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Alabama Lawmaker Wants Federal COVID-19 Funds for Broadband

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is calling for $800 million out of an estimated $1.7 billion in federal coronavirus funding to go toward the expansion of state broadband infrastructure.

Alabama Senate Chambers_shutterstock_242072563
Alabama Senate Chambers
Shutterstock/Nagel Photography
(TNS) — The leader of the Alabama Senate said Tuesday he wants to use a large chunk of federal coronavirus money to expand broadband throughout the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he hoped to put $800 million of an estimated $1.7 billion in federal dollars given to Alabama for COVID-19 relief efforts to push broadband throughout the state.

“We want it affordable for these families, and with these dollars, we think it can happen,” he said.

By most measures, Alabama lags in broadband access. A March report from Broadband Now, a company that tracks broadband accessibility, ranked Alabama 38th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for coverage and speed. In 9 counties, fewer than 30 percent of the population has access to broadband.

Former Gov. Bob Riley touted the expansion of broadband more than a decade ago, and Marsh has long pushed for it. But running broadband out to areas that don’t have it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per mile, making it an expensive proposition.

Marsh acknowledged Tuesday there would have to be a significant amount of planning around the project. It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether the state could spend COVID-19 money on the proposal.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s office expressed caution about the proposal in a statement on Tuesday.

“While the governor agrees broadband is essential for education, she will also seek guidance if this is something we can allocate money towards,” spokeswoman Gina Maiola said in a statement.

Marsh, however, said that “it’s very clear” that broadband would be an acceptable use of the money.

“We put it in a list of issues we’re looking at that we think will be acceptable to the federal government,” he said.

Legislative leaders are not planning to take up any bills other than the budgets and local legislation in the remaining days of the session. Marsh said he believes the money could be appropriated through the budget process.

There have been other proposals for the use of federal dollars. Democrats have urged state leaders to expand Medicaid to those making 138 percent of the federal poverty level – $17,609 a year for an individual; $29,974 for a family of three. A 2019 UAB study which estimated expansion could bring up to $2.9 billion in economic activity to the state estimated the state’s share would reach $265 million by 2023, though it added that new tax revenues and cost savings achieved by expansion could bring that down to $24 million.

But Marsh has said Medicaid expansion is unlikely to happen. He argued Tuesday that broadband expansion would “help all citizens of the state.”

“Had this been in place, you could have had virtual education going on, teachers could have stayed in touch with their students – they are off the grid right now in many areas. I think this is something all people of the state would benefit from.”

The Senate leader said if the money was approved, his “goal” would be expanding broadband throughout the state by 2022.

©2020 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.