As counties across Florida seek ways to improve internet speed and access for small or rural communities, Santa Rosa County seems to be well ahead of the curve.
Officials spearheading local technology teams across Florida met for the first time last week to talk through the funding process to distribute more than $866 million for broadband improvements and to strategize ways to build the teams, which are meant to ensure that all Floridians have quality internet access.
Kiwanis Curry, program manager for the Florida Office of Broadband, said 22 of the state’s 67 counties are actively involved with a local technology planning team and about half of those have notified the office of their work.
“So, essentially when the legislation put into statute that you’re supposed to go out and build and facilitate the local technology planning teams, the purpose was not to be a burden to counties,” Curry said.
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Still, Santa Rosa County officials have been working aggressively to get a team up and running and have already built a coalition that includes representatives of AT&T, Verizon, Mediacom, multiple area builders and developers, and tech staff for the school district and library system.
The county has also broken the 1% threshold of residents who have taken the state’s speed test, a crucial analysis tool for identifying gaps in service.
All told, Santa Rosa County looks ahead of others in the state in terms of building the technology team and creating community awareness around the need for broadband expansion.
Kyle Holley, Santa Rosa County’s outreach and community liaison for grants and special projects, spoke to the technology leaders during the first statewide meeting. He touched on the benefit of counties working alongside their respective internet service providers to acquire materials that should give insight to weaker and underserved areas.
“You certainly need to reach out to those service providers right away because they’re dealing with planning all the time,” Holley said. “They have the maps. They can show you the infrastructure.”
Florida is set to have a statewide strategic plan for broadband completed by June 30, and will work in conjunction with local technology teams and the data from a statewide broadband speed test to determine what areas to prioritize.
The Office of Broadband was established in the summer of 2020 under the purview of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity. 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 and rural communities.
The office has been rolling out broadband speed testing across Florida to better identify gaps in internet access. The resulting map will be an asset to local communities and internet service providers to assist with broadband planning efforts.
In terms of funding opportunities, Curry outlined three sources the state should have access to that can go towards broadband functions, totaling about $866 million with the opportunity to acquire more.
“This funding will be used to expand broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas in Florida. And to expand the talent pipeline throughout the state to support workforce education and health care,” Curry said of one of the funding projects.
Curry added that it was not yet clear on how this funding would be allocated through to counties.
“We’re in talks with the governor’s office to figure out exactly how that money goes. We know it’s coming,” Curry said.
Looking ahead, Tommy Crosby, assistant county manager for Budget and Fiscal Services for Alachua County, said his four-county regional team will also explore how a relationship with an ISP fits into the picture.
Concerns were also raised over that fact that larger counties have had a more difficult time through this process. For example, Margaret Brisbane, the director of information technology in Miami-Dade County, said she is still working on putting the local team together in a county that serves almost 3 million people.
In Santa Rosa County, Holley previously told the News Journal staff they plan to spend March and April soliciting telecommunications companies for their GIS layers that show where broadband services currently are and where those companies might like to improve.
From there, the plans are to have a presentation ready for the Board of County Commissioners sometime in April discussing where the county stands in terms of access. Then in May or June, the local technology team is set have its first public input meeting.