Josie Tomkow: Bridging the digital divide through expansion, tax incentives

Cell phone or mobile service tower in forested area of West Virginia providing broadband service
Over 750,000 Floridians do not have any access or it is insufficient to meet today’s technological needs.
Josie Tomkow

In Florida, we pride ourselves on the wonderful amenities that our state offers to our lives. Sunny beaches, theme parks, a diverse economy offering jobs in fields spanning agriculture to the space program are just a fraction of the benefits to living in the sunshine state.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world and the lives of everyone in Florida. As classrooms and jobs moved from schools and offices to our homes, many Floridians were left out of the opportunity to remotely connect to these necessary institutions. While 95% of Floridians have access to broadband, over 750,000 Floridians do not have any access or it is insufficient to meet today’s technological needs.

Floridians have a resilient spirit born out of living through our August heat and our annual hurricane season. Using 4G cubes or driving to a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to the internet was no longer a seasonal possibility but soon became a daily way of life for our parents of school children and for our employees who need to work remotely.

At our ranch in Polk county, I found myself working through spotty connectivity with my 4G cellular device for my internet connectivity.

While Florida’s connectivity is predominantly provided by private companies who have invested over $10 billion in Florida’s internet infrastructure, these businesses face real costs from state and local government entities to expand their networks to unserved markets.

To encourage more connectivity through private investment, I filed HB 1239, the Broadband Internet Infrastructure Bill, along with Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess who filed SB 1592 to create a better environment for these companies to invest more in Florida’s unserved communities.

Nine other states such as Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Mississippi have already passed legislation to provide a sales tax exemption on the new equipment companies need to purchase to add to their networks’ reach and capabilities.  Additionally, this legislation seeks to reduce the costs that providers incur to attach to poles where costs are not regulated by the national FCC formula.

I am encouraged by the industry and government stakeholders who are stepping up to work on these issues beyond this legislation in this time of need.

As a legislator who represents both connected and unconnected households, I am encouraged by the efforts of my colleagues in the House and Senate who are seeking additional solutions to get every Floridian the opportunity to connect.

While the technologies range from the new low-orbiting satellites, 5G wireless, fixed-wireless to cable, it will take them all to reach Florida’s diverse communities. For Florida’s remote students and workers, we need to work together to bridge the digital divide so that we can all get through the strain of the pandemic and lay the groundwork for our connected future.

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Polk City Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow serves as chair of the Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee and vice chair of the Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee.

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