JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Florida congresswoman is introducing legislation that would bring internet access to rural parts of Northeast Florida in an effort to address an inequality affecting tens of thousands of local residents.
The legislation backed by U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida, is known as the Gigabit Opportunity Act. It would provide incentives to internet service providers to expand access to rural communities.
She’s also calling for the Federal Communications Commission to raise standards for broadband internet access speeds.
The goal, according to Cammack, is to address the lack of quality internet access in rural areas and an “unacceptable” federal standard.
“I’ve got students who go to the McDonald’s or Hardee’s parking lot and they will sit there using the Wi-Fi from the fast food joints and they will just sit there, to get their homework done,” Cammack told News4Jax in a Zoom interview.
As News4Jax previously reported, an I-TEAM investigation uncovered a glaring inequality in internet access in Northeast Florida. The investigation found several areas with limited or no access to high-speed internet, including Union County where more than 71% of residents don’t have it and Bradford County where nearly half of residents don’t have it.
According to an FCC policy crafted in 2015, 25 megabits per second is what regulators consider broadband internet access.
But anyone who depends on the internet for school, business or streaming knows that’s not nearly enough bandwidth to enjoy uninterrupted service, especially if there are multiple devices using the internet in one household.
“That speed is unacceptable,” said Cammack, who noted that it might allow someone to download an email but it wouldn’t be much help to someone who needs to use teleconferencing software, such as Zoom, or anyone who uses a telehealth service to see the doctor.
Cammack said lobbying the FCC to ratchet up its standard to 100 megabits per second for download and upload speeds is just part of the conversation around internet access equality.
She said her bill would offer tax incentives to smaller internet service providers to invest in rural areas and compete with the powerhouses, which don’t currently have much competition.
“It’s really a private, free-market solution to our broadband woes,” the congresswoman said.
If nothing else, the legislation would be welcome news to the more than 50,000 people in Bradford, Clay, Duval and Union counties who lack access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet.
That includes business owners like Charles Hodges, who have been forced to make concessions in how they do business — like trekking over to McDonald’s to check his email.
“Any contacts, 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.”
A spokesperson for Cammack told News4Jax the congresswoman is engaged in conversations with the FCC about revisiting the agency’s definition of high-speed broadband internet.
But the bill already has a growing list of co-sponsors as it winds through committees in the U.S. House of Representatives.