By WILL WHATLEY and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Last year the state enacted a program to expand access to broadband internet in rural Alabama. Now, lawmakers say they need to “iron out” the details to make sure the program works properly.
State Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, is sponsoring legislation that would amend the law to allow more areas of the state to be eligible for funding grants.
In March 2018, the Legislature passed and Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which created a grant program to help subsidize the cost of providers running fiber-optic lines to less populated areas.
Such areas often lack the potential customer base necessary for internet providers to justify the expense of building the infrastructure that carries the broadband service. The state grants aim to offset those costs to make it financially feasible for lines to be run to rural communities.
This January, Ivey awarded the first of those grants totalling more than $1 million for seven rural North Alabama communities: Moulton, Gilbertown, Toxey, Chelsea, Boaz, Pea Ridge, and Glen Ridge.
But, Scofield, who sponsored the original broadband bill, said further tweaks are needed to make sure the program reaches more towns throughout the state.
“We knew that once the program went into effect, there would be some things to tinker with to make sure it’s doing what we expect it to,” he said. “Last year was critical, but once we get some of these things ironed out, you’re going to see some real movement.”
Senate Bill 90 bill changes the definition of “unserved area” to allow more communities to be eligible for broadband grants. It also raises the percentage of the project costs eligible to be covered by grant funding and seeks to simplify how state and federal grants are utilized together.
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, whose congressional district includes many rural, unserved areas, said it’s important for the state and federal governments to work together on expanding access to broadband.
“As is the case with most programs, it is essential that the federal government work with the state government. So, I’m glad to see Senator Scofield’s efforts in this area, as I know he wants to expand broadband to rural areas as much as I do. And we have to maximize every possible opportunity to do that,” Aderholt said.
“As I have said before, but it’s worth repeating, the lack of access to broadband internet in rural areas of our state, and our country, had created two Americas. The America with broadband had access to more high paying jobs, better health care and more educational opportunities. I’ve compared it to the way electricity was 100 years ago. So that’s why my office has worked to secure funds for broadband in rural America,” he said.
The Governor’s office last year estimated that as many as 842,000 Alabamians are without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds.
Scofield’s bill has support from key Senate leaders including President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston and Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper. Three Democrats – Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, and Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham – have also signed on as co-sponsors.
Singleton, who also represents a largely rural state senate district, said the changes are needed to steer broadband expansion projects to “the most rural areas.”
“We are seeing some success already with cable companies that are taking advantage of the grant program that’s out there. But this change is going to help us get projects in more truly rural areas,” Singleton said.
“What we saw with the first million dollars was grants going to many more clustered areas with a lot of new home construction, and this new bill will give the incentive to go out a little bit farther so that we help some of the most rural areas.”
The bill is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday. Scofield said he anticipates some deliberation over his bill, and possibly some revisions, which comes with the territory for complicated legislation, he said.
“I’ve gotten input from all the providers, and there could be some amendments,” Scofield said. “I want to be accommodating because the more providers that are taking advantage of these grants, the quicker we are going to get broadband infrastructure out there.
“We’re just getting started. It’s going to come down to how much money the state is willing to spend to get these areas connected.”
The Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, which represents companies that would complete the expansion projects, said its members are “eager to continue deploying broadband across Alabama.”
ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth said the industry would work with Scofield and other lawmakers as the bill goes through the legislative process.
“We appreciate that our state leaders recognize the importance of incentivizing areas that are unserved, rather than overbuilding areas of our state that already have service,” Roth said.
Broadband grants are administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.