Alabama’s broadband expansion efforts may have hit a roadblock at a time when it is needed the most.
Several challenges have recently been filed against grants aimed at helping deliver high-speed internet to rural areas.
State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), the Alabama’s legislature’s long-time champion for rural broadband expansion, worries the challenges are part of a concerted effort to slow down a high-tech buildout in some parts of the state.
Scofield’s legislation created a program, administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), to provide grants to build out the state’s broadband infrastructure.
The intent of the ongoing effort is to spur economic development and enhance quality of life for rural areas through greater access to high-speed broadband.
Scofield and other policymakers envision the upgrades in infrastructure to result in improvements for agriculture and healthcare and provide the type of remote learning opportunities needed during the COVID-19 crisis.
Fourteen of the applications for the first round of this year’s grants have been challenged, according to ADECA.
Among those challenged was an application from Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative (FTC) for a grant to expand broadband access in Northeast Alabama.
“Ours was challenged by Charter Communications,” explained Fred Johnson, executive vice president and general manager of FTC.
Johnson credited Scofield and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) with helping to craft legislation that allowed ADECA flexibility in applying data to determine the areas most in need of broadband expansion.
FTC, according to Johnson, had done painstaking research to come up with their data to present as part of its application.
“To their credit, ADECA has been exceptionally diligent in also understanding – it’s actually been gratifying to see a government agency to actually see a government agency do what they were tasked to do,” he said. “They have been extremely good about [applying the data].”
Johnson believes last year’s grant awards proved the program has, thus far, been administered effectively.
“In our first round of awarding grants in 2019 they had identified a few areas where we had made a mistake, asked us to recheck it, we rechecked it, realized we made a mistake and we just amended the grant to exclude it,” recalled Johnson. “That’s fine and it couldn’t work any better. We, like everybody else, are capable of mistakes.”
This year’s round of applications have become grounds for contention.
“When Charter filed an application protesting our grant they did so in total,” Johnson outlined. “First of all, they claimed our grant application overlapped their service territory and hence was ineligible for funding. Then they also said even if they don’t serve it someone else does, and so we should be denied. They didn’t take the time to advise ADECA that they were using the [federal] data. And the other company they identified as serving all these people, they didn’t bother to tell ADECA that the company was us – and only us.”
As part of its response to the challenge, FTC provided ADECA with a map showing it is actually the company currently serving the area.
“Charter is saying that another provider provides service to this entire census block, well we’re the provider,” Johnson said. “We just gave them a map specifically showing with latitude-longitude coordinates where we can and can’t serve so we think we know better than Charter does.”
Another expansion project being challenged belongs to Covington Electric Cooperative (CEC).
CEC has applied for grant funding to build out a “middle-mile” of fiber in the Wiregrass. Middle-mile is a line of fiber off of which other companies can build to deliver high-speed internet. It is considered a fundamental infrastructure project in broadband expansion.
Rick Clifton, president and CEO of the Covington County Economic Development Commission, wrote in support of CEC’s application to ADECA.
CEC’s project has been challenged by Charter Communications and Mediacom.
Clifton views broadband expansion as “essential” to his area’s economic development efforts.
“Covington Electric and its management are very much into economic development,” he remarked. “Broadband is important everywhere but it’s especially important in our rural areas. If you’ve got broadband you can connect to the world. Having good, reliable broadband is a priority for us, and we do whatever we can to support it.”
CEC’s middle mile project would connect their substations and then allow them to have a third-party come in and build out from that fiber to provide broadband access to people who lack suitable access now.
“It’s almost like the reason the electric coops got started, it just wasn’t economically feasible for the big companies to run lines out to very sparsely populated areas of the country so the coops formed to do that,” stated Clifton. “It would also allow us to take industrial or business service out from that middle mile of fiber.”
He views the project not as a threat to anyone else’s business but as a way to improve life in communities throughout CEC’s service area.
“I don’t think they have any interest in getting in the cable business themselves, or the internet business themselves, but once that middle mile is done then it opens up a whole lot of different options for different folks to come in and help,” he offered.
As someone who is charged with helping grow jobs in Covington County, Clifton believes there is significant incentive to expand broadband options.
“In a rural area you have a lot of obstacles to overcome,” he explained. “Recruitment is a process of elimination. They don’t pick you, they eliminate you. If you don’t provide high-speed internet access, they eliminate you.”
Jasper Mayor David O’Mary shares Clifton’s sentiment toward the critical nature of offering high-speed internet options to potential employers.
He said internet access is one of the first things about which industrial targets ask.
“I’ve been to Japan twice to recruit businesses,” O’Mary said. “If you don’t have that, you don’t get a look.”
Jasper and surrounding areas have a middle-mile project of their own for which they have applied to receive grant funding. This project has been challenged by Charter Communications and Community Cable.
Asked what broadband expansion would mean for his city, O’Mary did not shy away from touting its impact.
“Let me put it real simple, it will make us a lot more like Huntsville, the second largest city in the state,” he said. “I have become good friends with the mayor of Huntsville, Tommy Battle, and what he says is that you have got to have technology to meet the needs of industry.”
Offering updated infrastructure by expanding broadband is an integral part of his plan.
“We’re working very hard on industrial recruitment,” said O’Mary. “We have a nice industrial park. You have to meet the expectations of people that look to live in your city. Work from home has become a big thing across this country. Without high-speed internet access, we’re flat on our back in those two games.”
Lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis reinforce the need for expanded broadband in Alabama, according to Scofield.
“I have been working to get the infrastructure delivered as quickly as possible,” he said. “How do we get kids to stay home and get them to do their lessons online the rest of the year?”
Scofield questioned the motive of those issuing bulk challenges to grant applications. He believes the intent is “to slow them down.”
“They don’t want to service rural Alabama, but they don’t want anyone else to pick up any market share,” he elaborated.
Now is not the time, he believes, to slow the process down.
“I’ve been working on the issue for six years now,” Scofield explained. “This year, if all the grants go through at ADECA, they could hook up about 86,000 more entities. I think, ‘If we could have been doing that for the last five years, where we could be right now?’ This expansion does not need to be slowed down right now, we need to be ramping it up and the coronavirus situation is proof positive as to why.”
Under the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, ADECA must resolve the challenges within 30 days.
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia