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The Florida legislature continues a push for broadband expansion

Two white work trucks are present as a man in an aerial work platform works on a fiber optic cable and two other men in hard hats look on.
Ted S. Warren
Workers with the Mason County (Wash.) Public Utility District install fiber optic cable, as part of a project to bring broadband internet service to homes in a rural area.

Florida lawmakers are continuing to push for bridging the divide between residents who have access to high-speed internet and those who can't get service.

About 1 million Floridians lack access to high-speed internet. One of the barriers to expanding broadband — especially in rural communities — is the cost of building out infrastructure. Lawmakers are considering a measure to subsidize those costs.

“Florida ranks second in the entire country in terms of the number of residents that don’t have any internet access or reliable internet access," said Republican Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota during the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism's meeting Monday.

State lawmakers have been working to connect unserved residents to high-speed internet for the last couple of years. Last year, they passed legislation to set up a broadband grant assistance program through the Department of Economic Opportunity's Office of Broadband. They also directed the office to map underserved areas and put together a strategic broadband deployment plan. They’ve also set up local technology planning teams to help bring together stakeholders.

Now, they're considering a measure that would allocate $500 million in federal funding to subsidize the cost of putting up broadband utility poles in communities that lack access. Of that, $100 million would start the Broadband Pole Replacement Trust Fund. The remaining $400 million would cover half the cost to replace broadband utility poles or $5,000 — whichever is less. Internet service providers that can provide speeds of 100 mbps/ 100 mbps could get funding through the proposed Broadband Pole Replacement Program, which has gained bipartisan support.

“This bill is part of an overall effort of setting priorities and getting all the moving parts to where they’re moving toward a comprehensive, strategic objective of providing reliable, high-speed, affordable internet access to every home, every business, every community," said Chris Doolin with the Coalition of Small Counties, an organization working with local governments to expand broadband.

Residents who lack access to broadband aren’t able to get internet at speeds fast enough for multiple users to stream H-D video, participate in video-conference calls or work from home. While about 2% of the state's urban residents lack access, more than 20% of the state's rural residents can’t get high-speed internet.

Albert Kaminsky, legislative affairs director for Charter Communications, explained to the committee that the broadband utility pole subsidies would help the internet service provider continue expanding high-speed internet access to underserved areas. In 2020, the internet service provider invested $515 million to connect 99,000 homes in underserved areas to broadband.

“We know the digital divide is an important issue to all Floridians and we want to be a part of the solutions."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.