Connect Alabama Gets Help From Capital Projects Fund

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, February 3, 2023

Weekly Digest

Connect Alabama Gets Help From Capital Projects Fund

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of January 30-February 3, 2023

Kevin Taglang

"To thrive in a 21st century world and a 21st century economy, broadband must be made readily available so additional job opportunities can be created, education can be expanded past the walls of our classrooms, and healthcare services can be improved."

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL)

On January 26, the U.S. Treasury approved Alabama's plan to invest $191.9 million of Capital Projects Fund support in broadband infrastructure projects that will provide high-quality internet to locations that lack access to adequate service. The state estimates that the support will help connect 55,000 locations—approximately nine percent of the locations still lacking high-speed internet access in Alabama.

Alabama policymakers have made universal broadband a priority for many years, but with mixed results. 

From the Alabama Broadband Initiative to the Connect Alabama Act

In May 2008, Governor Bob Riley (R-AL) launched the Alabama Broadband Initiative and Connecting ALABAMA to address supply and demand of broadband. The goal of the Alabama Broadband Initiative was to make high-speed internet available to every community in the state by 2012. The initial phase of the project was to research and map the current broadband infrastructure in the state. The second phase of the project was working with communities to develop local technology-growth plans. The Connecting ALABAMA Advisory Board was created to coordinate the Alabama Broadband Initiative's efforts. The 15-member board was comprised of state agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture & Industries, Children’s Affairs, Conservation & Natural Resources, Economic & Community Affairs, Education, Homeland Security, Information Services, Postsecondary Education, Public Health, Tourism, the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, Alabama Development Office, Commission on Higher Education, Rural Action Commission, and members from the Alabama Legislature. The board also included representatives from the Alabama League of Municipalities, Alabama Power Company, Alabama Wireless Association, Alabama Farmer’s Federation, AL‐MS Telco Association, Ashland Computer Systems, Association of County Commissions of Alabama, AT&T, Auburn University Montgomery, Bright House Cable, CenturyTel, Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama, Comcast Cable, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, Troy Cable, Troy University, and Verizon. 

Kathy Johnson was tapped to lead the initiative. But her work was overwhelmed by politics when her husband, Bill Johnson—a coordinator in Riley's campaigns for governor in 2002 and 2006, and director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs under Riley—decided to run for governor in 2009. Kathy Johnson resigned from Riley's staff in early 2010. State Representative Robert Bentley won the 2010 election and was reelected in 2014.

In 2015, Governor Bentley (R-AL) created the Office of Broadband Development. “The Office of Broadband Development allows Alabama to more effectively meet the demands of our businesses and citizens in an ever growing digital age,” said Governor Bentley. “Broadband development is critical in Alabama’s continued economic growth, and I am confident that this newly created office will help us in reaching statewide goals in the areas of public safety, healthcare, education, e-Government, agriculture, tourism, economic development and more.”

The Office of Broadband Development was charged with assessing broadband coverage and gaps in service across the state, research grants on behalf of state agencies and local governments for the development of broadband in Alabama, and “collect and share information with stakeholders, such as challenges, opportunities, resources, webinars, maps and public policies that enhance or hamper broadband deployment and usage.”

Gov. Bentley appointed Kathy Johnson to direct the Office of Broadband Development. But the Bentley administration was soon caught up in controversies that ultimately led to Gov. Bentley resigning from office in April 2017.

In 2017, in one of her first acts as governor, Kay Ivey (R-AL) rescinded Riley's and Bentley's executive orders and moved the responsibilities of the Office of Broadband Development to the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Soon after, Gov. Ivey appointed Kenneth W. Boswell as Director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Boswell served as the 20th mayor of the city of Enterprise before his appointment as director.

On March 28, 2018, Gov. Ivey signed the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, establishing the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund. The fund provides grants through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to companies investing in broadband infrastructure. 

On May 17, 2021, Gov. Ivey signed the Connect Alabama Act, creating: 1) the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority to advise, review, and approve the statewide connectivity plan, among numerous other duties; 2) the Alabama Digital Expansion Division of Department of Economic and Community Affairs to develop and begin executing a statewide connectivity plan, among other duties; and 3) the Alabama Digital Expansion Finance Corporation to administer the Connect Alabama Fund, among other duties.

Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Director Kenneth Boswell appointed longtime ADECA manager Maureen Neighbors as chief of the new Digital Expansion Division. Neighbors had served, since January 2017, as chief of ADECA’s Energy Division. The Energy Division was responsible for statewide broadband programs including the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund that Gov. Ivey signed into law in 2018 and the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students program, which provided internet vouchers for Alabama families when many schools switched to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2022, Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, clearing the way for counties and cities to use federal funds to help bring access to high-speed internet to more homes and businesses. Previously, Section 94 of the Alabama Constitution prohibited counties and municipalities from providing grant funds to private companies. Amendment 2 now provides an exception to that prohibition. The amendment requires that any such grants be approved at a public meeting of the county commission or city or town council.

Alabama's Digital Divide

As of 2021, roughly 13 percent of Alabama’s 1.65 million addresses were unserved by broadband of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3), while about 19 percent of addresses were unserved by 100/20 service—the threshold recommended as the state’s five-year target to align with new federal funding opportunities. Higher-speed services like 100/100 and symmetrical 1 Gbps were available only to about 25 percent of addresses. Census blocks across the state ranged from completely served, some with symmetrical gigabit, to completely unserved with broadband speeds of 25/3 or under. An engineering estimate of the effort needed to bridge Alabama’s rural infrastructure gap found that deploying 100/100 service to all addresses currently unserved by 100/20 would cost between $4 billion and $6 billion.

Even where broadband infrastructure and services were available, they aren't attainable by all members of the community. A complex combination of factors—including affordability, device access, digital skills, and language barriers—inhibit use of the broadband internet, to the detriment of both economic and community development. Approximately 20 percent of Alabama households did not subscribe to broadband services in 2021. The most commonly cited reason for not subscribing was cost, and awareness of federal subsidy programs was relatively low (though higher than in many neighboring states). 

Alabama's Broadband Plan

In December 2021, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs published The Alabama Connectivity Plan including recommendations in five categories:

I. Broadband definitions and goals

Definitions enable alignment with federal policy and funds:

  • 100/20: “Broadband” is 100/20 service, delivered over terrestrial (not satellite) networks—and addresses that lack 100/20 service are “unserved.”
  • 100/100: New infrastructure built with state funds should be capable of 100/100 and of scaling to higher speeds.

Goals are designed to be measurable and achievable:

  • Five-year goal: 90 percent of Alabama consumers and businesses will have access to 100/20 broadband service; this would cut in half the number of unserved locations.
  • 10-year goal: 98 percent of Alabama consumers and businesses will have access to 100/20 over networks that are capable of cost-effective scaling to 100/100.

II. Infrastructure and grant programs

The goal is to maximize the impact of public funds and attract private funds to bridge the considerable gap in rural Alabama. Recommendations are to:

  • Expand and increase use of the existing grant program through strategic changes, designed to increase ISP interest and investment
  • Develop a middle-mile grant program to support last-mile deployment and encourage research and innovation
  • Develop a line extension grant program to fill unserved pockets within otherwise served areas
  • Undertake twice annual analysis to align priorities with funding sources to maximize federal funding

III. Data and mapping

The Alabama Broadband Map tracks coverage at the 25/3, 100/20, and 100/100 levels—the latter two of which are increasingly the thresholds on which Alabama policy-makers are focused. The map:

  • incorporates real data from 91% of the state’s residential broadband providers,
  • refines that data and incorporates supplemental information, and
  • offers an interactive, easy-to-use interface that provides unprecedented insights into where broadband is and where it isn’t in Alabama.

The goal is to use Alabama’s broadband map to expedite the grant process, advocate for federal funding, and support Alabama broadband providers in navigating federal requirements. Recommendations are to:

  • Update The Alabama Broadband Map annually
  • Expedite the grant program by enabling The Alabama Broadband Map to serve as the tool for ISPs to protect their interests, rather than through a time-consuming and cumbersome grant challenge process
  • Support small Alabama providers fulfill costly federal mapping obligations as necessary

IV. State and local collaboration

The goal is to maximize the commitment and efforts of local government to address broadband, and to give them skin in the game. Recommendations are to:

  • Support local planning and capacity building through technical assistance
  • Support local communities to use local data and The Alabama Broadband Map to challenge the Federal Communications Commission's broadband map
  • Allow local governments to contribute a portion of grant applicant match funds so as to give them opportunity to attract private partners, make private grant applications more viable, and efficiently use their American Rescue Plan Act and other dollars

