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Florida TaxWatch Releases Report on Expanding Rural Internet Service – Florida Daily

This week, Florida TaxWatch (FTW) released a comprehensive assessment of broadband access in Florida, as well as proposed strategies for expansion in unserved areas.
In the report, entitled “Closing the Digital Divide: The Expansion of Broadband Internet Service to Unserved Areas of the State,” the taxpayer research institute also emphasized the need for fast, reliable, and affordable broadband Internet service in Floridians’ daily lives.
Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro weighed in on the report.
“For most people, a single day without high-quality Internet access is unimaginable, but for a half a million Floridians, particularly in predominantly rural areas of the state, that’s their reality every day. They can’t fully participate in education, health care, government programs, and so much more, putting them at a marked disadvantage,” he said. “Though Florida is currently fifth-best in a national ranking of broadband access, there’s clearly still significant room for improvement. We must have continued collaboration among the legislature, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and other valued stakeholders in order to overcome obstacles while investing in critical expansion activities that will ultimately allow the entire state to succeed. The legislature must take action to ensure that broadband Internet is available in the unserved parts of Florida, and this year presents the perfect opportunity to take those steps given the influx of federal dollars coming into the state
“Florida TaxWatch is proud to present this thorough report, and we look forward to sharing more information about the various benefits of broadband expansion in unserved communities in the days ahead, including the potential for substantial economic gains, estimated to be between $2.25 billion and $16.83 billion,” Calabro added.
According to FTW, statewide, 96.2 percent of Floridians have access to broadband speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 96.8 percent have access to wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or greater, and 27.6 percent have access to one gigabit of broadband. More than 460,000 Floridians do not have a wired connection capable of these speeds.
County access ranges from one percent in Dixie County to 100 percent in Pinellas County, with broadband coverage greater than 95 percent in about half (33) of Florida’s counties. FTW identifies six Florida counties that have broadband coverage of less than 50 percent: Dixie, Gilchrist, Holmes, Jefferson, Levy, and Washington.
FTW also noted that every month the expansion of high-speed broadband Internet service into these unserved areas is delayed, Floridians are burdened with between $13.6 million and $99.51 million in economic and social costs.
And while several federal and state initiatives have been implemented to support this effort – with critical work being done between the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and local technology planning teams (LTPTs) – FTW offers the following recommendations:
Priority for the expansion of broadband Internet service should be placed on unserved, as opposed to underserved, areas of the state. Once every unserved community has access to broadband Internet service, then the focus can shift to improving service in underserved areas of the state.
The legislature should place the $366 million from the Capital Projects Fund into the Broadband Opportunity Grant Program, to be administered by the DEO.
The legislature should place the minimum $100 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into a program to guide the replacement of utility poles to accommodate a broadband provider’s attachment if replacement is necessary to meet applicable safety and engineering requirements.
The legislature should appropriate $320,168 as requested by DEO in its FY 2022-23 Legislative Budget Request for: (1) one full-time equivalent (FTE) position and associated expenses to administer the Broadband Opportunity Grant Program and to work with local and state government agencies, community organizations and private businesses to increase the availability and effectiveness of broadband Internet throughout the state, specifically in small and rural communities; and (2) funds for contracted services to procure a vendor to update and expand the existing geographic information system (GIS) maps of broadband Internet service availability throughout the state.
The DEO and the Florida Regional Councils Association (FRCA) should ramp up efforts to engage and involve those counties that did not participate in the regional workshops.
The DEO should ramp up efforts to make available to the LTPTs additional expertise (e.g., Florida Association of Counties, Florida League of Cities, Florida Electric Cooperatives, existing Internet service providers, etc.) to assist in identifying appropriate strategies and technologies needed to increase the availability and accessibility of broadband Internet in each region of the state.
The public and private providers that came together at the October 27, 2021, meeting coordinated by state Sen. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, and state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, should continue to work together to ensure the provision of reliable and affordable high-quality broadband Internet service to every unserved area of the state.
The DEO should work diligently to ensure that the deadlines for the submission of the strategic plan required by CS/HB 969 (2020), for the federal grant plan, and all reporting requirements are met.
The legislature should adopt a fair and equitable utility pole policy that ensures a reasonable cost allocation of pole costs and that limits a pole owner’s ability to hold up the deployment of broadband Internet service in unserved areas of the state.

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