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Escambia and Santa Rosa are asking residents to check the accuracy of the new FCC Broadband Map

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Sandra Averhart
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WUWF Public Media
Santa Rosa County residents look at the FCC Broadband Map earlier this week.

Officials in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are encouraging residents to validate the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s new National Broadband Map, as local expansion plans move forward.

The accuracy of the map is essential because it will be used to identify communities most in need of funding for high-speed internet expansion.

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The FCC National Broadband Map provides an address-level summary of internet data for each location on the map, including available service providers and available service speeds. But, early examinations of the map by state and local officials were concerning.

“For us, I think when we started taking a look, some of the more northern areas (of the county) showed that they were served and had service and we discovered clearly that that was not the case,” said Escambia County Administrator Wes Moreno.

This is why local officials are joining the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in asking people to provide verification. That means logging on to the map typing in the address for their residences and businesses, reviewing the internet access data listed, and if necessary, filing a challenge.

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media

Getting the correct information will help state and local governments develop and fund broadband expansion in their communities where access is most lacking.

“We want to know exactly where we need to be heading, exactly where we need to target. Then, two, that accurate information will let us go after other grant opportunities maybe larger grant opportunities, and more grant opportunities," said Moreno.

Escambia County plans to use $22 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for broadband infrastructure.

In a special meeting Thursday morning, commissioners voted 4-1 (with new commissioner Mike Kohler objecting) to award $6.3 million to Escambia River Electric Cooperative (EREC), in partnership with Conexon Connect, to assist with the construction of a fiber optic internet network in north end of the county.

“EREC plans to build approximately 600 miles of fiber network reaching over 4,000 electric member locations, with an estimated cost of $24 million,” Ryan Campbell, CEO of the co-op, said to the board members during his presentation. “We expect to have the network completed to all 4,000 locations by mid-2024, targeting first service availability as early as Q3 (third quarter) of this year.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought broadband inequalities into focus in 2020, the CARES Act has also provided federal funds to address the issue. And, with the recently-enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will use the map to distribute another $42.5 billion to the states in June.

Okaloosa County is not currently asking residents about the broadband map, but has been making efforts to expand broadband access. This past July, LiveOak Fiber announced they would invest $100 million in Okaloosa County to expand broadband access.

“LiveOak will be constructing their own infrastructure and using County fiber junctions to expand service to their customers. They are currently installing fiber in Shalimar and will be expanding their service county-wide in the coming months and years," explained Nick Tomecek, public information officer for Okaloosa County.

Like Escambia, Santa Rosa County plans to apply for state grants to expand broadband availability to underserved areas.

Kyle Holley, community development liaison for Santa Rosa, says they’ve identified six project areas for expansion.

“So, if you’re in some areas like Spring Hill in Santa Rosa County or Roeville, these are small communities close to the state forest, or if you’re in a place like Garcon Point, it’s very low density because it’s swampy,” he said, naming a few of the areas in question. “There’re not enough residents, not enough density for the internet service providers to go there.”

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Sandra Averhart
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WUWF Public Media
Santa Rosa County residents challenge the FCC Broadband map.

In recent days, Holley has spent some time canvassing various rural or low population areas in Santa Rosa urging those residents to check the map’s accuracy for their address and to spread the word to their neighbors.

Going the extra mile, he organized an informal gathering Tuesday evening to answer residents’ questions and to help them walk through the process.

Six people attended.

“Where do you all live,” asked Holley as he began his presentation.

“We live in McLellan,” responded Charlotte O’Laughlin.

“God’s country. We are very rural” added her friend and neighbor Sherry Roberson describing their community, which is north of Munson and just a couple miles south of the Alabama border.

They shared the frustrating details of their situation, where a fiber optic network is fairly close to their homes but not attainable.

“We need the internet and we need cell service for 911,” O’Laughlin began as Roberson chimed in. “We got a landline and when your landline is out, which is all the time, if you’ve got to call an emergency in, you’ve got to get in your car and ride up and down the road and hold out your cell phone to see if you’ve got a signal. That’s how you take care of your problem.”

Another attendee, Danny Viveros, lives in an underserved area around Whiting Field, but found that his address and relevant data weren’t included on the map at all.

Holley and his colleagues helped each person search their home and come up with the right wording to file their challenges, which were generally based on availability, affordability and internet speed.

In encouraging all residents to check the FCC’s new broadband map, he says this is an opportunity to make sure it accurately reflects the local need for some of the billions of federal dollars being spent (across the nation) to close the gaps in internet access, particularly for students, senior citizens seeking telehealth and those working or running their businesses from home.

“It’s a once in a life-time type investment," said Holley. "And, it certainly is the government asking you to speak up as an individual and say, ‘Hey, what’s advertised and presented is not what I’m getting; can you do something about it.”

The deadline to check the map and file a challenge is Friday, January 13.

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.