The Alabama House of Representatives passed two pieces of legislation on Friday designed to expand broadband connectivity in the state.
Senate Bills 123 (SB123) and Senate Bill 124 (SB123) were both sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) and carried in the House by State Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Fairview), who chairs the House Urban and Rural Development Committee.
Supporters said that SB123 added key provisions to bolster the Connect Alabama Act, which was signed into law in 2021.
Shedd said that the bill makes changes to the Alabama Connectivity Act.
Shedd said that "Specifically there is some confusion with the federal [laws]. There are three different programs,” dealing with broadband. “A lot of money is becoming available from federal funds.
“We are fighting for every dollar we can get for the unserved areas of Alabama,” Shedd said.
State Rep. Jamie Kiel (R-Russellville) said of opponents of vigorous broadband expansion, “I find that the people who are talking against what we are trying to do with broadband already have it.”
State Rep. Laura Hall (D-Huntsville) said, “There is a lot of money, millions of dollars. available. It is important, especially for those serving on the board, to make sure that we are not overlapping."
Internet service providers have provided maps of where their infrastructure is located and what speeds their existing infrastructure is providing to customers in order for the state to produce a digital map of broadband in the state.
“We would like to thank the internet service providers for sharing that information with us for the mapping,” Shedd said. “Seeing where the fiber is now and connecting those points is critical.”
The legislation states that any information given to ADECA or its agents by a broadband service provider that identifies the provider's location-specific service availability details, construction plans, or business operations details that are not otherwise readily ascertainable by proper means through third parties without substantial effort.
State Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) said, “Thank you so much for bringing this. Even in a county like ours (Shelby) has areas that are not connected.”
Rep. Mary Moore (D-Birmingham) said, “This is something that is going to help all of the state of Alabama and both sides understand this. There are some portions of Jefferson County that still don't have it even though we are an urban county.”
Expanding broadband has broad bipartisan support.
Rep. Ralph Howard (D-Greensboro) expressed his support for the bipartisan effort to ensure high-speed internet connectivity throughout the state, particularly in unserved communities.
“We have the technology to do this now.” Howard said and further pointed out that, “If a student can’t access the internet to do his lessons, it’s not acceptable.”
Howard also commented on the disparity between urban and rural broadband access, noting that in the past urban areas were given priority in upgrading internet services.
“Nothing was done for rural areas,” Howard said. Noting the unprecedented ability to share information in real-time globally, Howard added, “If we can watch a 40-mile convoy in Ukraine headed to Kyiv, we can get rural broadband to our students.”
Howard said that it is important to ensure that law enforcement has all the tools they need to do their jobs, but added, “We should make sure our kids have all the tools they need, too.”
“I was probably one of the first ones to start on this when Governor Riley appointed the first task force on (broadband expansion)” Rep. Pebblin Warren (D-Tuskegee) said. “All of these improvements are excellent for the program.”
Warren noted that the new provisions would set minimum thresholds for internet upload and download speeds. She recounted past issues that she and others faced when dealing with slow or unreliable internet access speeds. The average connectivity speed in the U.S. is estimated to be 99 megabits per second (mbps), while the average in Alabama is 80mbps. The bill, if signed into law, would set a minimum threshold of 100mbps for Alabama.
SB123 would: (1) provide further for the minimum threshold requirements for broadband service for the Connect Alabama grant program; (2) allow the division chief for the Alabama Digital Expansion Division within Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) to enter into nondisclosure agreements with broadband service providers; and (3) allow the funds received by the Connect Alabama Fund to be used for the establishment and administration of middle-mile and line extension programs. This bill will not otherwise affect state or local funding.
The legislation amends the Connect Alabama Act of 2021 to specify the minimum service threshold and authorizes the Alabama Digital Expansion Division chief to enter nondisclosure agreements; and to revise the expenditure of the Connect Alabama Fund and allow for annual revision of the program funds.
The Connect Alabama Fund was created within the State Treasury to be administered by the Alabama Digital Expansion Finance Corporation, with funds distributed by the corporation to ADECA for use by the division for the implementation and administration of the statewide connectivity plan.
According to the legislation, “The Alabama Digital Expansion Division is created as a division of ADECA. The division shall be run by a division chief, who shall be appointed by the Director of ADECA, with the approval of the Governor, from a list of three nominees submitted by the authority. The division chief shall report to, and be under the direct supervision of, the Director of ADECA. The division chief shall carry out the functions and duties of the division. The division chief shall be knowledgeable in matters relating to broadband and shall have no financial interest in any broadband or related business or enterprise which would conflict or be inconsistent with his or her duties as division chief. The division chief shall be employed in the exempt service."
The legislation directs ADECA, “To develop and begin executing a statewide connectivity plan, as approved by the authority, to facilitate the expansion and availability of high-speed broadband networks, services, and technologies throughout the state, including a timeline for implementation of the plan. The Director of ADECA shall submit the proposed plan to the authority for approval on or before July 1, 2022. The plan must consider the need for broadband expansion in rural areas, underserved areas, and unserved areas, as well as any other obstacles to broadband adoption. It shall include recommendations for funding, and plans for implementation of the following objectives, including, but not limited to: Evaluation of the state's existing long-haul and middle-mile network. Projects for the development and expansion of a secure, reliable, robust, multi-purpose, and high-quality long-haul and middle-mile fiber network throughout the state. Projects shall be implemented in the most cost-effective and efficient manner for the state and should utilize existing available infrastructure where it is consistent with the plan and meets the speeds, service quality, and other priorities established by this article, the plan, or the authority. Projects for providing last-mile infrastructure and lit services for specific applications and use cases that are determined by the division to be a priority supported by the network or portions of the network.
SB124 as amended and reported by the Committee on Urban and Rural Development revises the Broadband Accessibility Grant program administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) by: (1) allowing units of government that provide broadband services to be awarded grants; (2) increasing the cap on individual awards under this program; (3) raising the minimum service threshold for the program; (4) providing additional priority criteria for awarding grants; (5) revising application and project timelines; and (6) further providing for conditions of release of funds under this program.
Shedd said, “This is a gamechanger for the state of Alabama. The best lobbyist for broadband is my grandson, who asks ‘PawPaw, when are we going to get internet at my house?’”
SB123 has passed both Houses of the legislature and now goes to the governor for her consideration.
The House adopted a committee amendment to SB124, so it went back to the Senate for their concurrence.
Both SB123 and SB124 passed the House by a vote of 102-0.
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