V. Affordability and adoption

The goals are to increase use of broadband to improve economic outcomes, support lower-income households, and support ISPs. Recommendations are to:

  • Develop and distribute (digital and analog) educational materials regarding subsidy programs to public, educational, and non-profit entities statewide
  • Staff a contact center in-state, to receive and make calls to eligible consumers to help them access subsidy programs, including the new federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which has potential to provide internet to hundreds of thousands of Alabama families and support Alabama ISPs
  • Develop grant program for digital skills training
  • Work with Alabama broadband providers to develop voluntary programs to support low-income broadband consumers

Alabama's Broadband Programs

ABC for Students

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students was a first-of-its-kind program with a remarkable set of outcomes. Significant elements of the program’s structure have been replicated in other states, including Georgia, Delaware, and New Mexico. ABC for Students was a $50 million statewide initiative through which the state provided free internet access to more than 200,000 low-income students. Alabama used its data on participation in the National School Lunch Program to identify families that would be eligible for the free broadband service.

Enabled by an allocation of federal CARES Act funding, the ABC for Students program was a public-private partnership launched in a matter of weeks over the summer of 2020 as it became clear that Alabama schools would use distance learning for at least some of the 2020-21 school year. As the subsidy funding came to an end in June 2021, the program’s call center remained open through August and actively helped families transition from the ABC for Students program to the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which offered a similar monthly subsidy for broadband service.

As the ABC for Students program ended at the end of August 2021, ALSDE created a program to continue that work, called Alabama Student Connect. The program team has called 56,406 families and helped more than 11,000 of them get signed up for the EBB program.

Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund

Since 2018, Alabama has invested $63.9 million in grant awards supporting 100 projects through the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund.

Through this program, 22,433 previously unserved addresses now have access to high-speed internet. An additional 39,196 currently unserved addresses are anticipated to have access to high-speed internet within the next few years. Once all Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund projects awarded to date have been completed, access to broadband service will be available to more than 61,000 Alabama households, businesses and community institutions that currently have no option to subscribe.  

The state has committed over $300 million more in state and federal funding for broadband expansion.

In December 2022, with the help of grants from the US Department of Commerce's  Economic Development Administration and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs offered technical assistance for planning at the county level through the Alabama Community Broadband Technical Assistance Program. This assistance program will be offered in each of Alabama’s 67 counties with meetings in the first five counties held in December 2022.

Alabama Broadband Capital Projects Fund

Alabama is using its nearly-$192 million Capital Projects Fund allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the Alabama Broadband Capital Projects Fund program. This competitive grant program is designed to deploy last-mile infrastructure projects in rural areas of the state. The Alabama Broadband Capital Projects fund will support deployment of networks capable of 100/100 service to homes and businesses. Each of the networks funded through the program will participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30/month subsidy make broadband service more affordable for low-income families.

Internet for All Planning Grants

Back in December 2022, Alabama also received nearly $6 million to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed Internet service throughout the state. Alabama received $5 million from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program to fund:

  • Identifying unserved and underserved locations;
  • Planning and capacity-building of the Alabama's broadband office;
  • Conducting surveys of unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to high-speed Internet service adoption; and
  • Creating a more holistic representation of Alabama's barriers to broadband adoption.

Alabama will receive a minimum of $100 million in BEAD program support to extend broadband access in the state after it completes a five-year plan to connect every unserved location. 

Alabama also received $981,081.12 from the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program to fund:

  • Creation of a State Digital Equity Plan;
  • Outreach, meetings and listening sessions with stakeholders, organizations and representative of communities disconnected from high-speed Internet service; and
  • Analysis of the impact of digital equity on Alabama's outcomes for economic development, education, health, civic and social engagement, and delivery of essential services.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Feb 7—Expanding Digital and Media Ownership Opportunities for Women and Minorities (FCC)

Feb 7—Updating Washington's Public Works Board Broadband Program (Washington State Department of Commerce)

Feb 7—What Will It Take for Congress to Pass Bipartisan Privacy Legislation? (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

Feb 8—Lifeline Webinar (FCC)

Feb 9—TechSpark/Community Building Across the US (Microsoft)

Feb 13—NACo Broadband Local Coordination Summit (National Association of Counties)

Feb 15—Get a BEAD on Broadband Funding (telecompetitor)

Feb 16—February 2023 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

Feb 27—FCC Tribal Workshop

Mar 6—State of the Net 2023 (Internet Education Foundation)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
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