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Friday, December 2, 2022

Marion County begins Broadband Feasibility Study to determine internet service needs

Marion County is partnering with Televate, a technology consulting firm, to help determine areas where internet services are needed or could be improved.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, reliable high-speed internet networks became a necessity due to the number of residents who were staying at home, working from home, and learning from home. According to the county, some residents and businesses are still unable to access the online resources that are needed to maintain a sense of normalcy.

In the summer of 2020, the Florida Office of Broadband was established. The office works with local and state government agencies, community organizations, and private businesses to increase the availability and effectiveness of broadband internet throughout the state, specifically in small and rural communities.

The office has been rolling out broadband speed testing across Florida to better identify gaps in internet access. The resulting map will help local communities and internet service providers to assist with broadband planning efforts. Anyone interested in testing their service can do so by clicking here.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1239, “The Florida Broadband Deployment Act of 2021,” into law in May of 2021. The law creates rules for the newly established Office of Broadband, and funds a major step in addressing Florida’s broadband issues. “The bill provides $1.5 million to fund geographic information system (GIS) mapping to increase the use of broadband internet service in Florida,” said Andrew G. Nixon, press secretary for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Using data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the GIS map will provide a detailed overview of broadband internet service availability throughout Florida. The maps will identify where broadband capable networks exist, where service is available to users, gaps in rural areas, and download and upload transmission speeds across the state.

The FCC announced in November 2021 that it is ready to authorize its fourth round of funding for new broadband deployments through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This is the commission’s next step to help bridge the digital divide. A total of 50 broadband providers will work to bring broadband service to more than 400,000 locations across 26 states.

Florida is expected to receive $82.5 million through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In preparation for possible funding to assist with the need for better broadband connectivity throughout the community, Marion County established its Broadband Local Planning Technology steering committee in November of 2021.

This committee includes members from United Way, Next Era Energy, Lumen/CenturyLink, Ocala Metro CEP, Raney’s, Cattlemen/Southeastern Youth Fair, Department of Health, City of Ocala, the Marion County School Board, and the Marion County Board of County Commissioners. This team aims to guide the county’s broadband feasibility effort by providing valuable information to assist the county in determining its broadband needs.

In order to assist in this effort, Marion County sent out a Request for Proposal for a third party to complete a broadband feasibility study.

During the Marion County Board of County Commissioners regular meeting on March 1, the commissioners approved the selection committee’s recommendation to work with Televate, an information technology and engineering consultancy that has prior experience working with both private companies and government entities on similar projects, to begin the Broadband Feasibility Study for Marion County.

The cost of this contract is $283,331, and it is being funded by the American Rescue Plan Act. Televate’s study will last six months and consists of three phases:

  • Discovery and Assessment.
  • Analysis.
  • Planning and Reporting.

Televate also has a survey that it plans to send out to Marion County residents and businesses in the near future. This survey will provide the company with direct connection to public opinion on existing broadband service and will help to better determine where the greatest needs for service are located. Once it is available, this survey will be shared via multiple methods, including email, social media, and public outreach.

The steering committee will meet once a month throughout the six-month plan, and the committee is working closely with Televate to ensure that all needs are addressed. Televate is also working closely with private businesses and internet service providers to better determine Marion County’s internet capabilities and needs.