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Deadline approaches for communities to challenge broadband access map

As Alabama gears up to dole out more than $1.4 billion to expand broadband access across the state, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is inviting the public to submit feedback ahead of two impending deadlines.

In a virtual meeting on Monday, Maureen Neighbors, chief of ADECA’s Digital Expansion Division, urged the public to submit feedback on an internet coverage map developed by the Federal Communications Commission. That map will largely determine which areas of the state receive preference for broadband expansion. Neighbors also invited the public to submit feedback on the state’s own Digital Opportunity Plan, which outlines the process by which broadband expansion would be carried out.

The $1.4 billion is set to be awarded to Alabama through a federal program known as Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment, which carries with it strict requirements prioritizing unserved and underserved areas in the state. 

As explained by Aimee Meacham with CTC Technology and Energy, which has partnered with ADECA to help expand broadband, feedback on the FCC internet coverage map could help correct potential errors with the map, such as an area with little-to-no broadband access being incorrectly labeled as having strong access, and thus, not being prioritized during the grant process.

The deadline to submit public feedback for the state’s Digital Opportunity Plan is Thursday and can be done so here. The deadline to submit feedback on the FCC internet coverage map is Dec. 14, and can be done so here.

According to the FCC coverage map, Alabama has 331,209 unserved broadband locations, and 96,641 underserved locations with subpar broadband access. The unserved locations will be the first priority for funds under federal requirements, with additional funds awarded based on a scoring rubric that highly prioritizes affordability of internet services.

“I call 2023 the year of plans; next year you’ll see – once the federal government has approved these plans – ADECA start implementing the plans through what is known as the challenge process, and the grant application process,” Meacham said.

“So next year you will see a series of activities starting to implement the plans, and then in 2025, for the broadband deployment grants, you’ll actually start to see shovels in the ground, the actual building of broadband networks.”

One proposal as to how to improve the state’s Digital Opportunity Plan was made by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who previously told Alabama Daily News that he felt incentives should be created to better entice internet service providers to service rural areas, which make of the bulk of unserved or underserved areas.

Separate from this $1.4 billion pool of funding, lawmakers this year and last dedicated about $330 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to broadband expansion. The state is in the process of allocating that money.

Since 2018, Alabama has invested $88.6 million in grants for broadband expansion, investments, Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said in August, that will see an additional 82,000 households, businesses and institutions get broadband access once complete.

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