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Broadband dollars unlikely to make it into state budget, but funding still expected

A.J. Bowen of Schupp's Line Construction, Inc. works on fiber-optic installation in Norton, Vt.
A.J. Bowen of Schupp's Line Construction, Inc. works on fiber-optic installation in Norton, Vt.

Money to connect Florida’s rural residents to high-speed internet likely won’t get included in the state budget, but funding for broadband projects could still become available over the next fiscal year.

“There’s money coming to address rural broadband,” said state Sen. Loranne Ausley (D-Quincy). The next fiscal year begins in July, and the deadline for the state to submit a broadband grant plan needed to drawn down hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government is Sept. 24. “We have a process through the Legislative Budget Commission to ensure that it can get to the Office of Broadband and start getting into our communities.”

Lawmakers were working toward dedicating $500 million for broadband infrastructure through two programs: The Broadband Opportunity Program and the Utility Pole Replacement Program. The former was created without funding last year, while the latter was proposed this year in a measure that likely won’t get a final vote.

“This bill is one little piece of the broadband strategy,” Ausley said. “It’s an important one, but it’s not necessary for the work to continue.”

Last year, lawmakers created the Office of Broadband within the Department of Economic Opportunity. Since then, the office has begun mapping areas in the state where access to high-speed internet doesn’t exist. Residents can take an internet speed test, the results of which will be reflected on the map. The office is also putting together a strategic plan for connecting unserved communities. “Once we have the resources, that strategic plan and the mapping will help guide the Office of Broadband in working with communities to get those dollars out the door,” said Ausley, whose district includes rural Panhandle counties where broadband access is scarce.

A legislative staff analysis shows the state has already submitted its intent to spend some of the $366 million that it’s expecting to receive through the federal Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund on broadband infrastructure. But it still needs to submit a broadband grant plan to the U.S. Department of Treasury before the funding arrives.

Sen. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) sponsored a measure that would’ve set aside $400 million for the Broadband Opportunity Program — which was created to award broadband infrastructure grants. The proposed legislation would’ve also directed the Department of Economic Opportunity to apply for $100 million for the proposed Utility Pole Replacement Program, which would help internet service providers cover the costs of putting up utility poles that can support broadband technology.

Earlier this week, a Senate appropriations subcommittee removed funding for the program. Boyd explained during the meeting that he filed the amendment because federal dollars haven’t yet arrived. "We assume they will come. There’s the mechanism in the federal government to allow it. But we haven’t seen them yet.”

Without money in the budget for broadband, the measure to establish the Utility Pole Replacement Program likely won’t get a final vote. The House measure was was sent to the Commerce Committee, but Representative Blaise Ingoglia — the committee’s chairman — said on Wednesday that the committee would most likely not meet again. And the Senate bill hasn’t yet been received by its final committee.

“The broadband strategy is going to continue whether or not that we have money in a pole replacement fund or not,” said Democratic Sen. Lorrane Ausley, who has described expanding access to broadband as the number one issue facing her district.

Ausley says she’s committed to supporting the Office of Broadband in their efforts. Right now, the office needs more staff members or the ability to contract with third-party organizations that can do the technical work needed to make sure the grant funding is distributed correctly after it arrives.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.