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The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

Bridging the digital divide in DeSoto and Manatee counties

A person at a desk, sitting in front of a computer. In the background are bookshelves filled with books.
Jim DeLa
/
Community News Collaborative
A man works at a computer inside the DeSoto County Library. The library’s access to the internet is a lifeline to many county residents.

Broadband upgrades are aimed to connect about 760 homes by 2025.

Lilly Esaau is a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home. She spends several hours a day at the DeSoto County Library catching up on paperwork and continuing-education classes online, because she has no internet connection at home.

“No internet. At all,” she said. “Maybe I can get on the neighbor's Wi-Fi, but it's off and on.”

She takes it all in stride. “I've worked here about 12 years. I'm used to it.”

She's not alone. According to a recent survey in DeSoto County, 80% of residents and businesses responding said they have access to the internet. And of those, about half say their connection speed was less than 10 megabits (mbps) per second, barely enough for one person per household to be logged in at a time.

A pie chart from an internet survey showing internet speeds of respondents in DeSoto County. 55.2% of respondents have a current upload speed of less than 3 megabytes per second.
DeSoto County
A chart from an internet survey showing internet speeds of respondents in DeSoto County.

And that is far below what the federal government says should be the standard for Americans. The Federal Communications Commission says the minimum speed for broadband is at least 25 mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 3 mbps.

To that end, the Biden administration is pumping billions into programs administered by state governments to add broadband infrastructure in underserved and unserved areas.

At a June 26 news conference, President Biden declared high-speed internet is no longer a luxury but an “absolute necessity,” and said he would work to have every household in the nation would have access by 2030 using cables made in the U.S.

Money earmarked for DeSoto, Manatee

In May, Florida's Office of Broadband awarded $60 million in federal grants to 22 projects in 19 counties. It includes $4.9 million to add 13 miles of fiber optic cable to 497 homes west of the municipal airport in southeast Arcadia, with download and upload speeds of 1 gigabyte per second.

It also includes $1.5 million to install 42 miles of fiber optic lines with similar download and upload speed in east Manatee County, to 261 unserved locations in Duette, Parrish, Rubonia and Willow.

The grants were announced after DeSoto County formed a group of community and business leaders. This Local Technology Planning Team conducted a survey of internet usage and needs. The county then offered advice and assistance to internet service providers, who then bid on the projects.

“We are kind of the conduit between the (state) Office of Broadband and then, really, the boots on the ground at the local level,” Sondra Guffey, DeSoto County's economic development director, said.

The two companies awarded the contracts to install the broadband facilities were IBT Group, USA, LLC in Arcadia; and Charter Communications LLC in Manatee County. Both projects are scheduled to be complete by the end of 2026.

Rural realities

The internet survey conducted last year by DeSoto County revealed what most already knew -- large areas of the county go without service, and what service exists is not dependable.

“We're finding that a lot of them (survey respondents) weren't using the internet as much as probably people who have good service,” Guffey said. “It goes hand in hand. If you have good service, you use it more.”

The need was clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were isolated at home.

“I guess, you could say, a good result of COVID is a recognition of how dependent we are on broadband and the recognition that the rural areas are really suffering.”

A pie chart from an internet survey showing reasons why some respondents do not have internet access in DeSoto County. 57.4% of respondents said they don't have internet because service is too slow or unreliable.
DeSoto County
A chart from an internet survey showing reasons why some respondents do not have internet access in DeSoto County.

As economic development director, Guffey says the lack of connectivity works against the county. “I don't have any firsthand knowledge that could say 'yes, you know, we lost two businesses.' I can't say that,” she said.

“What I can say is, that we probably don't even get on the radar screen now of some of these companies that need it.”

Guffey says with more money likely coming for broadband infrastructure, the county is looking at where they would like to see it happen.

“From our perspective, we would really like to get State Road 70 served, and U.S. 17. That would be really important because that's where the core business is going to be,” she said.

“You get to Lake Suzy, that's a big population cluster,” she noted, “and it's moving up that way from Lake Suzy up Kings Highway.”

There's also growth in the Fort Ogden and Nocatee areas, she said. “So if they can get those ... hit the population clusters, I think that would make the most sense.”

Meeting the community's needs

Local resources, like the county library, are trying to fill the gap by providing high speed internet and computers during business hours and beyond.

DeSoto County librarian Linda Waters says her staff is doing everything they can to provide an oasis in a digital desert. “Some of them, this is the only place they have to come,” Waters said.

She says when people without internet access come to the library, they often don't have the computer skills to do basic tasks. That where the library staff steps in to help.

One staffer recently spent three hours with a truck driver to submit a job application that the company would only accept online. “We do our very best to help them do whatever they need to do,” Waters said, “whether it is filling out their food assistance program applications, signing in for their health appointments, or setting up their (email) accounts.”

The library is a busy place during the school year, too. “We have a number of young students whose families don't have Internet at home,” she said. “We have students who come in sometimes after their parents get off work at 4:30-5 in the afternoon. They'll come in for about 45 minutes to finish up a paper, to get the illustrations they need for their science project.”

Waters says the library keeps its Wi-Fi on even after their doors close. It’s a well-known secret that the signal is usable in the parking lot if you park close enough to the building. “It's available 24/7 if you need it -- 11:00 at night, to get that assignment turned in or to finish that test. It's here for you.

“We want to say ‘yes’ to everyone who has a need,” Waters said. “And so we work very hard to try to make that possible.”

This story is courtesy of the Community News Collaborative, made possible by a grant from Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. You can reach Jim DeLa at jdela@cncfl.org