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Going the last (and middle) mile: Time, money required to get statewide broadband access

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield says he gets asked by Alabamians about one topic more than most: High-speed internet and when they’ll have access to it.

So, he tells them about the state’s recently adopted plan to get broadband to unserved and underserved areas, about money the state has allocated to the effort in recent years and the collaboration that’s been required of internet service providers to map who does and doesn’t have fast service.

And he responds by saying that, like any other major infrastructure, statewide broadband will take time.

“We are going as fast as we can,” Scofield told Alabama Daily News recently. “And frankly, it will depend on funding.”

The state’s goal is that new publicly funded projects have speeds of 100 megabits per second for downloads and 100 megabits per second for uploads. Getting that statewide will cost billions.

While Scofield, R-Guntersville, has advocated for broadband for several years, it’s been in the last few that the state started putting a plan in place and dedicating state money to the initiative. 

It’s an investment the state needs to make, Scofield said, or communities will be left behind from growth and economic opportunities.

“Those areas that don’t have (high-speed internet) are done,” Scofield said. “They are done for if we do not get to them. And frankly, they’re cost centers. I want to turn them into production centers.” 

Speeding up

Mapping shows that 13% of Alabama’s 1.65 million addresses are unserved by broadband of at least 25/3 megabits per second, the federal definition of unserved.  Nineteen percent of addresses are unserved by 100/20 megabits per second, the federal definition of underserved.  Only about 25% of addresses have the 100/100 megabits per second the state is asking for from grant applicants.

The broadband plan is overseen by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and its new Alabama Digital Expansion Division.

“Alabama’s goal is to connect currently unserved households at a higher threshold of an average speed of 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said. “Broadband projects funded through ADECA grants require those higher speeds.”

The state estimates it will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion to get that 100/100 to areas of the state currently unserved by 100/20.

Multiple funding streams

There are multiple funding sources now in play for broadband, including significant federal dollars.

In late August, officials announced $26.6 million in Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund grants to extend broadband internet access to about 15,000 homes, businesses and entities, including schools, in 10 counties. Since 2018, $64.1 million has been awarded through the fund. Another $25 million is expected in fiscal 2023.

Early this year, lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey agreed to spend $277 million of about $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds on broadband expansion. About $85 million of that will be spent on a statewide “middle mile” project. An entity for that contract could be announced soon.

The other $191 million will be used for “last mile” projects. It could be next spring before those funds are distributed.

“We’re chipping away at it,” Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, told Alabama Daily News about recent grant awards.  “We don’t know exactly when it’ll be to every house or business, but we have hope now. We just have to stay focused.”

The state also expects to receive at least $100 million for broadband expansion from the federal infrastructure package approved late last year, but details on that are still pending. 

There is other federal money, too. Just Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission said a provider would receive about $28.1 million from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, to bring broadband to about 7,616 locations.

Still, many more dollars will be needed.

“That sounds like big, big dollars when you hear $100 million,” Shedd said about the federal infrastructure bill funding. “Too many people will think we don’t need to do anything. But that’s why the second round of ARPA will be important, that’s why the (constitutional amendment) will be important.” 

In November, voters will see on their ballots an amendment clarifying that local governments can spend federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars on broadband expansion. It is needed because current constitution language prohibits local governments from granting “public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation…” 

Provider buy in

A significant part of the state’s plan includes information from internet service providers about where they are operating and incentivizing them to expand their networks. 

Communication between ISPs is key to ensuring services aren’t duplicated and public funds aren’t wasted. An example would be if one ISP applies for grant money to serve an area where another provider is already working, said Michelle Roth, executive director of the Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, which represents the largest internet providers in the state.

“We really want to address the unserved that way,” Roth told Alabama Daily News about getting to the “worst first,” those with no or very slow internet.

The state accessibility fund grants, created in 2018 and funded through the state’s education budget, now allows the state to pay for up to 80%, or $5 million, of an expansion project. 

“There is a reason so many of these areas are unserved,” Roth said. Distance makes them hard to reach and even after deployment, there are maintenance costs.

“Any company of any type is going to have to consider their break even point,” Roth said. “We want to be good neighbors and provide this, but we also need to say, ‘Where can we break even on our return on investment?”

In August, there were nine state awards for projects in portions of 10 counties. There were a total of 137 applications, according to ADECA.

That shows the need, Scofield said. 

“It’s not that (internet service providers) don’t want to serve rural Alabama, it’s that they can’t afford to,” Scofield said.

Shedd said he wants to see grants fund the “middle mile” fiber infrastructure, then allowing for “last mile” connectivity to homes, businesses and public entities, including schools.

“There are areas that are just hard to reach,” Shedd said. “We have to be fair to those folks. 

“… (Middle mile) is a big part of the plan — and a part that’s not easy to do,” Shedd said.

Boswell agrees.

“Because of different routes, technologies, and methods for providing service, it is difficult to estimate the exact miles of fiber needed,” Boswell said. “The current middle-mile infrastructure is owned by service providers and is proprietary information, but we know there is a need for a statewide middle mile with access for all providers to lease.  Once that project has been completed, last-mile providers will have more options for providing service to unserved households.”

Both Shedd and Scofield want to see a portion of the state’s $1.1 billion in a second tranche of ARPA funds to be spent on broadband. Ivey and lawmakers will decide how to appropriate that money next year, and exact amounts aren’t yet being discussed publicly.

Many states are using federal money for internet infrastructure and Scofield said supply chain and workforce issues are a concern, especially with the spending deadline of late 2026 on the ARPA funds. The state’s existing plan and grant program, and ISPs’ legwork, does put Alabama “ahead of the game,” Scofield said.

“Talking to our ISPs, they’re ready to go,” he said.

Shedd and Scofield said broadband can be statewide in five- to 10-years, depending on funding.

“That said, we will have to make adjustments along the way,” Shedd said. “That’s something we’ll have to look at each step, each funding round, to make sure we’re doing it the right way and the most fair way possible.”

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