Alabama Governor Pushes Fiber-Optic Cables for Schools

High-speed Internet in schools is a priority for Gov. Robert Bentley and lawmakers.

by Seth Boster, The Anniston Star, Ala. / February 4, 2016

(TNS) — MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Legislators sitting on the House Ways and Means Education Committee on Wednesday morning analyzed a tube with multi-colored wires sprouting out of it.

It was handed to them by Kathy Johnson, whom Gov. Robert Bentley last year picked as the director for the Office of Broadband Development that he created.

"I would like for you to see what we're talking about," she told lawmakers as she gave them something tangible to represent an initiative the governor had talked about during his State of the State address the night before.

The initiative regards the wiring in that tube: fiber optic cables that provide high-speed Internet. Having that in more schools is part of Bentley's vision for a greater Alabama. High-quality broadband, he believes, will lead to a stronger educational system, which he said during his address is essential to the state overcoming its poverty issue.

Johnson spoke at the committee meeting Wednesday that also focused on a bill sponsored by Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva. The bill would authorize money appropriated in the Alabama Ahead Act to fund high-quality Wi-Fi infrastructure.

"We think it's gonna make a difference in education," Susan Kennedy, public policy manager with the Alabama Education Association, told the House committee.

"This is not a technology need, this is an instructional need," said Susan Poling, technology coordinator for Shelby County Schools.

Johnson explained that the governor's initiative worked hand-in-hand with the bill. She relayed the governor's desire to take advantage of federal matching money available through the Federal Communications Commission that she said could pay for 90 percent of installation costs for fiber pipelines to schools.

"Wi-Fi throughout the schools cannot take place if we don't have large enough bandwidth coming into the building," she said, referring to the cables she showed lawmakers. "Think about water; you're only going to have as much water running throughout your building as the pipe that coming in can bring."

Johnson said that most schools in the state have access to fiber, but that the fiber is leased through a provider. Owning it would allow schools to enhance their connectivity.

"The FCC has given us the opportunity to send out an RFP for us personally as a state and our school districts to construct, own, operate and maintain that fiber ourselves," she said. RFP stands for "request for proposal."

If a company's proposal for installing fiber came back, and it was deemed cost-effective for schools to indeed own fiber, "we believe it will provide what children need for the next 30 to 50 years," Johnson said.

She said 35 school districts have expressed interest in pursuing the project this year. For that to be possible, supplemental money would have to be appropriated from this year's education budget.

Johnson was uncertain how much the project would cost, but told lawmakers she estimated the federal government would match the state's $10 million with $100 million.

Bentley's proposed education budget presented Wednesday included a line item, "broadband expansion in schools," of $40 million.

©2016 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Platforms & Programs