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Ausley, Burgess Try To Bridge Tech Gap With Broadband Expansion Bills

A school bus outfitted with a mobile hotspot unit
A school bus outfitted with a mobile hotspot unit

Florida lawmakers are continuing a years-long effort to improve internet access in rural areas. The issue again caught lawmakers attention last year when schools and businesses were shuttered, forcing people inside and online. The problem: tens of thousands had no or very little access to broadband services needed for them to go to school, apply for unemployment benefits or see their doctors through telehealth.

The federal government has noted the internet is no longer a luxury, it’s an essential service—just like basic utilities. According to a legislative bill analysis, only 78.6% of rural areas of the state have access to broadband services, compared to 98% coverage in urban areas. And the quality of that access differs substantially as well..

“There are still hundreds of thousand of Floridians who don’t have access to the speeds that allow them to fully engage in school, work, healthcare. And there’s some Floridians who don’t have access at all—either there’s no service available, or, it’s simply not affordable," said Sen. Loranne Ausley, D-North Florida, in a recent Senate Commerce committee hearing for her broadband bill.

Ausley's 11 county district includes both rural Liberty County and the more urban state capital of Tallahassee. Ausley was on hand as the Leon County School District deployed a school bus wired with wifi to a mostly black neighborhood IN THE CITY to help students get online last Spring. In Liberty county, former Superintendent David Summers Discussed the problems he and other Liberty residents had in getting online.

“I get internet through my Dish service…but the problem is, we’re at the low end of the internet service, so it’s a problem with losing connections," Summers said in an April interview with WFSU.

The same issues were also encountered by fellow North Floridian and Republican Rep. Brad Drake, also of North Florida, who discussed them last January—BEFORE the pandemic.

“We get a taste of the good life, having broadband access when we go to town…but when we return to our houses, we’re without it again," he said.

Ausley’s bill attempts to bridge the gap by helping rural areas build out and upgrade their broadband infrastructure and help residents afford it. She’s also calling on the state to do a survey of where gaps in service exist.

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, has a similar mission to expand broadband. In a separate proposal, Burgess is tapping the state’s Office of Broadband—and yes, there is one—to create local planning groups that would figure out ways to help the state expand broadband and tap into federal resources.

“Something we felt strongly about in our pandemic committee is to require the Office of Broadband’s plan to develop short-term and long-term goals and strategies to increase the availability of and access to broadband access in Florida," he said.

Last year, the federal communications commission made available 16 billion dollars to states to help them shore up their connectivity. Florida’s share of that was $190 million, according to a legislative analysis. The second phase of the fund would release another $4.4 billion to targeted locations that are underserved or don’t have service at all. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Hillsboro, says the bills could be good for rural enclave’s in her district, like Lutz and Wimauma.

“We've got communities that have been trying to organize themselves, particularly in Wimauma, to get broadband access and we need government to meet them halfway. And I think these bills are wonderful opportunities to do just that and make sure we’re not leaving anyone behind in terms of the digital divide.”

Yet, as the Senate proposals are moving, the House versions of the bills have gone nowhere, and three weeks into the annual lawmaking session, time is running out for them to be heard.

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