1 month ago

Alabama Power hailed as national model for innovative broadband partnerships, expansion efforts

Alabama Power Company in recent days was the focus of a joint webinar organized by the Edison Electric Institute and the National League of Cities (NLC), as the kick-off to NLC’s Emerging Tech Webinar Series.

The webinar featured a remote panel discussion moderated by John Smola, director of Business Transformation and Administration for Alabama Power. Panelists included Ben Moncrief, managing director in Alabama for C Spire; Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville); Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro); and Aliceville Mayor Terrence Windham.

The event focused on Alabama Power — through its work forging broad, bold partnerships — as a national “success story in broadband deployment.”

“COVID highlights the great need for broadband options and accessibility for individuals to lead healthy and productive lives,” the webinar preview stated. “As children remain in distance learning and many jobs across the country are fully remote, access to quality broadband continues to be of paramount importance to cities of all sizes. Alabama Power, in concert with local and state government and telecommunications companies, has developed innovative solutions and partnerships to expand access to high-speed internet in its service territory – providing a critical digital lifeline today and for the future.”

Of course, the premise of the webinar was the success of two major legislative efforts in recent years, as well as Alabama Power’s implementation of those enacted programs.

Scofield was the sponsor of the bill that originally created the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund in 2018; he sponsored a bill the following year that improved this state grant program, which requires private matching funds.

Then, there was HB 400 in 2019, which was supported by the Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition. This bill, which allows internet service providers to use utility providers’ existing fiber infrastructure for what is called “the middle mile,” has enabled an already fruitful collaboration between Alabama Power and C Spire, a telecommunications company based in Mississippi.

In January, for example, C Spire announced a historic $500 million investment in Alabama, going towards the critical expansion of fiber infrastructure in the Yellowhammer State. At that time, C Spire had recently connected its first Alabama customers in Jasper, and service was set to imminently begin in Trussville.

Across the board, the webinar opened with the NLC’s Lena Geraghty commenting that Alabama is taking up the “vital work” of “breaking down the digital divide.”

Smola, in his subsequent opening remarks, explained, “Our team really has the privilege to serve almost 1.5 million customers throughout Alabama. And each day we work to provide them the reliable service they expect while also identifying opportunities to grow and elevate our state and create even more opportunities for the citizens of Alabama. One of the innovative solutions we’ve identified over the past few years is to expand broadband access, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.”

Once underway, the governmental panelists shared their personal perspectives covering the dire need for high-quality broadband access in their respective areas, as well as unique challenges to expansion that they face.

“It is a really exciting and challenging time to be in the broadband expansion business in Alabama,” noted C Spire’s Moncrief. “Alabama is in the worst position in terms of fiber access among residential premises in the Southeast. … The good news is there’s a great deal of leadership around that issue.”

One especially notable call-to-action that emerged from the discussion was the urgent need for building out fiber infrastructure in a big way across the Yellowhammer State.

Whether it be through federal or state programs, a steady and large-scale revenue stream is needed to truly connect all of Alabama. A recent study showed that it would take between $4 billion and $6 billion to provide broadband access to all Alabamians.

While the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund is a step in the right direction, the program was funded at about $25 million last year, so either several decades or significant new revenue streams will be needed to get the job done.

One aspect that Scofield stressed was keeping public-private partnerships driving expansion rather than having government try to do it all.

“The government does not need to be in the business; it needs to be with the professionals who know what they’re doing,” he underscored.

“Our problem moving forward definitely is funding,” Scofield affirmed. “And getting more funding to help encourage more companies to invest in these areas.”

Singleton in his remarks thanked Scofield for his leadership on the broadband expansion issue.

The minority leader expressed appreciation for his Republican counterpart supporting the Black Belt and similar areas through that important work.

Getting back to the funding aspect of the broadband expansion conversation, Singleton pointed to SB 214, currently pending Senate action, as a potential source of the type of revenue needed to really move the needle statewide. He also emphasized the importance of SB 215, which would establish the Digital Expansion Authority to help plan, oversee and manage public sector broadband expansion efforts in the state; this bill, entitled the Connect Alabama Act, would also create the Alabama University Research Alliance, among other important broadband-focused moves.

He outlined how broadband access is key to modern economic competitiveness and opportunity in rural areas, such as his Black Belt district.

“We want to be able to affect education, telemedicine, other parts of health care, and I think we’re moving in the right direction to do something great in this state,” Singleton said. “I think we have a good plan moving forward, it just needs to be executed.”

Singleton later added that certain areas that are not necessarily rural also have limited access to high-quality broadband internet services. He advised that it might be best to look at it as “served and underserved” as opposed to a non-rural vs. rural conversation.

