By Amy Wenk
The Sandy Springs City Council voted July 21 to apply for federal funds to improve broadband services, but the issue split the council down the middle.
The council voted 4-3, with Mayor Eva Galambos casting the deciding vote, to submit the application.
With the Aug. 14 deadline approaching, City Manager John McDonough asked the council to pass a resolution to pursue a grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which is allocating $4.7 billion in stimulus money as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. About $240 million will be distributed in matching grants to states.
“We have not invested in this area,” McDonough said. “In order to remain competitive, we need to look at initiatives like this.”
The program would give Sandy Springs $800,000 to install broadband infrastructure to provide free high-speed Internet access. The city would have to contribute $200,000 to the project. The grant awards are expected to be announced Sept. 15.
“Broadband is going to be the communication superhighway for the 21st century for everything we do,” Dist. 3 Councilman Rusty Paul said. “The future of the broadband community is what we will move everything on. We owe our citizens an opportunity to go out and explore that.”
Dist. 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio concurred. “We would be foolish not even to explore it,” he said.
Dist. 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries joined them in voting to seek the grant.
But the proposal did not sit well with other council members.
“This is ridiculous,” said Dist. 4’s Ashley Jenkins, who was the first to speak out against the idea.
She said the grant requires spending the money in areas where the majority of people do not have Internet access. Sandy Springs would likely focus the infrastructure installation along Roswell Road and near high-density housing units.
“I voted against this,” Jenkins said in a July 22 e-mail to constituents. “I don’t know about you, but I have to pay a bill every month to Comcast for my Internet service. I am not voting for something that gives free Internet access to those in the apartment complexes, while I have to use hard-earned money to pay for this service.”
Dist. 1 Councilman Doug MacGinnitie voted against the grant application because the $200,000 city match is not allocated in the 2010 budget. “It is not free money,” he said. “It’s still our tax dollars.”
Dist. 6 Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny agreed, saying the $200,000 could be spent on other improvements like roads and sidewalks.
MacGinnitie said municipalities have tried to implement citywide broadband networks, but most have been expensive failures.
More information about the grant program is at www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants. Learn about broadband at www.broadband.gov.