The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 year ago

Alabama and the critical importance of small cells

(Dr. George S. Ford/Contributed, Pixabay, YHN)

The United States is in the midst of a wireless revolution. With the deployment of fifth-generation (5G) technology, American consumers are about to see mobile broadband speeds explode exponentially, unlocking a wide range of new possibilities.

But the deployment of 5G will not come easy. To make 5G a reality, U.S. mobile operators must install new “small cells” throughout their service areas. While one would think that local governments would welcome this new technology with open arms, some local authorities have a sordid track record of using their rights-of-way monopolies to extract concessions from providers to line the city’s coffers. Such tactics delay deployment and ultimately raise the price of 5G services.

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has long-recognized this problem and has attempted to take steps, where practicable, to encourage local governments to speed up the tower siting approval process. While the FCC has made some in-roads, the problem of local government abuse is far from solved.

Recognizing these jurisdictional challenges, over 25 states — including Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas — have stepped up and passed some sort of small cell legislation to accelerate 5G deployment. To Alabama’s credit, it tried to join these states when the legislature took up a bill last year which would have, among other reforms, limited the fees a city could charge for a small cell installation and streamlined the timeframe for local approval of new small cell deployment. While the bill ultimately did not pass, it is widely expected that this bill will be reintroduced in 2020. The bill does not impinge on the fees and review process of reasonable localities but targets egregious behavior and bad acts, ensuring fairness and uniformity to telecommunications providers.

Needless to say, some local governments in Alabama are none too pleased about the bill’s reintroduction. Their arguments are uncompelling.

Take, for example, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller. According to a recent op-ed penned by the mayor, the proposed bill would “transfer significant local resources to private companies … without securing any guarantee of public benefit in return.” The mayor should be a bit more accurate with the facts.

Contrary to Mayor Fuller’s assertions, the proposed bill does not “transfer significant local resources to private companies.” All the proposed legislation would do is to create a streamlined permitting process and establish uniform parameters for application review and approval. In fact, under the proposed legislation, not only will local governments be allowed to review permit requests, including site locations, but they will also be permitted to deny a small cell application for numerous reasons, including legitimate public safety concerns, noncompliance with applicable codes, noncompliance with lawful height restrictions and spacing requirements, noncompliance with lawful historic district requirements and more.

Mayor Fuller’s claim that removing local barriers to 5G deployment will not produce any public benefit is also belied by the mayor’s own words. Indeed, the mayor himself acknowledges that 5G is a “crucial foundation for smart city initiatives” and that high-speed 5G services “are critical for the delivery of education, economic development, employment and a variety of services necessary for success and progress in the 21st Century.”

Auburn Mayor Ron Anders is even more hyperbolic. Mayor Anders recently wrote an op-ed in the Auburn Villager in which he argued that the proposed bill would strip cities’ “constitutional authority to make local decisions that impact … local infrastructure.” With all due respect to Mayor Anders, perhaps a lesson in Civics 101 at our shared alma mater Auburn University is in order: municipalities are creatures of the state — not the other way around — and thus a municipality’s authority is limited to what the legislature bestows or withholds. Contrary to the belief of Auburn’s mayor, a political subdivision of a state (that is, a city) does not have greater constitutional authority than the state itself.

At the end of the day, the hard reality is that many local governments in Alabama still have not developed a process for reviewing small cell applications. Many municipalities levy fees and delays that greatly exceed those of neighboring states. As a result, tower and antenna citing in much of Alabama continues to remain stuck in a morass of local politics. If Alabamians want the rapid deployment of and economic benefits from 5G technology across the state, then enacting a reasonable, state-wide uniform tower citing process will go far toward ensuring the rapid deployment of vital 5G wireless infrastructure.

Dr. George S. Ford is the Chief Economist of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, Washington, DC. Dr. Ford is an internationally-recognized expert in IT economics and policy. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and has served on Alabama’s Broadband Task Force under two governors. He holds a PhD in Economics from Auburn University.

2 years ago

Government-owned broadband a path to financial ruin

(Capital Research)

It’s a day of reckoning as sure as a sunrise.  This week, the City of Opelika sold its city-owned broadband system for pennies on the dollar (or, to be fair, nearly a quarter on the dollar).  With $43 million in debt and about $15 million in cumulative losses, the city (or rather its constituents) has poured $58 million into the project.  To fund the losses, the city has raised electric rates by over $5 a customer and forgone millions in services the profits of the city’s electric utility once funded.

If it’s any consolation, Opelika is not the first city to fire sale its broadband systems, and it won’t be the last.  Despite a near 100% failure rate of government-owned broadband systems, city officials across the nation—including nearby Andalusia-Alabama, pointing to the “success” in Opelika—seem committed to the path of financial ruin.  Government at its finest.

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With a $14 million sale price (about half the going rate per-subscriber for cable systems), the electric utility is left with $28 million in debt on the books for this network.  The $15 million in cumulative losses are a bygone.  With an annual payment of $1.4 million on that debt, the city’s electric ratepayers are forced to pony up nearly $10 per month per customer to fund it.  For what?  The city officials will tell you its for a “smart grid,” but that’s balderdash.  Chattanooga’s officials said the same to justify hiding the debt on the electric utility, only later to admit the truth.  Smart grid technologies don’t require $28 million in fiber for a city the size of Opelika.  In fact, it is not clear that the city uses much if any of that fiber for smart grid, or that whatever it is used for couldn’t be done using other technologies costing a fraction of that cost.

Only last year the city’s broadband network was described as a “success story.”  Now blame for its failure is being directed at the state for its lack of “help” and at competitors for doing what competitors do—compete.  The thought that extending the network into the county would have saved the network is absurd.  At best, it would have had Opelika’s electric customers subsidizing broadband services outside the city’s limits in areas where the revenue potential is relatively low and the deployment costs relatively high.  Perhaps a good situation for those out in the county, but not Opelika.

Mayor Fuller hopes the fire sale of the network will make the city “shine brighter,” but that seems a pretty low standard in light of the facts.

In an effort at positive spin on this fiasco, city officials point out that the people of Opelika now benefit from “competitive prices.”  Not so.  Companies make money when they sell at “competitive prices.” Competitive prices do not require millions in subsidies from captive electric ratepayers, to the tune of $1,250 in electric rates from the past and $115 per year per customer going forward.  Sadly, the ratepayers are left holding this $28 million bag of debt and there’s likely no way out.

Opelika’s enormous financial loss is, put simply, the result of bad decisions by government.  Bad government, in turn, falls in the lap of the voters.

Dr. George S. Ford is a graduate of Auburn University and the chief economist of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies (www.phoenix-center.org).  He is one of the nation’s foremost experts in municipal broadband projects.