Alabama Considers Potential Avenues of Broadband Expansion

Few in the state doubt that expanding broadband access would bring benefits across the board, and the coronavirus outbreak has underlined the problems that households lacking adequate connections can face.

by Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser / May 8, 2020
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(TNS) — For well over a decade, Alabama leaders have dreamed of expanding broadband throughout the state. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, wants to allocate $800 million of $1.7 billion federal money for COVID-19 efforts toward a push to bring broadband around the state.

“Our kids are not in school,” Marsh said on April 28. “Now’s the time to take some of that money, a big-enough section of that money, and use it to bring broadband across the state, every corner of the state.”

For now, Marsh's idea remains a proposal. The General Fund budget under consideration Thursday authorized Gov. Kay Ivey to spend $600 million of the federal money on outbreak-related expenses, but did not include any other funding. Both Ivey and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, have expressed caution over allocating the COVID-19 for items not directly tied to the virus, mostly due to uncertainty as to what the federal government will consider acceptable uses.

“It may be a little bit premature to see where we’re going to spend the money until we know exactly the law’s going to require of us,” McCutcheon said on Monday. “We’re in contact now with the federal government to see what type of regulations are going to be placed on those dollars.”

House Ways and Means General Fund chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said on Wednesday that the remainder of the federal money could be allocated in a special session expected later this year.

Few doubt that expanding broadband access would bring benefits across the board. The coronavirus outbreak has underlined the problems that households lacking adequate connections can face.

“During the last month, we have received many calls from families trying to adopt distance learning and remote working,” Maureen Neighbors, the chief of the Energy Division at the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), wrote in response to emailed questions. “Lack of broadband access has been a repeated theme. We have community action agencies and other non-profits that would like to provide services remotely, but many of the residents they serve do not have broadband access.”

With broadband in place, Marsh said, both distance learning and telemedicine would be easier. House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said in an interview that a lack of broadband also hurts efforts to bring businesses into an area.

“Without good broadband, it’s just hard to recruit businesses,” he said. “I think it’s something that certainly needs to be looked at.”

ADECA, which runs grant programs through the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, has granted about $9.4 million in the most recent schedule of grants, which ADECA says will make broadband more accessible to more than 13,000 homes, businesses, industries, and institutions like hospitals. Further applications are under review.

But there are plenty of questions about the scope of the problem, and how to tackle it.

For starters, no one quite knows how many households in the state lack broadband access. Some estimates suggest 500,000 households in Alabama can't get quality broadband. But Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data used to make those determinations relies on self-reporting by providers, and some planners view the data with hesitation.

A $1.5 million contract let out by ADECA will go in part toward a system of maintaining and updating coverage maps. The contract runs through the end of next year.

In addition, there is broad agreement that extending broadband into unserved and underserved areas won't happen without public investment.

Private firms don't necessarily have the motive to expand into underserved areas. Companies that can see a relatively quick turnaround on broadband investments in urban areas have a harder time doing so in rural areas, with lower population densities.

“In a lot of rural Alabama, you don’t have robust broadband because there’s no business case for it, absent public support like what Sen. Marsh is proposing,” said Fred Johnson, vice chairman of the Rural Broadband Association.

Officials and providers interviewed think $800 million is a good ballpark figure for such a project, but no one can say if it will meet, exceed, or miss the need.

Then there are physical difficulties. In northeast Alabama, people building Internet infrastructure have to cut rock out of the ground to lay wire and erect towers. Hills and mountains can also interfere with service.

Physics, too, plays a role. Running fiber optic cable in itself isn’t a major problem. But the optic cable will likely have to connect with copper wire or coaxial cable to get to home. Due to electric interference, the quality of the signal can begin to degrade if it has to travel more than 3,000 feet. Getting close enough to make a reliable connection can be critical. Supporters say the most expense comes in “the last mile” in trying to make these hook-ups.

“The last customer that I hook up, hypothetically, that last customer is going to be 4 or 5 miles long,” said Johnson, who also runs a telecommunications cooperative in Rainsville. “Where I first ran it was 100 feet.”

Maintaining the network is also a question moving ahead. One accepted standard is the ability to download 25.3 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload 3 Mbps. That would be enough to stream videos and do basic distance learning on a single device, though not necessarily on multiple devices in a home. ADECA’s rural grant program for broadband sets a floor of 25.3 Mbps.

“Nothing below those speeds can be considered for funding,” Neighbors wrote. “We were among the first to adopt this minimum speed that has historically been 10 MB download and 1 MB upload. Additionally, the rating criteria for the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund favors much higher speeds.”

But those designing a broadband network will have to consider keeping up evolving technology, and how nice-to-have evolves into need-to-have.

“That’s something that needs to be thought out in this plan,” Ledbetter said. “What’s appropriate today may not be appropriate 4 or 5 years down the road.”

The proposal, if approved, would be considerably more than the state’s share of costs for Medicaid expansion, which could end up covering over 340,000 people when fully implemented. A 2019 study by UAB estimated that costs to the state could top out at $265 million in FY 2023, though the state could realize savings that could mitigate those costs considerably. Democrats have pushed hard for Medicaid expansion amid the outbreak, but GOP leaders remain indifferent.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a moral issue to not engage in conversations about potential Medicaid expansion,” said Rep. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery.

If nothing else, the outbreak has driven many people to the Internet to stay connected with basic necessities. And it’s underlined how not having those connections can hurt.

“Filing for unemployment, applying for jobs, ordering groceries, completing the census, and keeping in touch are all things we commonly do via a broadband connection,” Neighbors wrote. “Without access, there is a segment of the Alabama population that is left out of this valuable way of doing business and communicating.”

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

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