Lincoln Park and Smart City Initiatives in Fort Pierce with Jason Mittler - Episode 590 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Jason Mittler, the manager of the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority Network. The FPUA Network is a fiber optic network in Fort Pierce, Florida. Jason details the FPUA and their multifaceted use of their fiber network, which not only provides Internet and utility services but also facilitates smart grid solutions and smart city services.

Chris and Jason also discuss updates regarding the Lincoln Park Smart Neighborhood, which is a collaborative project that aims to address low broadband adoption rates to a historic community in Fort Pierce. This would provide residents in Lincoln Park with the essential connectivity they need by offering 100 Mbps symmetrical service at $31 per month. The FPUA Network also provides additional services for those who required higher speeds.

The conversation concludes with Chris and Jason sharing valuable advice for those venturing into the ISP market. They emphasize the importance of collaboration with consultants, building partnerships with municipalities and organizations to learn from industry peers, and staying informed about the evolving landscape of Internet services.

This show is 29 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show: please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or see other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Jason Mittler (00:07):
So it's not just that we offer Internet, it's not just that we offer our utility services, right? We're a smart city Internet service provider that provides smart grid solutions and smart city services over the same fiber network.

Christopher Mitchell (00:20):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and [00:00:30] I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Jason Mittler, who is the manager of FP uua net, which is the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority fiber optic network down in Florida. Welcome to the show. Hi,

Jason Mittler (00:44):
Chris. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the honor just to be here and speaking with you and your organization and the area of broadband and how it impacts communities.

Christopher Mitchell (00:56):
Well, I think the audience is going to be really interested in some of the work that [00:01:00] y'all are doing down there. I'm really excited. I've been tracking it here and there from a newspaper article here or there, and there was a broadband communities article that was pretty cool talking about the project that you have. But we'll be diving into what I think is the coolest part, the Lincoln Park project in a little bit. But let's start with what is the actual deployment today in terms of what are you building where, how fast and that sort of thing?

Jason Mittler (01:27):
We're currently deploying in many areas of Fort Piers, [00:01:30] predominantly within inside of our electric territory, utilizing the infrastructure that we installed for utility purposes and many other electric utilities, they've decided to monetize that, right, and we started doing that in the early two thousands, but today we have about 170 or so miles of fiber throughout four piers, and we've offered fiber to many dedicated customers from an enterprise perspective. And we've just passed about 1500 parcels [00:02:00] currently with PON architecture, passive opt network, where we're providing service to small businesses and residents throughout targeted areas within Fort Piers.

Christopher Mitchell (02:11):
And if I remember correctly, you got 45,000 people and I saw like 30,000 meters. So

Jason Mittler (02:16):
That's about correct.

Christopher Mitchell (02:17):
You're kind of in the beginning phases then.

Jason Mittler (02:20):
Yeah, that's right. We've got most of our feeders and our data centers and all of those things established, and we're just building out our fiber network from [00:02:30] a distribution side moving into the neighborhoods and standing up cabinets in various areas that whether or not we have interest in there based on our aggregated demand management software that we use, or that's an area that we're partnering with the city or the county with public Wi-Fi and parks, or they need security cameras or we have utility infrastructure that needs to be connected. We may extend that area [00:03:00] as well, but at the same time, we're able to help offset that cost and by monetizing it, by providing fiber to the home and business.

Christopher Mitchell (03:09):
Now, this is not anything new. I think you've developed a plan to be more aggressive in recent years, but I saw that probably before you were there, Fort Pierce Utilities Authority had got a CLEC license all the way back in 2005, so some time ago.

Jason Mittler (03:27):
That's correct. That's correct. I've [00:03:30] actually been here since that time, but I've been at FPA for just over 21 years, but I wasn't involved in the fiber side. I was over in the electric engineering side, so I had some hands on the initial fiber infrastructure install around our substations and for utility purposes we had that vision. It's the same story that most electric utilities have. They were kind of getting tired of having unreliable lagged communication [00:04:00] between their assets in the field. And our electric relays are super critical. It impacts our power grid, and so that's a lot of money to get those T one circuits. So we kind of did away with those and put on our fiber ring and we started connecting all our other utility assets. And while we did that, we were wise enough to be able to increase the size of our feeder cable and then start providing some dedicated Internet access to other municipalities, [00:04:30] schools, our partners, some of the large businesses. And at that same time, we were able to apply for that clac license that kind of exempted us from a few of the legislative challenges that Florida has. And so we have that grandfather status, which has been paying off dividends today.

