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Florida State helps secure $30 million to increase Internet access in rural North Florida

The John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at The Florida State University has played a major role in securing more than $30 million in funding to increase access to broadband and high-speed Internet service across a 14-county region in North Florida. High-speed, wireless connectivity is seen as critical to jumpstarting and sustaining economic activity throughout the region, which has been designated as a Rural Area of Critical Economic Concern by the state of Florida.

"This is an extraordinary accomplishment," said Jeff Hendry, executive director of the Florida Institute of Government, which provided professional staff and technical assistance that were essential in securing the federal "economic stimulus" funds. "This initiative has the potential to be a cornerstone for the region’s future."

Out of 2,200 applications, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently selected 14 locations throughout the United States to receive a portion of $7.2 billion placed in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 specifically to increase broadband access for underserved areas. The $30 million allotted for North Florida was the only grant awarded to Florida in the first round of funding. It will be administered by the North Florida Broadband Authority, a newly established governmental authority that the Florida Institute of Government, through the North Florida Economic Development Partnership, was instrumental in creating for the specific purpose of pursuing and sustaining broadband resources, infrastructure and services for the 14-county region. Hendry and the institute serve as the professional services and executive resource team for the North Florida Economic Development Partnership.

Jeff Hendry, executive director, John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government

Communities to be served by the North Florida Broadband Authority include those located in Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Putnam, Suwannee, Taylor and Union counties. In addition, Wakulla County was recently approved for membership in the North Florida Broadband Authority.

"The broadband authority will deliver up to 1,000 times the existing capacity to these counties within the stipulated three-year time frame," Hendry said. "Because businesses as diverse as manufacturing, logistics and distribution, agriculture, technology, medical and health care research, public safety and emergency management all require reliable access to 21st-century technology, this offers the region an opportunity to connect to the future."

Hendry initially set the funding process in motion by applying to the state of Florida for a $300,000 grant to conduct a Broadband Feasibility Study for the 14-county region, which covers approximately 9,100 square miles. Once the federal stimulus dollars became available, he and a multidisciplinary team of public- and private-sector colleagues began a whirlwind tour of North Florida towns, cities and counties, urging them to work together — and do so quickly — to secure the necessary funds.

"We visited, made presentations and gained formal approval on a single interlocal agreement from 14 county commissions and eight city councils over a 17-day period," Hendry said. "This was a comprehensive community effort that included support and commitment from political and business leaders, community colleges and universities, libraries, rural hospitals and numerous community groups. In all, nearly 70 letters of support were submitted, representing every sector of the region."

With the funding now in place, Hendry sees the broadband initiative as a great opportunity to tie in a variety of university resources and programs in the form of academic and commercialization initiatives.

"This region is sandwiched between two major universities — Florida State and the University of Florida — and we feel there is no reason that the region, with ample land and water and now 21st-century broadband infrastructure, cannot become a major player in areas such as medical research, or research and development in a variety of other fields."

To assist in reaching these ambitious goals, Hendry plans to have the Florida Institute of Government continue to assist the North Florida Broadband Authority and the North Florida Economic Development Partnership by pursuing additional grant funds and venture capital investment in the region.

The John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government works to enhance the capacity of Florida governments and their communities through education and training, technical assistance and applied research, and public service. In addition to its executive offices at Florida State, the institute serves the public’s interest through affiliate program offices located at the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University and Florida Gulf Coast University.

By Barry Ray

"The broadband authority will deliver up to 1,000 times the existing capacity to these counties within the stipulated three-year time frame."

Jeff Hendry
John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government