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Broadband expansion bill passes first vote

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Legislation to organize and fund greater broadband internet expansion across the state passed its first committee vote on Wednesday with no opposition.

Senate Bill 215 is sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who is also sponsoring a large gambling bill that if passed would be able to partially fund broadband efforts.

“It was very clear that there was a strong emphasis that if we were able to get a gaming package, we need to address broadband,” Marsh told Senate Tourism Committee members. He chairs that committee.

“There are significant dollars in this bill to make sure the state of Alabama has a first-class high speed broadband network throughout the state and for the future.”

At the moment, the state’s broadband expansion program consists of individual grants through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Marsh’s bill would create a state entity to which the Legislature could appropriate direct funding from gambling revenue.

Senate Bill 215 would:

  • Create a nine-member Alabama Digital Expansion Authority to oversee the expansion and availability of high-speed broadband services throughout the state. A larger Connect Alabama Advisory Board will make recommendations to the authority;
  • Require the authority within a year of the law’s passage to develop and begin executing a Statewide Connectivity Plan to facilitate the expansion and availability of high-speed broadband networks, services, and technologies. A timeline for implementation must be included;
  • Create within the State Treasury the Connect Alabama Fund to collect appropriations by the Legislature, gifts, grants, and other donations from any source that are received by the authority for the Connect Alabama Program.
  • Create the Alabama University Research Alliance to assist the state’s universities, university health care systems and research institutions in the development of cooperative ventures of innovative technological significance to advance higher education, research, health care, and economic development within the state;
  • Create the Alabama Digital Expansion Finance Corporation. It could issue bonds of up to $250 million to finance eligible projects.

An amendment was added in committee to add more universities to the research alliance. Additional amendments are expected to come once it reaches the Senate. 

Marsh explained that about 65% of revenue from the gambling initiative would go toward broadband expansion and he expects the first year of funding to be as much as $100 million and will likely later drop down to $50 million per year in subsequent years.

“So there is going to be adequate dollars to reach our objective, as well if we need to make a bonding authority,” Marsh said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers were told it could cost $4 billion to $6 billion to expand broadband to underserved areas.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he did not like how the nine-member authority group did not include any legislators.

“I think that anything that we do, we need to be sitting at the table with some representation,” Smitherman said.

Marsh said he did not know if that was legally possible to do that, but if it was he would not mind adding a legislator.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he was concerned that even though the legislation has wording to include minorities on the authority commission and advisory board, that often isn’t what happens.

“We just got to make sure that if we are going to be inclusive that there has to be something that says they have to make a better effort than just the language being in there because people don’t always follow that language,” Singleton said.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said he plans on bringing forward an amendment that makes sure the appointments laid out in the bill include rural representation.

“I think some of the appointments need to be more spread out and I think making sure that people in rural communities are heard just as much as people in the urban communities is important,” Gudger told ADN.

An amendment to the bill was passed adding Troy University, the University of North Alabama, the University of West Alabama, Jacksonville State University and the University of Montevallo, among others, to the research alliance with the University of Alabama.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he wanted to make sure all of the universities in the bill would be weighted equally. Marsh said he would work on getting clarification about that.

Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, said he likes what he sees so far in the legislation.

“I understand there may be some amendments coming but in general I think it’s a good way to handle it,” Jones told ADN.

Greg Cochran, executive director of the Alabama League of Municipalities, said the organization is in favor of putting gambling revenue toward broadband expansion.

“That enhances our community quality of life and the ability to provide telehealth and tele-education opportunities that today may not be available in some areas,” Cochran said.

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