Celebrating Rural Broadband Expansion in Fort Meade, FL

February 3, 2023

The city of Fort Meade is nestled alongside Florida’s Peace River, between numerous parcels of farmland and vast acres of phosphate mines. As the oldest city in Polk County, its history dates back to the Second Seminole War in the mid-19th century. Today, Fort Meade is home to little more than 5,000 residents, compared to 115,000 residents in Lakeland just 30 miles north.

Like those in other rural towns across Florida, many in Fort Meade struggle to secure high-speed broadband access. The challenges posed by the lack of readily available internet in these communities became stark during the pandemic, which is a major reason why the Florida Legislature took action. The state created more equitable pole replacement cost sharing arrangements between broadband providers and utility pole owners to expedite buildout to rural areas, and it created and funded the new $400 million Broadband Opportunity Program, a grant program that will incentivize investment in network expansion to unserved communities.

Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity recently announced the first slate of grants through the Broadband Opportunity Program. $144 million was awarded to expand broadband access to nearly 160,000 unserved locations across 41 Florida counties, with more to come.

To celebrate this progress, Connect The Future (CTF) Florida hosted a special event at Fort Meade Middle Senior High School (FMMSHS) on Monday, January 30. Attended by students, teachers, school board members, local elected officials, and CTF Florida member organizations, the event recognized the achievements of former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and Representative Josie Tomkow (R-Polk City) with CTF’s Broadband Champion award. Former Speaker Sprowls and Rep. Tomkow played integral roles in ensuring the passage of key broadband-related policies, and CTF Florida was honored to host them in Fort Meade. 

During the program, Laura Taylor, the Vice President of Operations for the Lakeland Economic Development Council, a CTF Florida supporter, shared her story about living without access to high-speed internet in her home. She expressed optimism that the investments being made by the state and private broadband providers will deliver real results for local businesses and students alike.

The event also featured a panel discussion highlighting the challenges and opportunities ahead for expanding broadband access in Florida. Panelists included former Speaker Sprowls, Rep. Tomkow, Polk County Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Wayne Green, FMMSHS Educator and Migrant Family Liaison Meylin Nickerson, and FMMSHS student leader Karla Najera.

Moderated by Charter Communications’ Group Vice President for State Government Affairs Marva Johnson, the conversation centered around the progress that the Broadband Opportunity Program will help deliver for Floridians. 

“It was an amazing opportunity for us to invest in the future, and luckily, we had folks in the education community, we had great leaders like Representative Tomkow who was helping us understand this issue, and then we had great corporate partners.”

– Former Speaker Chris Sprowls

Rep. Tomkow discussed what the next steps for the Broadband Opportunity Program might look like, stressing the importance of prioritizing truly unserved areas.

“If you’re applying for this grant program, you should be held to the same standards that everyone else who falls within that program are held to. And the reason why that is so important is because we need to make sure that we are not going out to the same areas. We are truly going to those unserved areas and we’re expanding broadband access.”

– Representative Josie Tomkow

CTF Florida is grateful to FMMSHS Principal Matt Blankenship and Polk County Public Schools for providing a warm welcome and an excellent venue for us to host this event. We also thank Representative Melony Bell (R-Fort Meade), a Fort Meade High School graduate, for attending and sharing her insights on the importance of broadband access in her district.

This one-of-a-kind event was a testament to the momentum that Florida’s state and community leaders have generated toward closing the state’s digital divide. Watch news coverage of the event here and view more photos below! 

About Connect The Future Florida:

CTF Florida believes using public policy to accelerate broadband deployment and encourage private sector investment is critical. We’re comprised of the following supporters: Airspan, Charter Communications, Computer Mentors, Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, Enterprising Latinas, Lakeland Economic Development Council, Manatee Education Foundation, Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce and Pinellas County Urban League.