Christopher Mitchell (04:50):
Right? Florida is not one of the worst states, and it's not one of the states that has just a small barrier. It's in between with a [00:05:00] barrier that frankly is a bit ambiguous and hard to interpret, and I think has led to some people being overly cautious to make sure that they weren't running a foul of it either way. It's discouraging investment and I don't like to see it. That's my position. I'll stand by it now. I did want to say I think you're part of the Treasure Coast and I don't know, they never found the Fountain of Youth, but if you've been there for 20 years, I'm pretty impressed. I was surprised to hear that. [00:05:30] So the question I was wondering about then is what led to a decision then to go away from focusing on anchors and larger businesses and that sort of a thing and to make that commitment to start trying to connect everyone?

Jason Mittler (05:44):
Yeah, I think a few things happened. We tried to look at scaling our utility up multiple times. Honestly, I would've said that I think back in 2014 or 2013, there was some studies [00:06:00] done and from the previous FP net manager, Don Landon, so I'd have to get him kudos for all the work that he did at that time. There just wasn't the support. Sometimes with projects like this, the key thing you need to have is all the stakeholders running in the same direction. And so city board, the FPA board, the city commission management, I don't know if everybody was aligned, but the interesting thing, it was really in that 20 19, 20 18 [00:06:30] era that our now current CEO Director of utilities, Javier SROs, pitched the idea of Fort Pierce becoming this smart city and did a presentation to our board and city commission modeled after the city of Chattanooga. And then right after that, the Lincoln Park Smart Neighborhood Initiative kind of popped up, which I feel like was the catalyst to launch and to push in to say, Hey, [00:07:00] here's some additional funding that we can partner with. And we had new board members, we had new management, new city commission, and all of those things, all the stars were aligned and we said, let's go. And so I think that's kind of how we got to today, and I'm very thankful for hobbies, leadership and direction in FPUA.

Christopher Mitchell (07:23):
Yeah. One of the things that I feel like I always want to tell people when they're looking at this is that rarely does [00:07:30] an electric utility especially, but any city often they don't dive into this sort of thing overnight. This is usually something they've been thinking about, kind of playing around with it, looking at the numbers, deciding that maybe it's not right for them just now. They come back to it in a few years, they find a set of numbers that are workable and then they start testing out other things. It's not something where you just wake up and you're like, you know what? Fiber, let's do it. So the thing that I think sets you apart more than most others is this Lincoln Park [00:08:00] project, and it's something that I really hope we'll see a lot more of. So let's just dive right in. What is Lincoln Park? Well,

Jason Mittler (08:07):
Before we go there, one of the things I think that's critical is kind of how we see our network. We have branded ourself being to become a smart city Internet service provider. So it's not just that we offer Internet, it's not just that we offer our utility services. We're a smart city Internet service provider that provides smart grid solutions and smart [00:08:30] city services over the same fiber network. And so we took that initiative into the Lincoln Park area, which is a beautiful community that has a historic heritage and just in an amazing people there. They've just had various challenges economically and other various things. And so really they needed some kind of a little bit of help to be able to elevate that community. And one of the things that [00:09:00] was brought about was, well, hey, let's bring broadband in. And not only are we bringing broadband to every home, we stood up public Wi-Fi in five key areas, and this was all pre COVID, right?

So we had this vision, we had this idea prior to the idea of COVID, but then when COVID happened, it slowed down our project because of a hero acquisition. But I think it propelled and launched us into the peer view of [00:09:30] other people saying, wow, broadband's a big deal. And as all the BEAD money and all the money that's out there right now, broadband has been elevated. And so basically in the nutshell, Lincoln, our Lincoln Park Smart Neighborhood project is really in the heart of Fort Pierce. It was an area that contained about 550 parcels. It bridges two commercial corridors, our Orange Avenue corridor and our Avenue D corridor. It also [00:10:00] envelops an area in our city we call the Peacock Arts District. So if you ever visit the city of Fort Pierce, I would encourage you to do that. City of Fort Pierce is amazing. I am a Fort Pierce Ian, so I'm a little bit biased, but I could tell you that you come in the area and you got peacocks walking with you, so it's kind of cool, right?

Christopher Mitchell (10:21):
It sounds scary, I'll be honest.

Jason Mittler (10:25):
No, they're amazing birds, but there's also a lot of art and different types of [00:10:30] murals on walls and just you get to see the culture. So that's important.

