Gov. Kay Ivey signed two bills Thursday that will boost broadband access in rural parts of the state, improving healthcare, education, quality of life and economic development.
Under HB400 from the House of Representatives, broadband carriers can work with electricity providers to use their easements and infrastructure. The Senate bill, SB90, expands the definition of an “unserved area” under the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act while increasing the percentage of a project’s cost eligible for grant funding.
“Every day the uses of internet grow more dynamic,” Ivey said. “It’s just imperative that we provide our students and our hospitals and small businesses and our communities high-speed internet. These two bills that we signed today go a long way to providing high-speed internet to all areas all across Alabama.”
Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, who sponsored SB90, said it’s hard to overstate the importance of expanding broadband to the entire state.
“I don’t think that rural Alabama will survive without 21st century infrastructure,” he said. “We’re definitely not going to see jobs locate to rural Alabama – they’re going to go the other way. Our education system will fall behind without access to the internet and our health care system will lag behind because of access to the internet.”
Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview, said his bill “doesn’t reinvent the wheel” and will accelerate the expansion of broadband by allowing electric companies to offer or contract with others to offer broadband with existing easements.
“It uses existing infrastructure to be able reach out to everybody in Alabama at some point,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight, but we’re going to get there much quicker now.”
Jim Searcy, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Alabama, said high-speed internet is a must for companies and consultants evaluating sites and locations for projects.
“It used to be when they talked about infrastructure, especially at a site, they were talking about utilities – electric, gas, sewer and water. Now, internet has actually become as important, if not more so, in order to do business.”
Searcy said a lot of “deferred maintenance” has put Alabama behind other states but the enacting of the broadband bills coupled with the Rebuild Alabama infrastructure improvement bill passed earlier this year will go a long way in helping the state catch up.
“I think now you have a sense of momentum,” he said. “Site selectors, consultants and companies realize there is an investment being made in the state that’s going to create a much better environment for them going forward.”
Scofield said it’s been a long time coming for rural Alabama.
“I think that this bill is definitely going to begin the change the tide in the disappearance in rural Alabama,” he said. “We’re finally investing infrastructure in this state. We’re finally making those investments.”
Shedd agreed: “I think it’s going to be a game changer for our state from an economic development standpoint as well as servicing the people who need it.”