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Broadband expansion bill gets final passage

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill to allow electric utility companies to offer high-speed internet to rural communities by way of their existing power networks cleared the Alabama Legislature Wednesday and now goes to the governor for her signature.

Supporters say House Bill 400 will alleviate the cost of running new fiber lines to rural areas by allowing utilities like Alabama Power, the Tennessee Valley Authority and regional electric cooperatives to piggyback their existing networks with high-speed cable lines.

“I’m so excited about all the people of Alabama having a means of getting broadband,” sponsor Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, said

He said in some rural parts of the state, electric co-ops will begin broadband work within two years.

“I’m hoping in my district, it gets covered within two years,” said Shedd, who’s district includes portions of Cullman, Morgan, Marshall and Blount counties.

Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs for the  Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives, said the legislation is the result of long negotiations with several parties.
“It’s going to offer up great opportunities to people all across the state so I’m glad they could finally pass this piece of legislation,” Strickler said. “I think the legislature did a great job at looking all the different issues and different concerns people had so I think this is a great bill.”

The Governor’s Office last year estimated as many as 842,000 Alabamians are without access to high-speed internet. A spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey said Thursday she will review the bill.

Separately, the state’s proposed 2020 education budget that’s awaiting final approval by the Legislature includes $30 million in potential grants to expand broadband internet access.

Ike Pigott, spokesman for Alabama Power, said the bill would allow the company to bring broadband to previously unserved ares.

“Alabama Power is excited to see this transformative piece of legislation that supports innovative ways to elevate the state and improve lives by connecting our schools, hospitals and communities with the rest of the world,” Pigott said.

Blake Hardwich, Executive Director of the Energy Institute of Alabama, said “The passing of this historic bill is important for our state and brings us one step closer to greater economic gains, workforce development opportunities and educational advancements.

“We are excited our member companies across the state can be a part of closing the digital divide while also providing reliable and safe electricity to our communities.”

If approved by the House and signed by the governor, that money would fund a program enacted last year that helps subsidize the cost of internet providers running fiberoptic lines to rural areas.

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.

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