Seemingly overnight, the coronavirus pandemic changed everyday life for people not only across Florida or the nation, but around the world. And it quickly highlighted what has now become an essential need — the internet. But not just any internet connection — a reliable, broadband connection that is capable of handling the increased demands and delivering faster speeds.
Whether it be for virtual school, telecommuting, telemedicine, online shopping or staying connected with friends and family, many turned to the internet as a new way to manage daily life. And many will continue to utilize these services even as we begin to return to a new normal.
However, for some Floridians, these options have never been available. It may be hard to imagine for those living in more urban areas with readily available broadband services, and in some cases numerous options for service, but it is an unfortunate reality for too many residents in rural areas of our state.
The surprising truth is, hundreds of thousands of Floridians have little or no access to broadband internet services, even in 2021. What was previously a slight inconvenience, is now a serious issue in a more internet-reliant, post-pandemic world.
Recognizing that broadband internet is no longer a luxury, but an essential service, the federal government included funding for broadband expansion as part of its COVID-19 relief package.
As that money is appropriated to Florida and its municipalities, efforts to expand broadband access across our state should be focused on bringing new service to unserved and underserved rural areas. This includes both building the infrastructure necessary to provide access to rural communities and helping residents be able to afford the service.
For years, efforts have been made to close the digital divide in our state, but unfortunately the gap still remains. Rather than using these new funds to add competing services in urban and suburban areas that already have sufficient networks, resources should be allocated toward addressing the complete lack of services in our rural communities.
After all, expanding broadband to Florida’s rural communities will make our state better and our economy stronger. It will improve educational opportunities for children, stimulate economic development and increase job opportunities and provide additional health care options for rural residents.
Together, we should seize this opportunity to take meaningful steps toward solving the digital divide for Florida’s rural communities.
Terry Burroughs is Chairman of the Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners, Chairman of the Florida Rural Economic Development Association, and incoming Chair of the Florida Small County Coalition.