Loranne Ausley, Florida Politics
I have been increasingly concerned about the lack of affordable and accessible high-speed internet across our Panhandle communities, which is why I worked together with Rep. Brad Drake to pass HB 969.
The bill, which is currently sitting on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, creates a new Office of Broadband — the first step in building out a rural broadband strategy.
Little did we know just how important this would be back in early March when the bill passed unanimously through the Legislature.
During the past several months, COVID-‐19 has pushed every aspect of our lives onto the computer screen, truly exposing the very real inequities between those who have access to high-speed internet and those who do not.
This “digital divide” is real and it is taking a toll on kids who cannot go to school, parents who cannot go to work and families who cannot access health information or medical care.
So, what is the problem and what can we do?
Like so many things, it comes down to money. There is simply not enough of an economic incentive for private providers to build out networks in sparsely populated areas. Local governments and economic development officials certainly recognize the opportunities that come to communities when high-speed internet becomes available, but our small counties are already strapped for cash — particularly those who are still reeling from Hurricane Michael.
In 1936, when faced with a similar challenge, our nation stepped up to ensure that every American was able to access electricity through the Rural Electrification Act.
While the federal government has made some funding available for broadband expansion, including adding some CARES Act funding, these funds are limited and competitive in nature, which favors those communities with enough resources to hire consultants and grant-‐writers.
I would argue that high-speed internet is as essential today as electricity was in the 1930s, and it is time for our federal government to step up and make a similar investment.
Other states have not waited for federal action, and I am hopeful that the newly created Office of Broadband will allow Florida to join these states in aggressively pursuing strategies for broadband expansion.
I am encouraged to see Cabinet officers and agency heads recognize the need for action, and the importance of acting swiftly.
Finally, I continue to work with a growing group of stakeholders across North Florida to ensure that our region can benefit from any funding opportunities.