As part of the 2009 $4.7 trillion federal stimulus package, $7.2 billion was designated for building broadband infrastructure projects in rural areas that meet certain criteria. $24 million of that money has been used to bring broadband Internet access to eight underserved counties in the Florida Panhandle including Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. The panhandle will be the home to the hub of a broadband network capable of handling 1,000 times the capacity of the existing network.
The project is slated for completion by the end of the year and will additionally provide broadband coverage for the south-central Florida counties of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Okeechobee and the Immokalee community. The initiative is known as the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA) and is a collaboration of two agencies that serve areas of critical economic concern in Florida, the Florida Rural Heartland Economic Development Initiative and Opportunity Florida.
According to the FRBA, although these rural areas represent about 20 percent of Florida’s land mass, only 39 percent have access to broadband service. The main goal of the project is providing high-speed, cost-effective Internet directly to “community anchor institutions,” said Jim Brook, the panhandle’s Opportunity Florida executive director. These institutions include emergency services, local governments, libraries and public schools. “It will provide additional capacity, at hopefully affordable rates,” added Brook.
It is the “middle mile” of the broadband network and the last mile will be provided by local Internet service providers (ISPs). “Traditionally, the end result to the residential consumer would be provided by independent ISPs that traditionally sell at the last mile,” said Brook. “It provides a scalable, and in many cases, less costly capacity.”
The intention is to increase capacity not to compete with current providers. “This was not a system that was put in place to replace existing services,” said Brook. “We’re not only willing, but we’re obligated to negotiate with existing providers.” Service will be sold at a lowest reasonable cost, which is in the final stages of negotiations with a network operator, Brook said.
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