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Boswell: Alabama building on-ramps to information superhighway

Infrastructure is critical to almost every aspect of daily life.

You can’t get to work without roads, you can’t light your home without access to electricity,
and you can’t access running water without a clean, steady water supply.

But there is one key form of infrastructure that many folks simply don’t have access to,
even to this day. This infrastructure is just as important to daily life in a 21st century
economy as running water, electricity, plumbing or waste management.

That need is statewide access to broadband infrastructure.

You can think of broadband as the “road system” that gives households and business access to high-speed internet service.

High-speed internet access affects virtually every aspect of daily life in today’s world,
whether that be remote working, staying connected digitally, operating a business,
improving educational opportunities, accessing health care, and other areas far too
numerous to name.

And the ability to have that access should not be determined by your ZIP code but should
be available to all Alabamians.

That’s why at the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), as
the state agency responsible for mapping, planning, and providing grant funds to expand
this key infrastructure, we are hard at work every day making this a possibility for all who
call our state home.

And we are making great progress.

Gov. Kay Ivey and the Legislature have taken this issue to heart and made it clear that this is a top priority for the state. They have backed this up with ambitious action, positioning
Alabama as a national leader in being innovative and aggressive in supporting expansion of
broadband infrastructure.

The Legislature passed and Gov. Ivey signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility
Fund, through which we have invested $63.9 million in state funding through grant awards
supporting 100 projects throughout the state. Through this program, more than 22,000
previously unserved addresses now have access to high-speed internet service, and nearly
37,500 more unserved addresses are expected to have access to high-speed internet
service in the next two years.

Once completed, that’s about 60,000 Alabama households, businesses and community
institutions that will have access that previously had no option to subscribe.

That’s a big accomplishment and an Alabama success story that should serve as an example to other states on how to be intentional and effective in expanding broadband access.

In 2021, through the governor’s signing of the Connect Alabama Act, our state’s broadband
expansion efforts were streamlined through the creation of the Digital Expansion Division
at ADECA to develop and execute a statewide connectivity plan and to continue
administering the broadband accessibility grant program.

And last September, Gov. Ivey announced an $82 million grant for a Statewide Middle Mile
Network – you can think of this as an interstate system for broadband infrastructure to
access points across the state.

ADECA has developed the Alabama Broadband Map, which incorporates real data from
91% of the state’s residential internet service providers to offer an interactive, easy-to-use
guide that provides insights into where broadband is and where it isn’t in Alabama. To get
to where you’re going, you need to know how to get there. This map does just that and sets a new national standard for state-level broadband mapping.

We also have boots on the ground at the local level through programs such as the Alabama
Community Broadband Technical Assistance Program (TAP) meetings, which are offered to
each of Alabama’s 67 counties to provide assistance and receive feedback from
stakeholders at the local level on broadband needs and opportunities.

With a goal as extensive and robust as expanding high-speed internet access to all
Alabamians, it’s going to take time, commitment, resources, and focus to make it a
reality. As Gov. Ivey often says, broadband expansion is a journey and not a short trip.

It will take continued support from the Legislature as our state supports the governor’s
vision of high-speed internet for all. It will take buy-in from local leaders, stakeholders,
internet service providers, and community members – working together to get this done.

I’m proud of the work our state has done so far on this issue and its resulting accomplishments. I appreciate all of those who have put their time and energy into making
broadband expansion a reality. And I look forward to continuing to build out this essential
infrastructure across the great state of Alabama.

Ken Boswell is the director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

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