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Alabama Senate passes 3 bills to promote high-speed broadband expansion

Alabama Senate passes 3 bills to promote high-speed broadband expansion
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The Alabama Senate today passed three bills to promote the expansion of high-speed broadband internet service across the state, the latest move in an effort that lawmakers have pursued for several years.

Alabama is trying to position itself to take full advantage of federal dollars that can be used to expand broadband, a key goal because of the importance of high-speed internet for households, jobs, schools, and health care.

The three bills, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, were approved without a dissenting vote. The bills move to the House.

One is a constitutional amendment that will go on the ballot for voters in November if it wins final approval in the Legislature.

The amendment would allow cities and counties to provide grants to private companies for broadband expansion. The amendment is needed because the state constitution prohibits local governments from providing a thing of value to a private company.

Alabama cities and counties received a total of about $1.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a COVID-19 pandemic relief bill passed by Congress in March 2020. The money can be used for broadband expansion, as well as water and sewer projects.

Related: Officials say American Rescue Plan could be ‘transformational’

Last month, the Legislature approved a plan to use $277 million of the state’s money from ARPA to expand broadband.

The other bills that passed today would make several changes to the state’s ongoing efforts to expand broadband. The Legislature set up a grant program in 2018 to provide incentives to companies to bring broadband to unserved areas.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs has a Connectivity Plan and Alabama Broadband Map to help guide efforts to expand high-speed internet.

About one-fifth of Alabama households do not have access to broadband service as measured by the state’s five-year target, according to the Connectivity Plan. A much higher percentage of households lack access to higher speeds that are longer-range goals in the state’s plan.

A “best-case, baseline estimate” to fully bridge Alabama’s rural broadband infrastructure gap is $4 billion to $6 billion, according to the Connectivity Plan.

Alabama will receive another $1 billion in ARPA funds in May or June. Scofield said he hopes as much as half of that can be applied to broadband.

“Essentially, we’re going to need a steady level of funding,” Scofield said. “We’re going to need dedicated funding to this. The reason why the mapping was so important was because we need to really be able to put a dollar number on this, what it will cost to fully wire up the state.”

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