  They didn't really quite explain that.

Attorney Springfield:  They did not specify.

Mr. Meeks:  And the language that you wanted to add – was that beneficial to the NFBA?

Chairman Reams:  Honestly, we're providing information.

Attorney Springfield:  That was all they agreed to, but we asked them to add other provisions that they wouldn't agree to.

Mr. Meeks:  I just read the agreement. It looks like they're not going to do anything but walk away.

Springfield:   My response to that is that the initial agreement was based on a large amount of trust. This one may be even more so.

Mr. Rundgrn:  (Putnam County's representative) They told us all kinds of stuff in the past that wasn't – happened, so why should we believe anything they are tellin' us now?

Unidentified:  and this has to be done today?

Attorney Springfield:  It has to be done today. This is our only chance at a cooperative agreement, a cooperative path forward with Affiniti.

Rundgrn:  The threat is if we don't do this today they are going to go ahead and start pulling the plug.

Mr. Weeks:  They're goin' to trash it.

Unidentified:  And they're going to sue us.

Chairman Reams:  They know that our backs are against the wall.

Attorney Springfield added, "One way or another, this agreement is going to be terminated."

City Manager Wendell Johnson: "I'm not goin' to vote for that."

City Manager Wendell Johnson (center) tells Chairman Reams he will not vote for the Termination Agreement.

City Manager Wendell Johnson has been an inside player at the NFBA from the beginning. At one point, he had the ability to sign NFBA checks. While occasionally he criticized something, it was usually just for lip service or to impress other board members. While the NFBA was clearly in trouble, he tried to arrange for it to purchase a downtown Lake City building for its worldwide headquarters from one of Lake City's good ole' boys.

City Manager Johnson told the Board, "They have to find somebody that's goin' to operate the system and provide for a transition."

Chairman Reams explained, "Under the current agreement it's not really their responsibility to find another operator."

Attorney Springfield told Mr. Johnson, "It's ours."

Attorney Springfield explained Affiniti's obligation, "There's a $4 million cap on what they are required to spend on this project. And I have no idea of how close they are to that $4 million cap. We've been asking them for financial information for the last couple of weeks and haven't gotten one bit of it."

The October 2013 agreement between Affiniti and the NFBA called for 60 days notice before termination during the "Pre-Transition Period." If Affiniti had activated that part of the 2013 agreement it would have been required to continue to pay all of the expenses of operating and managing the network for 120 days [prior to pulling the plug].

Attorney Springfield added that they specifically asked Affiniti to follow the 2013 termination process, but it refused.

City Manager Johnson weighed in, "How can they refuse? It's an agreement."

Chairman Reams responded, "They are saying we are in breech."

City Manager Johnson shot back, "Then challenge that. Let them show us."

Attorney Springfield explained, "There’s other termination provisions. One of which is by mutual consent."

City Manager Johnson said, "Ask them to follow the tenets of the original agreement. Give us another chance to find another provider... That's just not right. I'm not goin' to vote for that."

City Manager Johnson asked that the Termination Agreement's 30 day termination date be extended to October 30th.

Recess: The Chairman Speaks With Affiniti's Darol Lain

After the recess, Chairman Reams told the Board Affiniti was not going to budge.

Chairman Reams said, "Their stance is that by terminating this agreement we become more in control over the assets than before and we can have a better position."

Attorney Springfield added, "I think the other point that he made that we've been aware of and haven't shared is that – they initially came at us with – we're going to have to take down this network."

Attorney Springfield said Affiniti's Lain said the NFBA didn't have to have a signed agreement and network operator in place for them to continue to work with the NFBA.

Attorney Springfield measured her words and was visibly nervous for the first time during the meeting:

He [Lain] can't unilaterally agree to what Wendell has mentioned – umm – requested – on a – umm – 30 day effective date – umm – he has to go to his board – umm – and he really believes – that I'm not saying I necessarily agree, but he really believes that going forward with the termination agreement – umm – because now, for one – for one thing – I mean this – this situation that we're in with our manager operator – umm – is now public – umm – and so there is going to be – umm – you know – there is gonna be a lot of – umm – response to that, reaction to that from various places. And umm – and – and so – you know if we're gonna do this – you know – it might as well be effective now because – you know – we are going to be having to deal with that regardless – umm – in the next 30 days. And, umm, it would be – it would be – you know – he makes the argument that it would be better for both of us to go ahead and (unintelligible) so that we can – you know – move forward and not be in a holding pattern.

Putnam County's Rundgrn referring to City Manager Johnson's request for a 30 day extension, "So the answer to Wendell's question is no."

Chairman Reams, "Right."

City Manager Johnson, "I think that his logic that it's best for both of us is not true... I think he just gave you a bunch of lip service."

The Board voted to accept the Termination Agreement as written. City Manager Johnson, who a few minutes before, said, "I'm not going to vote for that," voted for it.


Affiniti's statement mentioned at the beginning of this article, "After significant investment to explore the business viability of owning and operating the NFBA wireless network, Affinity has made the business decision, in consultation with the NFBA, to exit the partnership," was now a statement of fact.

In the same document Affiniti also stated, "The reality in rural Florida is that market conditions have changed dramatically in recent years with existing broadband providers filling gaps in many communities and in a decided preference among key anchor tenants to migrate to fiber based solutions, effectively bypassing the NFBA wireless microwave networks... Affiniti's business case has been undercut, while at the same time the digital divide has been closed in these rural communities."

Way in the beginning in 2009, engineers Darrin Mylet and Jim Selby submitted the design that helped secure the region's BTOP grant. They could have built a network that would have served the underserved in rural North Central Florida.

Bradford County's Chris Thurow and others went to the Federal Government and complained of waste – fraud – and abuse. They were squashed and the investigation was put under the carpet and whitewashed by Obama's Department of Commerce.

$30,000,000 plus has been allowed to be squandered on this project by an inept and incompetent NTIA, the folks responsible for watching the American people's money, whose measure of success was not performance, but the amount of money spent. Those counties that saw what was going on, one-by-one, pulled out.

That is not the fault of Affiniti.

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