Kenneth Boswell

Boswell

MONTGOMERY — A new statewide map shows that significant portions of Alabama lack access to high-speed internet, an issue that has become a priority for some lawmakers in recent legislative sessions.

The map from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, available at adeca.alabama.gov, shows areas that have adequate broadband access, areas that don’t — they’re in every county — and areas that have applied for state-funded broadband grants.

In this year’s education budget, $20 million was allocated for rural broadband access grants administered through ADECA. In order for an area to be counted as being “served” it has to have a minimum internet speed of 25 megabits per second for downloads and uploads of 3 Mbps. Currently, ADECA has 61 applicants for state-funded grant money. It’s reviewing them, but there is not enough money in the Broadband Accessibility Fund to pay for them all. They total around $30 million and the fund currently only has about $25 million, Maureen Neighbors, ADECA’s Energy Division chief, told a group of lawmakers recently.

Kenneth Boswell, ADECA director, told the House Ways and Means Education Committee that statewide and regional plans currently being developed will help rollout broadband needs now and in the future. Boswell said the state funding for rural broadband needs to continue to meet needs.

ADECA has a $1.5 million contract with CTC Technology and Energy to develop a statewide plan for broadband access. That plan is scheduled to be finished by Jan. 21, 2021.

“We develop a plan and a way to deploy and give people access to the product, but I would be telling you a story if I said state dollars could stop because just as soon as this plan comes in, parts of it will be obsolete,” Boswell said.

Parts of Lawrence and Morgan counties are shown as unserved on the map, but Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. has started preparations to provide a fiber-optic high-speed internet network to its members in those two counties. Members approved the new service last year.

The utility has said it plans to offer unlimited, 200-megabyte-per-second download and upload speeds for between $40 and $60 monthly per household. Company officials are saying it will likely take about a year before the first group of customers has internet service available. A five-year timeline will cover the entire utility area, they say.

Rep. Debbie Wood, R-Valley, said she is concerned that certain areas of the state are getting broadband coverage while other areas are being overlooked.

“I’m just saying that if you look at the map you really get an understanding of how we’re losing our people and we’re losing it to other areas of our state,” Wood said. “If you look to the north, it’s almost covered with internet access. We need to make sure that the money is being spread to 67 counties, it cannot just go to one area.”

Boswell said that the consultants from CTC Technology and Energy will be able to give recommendations to lawmakers so as to avoid that problem.

Currently, ADECA scores the different applicants based upon the set of standards laid out in the original legislation.

The score is based on the project description, the applicant’s budget, how many people and businesses will be served and if the applicant is a certified minority business.

Wood also said that the lack of broadband in rural areas is straining the teacher shortage crisis.

“We are trying to come up with as much money as we can to invest in our young people, but then after we put in those dollars they leave our state, but if you look at this map you kind of get the idea why,” Wood said. “You get the idea of how important this is. Young people want technology.”

Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by ADECA’s broadband plans, but still wants to make sure state dollars are being used wisely.

“It’s a private industry issue but the service provided to Alabamians is critical to our competitiveness, our quality of life, our economic ability, and everybody relies on the internet now, so we need to help get it there. But we’ve got to have the proper balances relative to the investment of taxpayer dollars into that and generate a maximum return on that investment,” Poole said. “We’re trying to figure out how to sharpen the system, how to cover as many people as possible, with as few dollars as possible but make the necessary investment.”

Poole said that once the review process is done for the 61 applicants, then it will be more clear what allocations are needed.

“We’re not sure ... how many are ineligible or eligible, so it will be very interesting to see how those numbers fall,” Poole said.

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