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Broadband expansion needed sooner than later, Suncoast toll-road task force members say

Jeffrey Schweers
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Walton Sun

Rural residents can't wait 10 years for the state to expand high speed broadband internet access to their communities.

That's what members of a task force appointed to make recommendations for the Suncoast Parkway extension said at a recent workshop.

That’s especially clear now that the coronavirus pandemic has shown an increased reliance on the internet for work, school and services, while at the same time exposing the gaps in the broadband network.

Groups gear up to fight toll road projects

The Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance Program (MCORES) approved in 2019 laid out an ambitious road-building program to secure Florida’s future growth, with about $140 million a year set aside for planning, development and construction.

Environmentalists derided the project, calling it a 340-mile, $1-billion “Toll Roads to Nowhere” through farms and forests from the edge of the Everglades to the Georgia border without any evidence such roads are needed or will even generate the kind of traffic to pay for them.

This year, the Legislature threw in an extra $5 million a year for broadband expansion in underserved areas to make the project more palatable to leaders in rural communities that would stand in the rights-of-way of the new toll roads.

On the same day that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the broadband expansion into law this week, which also created the Florida Office of Broadband, members of the Suncoast Corridor Task Force questioned whether it shouldn’t be put on a quicker timeline that's independent of MCORES.

“It should be a given that adequate conduit be included for broadband in any MCORES corridor,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida, and a member of the Suncoast Corridor task force.

But the timeline for completing these toll roads isn’t until 2030, he said, and given “the known need of broadband in rural areas, and the importance of broadband to economic activity,” it makes more sense to bring broadband expansion to rural communities independent of MCORES.

“For a couple hundred million of state investment, much of rural Florida could be populated with infrastructure to deliver broadband,” Lee said.

Jack Burge, project manager for CenturyLink, said even with a state investment, it’s going to cost private carriers “a lot of capital linking to infrastructure, and still going to have a lot of issues with last mile fiber and extending that fiber system."

He said he works with 21 states that allocate $25 million-$50 million a year directly to broadband providers to help subsidize broadband expansion in rural America.

“That is what it is probably going to take for the state of Florida to have a state program in addition to the MCORES approach to have a comprehensive and a much quicker solution,” Burge said.

Most of those states have a six-month process for awarding grants, and broadband providers have 12-18 months to put infrastructure in place, he said.

Illinois is spending $200 million over the next couple of years on broadband expansion, he said. Arizona is spending $50 million next year on broadband in rural and tribal areas.

Other states have taken the lead in subsidizing expansion of high speed internet service into rural communities, said Anna Read, a researcher with the Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Research Initiative.

Other states have taken the lead in subsidizing expansion of high speed internet service into rural communities.

Other states have taken the lead in subsidizing expansion of high speed internet service into rural communities. (Photo: Shelley Mays/The Tennessean)

“A number of states over the years have established broadband programs and committed grant funding to these rural and underserved areas to close the gaps in broadband service,” Read said. “Florida has not been one of those.”

Tennessee began a broadband expansion program in 2017 with an initial $10 million the first year, $15 million the second year, and $20 million in year three, she said.

The Pew broadband researchers have sent a signed letter to Congress addressing the need to close those broadband gaps across the country, especially for the millions of poor and rural Americans who aren’t connected to the Internet.

“Congress’ action since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase federal resources for broadband expansion, boost access to telehealth services, and support distance learning underscores the urgency of addressing the digital divide in these challenging times,” the letter said. “With Americans in every part of the country working and learning from home, high-speed, reliable internet has never been more essential to daily life.”

From an equipment standpoint, the technology exists to do everything needed, said Randy Williams, senior account manager at Nokia. “Eighty percent of the cost is installing equipment,” he said.

Public-private partnerships are key to moving ahead faster, to working with utilities, cities and counties, Williams said, “and finding private partners that will actually have a business case to come in and start building these networks.”

The MCORES project consists of three corridors: the Suncoast Connector, which runs along the gulf coast from Citrus County to Jefferson County; the Southwest Connector, which runs from Collier County to Polk County; and the Northwest Turnpike Connector, which runs from the northern end of Florida's Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway.

The task forces are supposed to summarize the results of their analyses in a final report by October 1, and report their findings to the Legislature by November 15.

The MCORES study plan envisions multi use corridors and calls for broadband as well as water, sewer and energy distribution as opportunities for these corridors, said Greg Evans, chairman of the Suncoast task force and the District 2 Secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

“Our experience during the past several weeks has highlighted the importance of broadband and other technologies,” Evans said. “These past several weeks have also shown us where broadband connectivity is limited to date."

Will Watts, chief engineer for FDOT, said the challenge is for those areas that are underserved by broadband. Urban areas of Florida have 98% of homes connected, while rural areas on average have about 80% connectivity.

“These past several weeks have also shown us where broadband connectivity is limited to date."

“These past several weeks have also shown us where broadband connectivity is limited to date." (Photo: jakes47s, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Seven of the eight counties in the Suncoast Corridor study area are well below that 80% average for the rest of rural Florida, with Dixie County at 1%. Citrus County has 85%.

“Broadband deployment is primarily a private sector function and ultimately timing and location of these investments are driven by the market,” Watts said.

The transportation corridor is not a necessary requirement for broadband deployment, he said, but MCORES created an opportunity for co-location and for FDOT to help facilitate infrastructure expansion.

“It remains to be demonstrated how the 10-year MCORES process will provide broadband service for unserved and underserved areas," said Kent Wimmer, senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "The 10-year buildout will not make a meaningful difference to rural areas currently being underserved.”

The cost of laying down fiber optics varies widely, from $6,600 to $267,000 per mile, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Recent FDOT experience installing ITS cameras cost about $72,000 per mile, Watts said.

The cost of laying down fiber optics runs from $6,600 to 267,000 per mile.

The cost of laying down fiber optics runs from $6,600 to 267,000 per mile. (Photo: Getty Images)

Co-locating broadband with other utilities during construction is more efficient and can save money by using the “Dig Once” approach “where we install conduit while building highways,” he said.

Also placement of fiber on utility poles linear infrastructure in the right of way, he said.

Citrus County Commissioner Jeff Kinnard said he opposed the government paying for broadband access.

“I would not support us getting into the business side of subsidizing broadband access,” Kinnard said. “We need to provide access to right of way and conduit for private industry to move in but I wouldn't want to see us get into subsidizing business."