Christopher Mitchell (10:35):
If I had to guess, this is a neighborhood that, I mean in your area you have two national companies, and so I'm guessing Comcast probably has a standard service in there, and at and t probably has a DSL service in there. And one of the things I often say, Comcast Internet Essentials is the best of all the big companies, but we've seen for more than 10 years what it can do. And it helps out [00:11:00] some families, but there's often a need left over. And so you're talking about this neighborhood where it's not that they have nothing, I would guess, but that there's a great need for some service that's going to be meeting their needs at a level that is not currently being

Jason Mittler (11:13):
Met. That's correct. And so one of the things coming in here, it wasn't an area that didn't have broadband, and part of it was just the education behind it. A lot of people don't even know and getting involved. And that's part of the initiative too, where [00:11:30] we work with Incubate Your Neighborhood, which is a business incubator, which is inside the old Lincoln Park. It was the first and African-American school in Fort Pierce, and it's called the Means Court Building now. And that's been developed into this business incubator. We put public Wi-Fi in there. They're training different people. They have a computer lab. So that whole piece to it, it's not just bringing broadband in, it's teaching people about broadband. And [00:12:00] so when we found out, and we looked at the demographics and realized that this was the lowest broadband adoption rate track in San Lucie County, and this was had bridged two business corridors that the city of Fort Pierce wanted to develop.

And with the demographics of the individuals that live there, it was a great place for everybody to invest in. Allegheny. Francis Ministries is an amazing ministry, [00:12:30] and when they came in, they've invested, I think three 4 million in four peers over the last few years. They kind of chose this. It wasn't that FPOA said, Hey, look, this is the area that we want to build because this is going to be the most profitable. This was the area of the greatest need. And so one of the things that we knew that is if we were going to enter this market that we couldn't come in with a retail rate because we do offer a hundred [00:13:00] meg symmetrical service and our retail rate is $49, which I think is a pretty competitive offer.

Christopher Mitchell (13:06):
It's hard to find that level of service at that price nationally, unless you're going to add on another $30 of fees hidden. But I'm sure you don't do that.

Jason Mittler (13:14):
No, I mean it's $49. And so what we did was because of our community partners, we took $18 off of that so that people in the Lincoln Park area, they can get this a hundred meg symmetrical service for $31 a month. No equipment, [00:13:30] no contract,

Christopher Mitchell (13:31):
No equipment fee.

Jason Mittler (13:33):
No equipment fee. Yeah, they have equipment, sorry. It comes with a wireless router, right? Wi-Fi six router, and it doesn't have any equipment fees and no contract. And many of these individuals, they may struggle month to month paying their bills and them being locked into a contract may be the difference between putting food in their mouth or not. And so that's challenging. And so this really helps 'em out. And so we're finding success in that.

Christopher Mitchell (14:00):
[00:14:00] And so you have formed a partnership then with the city at Fort Pierce, the county of St. Lucie and Allegheny Franciscan Ministries. Just how did that come apart? I mean, you said that the ministries they had already I committed were investing in Allegheny. How did you develop that partnership with the city and the county and everything? We're

Jason Mittler (14:22):
Already kind of partners with them. We work really close with our municipal brothers and sisters within Fort Pierce. That's what I love about San Jose [00:14:30] County. We work really well with other government agencies. There's a lot of synergies and efficiencies that's gained by working with one another. And allegheny's been in the community, and this was proposed to us as our director was talking with the city manager and talking with the county administrator, and this was together, it was proposed, and we said, all right, you know what? FPUA will fund half of it if you guys [00:15:00] can fund half of it. And that funding included the five locations of free Wi-Fi, which it's not just little areas. I mean we're talking parks. I think that's kind of how it came about.

Christopher Mitchell (15:12):
And how has that gone? That deal was made years ago, right? At this point?

Jason Mittler (15:17):
Yeah, I think 2019, it was kind of conversation started. We needed to, it was a very generalized MOU, it needed some meat on the bones kind of skeleton, [00:15:30] put it together, figure out what made sense. And again, then you threw COVID in the middle of it, which changed a lot of stuff, but it accelerated the need for broadband. And so we deployed it in September of 2023. And so from that, we started really pushing and marketing it in November, and I think we have about 25 or 28 subscribers at the moment. So we're [00:16:00] just really starting to ramp up our marketing and in customer engagement, we've been meeting with different organizations to get the word out.

Christopher Mitchell (16:09):
Do you see people taking a variety of services or are people applying ACP to it? I don't know if you're an ACP provider, frankly, given the timeline of it running out. I hope you didn't go through all that paperwork. This is where you are.

