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Proposal to set aside $400M for broadband stripped from FL Senate bill

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Florida Sen. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) explains broadband infrastructure bill amendment during a Senate appropriation subcommittee meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

The state Senate and House were working in sync to legislate $500 million in funding for broadband expansion efforts.

Companion bills in both chambers had proposed setting aside $400 million to fund broadband infrastructure projects and to direct the state Department of Economic Opportunity to apply for $100 million in additional federal funding to help cover the costs of replacing utility poles with ones that can support broadband technology.

The two chambers have now diverged on specifying the amount of funding in the legislation.

While the House version at this time would appropriate millions of dollars, an amended Senate bill that passed on Tuesday strikes out the millions of dollars that were in the original version.

"In essence, this just creates the structure for the pole replacement program," said Republican Sen. Jim Boyd, the bill's sponsor. The measure passed unanimously in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.

Even though the Senate version doesn't specify a funding amount, it still directs DEO to apply for federal dollars to fund the Utility Pole Replacement Program. It wouldn't appropriate any dollars for the Broadband Opportunity Program — which funds high-speed infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile the House version would still appropriate $400 million for the Broadband Opportunity Program. It would also direct the department to apply for $100 million for utility pole replacement.

Both measures have one more committee stop left before they get taken up on the floor.

Boyd says he removed the funding amounts from the bill because the state hasn’t yet received that money from the federal government.

“I don’t know of course when those dollars will come," Boyd said. "We assume they will come. There’s the mechanism in the federal government to allow it. But we haven’t seen them yet.”

More work is needed from the state Department of Economic Opportunity to retrieve the federal dollars, said Jennifer Hrdlicka, the legislative committee’s staff director.

“They’re available, but the state has to submit a plan and I believe that they're working on that currently.”

About one million Floridians lack access to broadband, a legislative analysis shows.

While many of those residents live in urban areas and can’t afford high-speed internet, the biggest challenge is connecting rural residents who live in communities where service simply doesn’t exist, said Democratic Sen. Lorrane Ausley — who represents several north Florida districts in need of broadband access.

“Children can’t go to school. Parents can’t go to work. There’s no access to health care. We can’t use precision agriculture. Without high-speed internet, really life as we know it today is difficult.”

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.