PANAMA CITY — Rural Northwest Florida soon will be home to a broadband network capable of handling 1,000 times the capacity of existing Internet service in the area.


PANAMA CITY — Rural Northwest Florida soon will be home to a broadband network capable of handling 1,000 times the capacity of existing Internet service in the area.



Funded by the 2009 federal stimulus package, the $24 million project will bring broadband Internet access to eight underserved counties in the Panhandle, including Calhoun, Gulf, Franklin, Holmes, Jackson, Washington, Liberty and Gadsden counties. Slated for an end-of-the-year completion, the project also will provide coverage for the south-central Florida counties of DeSoto, Hardee, Glades, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee and the community of Immokalee.



Known as the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA), the initiative is a partnership between Opportunity Florida and the Florida Rural Heartland Economic Development Initiative, agencies that serve areas of critical economic concern in the state. 



Jim Brook, executive director of Opportunity Florida representing the rural Panhandle, said one of the main goals is to provide cost-effective, high-speed Internet directly to “community anchor institutions,” such as public schools, libraries, local governments and emergency services.



“It will provide additional capacity, at hopefully affordable rates,” Brook said.



According to data from the FRBA, only 39 percent of these rural areas have access to broadband service, yet they represent about 20 percent of Florida’s land mass.



The “middle mile” broadband network will extend the current Internet backbone to local Internet service providers (ISPs) that serve households and small businesses in these communities. Brook said the back-haul network is required to meet capacity requirements of up to 200 megabytes per second.



“Traditionally, the end result to the residential consumer would be provided by independent ISPs that traditionally sell at the last mile,” Brook said. “It provides a scalable, and in many cases, less costly capacity.”



Brook said the intention is not to compete with current providers, but simply to increase capacity. 



“This was not a system that was put in place to replace existing services,” Brook said. “We’re not only willing, but we’re obligated to negotiate with existing providers.”



Once the project is completed, service will be sold at a lowest reasonable cost through a network operator, Brook said, which is in the final stages of negotiation.



Within the $4.7 trillion stimulus package, $7.2 billion was designated for broadband infrastructure projects in rural areas across the country.



To qualify for grants, companies must show they can provide broadband service to areas that meet any of the following: where 90 percent of households have no broadband access, 50 percent have inadequate broadband coverage at speeds of less than three megabytes per second, or areas where service is available, but less than 40 percent of the population subscribes.



“This was a system that was primarily developed to provide additional capacity and capacity needed to community anchor institutions,” Brook said. “It’s trying to equalize the country in terms of access to technology,” Brook said.