Digital divide creates high speed internet ‘have’ and ‘have nots’

Local and state officials tap federal funding to increase broadband in rural North Florida

While the internet is readily available to the majority of people, there are many people however that strugle to connect on a daily basis.

MIDDLEBURG, Fla. – Imagine having to drive 10 to 15 miles every single time you want to check your email, join a Zoom meeting, or help your child complete their homework. The News4Jax I-Team found that nearly 100,000 people in North Florida don’t have access to reliable internet service.

It’s a major issue for North Florida Dock Services owner Charles Hodges, who never imagined getting online each day would be such a challenge.

Hodges drives 8 miles to a McDonald’s in Middleburg every time he needs to check his business emails. News4Jax was with Hodges when he waited for his internet to connect.

“You can hear it binging through now. I’m getting service,” Hodges said as the sound of dozens of backed-up emails popped into the inbox of his laptop.

Hodges said he needs the internet for practically everything.

“Any contracts. Any email. Everything we have to do is basically email,” Hodges said. “I do business around the state, I need to send them pictures of work progress and that’s impossible right now.”

“I essentially operate out of my truck,” Hodges said. “I connect my hotspot to my computer, then I drive to an area that we have good phone service.”

Parents describe homeschooling and working at home as impossible during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michaela Finch, a mother of four, explains the challenges.

“It was hard to get to the next lesson and there was stuff we just couldn’t turn in because it wouldn’t download,” Finch said. “And zoom meetings were impossible. We couldn’t do them. I won’t hold a signal.”

Finch said ViaSat is the only internet provider she knows is available in her southwest Clay County area right now.

“We’re paying $100 a month for something we can’t really use for us low-income families,” Finch said.

Clay County Commissioner Betsy Condon said this inequality should not exist in 2021.

“It seems pretty improbable for most people to think that in the 21st Century, reliable affordable internet access is not as common as turning on the electricity in your house or your lights,” Condon said.

Condon said limited access to reliable high-speed internet also plagues the community of Clay Hill and residents living west of Middleburg on County Road 218. She said county commissioners are pursuing state and federal grants to provide funding for the infrastructure, with a backup plan of tapping into President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package.

“If we are not awarded the grant money we applied for... I have asked staff to consider pursuing additional funding through the American rescue plan to provide additional service to our area and our rural residents,” Cordon said.

Using, the I-Team identified other Northeast Florida areas with limited or no access at all to high-speed internet, including Union County where more than 71% of residents don’t have it.

In the city of Lake Butler alone, 34.6% of the population – about 11,000 people -- don’t have high-speed access.

In Bradford County, more than 48% don’t have high-speed internet. In the county seat of Starke, about 5,000 homes -- nearly 37% -- have limited access to broadband.

Third District U.S Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Gainesville -- who represents Bradford, Clay, Union and at least parts of four other counties of North Central Florida -- said the lack of reliable high-speed internet is a widespread problem.

“In places like Palatka, Bostwick, Interlachen -- these are areas where there are no infrastructure. And we’re talking about public safety. I have sheriff’s offices, EMS, libraries and schools that need this access and, without a large investment, they won’t get that service, and that’s unacceptable, It’s 2021,” Cammack said.

Cammack, who has made high-speed internet her top priority, said there’s not a one size fits all solution to the problem because every community is different. Cammack said her office is working to create one unified effort moving forward by using local, state and federal funding.

“You have to have a diversification of broadband providers and technologies,” Cammack said. “You’re not going to have all satellite, you’re not going to have all fixed wireless and you’re not going to have the ability to lay fiber to every single home in America. It’s not feasible, practically or economically, so having the flexibility to work with all of our partners is very important.”

Cammack said lawmakers are also involved in an ongoing discussion with the FCC as to what the industry standard should be to be called high-speed internet. She said that the FCC currently considers the bandwidth of 25 megabits per second high-speed internet, but in many cases, she says that’s not enough bandwidth to service multiple devices. Cammack wants the standard to instead be 100 megabits per second.

About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.