By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Expanding broadband internet access has been a highly discussed but financially daunting topic in the Alabama Legislature for years.
Now, armed with more information, including a map that shows underserved areas down to street addresses, and hundreds of millions of federal dollars, advocates say real action is imminent.
“Because of the funding and the work that’s been done, we’re well positioned to get out to a lot of people,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, who has worked on broadband expansion efforts for several years.
Last year, lawmakers created a new state authority to oversee the expansion of high-speed broadband internet services throughout the state, but no specific revenue stream was attached to the effort.
That Digital Expansion Authority met Monday to approve the plan required by the law. It includes an expanded grant program for broadband infrastructure.
“The funding is there, we just have to get the significant appropriation made, but the vehicle is there,” said Shedd, a co-chair on the authority. “And the mapping is going to be crucial because it identifies where we can go…
“We can identify and hopefully incentivize the internet providers to (reach people) in a community that has been left out… I expect the first week of the session we’ll have some real discussions about what that should be,” he said.
When lawmakers begin meeting this week for their annual legislative session, a priority will be distributing some $580 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Another $1 billion from the second round of ARPA funds is coming later this year. Additionally, within ARPA is a separate $192 million Capital Projects Fund that could be used for broadband.
On top of all that, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which Congress passed last year allocates at least $100 million for broadband in Alabama. Additional grant money will also be available.
“Rural broadband will be front and center,” Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said about ARPA fund allocations. He said the pandemic continues to highlight the state’s broadband deficiencies, barriers to remote learning when schools must close or the lack of telemedicine, which could allow for care from home.
Alabama isn’t the only state seeking an expansion of broadband services, leading state officials to worry about competition for resources and contractors. Tennessee leaders recently allocated $500 million of its ARPA funds for broadband.
Still, federal funding doesn’t cover the $4 billion to $6 billion pricetag for statewide broadband.
“There’s a mountain of cash out there now to fix the problem, but what’s needed is Mt. Everest,” said Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs at Alabama Rural Electric Association.
Strickler said the biggest impediment to broadband expansion is that covering low-density areas simply isn’t profitable.
“The reason why no one’s offering high-speed internet in a lot of places that don’t have it right now is there’s no economic model to make it work for profit,” Strickler said.
Hence, the state’s creation of a grant program in 2018.
The association represents seven electric cooperatives working on rural broadband expansion.
“They’re looking at an entirely different economic model to try to do it,” he said. “But even with those, the only way you accomplish it now is through grant funding so that you can actually make it work.”
The expansion plan recommends variable grant match requirements, depending on the project, as low as 20%.
“Providers need to have skin in the game,” Strickler said.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the discussions will center on how to best use the new funding for the most gain.
“We’re going to have additional federal and state dollars, we now have new mapping data that will help us understand exactly where and how we incentivize providers,” Reed said.
“We know there will be resources, we just need to make sure we are allocating them in the right way and the right place.”
Alabama Daily News reporter Heather Gann contributed to this story.