Jason Mittler (16:25):
We are an ACP provider. We don't have a ton of ACP [00:16:30] customers at the moment, but I think that it is a necessary need from Internet service providers. It's not about benefiting the service provider. It's about benefiting and giving those customers access to this voucher, this discount. So we are a part of ACP and we are very sad to see where it is, and we are really hoping that it's funded again or some type of [00:17:00] categorization or new legislation comes out to assist it because we are finding that a lot of people want it. But surprisingly, we are finding people that we've got people that are ACP that are signing up for a gig service. We have people that are not ACP and they get the a hundred meg service. We had just had a woman today, she got her a hundred meg service starting out, and she just called.

She says, I need more speed. And we just gave her 300 megs. So [00:17:30] it's all over the board. Sometimes you got multiple families living in dwellings today. I mean, with the cost of homes and real estate, people got to do what they got to do and many are. I remember there was one customer, she worked from home and she was having problems, and next day we got out there and installed it for her, and she was just so happy because now all of a sudden her work life just changed dramatically because she had that upload speed that she really needs that [00:18:00] on the other networks don't currently offer.

Christopher Mitchell (18:04):
Right. Yeah, no, I've seen that in my own house. Not only that, the bandwidth cap was a real bummer, which I had to deal with.

Jason Mittler (18:13):
And that's one thing obviously for us, you can use as much as you want. So

Christopher Mitchell (18:18):
I'm curious about MDUs. Do you have a fair amount of apartment buildings in Lincoln Park? Has that been a challenge?

Jason Mittler (18:25):
So we do have some MDU areas. We haven't connected [00:18:30] any really yet. We have a couple of duplexes and stuff like that that we've connected, but we do have some apartment complexes, but we have not been able to focus on them or get them to subscribed yet.

Christopher Mitchell (18:45):
In the show that aired the week before this one, the Chad Crager with Fort Collins was just saying that he feels like he's always looking for more techniques to get inside of so many different flavors [00:19:00] you'll run into, and it's just possibly why you've not gotten around to it yet, I'm guessing. Yeah.

Jason Mittler (19:06):
I mean, no, we just haven't had the interest yet. And some of 'em, I mean, we're outside of Lincoln Park. We're targeting MDUs from a bulk deal, but one of the challenges you have to have when you enter the bulk realm, especially in Florida, there's a lot of retirees and they still like the remote, right? They want [00:19:30] their channel. You talk streaming to them. They want this, the clicker, they want the clicker. And so we're working with various streaming providers to try to contracts because that's what they're needing, and we feel like we can provide the best rate at the best speeds with the best reliability, and not only is it going to provide a great service at a great rate for 'em, it's going to be put back into the community. And so money stays here. The people that work [00:20:00] here lives here, we care, right? I work here, live here, play here. I'm a Fort Ian, and this is my hometown.

Christopher Mitchell (20:08):
I just saw YouTube TV has 8 million subscribers, I think now. They're one of the larger cable systems in the country, and they should just buy Roku boxes and charge people a few extra boxes and call it a day. Anyway, I was just thinking about that they have enough people that they could come up with their own solution to just fake the box [00:20:30] G PON and XG spon. So I'm just sort of curious. I saw that, that you're deploying both, or at least when I read the articles you were. So how has that decision been going?

Jason Mittler (20:41):
We're deploying GPON in some areas because we already had the cards and very early on when we started evaluating the different technologies, XGS PON was, the ON Ts were not really available yet. And so once they became available and [00:21:00] the cost dropped, we realized that what it made the logical sense to move to the XG spon, the 10 gig pond, and I'm pleased to announce, I think about two or three weeks ago that we started offering our two gig service. And so we're excited. Everybody else is offering other services, and so we are not just building a network for today, we're building a network of tomorrow.

Christopher Mitchell (21:25):
Yeah, no, I was just looking at the Wi-Fi seven has such great capacity, and [00:21:30] I was looking at, I'm inside my house, I run a one ubiquity access point, and it is a 2.5 ethernet connection. I was glad to see that. I feel like that's the barrier for me. I want to move to a faster in-home connection, but all the home gear is all one gigabit still. So I am curious then as we move toward the end of the interview, if you have any advice for others who are going to be working with consultants. I feel like you had mentioned to me [00:22:00] at the beginning of the interview four years ago, you wouldn't have classified yourself as an expert, let's say. So what learning process did you go through and what advice would you have for others that are looking at getting into this?

Jason Mittler (22:13):
Well, the first thing, fiber is not what you eat for breakfast.

Christopher Mitchell (22:17):
No. It's a supplement you take with breakfast.

