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Broadband expansion bill close to final vote

By CAROLINE BECK Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Legislation to create a new state agency to oversee the expansion and availability of high-speed broadband internet services throughout the state is close to final passage in the State House.

Various broadband and technology entities in the state voiced their support for Senate Bill 215 from Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, on Thursday during a public hearing. The House Urban and Rural Development Committee did not vote on the bill but plans to next week.

Rep. Danny Garret, R-Trussville, is carrying the bill for Marsh in the House and told committee members that the state’s current grant program is not sufficient enough to provide the $4-6 billion that some have estimated it will cost to get access throughout Alabama.

“Chipping away $20 million a year at a grant program is not going to do it,” Garrett said.

The bill creates a nine-member Alabama Digital Expansion Authority to oversee the expansion and availability. A larger Connect Alabama Advisory Board will make recommendations to the authority. The authority within a year of the law’s passage must develop and begin executing a Statewide Connectivity Plan. A timeline for implementation must be included.

The bill also creates the Alabama Digital Expansion Finance Corporation that could issue bonds of up to $250 million to finance eligible projects.

The comprehensive gambling legislation that passed the Senate late Tuesday night includes a provision directing the first $750 million made from casino and sports book revenue towards broadband expansion. 

The Senate passed the bill unanimously in early March, though there were some changes from the original version. The bill that under consideration in the House does not have the university research network that was in the original bill but Garrett said that the authority has the power to create one.

Another change to the original bill that some speakers during the public hearing liked is that 70% of the funding for the first two years coming into the authority will go to completing last-mile connections or making sure broadband services reach specific homes or businesses in the state versus simply upgrading existing connection services in other parts. 

Blake Hardwich of the Energy Institute of Alabama strongly endorsed the bill saying the state had fallen behind its peers in deploying broadband technology. 

“Alabama is ranked 47th in broadband connectivity, ranked 49th in the digital economy, 73% of Alabama’s population does not have access to an affordable broadband plan and almost 20% of Alabama’s population does not even have access to high-speed internet,” Hardwich said. “Important to note, Alabama is the only state in the Southeast that does not have an official broadband plan, a mechanism to implement any such plan, or a research network that support broadband connectivity”.

Mark Wilkerson, an attorney with the Telecommunications Associations of the Southeast said he liked the funding commitment but thinks it should be extended longer than two years.

“We think that getting broadband to areas that have hotspots in buses and things like that, they should get the first dollars so people can do their homework, businesses can communicate with customers and people can get tele-health care. We think that should be the overriding priority,” Wilkerson said.

Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs at Alabama Rural Electric Association, told the committee that he also agrees that money should be spent on last-mile connections but doesn’t want to lose sight of getting broadband expansion to places that have seen none yet. 

“Without a first mile or a middle mile, you cannot have a last mile,” Stickler said. “We have to have planning to bring the internet, with a reliable infrastructure in place, to rural Alabama.”

Michelle Roth, executive director of the Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, said she also likes the overall goal but said she is concerned that the bill is only going to benefit companies based in fiber connectivity.  

“Any legislation should be technology neutral so it doesn’t give advantage to one technology over another,” Roth said. “Limiting incentives because of the connection type only limits the number of companies that can be a part of it.”

Debra Wallace, the chief executive officer for the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, told committee members that she is concerned the legislation would change how it currently helps get internet connectivity to K-12 schools, libraries, universities and community colleges.

“We want to just continue doing what we are doing,” Wallace said.

Garrett assured committee members that the area experts serving in the authority and the legislative oversight committee would allow for best practices to continue in the state.

“We’re going to do what makes sense and if it makes sense for people to keep doing what they’re doing then they’ll keep doing it,” Garrett said.

Multiple other speakers made comments to the committee that the bill didn’t lay out a specific enough plan for furthering broadband expansion but Garrett said that they didn’t want to be locked into a plan that would be obsolete in a few years.  

“We need to be investing in technology which is constantly changing and constantly updating,” Garrett said. “We’ve got to get ahead of that, right now we are woefully behind and if we can continue to stay behind we’re never going to get where we need to get.”

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