A pair of bills that would give a large cash infusion — $400 million or more — to Florida’s new efforts to expand broadband in the rural parts of the state passed through the Senate Commerce Committee Monday, despite concerns from Democrats the measure would do little to make the service more affordable.
“Ten percent of Floridians don’t have any (broadband) service,” said Republican Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who presented the bill on behalf of bill sponsor Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, who was absent Monday.
“That’s a great equalizer when it comes to employment, jobs. That’s got to be the number one hindrance of growth in some of our rural areas.”
High speed broadband internet service is available in 98% of urban areas in Florida, but only 78.6% of the state’s rural areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Higher costs for building broadband infrastructure in rural areas is the main reason for the disparity.
One bill (SB 1800) would put $400 million of federal stimulus funds into a grant program run by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), and require DEO to seek an additional $100 million in federal grants. Another bill (SB 1802) would set up a trust fund to store the funds.
The Office of Broadband, set up by the Legislature last year within DEO, hasn’t been able to issue any grants through the Broadband Opportunity Program due to lack of funds. The program will give funds to internet providers to build broadband infrastructure in areas without access to high-speed internet.
But some Democrats on the panel noted the bill would only provide service, not necessarily “access” to high speed internet if low-income customers can’t afford the service.
“We have a 98% saturation rate for service in urban areas, and then we all found out (during the pandemic) there were a bunch of kids who didn’t have WiFi access, much less a laptop to actually do remote schooling,” said Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami.
Both bills passed unanimously, but Democrats expressed other concerns, such as getting internet providers to pass on their savings from the grants to customers.
Sen. Victor Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, asked Albert Kaminsky, a lobbyist for Charter Communications, if the money from the grants could be used to make the service affordable for new customers in rural areas. No, Kaminsky said, but the additional costs to put rural broadband infrastructure in place they would avoid wouldn’t show up in the cost for broadband either.
“Ultimately they would be taking advantage of the service so we wouldn’t be passing on additional costs to them by any means,” Kaminsky said. “We’re just offering them a service.”
Both bills have two more committee stops before making it to the Senate floor. The House version of the bills, HB 1543 and HB 1545, haven’t been heard in that chamber.