Mark Marques and Jahan Babadi are two men with a clear vision of Jacksonville’s future. Young, energetic and possessing a contagious ambition, they envision a future where Jacksonville can compete with the most-wired cities in the world.
Marques, the president and CEO of upstart Joytel Wireless Communications Inc., and Jahan Babadi, the equally enterprising president of Sun-Tel USA Inc., have teamed with former Jacksonville Councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins to seek a piece of the federal stimulus dollars associated with the $7.2 billion Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program. The effort, all three say, could transform how telecommunications services are delivered in Northeast Florida and in the surrounding communities.
Information technology costs in the city are prohibitively higher than so-called “Internet Tier-One” cities like Chicago or Dallas where sufficient fiber-optic circuit exists to allows access to broadband clouds. These “clouds” allow data to be stored and retrieved wherever available service space exists, much like a user’s Gmail isn’t necessarily hosted on their office server.
“This is the one piece that’s holding us back,” Jenkins said.
The $11.9 million grant proposal presented to the U. S. Commerce Department by Joytel is a 5-year project that would essentially create a 600-mile pipeline from Miami to Atlanta utilizing fiber-optic cable that is not currently in use. It would have capacity for numerous “spurs” along the way, providing key access points for providers to offer high-speed broadband services to millions of under-served residents throughout Florida and southern Georgia by resurrecting the fiber-optic circuit that runs along rail lines.
The rebirth of that fiber-optic circuit would allow Jacksonville to become a “Tier-One” Internet city, better positioning it in the competitive world of technology-focused economic development. Marques and Babadi are also convinced it would lower costs and encourage new providers to enter the Jacksonville market.
Joytel plans to set aside fiber for the transmission of electronic medical records and for use by community service organizations. Joytel would utilize the portion set aside for commercial use and that’s where it would have the potential to glean profit from the project.
The plans don’t exactly bring cheer to everyone. Telecommunications giant Comcast was quick to lodge a protest. In a formal letter that was an exact copy of the company’s objections to grant proposals from other entities, Comcast argued that it is already providing sufficient service to the community and the additional fiber availability is not needed.
The team sees it as a David vs. Goliath battle.
“All we are trying to do,” Babadi said, “is to open the gateway for new providers to come into the market.”
Marques believes job growth would be a natural outcome as new firms entered the market.
Communities served would have cutting edge 400 gigabyte per second transmission capacity. That speed, Babadi says, would allow an end user to download the entire Library of Congress č the largest library in the world č in a little over four minutes. Rural residents of Southeast Georgia and Central Florida would have access to broadband capabilities and the three believe increased competition would drive down prices in Jacksonville, affording more consumers the opportunity to have access to high-speed Internet. Marques expressed surprise that the group was the only one ą with the exception of an entity that sought to provide broadband service to Keystone Heights ą to request funding for Northeast Florida.
Joytel is competing against a host of companies around the state for federal dollars and has received letters of recommendation from public officials. Its first major obstacle is securing grant funding, something that will be challenging with so much competition from rival proposals from Northwest, Central and South Florida.
Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton has endorsed the group’s proposal. In his letter of recommendation, Peyton said the space Joytel will donate to governments would give Jacksonville “greater ability to access data during a disaster without raising costs.”
The team expects to receive news on the request this month. In the meantime, it continues to look for support for the initiative.
“This project will position us for the future,” Marques said. “We need the vision in this city to embrace it.”
“And the leadership to step up,” Jenkins added.