Broadband expansion bills head to final House committee stops

Cell phone or mobile service tower in forested area of West Virginia providing broadband service
Lawmakers want to leverage federal COVID-19 relief dollars to expand broadband.

Bills to improve high-speed internet access in Florida have been prepared for their final House committee stops.

The House Infrastructure and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee voted unanimously Wednesday to advance the pair of proposals. One bill (HB 1543) sets aside $500 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds for broadband and establishes the Broadband Pole Replacement Program within the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). A related measure (HB 1545) would create an accompanying trust fund within the department.

The $500 million comes from two sources within President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the largest being $400 million from the Federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. Those funds would stock the Broadband Opportunity Program, which lawmakers established within DEO’s Office of Broadband last year but didn’t fully fund.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s final rules for the recovery fund, which can be used for “investments that support long-term growth and opportunity,” will take effect April 1.

The final $100 million will come from the Treasury’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to fill the Broadband Pole Replacement Trust Fund created in the second bill.

Rep. Josie Tomkow, the Polk City Republican sponsoring both bills, said she does not have a reliable Wi-Fi connection at home on her family’s ranch.

“I would encourage you to vote on this bill because you’re supporting communities like mine and my sisters’, who cannot get on the internet to do their school work,” Tomkow said.

Both of Tomkow’s measures received the panel’s unanimous support despite criticism from the Florida Association of Counties, whose lobbyist Jeff Scala told the committee he was concerned some provisions might not follow the Treasury’s guidelines. The Small County Coalition of Florida’s Chris Doolin commended Tomkow for tackling the issue, but noted the state’s broadband research initiatives from last year aren’t yet completed.

“At the end of the Session, when the hankie goes down, this program needs to have some changes where we know that the applicants are going to be prioritized, that no particular sector of the industry is going to be pushed out front with a new program in addition to the Opportunity Grant Program,” Doolin said.

But Tomkow told members she was confident the bill does what the state needs for deployment.

“After the passage of last year, we had companies already start building out in areas, because they felt like Florida had done right by them to make sure we have a structured plan for rural broadband in this state,” Tomkow said.

Florida’s use of federal COVID-19 relief dollars has been a talking point for Florida Democrats. Democrats hit Gov. Ron DeSantis for initially criticizing Biden’s program before accepting the state’s share of the fund. Although the funding source became a flashpoint during the bill’s previous committee stop, no member at Wednesday’s hearing voiced their opposition.

Before they are ready for the House floor, the bills next head to their final committee stop, slated for the House Commerce Committee.

Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd is sponsoring the Senate counterparts (SB 1800/SB 1802). Those bills await hearings in the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, their second of three committee stops.

Each version would take effect upon becoming law.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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