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Florida House backs broadband expansion effort

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(Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida House unanimously agreed Wednesday to set aside up to $5 million a year for broadband services that would accompany controversial highway corridors planned through mostly rural regions from Southwest Florida to the Georgia border.

The proposal (HB 969) would also shift broadband policy responsibilities from the Department of Management Services to the Department of Economic Opportunity and would create a Florida Office of Broadband to develop, market and promote the services.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat who is co-sponsoring the proposal, said people take broadband for granted in urban areas.

“We use it to read our bills at home. Our kids are able to do their homework,” Ausley said. “My son is able to do music. It allows stay-at-home moms to stay current in their profession or to have a stay-at-home business. It allows adults in the workforce to up-skill or seek new opportunities. These opportunities are simply not available in many rural areas.”

The funding in the bill, starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, would go to projects that assist in the development of broadband infrastructure within or along multi-use corridors.

Lawmakers last year approved a plan aimed at extending the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border, building a toll road from Polk County to Collier County and extending Florida’s Turnpike west from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway.

Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who pushed the legislation that authorized the roads, has repeatedly stressed that his plan would involve infrastructure, such as broadband. Critics of the roads have warned the corridors will cause sprawl for people who want to live in small communities and will devastate already-endangered wildlife.

A similar measure in the Senate (SB 1166) has completed its committee reviews and is ready to go to the Senate floor.