Following up on his release of Florida’s proposed 2023-24 budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis is putting $144 million toward improving broadband internet access for under-served areas of the state.
Speaking in Milton on Feb. 2, DeSantis presented a ceremonial check for almost $2.4 million to Santa Rosa County Communities to put 791 unserved locations online with fiber-optic cable.
It is part of $144 million in federal funds the state is awarding to 58 different projects in 41 counties for better broadband access, with thousands of miles of fiber-optic lines planned.
In 2022, the state allocated $400 million of its own money to broadband access, he said.
“This will benefit many, many under-and-unserved homes and businesses all throughout the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
The initiative is designed to help businesses, families, and children keep up in a competitive world.
Rhett Rowell, a teacher at Jay High School in Jay, a town near the Alabama state line, spoke about the project’s impact. He said the high school is in one of the county’s most rural areas.
“There are many advantages to living in rural America, but internet usage is not one of them,” Rowell said. “There is a digital divide that exists within our district. Whether you’re surfing in the south or planting peanuts in the north end, the need for reliable internet is universal.”
“We have state-of-the-art technology in our schools. We have satellite classes where students are able to remotely attend classes at one school. Where we may not have a teacher teaching in that field, they can attend a class at a different school,” Rowell said.
“But when students go home the same access to technology is not there. I’ve seen firsthand the struggle that our teachers in rural areas have with accessing the internet, whether it’s uploading an assignment, or downloading resources, or trying to turn in some of the material for a dual enrollment class.
“Our students in rural parts of our county are at a sizeable disadvantage.”
“And it’s even worse with a hardship case. Imagine a student, maybe, comes down with a broken leg, or becomes ill, or maybe even just a death in the family.
“We can provide that student—and we do provide that student—with … a laptop to bring home so they don’t fall behind. But if they don’t have that internet at home, obviously it does little other than be a paperweight.”
It’s not just rural areas that are underserved, DeSantis said. “Some much larger counties have the problem, as well.”
“Sometimes they’ll be in unincorporated areas and they just logistically haven’t been able to do it, so we’re going to be able to come in and help with that,” he said.
DeSantis and other speakers noted that young people staying online continuously wasn’t the goal.
He and his wife have three small children, ages 6, 4, and 2. “We don’t want them mired on the internet or on these computers. You got to get out and do things.”
The governor thinks children should drop off their cell phones when they enter a classroom because “if they’re on their phones during class, you know, texting and stuff, they’re not going to be learning.”
Not Connecting For TikTok
DeSantis said during his childhood, electronic distractions such as video games existed.
“But it wasn’t to the [same] extent. I mean, you had to get outside. We were out there playing. We were out there doing all that. Now, you really can be just doing devices and all this stuff, day after day, and that’s not healthy.”
Marva Johnson, group vice president for state government affairs at Charter Communications, which is a partner on the project, said “We’re connecting kids not to Tik Tok but to opportunities to extend their learning.
“We’re connecting them not to Facebook but to opportunities to make sure they have access to great telehealth and telemedicine.”
During his speech, DeSantis talked about the proposed $114.8 billion state budget.
He also touted workforce training programs and got in a dig against some of the trends at colleges and universities he’s been sparring with. He praised the state’s training program for truck drivers, which has grown from 600 graduates to 3500 annually.
“A lot of the workforce, when you get real concrete skills, you make more money than some of these people going to college and getting a degree in zombie studies anyway.”