Stakeholders and residents from across Santa Rosa County met for the first time this week to discuss the landscape and strategies regarding providing better internet access as the state plans to divvy up money later this year.
"I think it's important to keep in mind that there's 67 counties in Florida. And they all have their eye on that (money)," said Ed Carson, president of Carson Construction and a member of the local tech team.
The county's Outreach and Community Liaison for Grants and Special Projects Kyle Holley is the person spearheading the push in Santa Rosa. He organized the volunteer-based tech team and plans to continue holding meetings about strategies moving forward.
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During the inaugural gathering, he told the News Journal his big takeaway is that there needs to be a strategic plan to synchronize internet access with the development in the county.
"One of the things I heard loud and clear from those who attended the first local technology planning team is a well thought out growth management plan associated with infrastructure, beyond roads — (it's) something that's needed," Holley said.
Officials spearheading local technology teams across Florida met for the first time in March to talk through the funding process of distributing more than $866 million for broadband improvements and to strategize ways to build the teams, which are meant to ensure all Floridians have quality internet access.
Edwin Henry, a homebuilder in the county, said ensuring Santa Rosa has quality internet access comes down to public planning, adding he believes the county could also take the strategy of creating incentives in designated areas to drive growth and more readily prepare for the pressure it will have on broadband infrastructure.
"I think if we had a growth management plan, and the county said, 'We want to encourage growth here, and we want to encourage growth within this circle.' Then you try to give everybody incentives to be within that circle," Henry said.
Holley also suggested splitting the county into five different "project areas" to focus resources, rather than utilizing a county-wide approach.
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Several members of the public also turned out to talk about their internet challenges and to give awareness of the way it is affecting their lives.
"So, I know that money talks, and I'm pretty sure that I'm never going to get internet service, even though better internet service — it's all around me. I'm 66. My husband is 75. We're retired," said Chumuckla area resident Lorena Johnson. "I don't plan on going back to work unless I have to. But I would certainly like to have internet service before I become 90, if that's possible."
Garcon Point resident Sarah Abbott, said she has had to work out of a Panera Bread to use the internet.
"So, we work from home. We're not retired, we run a business from home. And I have two hotspots: an iPad with a hotspot and a cellphone and I rotate through those because one Zoom call will eat up what I have. And most Zoom calls, I have to choose to either do video or audio," Abbott said.
Florida is set to have a statewide strategic plan for broadband completed by June 30, and will work in conjunction with both local technology teams and data from a statewide broadband speed test to determine what areas to prioritize.
The Office of Broadband was established in summer 2020 under the purview of the state's Department of Economic Opportunity. It works with local and state government agencies, community organizations and private businesses to increase the availability and effectiveness of broadband internet throughout the state, specifically in small and rural communities.
The office has been rolling out broadband speed testing across Florida to better identify and reach unserved and underserved areas of the state. The resulting map will be an asset to local communities and internet service providers to assist with broadband planning efforts.
In the long-term locally, Holley said he also wants to work toward creating a five-year plan to mitigate internet concerns but stressed he will rely on community input.
"Our administration agrees with that, let's put together a plan — a working plan. Something that we can check on a couple of times a year, and something that we can immediately begin to advocate for, from a funding perspective," Holley said.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Santa Rosa internet: Synchronizing access is key for better speeds