Sitting With the Senators: Alabama Takes Steps Toward Statewide Broadband
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Montgomery, Ala. - There are winners and losers when it comes to high speed internet access in Alabama. Senators Del Marsh (R - Anniston) and Bobby Singleton (D - Greensboro) agree it’s time to level the playing field.
Marsh and Singleton are part of a bipartisan effort to wire the entire state for high speed internet access by working in partnership with internet service providers (ISPs) and global technology companies. The plan seeks to equip all regions of Alabama with the fiber-optic technology required for high speed internet access, and to ensure residents have the technology to take full advantage of the service.
Marsh, the President Pro Tem of the Alabama Senate, believes broadband internet access is an issue of equity. “It brings equity to education and it also impacts telemedicine and economic development,” said Marsh. “People who have high speed broadband have an advantage when trying to entice an industry to come into their area, and that’s part of the problem for rural Alabama.”
Singleton views broadband as a three-pronged plan that focuses on economic development, healthcare, and education. With that approach, he thinks the state will be able to address a number of issues that have disproportionately plagued rural and underserved communities.
“Just yesterday we sat down with providers. Cable companies. Electric companies. Anybody that’s got fiber in the ground or that has the ability to put it in the ground,” said Singleton. “In a separate meeting, we met with tech companies – the Apples, Microsofts, and Googles of the world – to talk about putting devices in children’s hands and making sure that it was equitable across the table.”
The senators agree that broadband expansion must be explored within reasonable timelines. “We believe in two years’ time, based on the information we have from the providers, the State of Alabama could have 100% coverage of high speed, broadband internet,” said Senator Marsh. A Perfect Storm: COVID-19 and Broadband Expansion
Governor Kay Ivey signed the Broadband Accessibility Act into law two years ago to aid state efforts to expand broadband internet to underserved areas. The program has already awarded more than $10 million in grants this year alone. Those monies will provide high-speed internet access to thousands of households, businesses and community facilities in rural Alabama.
While the expansion program has been effective in pockets of the state, broadband access is still elusive in rural and underserved areas. Marsh believes the $1.7 billion allocation to Alabama in the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the state and local government component of the federal CARES Act, gives the state a real opportunity to close the gap.
“We have a pot of money now. Let’s take advantage of that pot,” said Marsh. “If we go through this year and don’t designate a strong portion of that money to this initiative, we have done a disservice to the people of Alabama. You can talk about all the things Alabama needs. I cannot think of anything Alabama needs more right now that affects so many things than this broadband initiative.”
There are restraints to the Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars though, and a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future impact of the virus. Before COVID-19 abruptly ended the 2020 regular session, the Alabama Legislature approved the Governor’s executive amendment to SB 161 (now Act 2020-199), which created categories of money to control where and how the $1.7 billion is expended. While the Governor’s Office is responsible for distributing the funds, the law limits her to the following categories:
“In the midst of this pandemic, we have to understand that we may not be able to totally expand as we want. This is a plan that looks forward…down the road,” said Singleton. “We do have some immediate needs for broadband during the pandemic, which is more educational and healthcare related.”
In fact, the only reason this discussion is taking place is due to the pandemic; there would be no federal funding for this initiative without it. Senator Marsh said state leaders are obligated to make the best use of the federal funds in the fight against COVID-19, and he believes this money should be used, at least in part, to further expand broadband access. “I take it that this is our responsibility, the time is now, and we have the resources to help us get there. I’m committed, I know the Senator [Singleton] is committed, and this is something we have to do,” said Marsh.
Senators Marsh and Singleton believe building a statewide infrastructure for high-speed internet will lead to a higher quality, more equitable education system in Alabama – especially in traditionally underserved areas.
In terms of access and readiness, the pandemic and the new environment it’s created makes the necessity of broadband expansion even more critical. “No one can argue that our children of this state were denied an education because of this situation, and because we didn’t have adequate internet access across this state,” said Marsh.
But broadband access means nothing if students do not have the right technology in the classroom and at home. In Alabama, 18.5% of the population lives below the poverty line – that’s more than 800,000 Alabamians in poverty. Even with broadband expansion, many families will not be able to afford computers, tablets, and other necessary devices to take full advantage of the service. Learning how to use the technology poses yet another barrier for families and children in underserved communities.
The fix is far from simple. For starters, the Alabama Department of Education is still finalizing its reopening plan. While $300 million of the CARES Act money is designated for computer equipment, proposals must first be submitted, reviewed and sent to Governor Ivey before any tangible action takes place.
“We’re going to have schools that open up August 1 and we need to make sure that we have some [broadband] availability and connectivity to those schools,” said Singleton.
The Senators said their plan also addresses the Digital Divide. “That’s what those tech companies bring to the table, not only their products, but the ability to teach teachers and children how to utilize that product,” said Singleton. Marsh added that state education leaders have been asked to field proposals from those companies to provide both the equipment and training support for it, and he expects the proposals to be extensive. “Teaching the teachers how to use it. Teaching the kids how to use it. [Working with] higher education to graduate teachers that know how to use it. All of that,” said Marsh.
“We can put a tablet in every child’s hands tomorrow, but if we don’t bring technical assistance and the teaching and the ‘know how’ to use that tablet, it’s just another piece of hardware,” said Singleton. “What has to happen is that training has to come along and we have to focus on that more than the piece of hardware. We could be cute and say every child has an Apple and walk away, but if we want that child to really learn, we have to teach them the power of that equipment and how to utilize it.”
The Economic Impact
High Speed internet access is also a must-have for potential employers looking to locate to the state, but regions without it are generally taken out of consideration from the start. “People who have high speed broadband have an advantage when you’re trying to entice an industry to come into your area. That’s part of the problem for rural Alabama, that very issue,” said Marsh.
Singleton, who represents a seven-county swath of the historic Blackbelt region, said broadband access is akin to a utility service when recruiting industry. “It’s just as important as light is to an industry. It’s as important as roads that are coming in,” said Singleton.
Broadband access, or the lack thereof, is also an indicator of what economic developers can expect from the local workforce. The senators believe it all comes back to education. “When you’re a company looking to go into an area, you have a list of things that you want. If you want an educated workforce, but they don’t have access to broadband internet in those areas and in those states, it’s questionable if they’ve had a quality education,” said Marsh.
Statewide Broadband Survey
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), the state agency that administers the state’s broadband grant program, recently began collecting data through a broadband speed survey portal. The Senators said the survey results will allow state leaders to create “Alabama-focused solutions” rather than having to rely on out-of-state entities.
ACCESS THE BROADBAND SURVEY HERE
“We know us better than anyone else knows us. Alabama companies have invested in Alabama […] we need to know where the pipelines are. Alabama Power has probably a thousand miles of fiber in the ground being underutilized,” said Singleton. Companies are already using it for the internal needs and communications, and Singleton would like to see them used to help the general public. “We want to know how we can pipe into that fiber so that we can light up the state of Alabama. If that is the interstate, we need to build the off ramps.”
This is part of a multi-part series about ongoing efforts in the Alabama Legislature to address a number of topics across the state.