Broadband expansion proposal sees changes in state legislature

TALLAHASSEE – Lawmakers awaiting federal money scaled back a proposal Tuesday that would help broadband providers expand service to mostly rural, underserved areas.

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, removed designated funding from his proposal that would establish a broadband pole-replacement program (SB 1800 and SB 1802), before the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee approved the measure.

Boyd’s initial proposal included $400 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and called for the recently created Office of Broadband within the state Department of Economic Opportunity to seek another $100 million from the federal Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund.

“I don’t know at this point when those dollars will come,” Boyd said. “We assume they will come. There is the mechanism in the federal government to allow it, but we haven’t seen them yet.”

The American Rescue Plan Act included $10 billion for the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to provide grants to states for projects and $130.2 billion for Community Development Block Grants. Another $64 billion was included in the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November, for programs such as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Development Program.

In supporting Boyd’s revised bill Tuesday, Sen. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said with “significant federal resources coming,” the Legislature needs to establish guidelines so the money is “getting to where it needs to go.”

The state’s share, if received after the current legislative session, in part could be directed to the Office of Broadband for staffing issues through the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which is made up of House and Senate budget leaders.

Boyd’s proposal must still get approval from the Appropriations Committee before it could go to the full Senate.

The House version (HB 1543 and HB 1545) has cleared two committees and needs to clear the Commerce Committee.

The broadband office is working with the University of Florida on a strategic plan that is expected to be completed this summer.

The importance of internet access for work and education became even more clear as businesses and schools went remote during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Expanding broadband internet service to Floridians lacking access will generate economic gains for Florida and help us be first among the states uniquely positioned to close the digital divide,” state Public Service Commission Chairman Andrew Fay said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Florida must continue to rely on a wide range of services to keep pace with the growing demand for fast and reliable internet access.”

A release from the Public Service Commission said the Federal Communications Commission has allocated nearly $192 million to internet service providers through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

A Senate staff analysis of Boyd’s bill said broadband access is available to 98 percent of the state’s urban areas and 78.6 percent of rural areas.

The disparity is attributed to the cost of building broadband infrastructure “across larger swaths of rural geographic areas.”

The Public Service Commission noted an FCC broadband report in January 2021 estimated 804,000 Floridians were among 14.5 million Americans without access to broadband.

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