Jason Mittler (22:20):
No, I would say that if you don't know anything about fiber or that you're thinking about it, you definitely want to get a consultant. I think there are extremely [00:22:30] important piece to going into building an ISP. You can't find a, haven't found a book. Maybe I'll write one ISP for dummies, right? Because no, it is really challenging because there's so many different areas, and one of the things that we looked at as a utility, the ISP world is much different than how a municipal electric or municipal water or sewer operates. So having a consultant by your side is extremely [00:23:00] important. One of the things I found was that usually the first couple projects that you do with a consultant takes a little time in any relationship that you're in. It takes time to get to know one another. And so I think that after you get to your second, third project, you probably gain efficiencies where you're kind of learning one another. Every ISP, every specific [00:23:30] areas, design requirements are different. And so I think if you were going to interview a consultant, I would be focused on one that has built a network within side, similar demographics. Are you predominantly overhead? Are you predominantly underground? Are you going straight? What type of builds have they done?

I think if you're looking from [00:24:00] entering the market, you want to have one that has the business consulting side on it as well, because you could have a great engineering one and they can engineer a tremendous network for you, but if it's not going to pan out and make money, or not really make money, but be profitable so that you can continue on building, you're going to have challenges.

Christopher Mitchell (24:25):
I'm also curious how you learned some of the technology stuff. I mean, was it in talking to [00:24:30] the consultants or you said there was no book. Did you go to conferences? I'm fishing around a little bit because I'm curious in that I feel like we don't see as many people going to the events anymore that we had seen before, I think. And so how did you get more proficient?

Jason Mittler (24:47):
Yeah, I mean, immediately I went to conferences and started talking around. Luckily, there's two other local municipals in the state of Florida, the city of Ocala and the city of Gainesville. [00:25:00] They also are ISPs. And so I've learned a lot from them. They're a little bit ahead of us from a deployment perspective. And so going and visiting those peers, what are they doing? What are they doing good? What are they doing bad? What are they like? Right? Doing that, going to the conferences, learning, I think there's so much out there from in today's terms of how do you start an ISP where four years ago it wasn't there. I do think that there's a lot more information out there. I think I was just [00:25:30] about a year and a half too early, where now there, there's a lot more manuals I guess you could say. But I would definitely suggest touching base with Fiber, broadband Association, fiber Connect, all of those different conferences. You're going to find the various partners that you'd want. And I think that would probably be the biggest thing is don't look for vendors. You need to look for partners, right? You want to work with somebody [00:26:00] that really is looking to help you build this thing and not sell you a service, not sell you a product. You need partners that are willing to walk with you through the mud.

Christopher Mitchell (26:11):
Yes. Yeah. And be there when something breaks. That's the key.

Jason Mittler (26:17):

Christopher Mitchell (26:17):
Now, the last thing I would elevate from that is I do think what you mentioned about Gainesville and Ocala is I do think learning from those around you, if you can develop that relationship [00:26:30] with those folks, buy 'em a drink, buy 'em, buy 'em a meal, and just pick their brains about things. Ask 'em how things are going. I'm always disappointed when I find out that people aren't doing that legwork as they are planning even. You're a kind of introspective person. You got to get out and talk to people.

Jason Mittler (26:47):
You do. I mean, even right now, I mean in May, I'm planning to go up and see some friends up in the city of Holland and Traverse City. They've got a bunch of money that they're fixing to start deploying and build, and [00:27:00] this, there's a lot to this, and you need to look at it from different perspectives. And sometimes when you sit in a room, I mean, I've even sat down with vendors and my staff's in the room, and all of a sudden we come up with an idea and that we got their engineering representative. They're like, wow, that's a good idea. They're going to go back and create the product. Some of the story's not written yet, and so sometimes the only way to come up with that innovative solution is getting other peers [00:27:30] that has a different perspective and getting 'em in the same room, having conversations. And I've always left blessed, and I think that they've left blessed from us having that dialogue.

Christopher Mitchell (27:44):
Yes. Yeah, I think so. And I think we could end on that because that's such an important point, that this is not the end of the Internet. It's not, I guess we're connecting people who haven't been connected before. It's maturing, it's changing. There's different uses [00:28:00] that'll be coming about. Our patterns are going to change, and there's still a lot of history yet to be written. So that's an excellent point. And Jason, thank you so much for your time today.

Jason Mittler (28:10):
Yes, Chris, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate the time and the ability to come and speak what we've been doing here in Fort Pierce.

Christopher Mitchell (28:17):
Well, and I really hope that more people are inspired to copy the effort of finding those local dollars with partnerships to build out low income communities and make sure it's affordable. [00:28:30] I think it's a great model, and it's something that we've not seen in hardly any places. So kudos on that. Thank you.

Ry Marcattilio (28:37):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts slash broadbandbits. Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is at Community Nets. Follow community Stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, [00:29:00] including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Sby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through creative comments.