Bridging the digital divide in DeSoto and Manatee counties

Lilly Esaau is a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home. She spends several hours a day at the DeSoto County Library retrieving paperwork and continuing education classes online because she doesn’t have an Internet connection at home.

Without internet. Not at all, she said. Maybe I can access the neighbor’s wifi, but it’s off and on.

She takes it all in stride. I have been working here for about 12 years. I’m used to it.

She’s not alone. According to a recent survey in DeSoto County, 80 percent of responding residents and businesses said they had access to the Internet. And of those, about half say their connection speeds were less than 10 megabits (mbps) per second, just enough for one person per household to log in at a time.

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

A graph from an Internet survey showing respondents’ Internet speeds in DeSoto County.

And that’s far below what the federal government says should be the standard for Americans. The Federal Communications Commission states that minimum speeds for broadband are at least 25 Mbps and effective upload speeds at least 3 Mbps.

To that end, the Biden administration is investing billions in state government-administered programs to add broadband infrastructure to underserved and underserved areas.

In a June 26 press conference, President Biden said high-speed internet was no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity and said he would work to have every household in the nation have access by 2030 using U.S.-made cable.

Money earmarked for DeSoto, Manatee

In May, Florida’s Office of Broadband awarded $60 million in federal grants to 22 projects in 19 counties. 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.

Also includes $1.5 million to install 42 miles of fiber optic lines of similar download and upload speeds in eastern Manatee County, in 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’re kind of a conduit between the (state) office of broadband and then, really, the boots on the ground locally, said Sondra Guffey, DeSoto County director of economic development.

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 expected to be completed by the end of 2026.

Peasant realities

The Internet survey conducted by DeSoto County last year revealed what most already knew: Large swathes of the county are without service, and what service exists is not reliable.

We’re finding that many 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, one could say, a good outcome of COVID is a recognition of how dependent we are on broadband and a recognition that rural areas are really suffering.

A pie chart from an Internet survey showing why some respondents do not have Internet access in DeSoto County.  57.4% of those interviewed said they did not have internet because the service was too slow or unreliable.

A graph from an Internet survey showing why some respondents do not have Internet access in DeSoto County.

As director of economic development, Guffey says the lack of connectivity works against the county. I don’t have any direct knowledge that would say “yeah, you know, we lost two businesses”. I can’t tell, she said.

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

Guffey says that with more money likely coming in for broadband infrastructure, the county is looking into where it would like that to happen.

From our perspective, we really would like State Road 70 to be served and US 17. That would be really important because that’s where the core business is going to be, he said.

You get to Lake Suzy, it’s a big population conglomeration, he noted, and it’s moving in that direction from Lake Suzy on Kings Highway.

There is also growth in the Fort Ogden and Nocatee areas, he said. So if they can get those … targeting population groups, I think that would make more sense.

Satisfy community needs

Local resources, such as 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 wilderness. Some of them, this is the only place they have to come, Waters said.

He says that when people without Internet access come to the library, they often don’t have the computer skills to do basic tasks. The one where library staff step in to help.

A staff member recently spent three hours with a truck driver to submit a job application that the company would only accept online. We do our best to help them do whatever they need to do, Waters said, whether it’s filling out food assistance program applications, accessing health care appointments or setting up their (email) accounts.

The library is a busy place even during the school year. We have a number of young students whose families don’t have internet at home, she said. We have students who sometimes come in after their parents leave work at 4:30-5pm. They will come for about 45 minutes to finish one paper, to get the illustrations they need for their science project.

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

We want to say yes to everyone in need, Waters said. And so we work very hard to try and make that possible.

This story is courtesy of the Community News Collaborative, made possible by a grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. You can contact Jim DeLa at [email protected]

#Bridging #digital #divide #DeSoto #Manatee #counties
Image Source :

Leave a Comment