By Vittorio Nastasi and Brooks Davis
Florida is a rapidly growing state in both population and economic activity. With a population over 21 million, it is the third largest state and has the fourth largest economy in the nation. As that growth continues to work its way some areas have not always seen the benefits over time, ensuring that businesses and households in rural counties have adequate internet access should be a priority.
There is no debate regarding how integral broadband is to the general functioning of our society. From streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, to GPS embedded in smartphone apps such as Lyft and Uber, to the expansion of mobile banking and instant money transfers – broadband is the key. The digital age has been a catalyst for innovation and economic growth across the globe. Online businesses, distance learning, and remote work could reduce some of the disadvantages faced by rural counties. Floridians living and working in rural counties could benefit from wider internet access.
When the Internet was introduced speeds were measured in kilobytes. Now, those same scales are in terabytes. Expansion of broadband access and speed facilitates access to information, people, and resources in ways never imagined just a decade or two ago. The widespread use of applications such as video chat, telemedicine, and artificial intelligence, all of which require large amounts of bandwidth to be used effectively, can largely be attributed to the exponential growth of broadband speed. Nevertheless, regulatory barriers in Florida are negatively impacting the deployment and expansion of broadband. Onerous policies that disrupt innovations are harming economic and social growth and are antithetical to our market-based principles.
Figure 1. Internet Access in Rural Florida Counties
Florida’s population is largely concentrated in the Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville metropolitan Areas. The relatively rural panhandle and everglades regions have smaller populations that are growing slowly (if not decreasing). Rural counties also have some of the highest poverty rates across the state. Poverty rates in completely (21%) and mostly (20%) rural counties, on average, are much higher than in urban (14%) counties. Moreover, 36% of completely or mostly rural counties have poverty rates above 20 percent compared to just 12 percent of urban counties. Much of Florida’s growth has evaded these rural areas.
Meanwhile, computer and internet use have become essential to economic opportunity in the 21st century. Land-wise Florida has acquired over 95 percent of broadband coverage, but according to “BroadbandNow,” an internet provider database, 10 percent of Florida’s population is still underserved. It would be reasonable to predict that areas in which broadband service is not as readily available would have greater challenges in leveraging that economic expansion. That challenge presents itself here in the Sunshine State. Fewer households have broadband internet subscriptions in rural counties and counties with high rates of poverty. In Dixie and Glades counties, more than 50 percent lack adequate access to the internet. Dixie County also has the fourth highest poverty rate in the state. The relationship between poverty, population density, and internet access may not be particularly surprising, but it is important.
Rural areas––by definition––have fewer people per square mile than urban areas. This has traditionally placed a limit on economic potential, but rural areas in particular have a lot to gain in the digital age, as increased connectivity can provide the foundation for alternative economic development. With the emergence of the digital age and the new economy, local businesses and consumers have direct access to global markets at minimal cost, and the tether between physical location and opportunity is beginning to fray. Communication and collaboration possible across vast distances, giving people the choice to start online businesses, pursue distance learning, and work remotely.
R Street Institute, a public policy research organization dedicated to protecting free market principles and economic freedom, has made the yeoman’s effort of examining the policy efforts in broadband deployment across all 50 states. Their scorecard, which depicts each state’s policy approaches across a series of metrics, calculates a grade for each state based on how limiting policies are to innovation. The good news? Florida received an A rating. However; a closer look at the scores appear to indicate that it may have been “graded on a curve.” Of the possible 44 points across the metrics, Florida received just 31 (75 percent of the total). Translation – Florida still has room to improve.
Much of the obstruction negatively affecting the expansion of broadband deployment derives from Florida’s construction permits. Florida does not exempt zoning review for the replacement of utility poles or the collocation of sophisticated and beneficial wireless facilities. Too specific of zoning laws inhibit providers from certain installments of new, more innovative, broadband infrastructure without submitting to an application. This application has a drawn-out approval process delaying installment and broadband expansion. As in most competitive markets the margins of profit can be slim and we all know the saying “time is money.” Therefore, the opportunity cost of time largely disincentivizes companies to continue the expansion by limiting their abilities to make a profit. Also, the state of Florida doesn’t prohibit moratoria and accepts free in-kind contributions that are both prohibited at the federal level. These provide advantages for deeper pockets that receive special access through donations and permits the government the ability to halt production altogether.
Government hates monopolies, but it doesn’t see how it directly contributes to them. These Onerous barriers restrict small businesses from competing with larger companies such as AT&T U-verse and Comcast that can operate on larger deficits. Florida needs policy solutions to increase affordable internet access in rural counties while at the same time avoiding government subsidies and picking favorites. Policies that prevent providers from expanding high-quality, affordable access should be avoided so that all Floridians can enjoy the economic opportunities made possible by the internet. Fortunately, implementations such as: application shot clocks, less government influence, and more rational zoning rules should and could be established.
Florida can incentivize expansion and access in a multitude of ways. First, allowing applications that have not been reviewed within 60 days an automatic approval. This “shot clock” incentivizes companies via assurance and provides enough information to better estimate their fixed costs. However, the ability for the government to enact moratoria on broadband construction rends this process useless unless changed. Also, the zoning review process should be expedited to save time and money. The new more innovated style of broadband is safer, smaller, and less intrusive on surroundings. The government should stop interfering with its implementation unless given strong evidence that it is intruding on the peace in society. If old technology was approved and installed why should a company have to reapprove something more sophisticated? Ultimately, Florida is one of the leaders in Broadband expansion, but its continued government interference is restricting it from its potential
There is of course more to combating rural poverty than improving internet access, but the benefits of increased connectivity are one reason to be optimistic. technological innovation may provide solutions in the form of wireless connectivity though satellite and radio, but one major obstacle to improving opportunities remains: access.