Written by Mary Seal, Alabama Daily News
Alabama Senate Majority Leader Clay Schofield says Alabama residents ask him about one topic more than most: high-speed Internet and when they can access it.
So, he tells them about the recently adopted state plan to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas, About the money the state has allocated to efforts in recent years and the cooperation required of ISPs to determine who has fast service and who does not.
He responds by saying that, like any other major infrastructure, statewide broadband will take time.
“We’re going as fast as we can,” Schofield told the Alabama Daily News recently. “And frankly, it will depend on funding.”
The state’s goal is for new publicly funded projects to have speeds of up to 100 Mbps for downloads and 100 Mbps for uploads. Getting that mandate would cost billions.
While Scofield, R-Guntersville, has championed broadband for several years, the state has begun putting in place plan in place and dedicating state funds to the initiative.
It’s an investment the country needs to make, Schofield said, or communities will be left behind on economic growth and opportunity.
“Those areas that don’t have[high-speed internet]have been completed,” Schofield said. It’s over if we don’t get to them. And frankly, they are cost centers. I want to turn them into production centers.”
maps drawing It shows that 13% of Alabama’s 1.65 million addresses are not reached by broadband of at least 25/3 Mbps, the federal definition of unserved. Nineteen percent of addresses are unserved at 100/20 Mbps, which is the federal definition of underserved. Only about 25% of addresses have the 100/1000 Mbps that the state requires of grant applicants.
The broadband plan is being overseen by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the New Alabama Division of Digital Expansion.
“Alabama’s goal is to connect households that are currently underserved to a higher threshold with average download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload of 100 Mbps,” said Kenneth Boswell, Director of ADICA. “Broadband projects funded through Abu Dhabi Economic Council grants require such high speeds.”
The state estimates it will cost $4 billion to $6 billion to get 100/1000 for the state’s currently unserved 100/20 areas.
Multiple funding streams
There are many sources of funding now in play for broadband, including big federal dollars.
In late August, officials announced $26.6 million in broadband access grants from the Alabama Fund to expand broadband Internet access to approximately 15,000 homes, businesses, and entities, including schools, in 10 counties. Since 2018, $64.1 million has been awarded through the fund. Another $25 million is expected in fiscal year 2023.
Early this year, lawmakers and Governor Kay Ivey agreed to spend $277 million of about $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money on broadband expansion. About $85 million of that amount will be spent on the “Middle Mile” project statewide. An entity for this contract could be announced soon.
Another $191 million will be used for “last mile” projects. It may be next spring before the money is distributed.
“We’re getting rid of them,” Representative Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, told the Alabama Daily News of the recent grant awards. “We don’t know exactly when that will be for every home or business, but we have hope now. We just have to stay focused.”
The state also expects to receive at least $100 million for broadband expansion from a federal infrastructure package approved late last year, but details on that are still pending.
There are other federal funds, too. Only on Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission said the service provider will receive about $28.1 million from the Federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, to bring broadband to about 7,616 locations.
However, more dollars will be needed.
“It sounds like big, big bucks when you hear $100 million,” Shedd said of funding the federal infrastructure bill. “A lot of people think we don’t need to do anything. But that’s why the second round of the ARPA is going to be important, and that’s why (the constitutional amendment) is going to be important.”
In November, voters will see on their ballots an amendment showing that local governments can spend US Federal bailout bill dollars on broadband expansion. It is necessary because current Constitution language prohibits local governments from giving “public funds or something of value to aid, or to any individual, association, or corporation…”
Provider in the purchase
Much of the state’s plan includes information from ISPs about where they work and incentivizing them to expand their networks.
Communication between ISPs is key to ensuring that services are not duplicated and public money is not wasted. For example, if an Internet service provider applies for a grant to serve an area in which another provider already operates, said Michelle Roth, executive director of the Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, which represents the state’s largest Internet providers.
“We really want to treat the unserved this way,” Roth told the Alabama Daily News of getting “worst out first,” those without or very slow internet.
Grant of the State Access Fund, which was created in 2018 and funded through the state’s education budget, now allows the state to pay up to 80%, or $5 million, of the expansion project.
“There is a reason why many of these areas are underserved,” Roth said. The distance makes them difficult to reach and even after deployment, there are maintenance costs.
“A company of any kind has to think about the break-even point,” Roth said. “We want to be good neighbors and provide that, but we also have to say, ‘Where can we break even on ROI?'” “
In August, there were nine government awards for projects in parts of 10 provinces. There were a total of 137 applications, according to ADECA.
This shows the need, Schofield said.
“It’s not that[the ISPs]don’t want to serve rural Alabama, it’s that they can’t afford it,” Schofield said.
Shedd said he wants to see grants fund “middle mile” fiber infrastructure and then allow “last mile” connectivity to homes, businesses and public bodies, including schools.
“There are hard-to-reach areas,” Shedd said. “We have to be fair with these people.
Shedd said, “…(the middle mile) is a big part of the plan—and a part that’s not easy to do.
“Because of different approaches, technologies, and approaches to providing the service, it is difficult to estimate the exact fiber miles required,” Boswell said. “Existing middle mile infrastructure is proprietary information and proprietary information, but we know that there is a need for a statewide median mile with all providers having access to rental. Once this project is completed, last mile providers will have more options to offer Service to unserved families.
Shedd and Scofield would like to see a portion of the state’s $1.1 billion in a second tranche of ARPA money to be spent on broadband. Ivey and lawmakers will decide how to allocate those funds next year, and exact amounts have not yet been publicly discussed.
Many states use federal funds for internet infrastructure, and Schofield said supply chain and workforce issues are a concern, especially with the late 2026 spending deadline for ARPA funds. Schofield said the state’s current plan and grant program, and legal action for ISPs, puts Alabama “ahead of the game.”
“By talking to our ISPs, they are ready to go,” he said.
Shedd and Scofield said broadband could be statewide in five to 10 years, depending on the funding.
“Having said that, we’re going to have to make adjustments along the way,” Shedd said. “This is something that we have to look at every step of the way, every funding round, to make sure we’re doing it in the right way and in the best way possible.”