Escambia County District 5 Commissioner Steven Barry knows that some 20,000 people in North Escambia do not have access to the internet at speeds that are defined as broadband. Some do not have access at all.
And that’s something he’s looking to change.
Barry hosted a “A Real Rural Tech Talk” broadband roundtable at the Escambia County 4-H Center in Cantonment Friday. He was joined by Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Charter Communications executive and leaders from the local educational, agricultural, business and health care fields.
“You realize how much we depend on good internet when you have a year like 2020 and how important it is to be able to communicate, to work, to educate,” Patronis said. “The ability to expand and access broadband networks in our rural parts of the state is critical.”
“The pandemic has highlighted the need for broadband availability and adoption and Charter is committed to bridging the digital divide to positively impact rural communities,” said Marva Johnson, senior vice president of State Government Affairs Charter Communications. “As Americans across the country increasingly rely on broadband to work, learn, access health care and stay in touch with family and loved ones, bringing broadband access to more unserved areas should be a priority for all stakeholders.”
Charter is targeting public-private partnerships to expand broadband access to rural areas across the state using the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
For North Escambia residents, that could mean affordable internet to their homes and businesses at gigabit speeds.
“With broadband not readily available, whether it is unreliable, not unlimited, or doesn’t have quite the high speed it does in town, we are not really able to use our equipment to its fullest potential,” said Oak Grove agricultural producer Scott Walker. He said sometimes he is forced to update his equipment and do work only by traveling to Whataburger to access their wi-fi.
“The mission of the Escambia County School District is to close that gap for all of our students,” said Steve Harrell, director of Workforce Education for the Escambia County School District. “You create a divide between that student that has that access and the student who does not have that access.”
“We made sure that we have internet access at all of our schools, very high speed. We have fiber lines going all the way up to the north end,” Harrell continued. “If you are inside one of our facilities, inside those four walls, that digital device you have works very well. But when you take that home and there is no broadband at your house, that student that has that broadband access has an advantage over the child that does not.”
“I think we (Escambia County and Charter) are actually going to be able to look at some numbers and maybe some potential timelines about what may be possible,” Barry told NorthEscambia.com. “I’m appreciative to my board, and they’ve matched my urgency. They’ve supported this as a high priority.”
Barry said that with a couple of months, but perhaps as soon as just a few weeks, there may be some timelines in place for what a rural broadband program might look like in Escambia County.
Patronis told NorthEscambia.com that high speed broadband in North Escambia could also mean economic opportunity.
“When we recruit businesses into this state, it’s critical that they have access to water and sewer. Large businesses need that type of level of infrastructure. This is no different. They had to have connectivity too. So you take areas that are maybe underserved, if you bring a job creator to that footprint then you’re bringing infrastructure there…So a rising tide lifts all boats — better quality of life, better quality of services, but also better jobs often follow with those type of investments when they’re made.”
“That’s where these partnerships come through whether it be federal dollars or state dollars, or what we’ve got now in this particular dialogue is a contribution from charter where those dollars come together,” Partronis said. “For Charter, this is a long game play. Their return on investment is not today; it’s not tomorrow. But it could be 10 or 15 years from now because as you have that infrastructure available, then you have a manufacturer that may decide to come there.”
“We’re on a very attractive court for Interstate 10 where distribution really can take place here. This part of the state is the closest part to the Midwest in the whole state of Florida, but you can’t make it attractive and shovel ready unless you have the infrastructure in the ground to make a business want to build … putting the infrastructure in the ground here in Northwest Florida to me is hugely important to diversify our economy.”
For a photo gallery, click here.
Pictured: Participants in “A Real Rural Tech Talk” about broadband internet access Friday in Cantonment included Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis (top), Escambia County District 5 Commissioner Steven Barry (top inset) Director of Workforce Education for the Escambia County School District Steve Harrell (middle inset), North Escambia agricultural producer Scott Walker (bottom inset), Senior Vice President of State Government Affairs Charter Communications Marva Johnson (below), President Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital Pensacola Dawn Rudolph (second below), and 4-H Escambia Council Treasurer Jessica Conti (third below). NorthEscambia.com photos, click to enlarge.