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The infrastructure package includes broadband dollars for Florida, but implementation will be a test

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.
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.

The federal infrastructure package includes at least $100 million for Florida to connect more people to high-speed internet. Though the state has an office to distribute the funds, getting that money to rural communities could prove challenging.

Florida is expected to get more funding to connect people to high-speed internet as part of a federal infrastructure package that awaits President Joe Biden’s signature.

Thirteen percent — or 707,000 — of the state’s residents lack an internet subscription, according to a White House fact sheet.

The Infrastructure and Investment in Jobs Act provides assistance to those who can’t afford high-speed internet. Under the bill, nearly a third of the state’s residents could get help paying for broadband.

“It is great news for those hundreds of thousands of Floridians,” Democratic state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said at a press conference last week in Miami.

Fried, who’s running for governor, is the only statewide elected official touting the package.

No Republican statewide elected official has come out in support of the measure. Gov. Ron DeSantis described it as “pork-barrel spending,” when speaking to reporters last week. At a separate press conference, he questioned whether the state would get its fair share of the funding when asked again about the bill. “It seems like a disproportionate amount of money is going to New York and New Jersey,” DeSantis said. “How does Florida make out compared to some of these other states?”

The $1.2 trillion package would allocate more than $19 billion to Florida. That estimate is based on a funding formula and the amount could change, a White House fact sheet notes.

Most of the dollars would fund the state's roads, bridges and airports. To expand broadband access, the state would get $100 million.

Competing for federal and state grants isn’t easy for rural communities, said Liberty County Administrator Daniel Stanley, who declined to comment specifically on the infrastructure package. “Being able to have the people, the staff to be able to implement that — as well as the capital up front to do that — is difficult for smaller counties,” he said. “When you may have a multi-million dollar project within a county, a mid-size or a larger county may well be able to absorb matching funds, start-up funds. But for a smaller county like ours that’s very difficult.”

The county has about 8,000 residents. Stanley says only those who live near Highway 20, the county’s main road, have broadband options. “There is a large contingency of the county that does not have the availability at all.”

State Rep. Brad Drake (R-District 5) has made expanding access to broadband a top priority. Drake’s mostly rural district includes Holmes, Jackson, Walton and Washington Counties, along with part of Bay County. “I've lived in a rural community with limited broadband access my entire life,” Drake said. “I represent a large district where people don't have access to internet.”

In 2020, Drake sponsored legislation establishing a state broadband office in the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Last year, he expanded on that measure and sponsored legislation that gives internet service providers a reduced rate to attach their equipment to utility polls in underserved areas. Drake says the federal broadband dollars the state’s expecting could help fund that effort.

“We think that we can create and adequately fund the new broadband infrastructure poll upgrade program and upgrade utility pole infrastructure to kind of accelerate broadband deployment.”

Drake says that’s important for residents across the state, as the need for broadband exists beyond his district. “There are places all throughout Florida where people choose to live in a rural area,” he said. “They deserve an opportunity for adequate infrastructure, just like anybody else.”

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