The Legislature gave initial approval to a bill Thursday to increase broadband internet access across the state.
That measure (HB 969), spearheaded by Republicans Sen. Ben Albritton and Rep. Brad Drake, would create the Florida Office of Broadband within the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and would designate it the lead agency on high-speed internet installation. Once the Senate passes the proposal, it will head to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature.
“It provides some parameters they should operate within to expand the access, especially in rural Florida when it comes to broadband,” Albritton told Senators.
High-speed internet allows people to take online classes, expanding workforce opportunities. And first responders say greater broadband connectivity will improve communication options and reliability.
Additionally, the bill would allocate up to $5 million of Florida Turnpike Enterprise’s $35 million 2022-2023 budget to broadband expansion, a decision up to DEO.
Historically, the Department of Management Services (DMS) has been responsible for pulling down federal dollars on broadband expansion. In 2015, it completed a grant for mapping broadband access statewide and has since completed broadband access programs for libraries and government buildings.
But DEO has offered to expand coverage as the responsibility falls within its wheelhouse. Without a dedicated agency applying for broadband grants, Drake, of Eucheeanna, and Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Loranne Ausley have said the state has missed opportunities for federal dollars.
The legislation also allows Floridians to submit whether they have access to broadband in their homes to create a more accurate representation of coverage. Currently, if one property in a census tract has broadband access, the entire tract is labeled as covered.
Albritton, of Wauchula, said the Senate and House versions only had stylistic differences. Albritton’s version (SB 1166) would have put the Office of Broadband under DMS.
Last week, the House gave its thumbs-up to Drake’s bill. Albritton gave the bill little flare Thursday, but Ausley last week said it would benefit stay-at-home moms, allowing them to operate businesses
“It allows stay-at-home moms to stay current in their profession or to have a stay-at-home business,” Ausley added. “It allows adults in the workforce to upskill or seek new opportunities.”