Guntersville hosted broadband expansion experts for a discussion with Yellowhammer News on Thursday.
The Yellowhammer News forum on broadband expansion was held at the Guntersville Town Hall. The event’s panelists were Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill; Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) Energy Division Chief Maureen Neighbors; Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative Executive Vice President and General Manager Fred Johnson and Central Alabama Electric Cooperative President/CEO Tom Stackhouse. Yellowhammer Co-owner and Editor Tim Howe served as the forum’s moderator.
Howe said the forum was spurred by the passing of the “two key pieces of legislation,” HB400 and SB90, which made broadband expansion possible. It was also influenced by Gov. Kay Ivey’s announcement of the more than $1 million in grants awarded from ADECA for the rural broadband expansion. Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview, and Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, sponsored HB400 – the Telecommunications, Broadband Using Electric Easement Accessibility Act.
Howe asked Scofield about how he crafted SB90, the legislation that expanded “the state’s flagship grant program” – also known as the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act. Scofield said after passing the broadband expansion bill in the previous year, he realized some changes needed to be made. He said SB90 helped fine-tune the existing legislation. He said there would be additional adjustments made in the future.
Scofield said there is no market for the providers of broadband in the rural areas of Alabama. He said “it is about cost,” and for the broadband infrastructure to be installed, companies need incentives. He said the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund would be the motivation for providers to build in the rural areas that are currently unable to get broadband service.
Scofield said having electricity in Marshall County is “a product of government being involved in infrastructure,” because in the 1930s, the government decided to get “involved in rural power.” He said the “co-ops took advantage of that,” then power was delivered to rural customers. In the 1960s-1970s, rural water was delivered, he said.
“Broadband is our infrastructure challenge of the 21st century,” Scofield said.
He said the service providers and the government lending incentives which would bring “costs down,” are the only things making rural broadband possible.
Johnson said broadband expansion is like getting landline telephones to everyone in the past. He said the legislation gives the possibility of having a “business case built.”
Johnson looked up to the broadband expansion efforts and the “leadership in the legislature.” The issue of broadband expansion was one “that affects all rural Alabamians,” he said. Johnson said it was notable that they “took the time to understand the issue.” He described the work of the legislators as “an excellent job.”
Stackhouse said from Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s perspective, SB90 and HB400 gave the company “clarity” because it let them know what they could do and how much it would cost. The company is not building by using the grants. It is using a business model believed it “can make work,” Stackhouse said. He said the grants would be beneficial to “sparsely populated areas.”
Scofield said along with agriculture, the economic development of rural areas would be affected by access to high-speed internet services. He said companies with “21st century jobs” wouldn’t come to an area that didn’t have a “21st century infrastructure.”
“You’re not going to train a 21st century workforce without 21st century infrastructure,” Scofield said.
Scofield said telemedicine is “the future” of healthcare and it would “bring healthcare costs down.” He said in rural areas there is “increased levels of diabetes and obesity,” and healthcare isn’t “easily accessible.” Telemedicine could save those people’s lives, and it would be “a game-changer,” he said. Scofield said he had an intern from Albertville that didn’t understand that there are still “830,000 or 840,000 Alabamians” that do not have access.
“It’s critical that we get this infrastructure out, that we get people hooked up in our rural areas because they’re going to die — they’re going to be left behind, they’re being left behind right now,” Scofield said. “So, I think the quicker that we do that, the quicker we’re going to save some of the best areas of this state.”
Neighbors said ADECA is working on the “tricky issue” of mapping the State of Alabama to see which areas don’t have access to broadband. She said ADECA needs more information and would be posting a request for proposal (RFP) for broadband consulting and mapping on its website Monday. She said the maps that ADECA currently have are based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, which is a “self-reporting tool that providers use.” She said the FCC and providers know the data “is not accurate,” but it is the only information ADECA has to use. She said it tells where there are “clusters of service” but it does not show where people are without any service. She said the consultants would “hopefully” help with obtaining the information needed for mapping.
Johnson said a provider mapping would be “critical,” but it is currently “a disaster.” He said the way to improve the mapping process would be for all providers to report the “longitude and latitude coordinates of every location they serve,” and the providers would also need to be held accountable for not reporting correct information.
Scofield said broadband expansion logistically could not happen overnight.
“Everyone’s got to be patient,” Scofield said. “Lake Guntersville didn’t fill up in a day. They didn’t build the dam in a day and they didn’t give – It’s going to take a long time to build this infrastructure out, but I believe that we are on the right track … I think that this is a legacy that we’re going to be able to leave this state. It’s going to benefit generations … I think it’s going to be something that’s going to move this state forward in ways that we can’t even envision today.”