“I think we should serve them equally,” he commented.

Scofield concurred to this point.

He further explained how affordability will also improve with increased availability.

Moncrief reiterated that C Spire chose Alabama in part due to the presence of willing and able partners across the public and private sectors, such as those on the webinar.

“I’m proud of what we’re building here in terms of the conversations we’re having, even conversations like this,” Singleton stated. “You know, five years ago we weren’t having these kind of conversations on broadband.”

The entire webinar can be listened to here.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers: ‘Shameful’ Pelosi blocking Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act — ‘Simply supporting infanticide’

Congressman Mike Rogers (AL-03) on Wednesday released a scathing statement regarding House Democrats blocking consideration of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

Rogers announced that he has signed onto a discharge petition that would force Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to bring this legislation — H.R. 619 — up for a vote in the House.

“As a father of three children and a Christian, this legislation is so important to me,” stated Rogers, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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All six Alabama Republicans in the U.S. House are cosponsors of H.R. 619, which was was introduced by Reps. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Steve Scalise (R-LA) in January. The bill would ensure any baby born that survives an abortion would receive the same standard of medical care as a baby born under normal circumstances.

“I will never understand how any human would not support caring for a tiny, living baby that survives an attempted abortion,” he continued. “Anyone who is okay with not helping these babies is simply supporting infanticide. I will always stand up for the rights of the most innocent among us, and it’s shameful that Nancy Pelosi will not even bring this critical legislation up for a vote.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

Alabama Senate passes bill banning biological males from competing in female sports

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday passed HB 391, which would would prohibit biological males from competing in public school female sports — and vice versa.

The legislation, which only applies to public K-12 schools, would prohibit competition by one gender against another, unless the event specifically is intended to include both genders.

HB 391 was carried in the Senate by Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) and is sponsored by Rep. Scott Stadthagen (R-Hartselle).

“A public K-12 school may not allow a biological female to participate on a male team if there is a female team in a sport. A public K-12 school may never allow a biological male to participate on a female team,” says the amended version of the bill passed by the Senate.

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In sports where there are not separate competitions for females and males, such as football, both genders would still be able to participate together.

“This bill is significantly important to protecting the integrity of women’s sports,” stated Gudger. “Our sisters, daughters and granddaughters deserve to compete in fairly organized sports without being put at a disadvantage. I appreciate Representative Stadthagen for having me carry this bill in the Senate, and I commend him for his diligent work on this critical issue.”

More than a dozen states are considering similar restrictions on high school athletes to prevent what they view as an unfair advantage in competition.

The Senate’s vote on HB 391 was on party lines, 25-5. This comes after two Democrats supported and one Democrat abstained in a committee vote on the bill just two weeks ago. View a tweet thread from Thursday’s Senate debate here.

HB 391 now heads back to the House for concurrence or nonconcurrence. It originally passed the lower chamber in a bipartisan 74-19 vote.

“It is unreasonable for biological males to compete against females in high school sports,” Stadthagen commented. “Allowing this to happen does not put female athletes on a fair and level playing field with their biological male counterparts, and that is what this bill aims to resolve. I was pleased to hear that my colleagues in the upper chamber value the integrity and justness of female sports, and I thank Senator Gudger for handling this bill in the Senate.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

Senate passes Alabama Second Amendment Preservation Act

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday passed SB 358, which would create the Alabama Second Amendment Preservation Act.

Sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa), the bill would outlaw state and local governments — including law enforcement agencies thereof — from enforcing any federal firearms act, law, order, rule or regulation that becomes effective after January 1, 2021.

The party-line vote by the Senate was 22-5.

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“I took an oath of office when sworn into this body to defend the Constitution of this country and this state,” stated Allen. “As an elected official, I will do everything in my power to preserve the rights of Alabamians, especially those granted by the Second Amendment, and I will always push back on any proposals that seek to limit the freedoms bestowed upon us.”

“The Alabama Second Amendment Preservation Act ensures the people of Alabama are protected from any unnecessary overreach by the federal government and is meant to be a check on proposals that infringe on our right to self-defense coming from the Biden Administration or the Democratic controlled Congress,” he continued. “SB358 is about safeguarding our God-given rights to protect our families and homes. The Second Amendment says the right to bear arms shall not be infringed upon, and with this piece of legislation, Alabamians can feel confident that their rights are being protected.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) and Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) argued that SB 358 would violate the Supremacy Clause. The Democrats said the act, as a result, would ultimately be ruled unconstitutional by the judicial system after costing the State of Alabama significant money to defend it in court.

