Florida looking at billions for broadband expansion

Florida could have access to billions of federal dollars to improve broadband access in the coming years, and state lawmakers have laid the groundwork that could help effectively expand internet access for Floridians.

Florida Internet & Television during its 2021 FITCon hosted two panels Thursday addressing recent changes to broadband policy. Chief among them is President Joe Biden‘s infrastructure agenda.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Biden signed into law on Monday, sets aside $42.5 billion for broadband. At least $100 million of the fund is reserved for Florida broadband, but estimates suggest the state could receive as much as $1.2 billion.

“It’s a historic step to speed the deployment of next generation networks to unserved households, and to build a durable support mechanism that will help low income families connect to the internet,” said The Internet & Television Association’s Alex Minard.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission began offering the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which provides eligible households a $50 monthly discount for internet service, and a one time discount of $100 for a device. However, funding for that program is expected to run dry early next year.

Replacing it will be the Affordable Connectivity Program, which federal lawmakers created as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Unlike the Emergency Broadband Benefit, it provides only a $30 monthly discount.

“Something to keep an eye on is how the FCC talks about that transition. And it will be a challenge for providers who are existing and have current customers in the emergency benefit program to transition them over to the new program if they choose,” Minard said.

There are other programs affecting broadband that are also available to the state. Florida has access to $16 billion for water, sewer or broadband infrastructure through the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Program. Florida can also leverage another $366 million through the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund for projects that enable work, education and health monitoring.

But the changes aren’t only at the state level. Florida lawmakers the last two years have created programs to prepare the state for broadband expansion.

The Department of Economic Opportunity’s Office of Broadband, created in 2020, received $1.5 million last Legislative Session to develop a broadband availability map. Local technology planning teams were also created under state law to help better understand the availability of broadband.

“It is to better identify assets relevant to broadband deployment, and really help communities prepare for all of the federal funding that was just previously mentioned,” said DEO’s Katie Smith.

Attending the conference on Thursday were Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat, and Rep. Josie Tomkow, a Polk City Republican. The two sponsored legislation to expand the Office of Broadband, which Ausley also helped create.

Expanding broadband access was a priority before the pandemic, Ausley said, but it didn’t reach the forefront until employees and students had to work and learn from home.

“I’m sure we all saw those pictures that were floating around the internet of these children sitting outside of Taco Bell, sitting outside of McDonald’s and Starbucks trying to connect to their Wi-Fi,” Tomkow added.

Many places have internet access, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have access to quality, high speed internet access.

“When you’re looking at trying to draw and inspire entrepreneurship, the ability to work from home as our workforce is going to be moving in that direction, as many states are, this is going to be a critical investment that our state needs to make,” said Jeff Hendry, from the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University.

For Ausley, the most important thing has been bringing the high speed internet issue to the forefront.

“There are a lot of individual pieces and a lot that we have to continue to do,” she said. “But I think making it a top issue across the Florida Legislature, I guess I can say that’s what I’m the proudest of at this moment.”


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