State budget writers have put pen to paper on a plan to fund a broadband expansion program established last year, designating $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand high-speed internet access in Florida.
In legislation awaiting the House’s consideration (SB 1800), carried by Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd and Polk City Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow, lawmakers had initially included $500 million in federal funds, including $400 million from the Federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. But because that funding hasn’t arrived yet, lawmakers stripped the dollar amount from the bill, instead leaving the framework to provide funds at a later date.
With $3.5 billion in funds eventually coming to Florida, lawmakers intend to stock the Broadband Opportunity Program, which lawmakers established last year within the Department of Economic Opportunity’s Office of Broadband.
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 plan with last year’s bill was to provide more staffing and contracted services for the office. The law is designed to encourage broadband companies to expand to rural areas by creating a path for the necessary infrastructure, including identifying federal grants available for local spending.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in 2020 that transferred broadband policy from the Department of Management Services to the Department of Economic Opportunity in an effort to hasten the expansion of broadband in Florida, particularly in rural and underserved areas.
While the Office of Broadband’s role has been expanding, the office has found itself understaffed.
Budget negotiators also have agreed to add an additional employee to the Office of Broadband, addressing staffing shortages that have plagued the revamped office.
House negotiators Monday agreed to the Senate’s suggestion to add $320,000 in operational funds for a full-time equivalent employee and contractors.