“We don’t need a ‘Second Amendment Preservation Act’ in the state of Alabama,” said Singleton. “The constitution does that already.”

He noted “the bill really does no harm,” before adding that he does not like the message it sends.

You can view a tweet thread on Senate debate regarding SB 358 here.

The Alabama Senate’s vote came after President Joe Biden last week began rolling out executive orders on gun control.

RELATED: Speaker Mac McCutcheon: As Biden attempts to roll back Second Amendment freedoms, Alabama House Republicans stand in the breach to protect them

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

16 hours ago

Tim Vines confirmed as newest Auburn University trustee

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday unanimously confirmed Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama CEO Tim Vines as an at-large member of the Auburn University board of trustees.

He will complete the final three years of the unexpired term of Gen. Lloyd Austin, who resigned from Auburn’s board in January after he was confirmed as the nation’s secretary of defense.

Vines has worked at BCBS of Alabama since 1994. He rose through the management ranks at Blue Cross until he was elected to his present position in 2018. The LaFayette native graduated from Auburn’s Harbert College of Business in 1988 with a degree in finance. He was also a member of the Auburn baseball team.

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“In addition to his business and management credentials, the Trustee Selection Committee nominated Tim Vines for the position because of his dedication to Auburn University and its students,” stated Wayne Smith, who serves as board president pro tem.

This dedication includes Vines giving an annual scholarship to the Harbert College of Business. He is an Auburn Alumni Association lifetime member, a member of the James E. Foy Loyalty Society and a member of the 1856 Society. The Birmingham Auburn Club awarded Vines its 2019 Distinguished Auburn Alumnus Award.

He also served as the 2018 Auburn University summer commencement speaker, where he encouraged graduates, “Serve well by serving others. In life or in your chosen profession, ask what you can do to help others. … Whatever you do, make sure you do it with excellence.”

Vines’ term will expire on February 8, 2024.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

17 hours ago

Alabama State Parks launching historic corporate giving, improvement campaign

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday joined the Alabama State Parks Foundation, local corporate leaders and other stakeholders at Oak Mountain State Park to announce unprecedented efforts aimed at investing millions of dollars into park improvements.

The governor spoke about an $80 million bond issue for park improvements that must be approved by voters through a constitutional amendment in the 2022 general election if the state legislature approves it this session. House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) and Rep. Wes Kitchens (R-Arab) are sponsoring this legislation, which passed the House on Tuesday and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

“Alabamians love and cherish the State Parks, and we must make sure they are maintained and available for generations to come,” Ivey remarked. “I support the use of state bonds to make the needed enhancements throughout the state parks system.”

Additionally, the non-profit Alabama State Parks Foundation (ASPF) on Thursday announced the launch of its corporate giving campaign with a goal of raising an additional $14 million in the next five years for needed park improvements.

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ASPF kicked off this campaign with pledges of $250,000 by Buffalo Rock Company and $100,000 from the Alabama Power Foundation.

“Since the creation of the Alabama State Parks Foundation in 2018, we have worked to improve and enhance our State Parks, and our corporate giving campaign is another significant and important step for our organization,” ASPF president Dr. Dan Hendricks stated. “I also applaud and thank Governor Ivey for her visionary leadership and support of the State Parks system.

“We believe this innovative public-private partnership will maximize our efforts to help the Alabama State Parks system maintain its place as one of the state’s true treasures,” he added.

The prospective bond issue and ASPF’s fundraising would fast-track projects to expand campgrounds, add cabins and improve internet connectivity, among other priorities.

A majority of funding for Alabama State Parks – 80-90% annually – is generated through user fees for rental, lodging, golf and other amenities in the parks. The system’s finances can also be impacted unexpectedly, such as the tornado that damaged Oak Mountain last month, Hurricane Sally damaging Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores last fall, and another tornado wreaking havoc on the campground and day-use areas at Joe Wheeler State Park in December 2019.

State parks attracted a record 6.27 million visitors in fiscal year 2020, and enhancing facilities or building additional ones should help that number continue to grow.

“Our state parks system is run as efficiently as ever, but there are plenty of needs in every one of the 21 parks — both the small and larger parks,” said Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation. “What Governor Ivey and the Alabama State Parks Foundation have done is create a funding framework for how we can modernize and enhance an already dynamic State Parks system and make it better than ever.

“We plan to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, as well as funds so generously donated by the corporate community,” he concluded. “Our state parks offer so many amazing outdoors adventures for all Alabamians, and we appreciate so many people working so hard to help us continue that legacy.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn