MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved an education budget that includes $30 million in potential grants to expand broadband internet access.
If approved by the House and signed by the governor, that money would fund a program enacted last year that helps subsidize the cost of internet providers running fiberoptic lines to rural areas.
The House, meanwhile, passed a bill that would allow public utilities to offer broadband services and use their existing infrastructure to reach areas that don’t have high-speed internet.
“We know that a lot of our rural counties are losing their population," said House Bill 400 sponsor Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman. "We know there is a digital divide and a lot of rural Alabama has no internet. We know our grandchildren will not stay in these locations if they do not have connectivity to technology."
However, concerns that the bill could give an unfair advantage to public utilities and electric cooperatives at the expense of private cable companies led to a lengthy floor debate.
“It makes me concerned when we are offering up exclusivity to a certain utility company and how the bill could give the utility companies the ability to obtain the easement on private property,” said Rep. Barbra Drummond, D-Mobile.
The bill says "an electric provider may acquire by condemnation ways, rights-of-way, and easements, without limitation as to width, on, over, under, or across the lands or easements of others, to erect, construct, replace, use, install, operate and maintain advanced communications capabilities."
Michelle Roth, executive director of the Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, said his organization is watching both bills and wants to make sure lawmakers know the difference between "unserved" and "underserved" areas.
"Any efforts to divert (education) dollars to already served areas or to infrastructure projects that do not provide broadband to end users in homes and businesses will be a disservice to the very Alabamians in need of broadband access," Roth said.
Shedd and others said some "underserved" areas need to be upgraded before providers can access unserved areas.
Lawmakers amended Shedd's bill to clarify how municipalities and utility companies deal with easement and right-of-way issues, which allayed many lawmakers' concerns. House Bill 400 passed 92-2.
Reps. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, Danny Crawford, R-Athens, Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, Parker Moore, R-Decatur, Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, Andy Whitt, R-Harvest, and Mike Ball, R-Madison, all voted yes.
Collins said that she likes what Shedd’s bill is trying to do, but asked unsuccessfully to delay the bill one day to spend more time looking at the details.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who chairs the Senate education budget committee, expressed excitement over the $30 million placed in the budget for broadband expansion.
"I think it's significant for the rural areas of the state, and some urban areas as well," Orr said.
Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said broadband would be a game changer in some rural areas.
"We are very supportive of expanding broadband across rural Alabama not only for our students but also for the tremendous opportunity for economic growth this will provide," Hollingsworth said.
The Governor’s office last year estimated as many as 842,000 Alabamians are without access to high-speed internet.