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Santa Rosa and Escambia among 41 Florida counties to receive broadband grants


Governor Ron DeSantis stopped in Milton Thursday to announce the awarding of more than $144 million for 58 projects in 41 counties across the state to expand broadband internet access.

“This will benefit many, many unserved homes and businesses all throughout the state of Florida,” said DeSantis, noting that the money will help local governments close the gap in access.

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“A lot of times, they’ll be maybe in rural areas, sometimes they’ll be in unincorporated areas and just logistically, they haven’t been able to do, so we’re going to come in and help with that.”

Locally, Santa Rosa and Escambia were among the counties included in the first round of grant awards, set to receive almost $3.2 million combined.

“Here in Santa Rosa County, in partnership with Charter Communications, we’re able to award today $2.3 million to provide fiber access to 791 unserved locations throughout Santa Rosa County,” said the governor to applause from the audience at the historic Imogene Theatre, where the news conference was held.

The money is being awarded through the Florida Broadband Opportunity Grant Program, which has different sources of funding available, including $400 million in federal dollars the state was able to secure last year.

According to Department of Economic Opportunity Deputy Secretary Ben Melnick, the grant funds will ensure the state’s residents have access to critical infrastructure services, allowing them to engage in tele-health, education and workforce training opportunities.

“Connecting these communities, particularly in rural and small areas of the state is really going to be a game-changer,” said Melnick.

“To get these folks the opportunities they need to participate in job-training, to expand what they’ve got going on in their lives, and improve everything around them.”

In Santa Rosa, the money will be used to assist Charter Communications deploy 103.7 miles of new fiber optic cable and provide high speed internet access to include the town of Jay.

“There are many advantages to living in rural America, as you know, but internet use is not one of them,” joked Rhett Rowel, a government and economics teacher at Jay High School.

Rowell pointed to the state of the art technology available within the Santa Rosa School District, but he lamented that the same access to technology is not there when students go home.

“I’ve seen first-hand the struggle that our students in rural areas have in accessing the internet, whether it’s uploading an assignment or downloading resources or trying to turn in material for a dual-enrollment class.”

Rowell said rural broadband expansion will not only benefit students, but farmers, too, by providing essential GPS technology.

Some of the $2.3 million to Santa Rosa will also go to provide fiber access in the communities of Fidelis, Cobbtown, Berrydale, and unincorporated areas of the county.

“I’m definitely happy to hear that it’s coming to Santa Rosa County,” said Charlotte O’Laughlin, who lives in the community of McLellan, just a couple miles south of the Alabama state line.

Santa Rosa County residents look at the FCC Broadband Map earlier this week.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Charlotte O'Laughlin, who lives in Santa Rosa County's rural community of McLellan, looks at the FCC Broadband Map earlier in January.

“My fear is that McLellan and the Munson areas won’t be included because we don’t have as many homes in this area.”

O’Laughlin expressed her frustration over the lack of broadband access at a community meeting last month aimed at getting locals to help validate the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s new National Broadband Map.

“There’s a lot of elderly people out here and my concern is for not having 911,” she said, pointing to their lack of cell service and dependence on unreliable landlines needed to call for help in emergencies.

The McLellan resident says she’s taking a “wait and see” approach on whether this round of grants will bring fiber optic cable to her neighborhood.

But, she may not have to wait too long.

Kyle Holley, Santa Rosa’s community development liaison who’s coordinating broadband expansion, says the county has endorsed a second project application to the Broadband Opportunity Grant Program.

This $5 million request was submitted by the company Conexon in partnership with the Escambia River Electric Cooperative. If approved, it would cover EREC’s entire footprint in Santa Rosa, including the communities of Munson and McLellan.

Elsewhere in the region, Escambia County is set to receive $802,489 in broadband grant funds, which will be used to deploy 24.8 miles of new fiber optic cable and provide high speed internet service to 206 unserved locations.

Just last month, Conexon and EREC were awarded $6.3 million from Escambia County to assist with construction of a fiber optic network that will cover some 600 miles and reach over 4,000 members by mid-2024.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.