GUEST COLUMN: Lack of affordable internet taking a toll
With schools reopening across North Florida, one thing is for certain – the “digital divide” is real and must be addressed. The lack of affordable and accessible high speed internet across the Panhandle is taking a toll on kids who have not been able to go to school, parents who have not been able to go to work and families who cannot access health information or medical care.
This is why I worked together with State Rep. Brad Drake to pass a law last session creating a new Office of Broadband – the first step in building out a rural broadband strategy. Little did we know just how important this would be as COVID - 19 has suddenly pushed every aspect of our lives onto the computer screen, truly exposing the very real inequities between those who have access to high speed internet and those who do not.
School districts are doing the best they can – some are providing devices and helping families connect to the internet – but the harsh reality is that internet is simply Not Available in many of our smaller communities. We cannot rely on private providers to solve this problem because sparsely populated areas do not provide enough of an economic incentive to build out networks. Local governments and economic development organization have been working to find solutions, but no matter how you slice it - it takes money – money that our small counties simply do not have - particularly those who are still reeling from Hurricane Michael.
In 1936, when faced with a similar challenge, our nation stepped up to ensure that every American was able to access electricity through the Rural Electrification Act. While the federal government has made some funding available for broadband expansion, these funds are limited and competitive in nature, which favors those communities with enough resources to hire consultants and grant-writers. I would argue that high speed internet is as essential today as electricity was in the 1930s, and it is time for our federal government to step up and make a similar investment.
Other states have not waited for federal action, and I am hopeful the newly created Office of Broadband will allow Florida to join these states in aggressively pursuing strategies for broadband expansion. I am also working with a growing group of stakeholders across North Florida to ensure that our region is developing a plan so that our communities can be first in line for resources.
If you have ideas or want to be involved in these efforts please contact my legislative office at 850-717-5009 or email me directly at Loranne.Ausley@myfloridahouse.gov. We look forward to hearing from you!
Loranne Ausley is the Democratic candidate for Florida State Senate District #3, which includes Franklin County, She has been a member of the Florida House of Representatives from the 9th district since 2016,after previously serving in the Florida House from 2000 to 2008.