As counties across Florida look for ways to improve internet speed and reach into small or rural communities, Santa Rosa County appears to be ahead of the curve.
Officials leading local technology teams across Florida met for the first time last week to speak during the funding process to distribute more than $866 million for broadband improvements and for team-building strategies, aimed at ensuring all Florida residents have high-quality Internet access.
22 of the state’s 67 counties actively engage with a local technical planning team and nearly half of those have reported their work to the office, said Kiwanis Carey, program director for the Florida Office of Broadband.
“So basically when the legislation puts into law that you’re supposed to go out and build and facilitate local technology planning teams, it wasn’t intended to be a burden on counties,” Carey said.
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However, Santa Rosa County officials are still working hard to get the team up and running and have already built a coalition that includes representatives from AT&T, Verizon, Mediacom, multi-region builders and developers, the school district’s technical team and the library system.
The county also broke the 1% threshold for residents who took the state’s speed test, an important analysis tool for identifying gaps in the service.
Finally, Santa Rosa County is eyeing others in the state in terms of building the technology team and creating community awareness about the need for broadband expansion.
Kyle Holley, Santa Rosa County Community Outreach Officer for Grants and Special Projects, spoke to technology leaders during the first statewide meeting. He touched on the usefulness of districts working alongside relevant ISPs to obtain materials that would give insight into vulnerable and disadvantaged areas.
“You definitely need to get to those service providers right away because they deal with planning all the time,” Holly said. “They have the maps. They can show you the infrastructure.”
Florida is due to have a statewide strategic plan for broadband by June 30, and will work alongside local technology teams and data from the statewide broadband speed test to identify areas to prioritize.
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The Broadband Office was established in the summer of 2020 under the direction of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunities. It works with local and state government agencies, community organizations and private businesses to increase the availability and effectiveness of broadband Internet throughout the state, specifically in small, rural communities.
The bureau was rolling out a broadband speed test across Florida to better identify gaps in Internet access. The resulting map will be an asset to local communities and ISPs to assist in their broadband planning efforts.
In terms of funding opportunities, Curry identified three sources the country should have access to that could go toward broadband jobs, totaling about $866 million with the opportunity to get more.
“This funding will be used to expand broadband infrastructure in underserved and underserved areas of Florida. And to expand the talent pipeline across the state to support workforce education and health care,” Carey said of one of the funding projects.
Carey added that it is not yet clear how this funding will be allocated through the provinces.
“We’re in talks with the governor’s office to find out exactly how that money is going,” Carey said. “We know it’s coming.”
Looking ahead, Tommy Crosby, assistant county director of budget and financial services for Alachua County, said his four-county regional team will also explore how the relationship with the ISP fits into the picture.
Concerns were also raised about the fact that larger counties had a more difficult time during this process. For example, Miami-Dade County Director of Information Technology Margaret Brisbane, for example, said she is still working to bring the local team together in a county that serves nearly 3 million people.
In Santa Rosa County, Holly previously told News Journal employees that they plan to spend March and April soliciting carriers for their GIS layers showing where broadband services are currently located and where those companies might want to improve.
From there, a presentation is scheduled to be ready for the Board of County Commissioners sometime in April to discuss the county’s status in terms of access. Then, in May or June, the local tech team is set to be the first public input meeting.