5 months ago

Scofield: ‘Broadband is our infrastructure challenge of the 21st century’ — Crucial ‘to save some of the best areas of this state’

GUNTERSVILLE — Yellowhammer News on Thursday held the second event in its 2019 “News Shapers” series. Entitled “Connecting Alabama’s Rural Communities,” the forum regarding broadband expansion drew a great crowd and elicited insightful conversation from the four expert panelists: State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Arab), Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative’s Fred Johnson, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s Tom Stackhouse and Maureen Neighbors of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).

Tim Howe, Yellowhammer Multimedia co-owner and Yellowhammer News editor-in-chief, moderated the forum, which came days after the second round of grants was awarded under the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund.

This fund was created through legislation sponsored by Scofield and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey during the Alabama Legislature’s 2018 regular session. The first round of grants was awarded earlier this year. The legislature then passed another bill by Scofield updating the law during the 2019 regular session.

To kick the conversation off on Thursday, Howe noted Scofield’s successful efforts the past two years in passing his broadband expansion legislation, also pointing to HB 400 sponsored by State Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Fairview) and State Sen. Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro).

Howe asked Scofield about this year’s update of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act and the feedback he heard prior to the 2019 regular session that led to him crafting SB 90.

“We passed the broadband expansion bill last year, and we knew that there would be some changes that needed to occur this year — some fine-tuning and some tweaking,” Scofield explained. “And we know that in the future, there will also need to be some fine-tuning as we look to make the program work better… SB 90 reflected some of those changes, and we heard that (the need for changes) from our providers.”

Scofield explained that it is not profitable in many rural areas for companies to install the necessary broadband infrastructure, which is why the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund is so important. The fund provides state grants for service providers to supply high-speed internet services in unincorporated areas or communities with 25,000 people or less. Under the law, grant awards cannot exceed 20 percent of the total cost of a project, meaning providers must still have significant “skin in the game” financially.

“At the end of the day, our providers are the ones who are going to be installing the infrastructure for the consumers to enjoy,” Scofield outlined. “So, it’s very important to listen to the providers. This whole thing began by listening to the providers. ‘What is it going to take to get you to expand in rural Alabama?’ And folks, it’s cost. It’s a business decision. The market size is just not there, so the cash flow is just more difficult.”

He likened modern government support of broadband expansion to rural electricity and water expansion of old.

“You’re looking out at Lake Guntersville,” Scofield told the crowd at Guntersville Town Hall, “and it’s a product of government being involved in infrastructure. In the 1930s, the government got involved in rural power. Our co-ops took advantage of that and delivered power to rural customers. And in the 1960s-70s, they expanded to rural water. Well, broadband is our infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.”

“Without our providers, and without government providing some incentive to bring their costs down, it simply wouldn’t occur,” he emphasized. “So, the changes that we’ve seen (through SB 90) are to make the job easier on these guys (the providers).”

‘We still live in a capitalist economy’

Asked to speak to the recommended changes from the provider side, Johnson stressed, “Good public policy has to be based on fact.”

“It’s really easy to blame people for why there’s not broadband in certain parts of the state,” he continued. “But we still live in a capitalist economy — for the time being — and it’s a business case. If it’s (broadband) not there, there’s a really good reason for it. What this legislation does, especially in connection with the federal legislation… what it does is give companies that want to step up to the plate the leverage it may take to swing the pendulum to where a business case can be built and you can serve areas where otherwise there’s no public policy support to build.”

Johnson said he personally thinks “the world of Clay Scofield, Steve Livingston and (House Majority Leader) Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville),” who were all in attendance.

“The neatest thing about this (2019 broadband expansion efforts) was you had the leadership in the legislature — and Representative Shedd certainly needs to be included [in that recognition] — they took the time to understand the issue,” he added. “It’s not a Democratic, it’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s an issue that affects all rural Alabamians of every race, color, creed, sex and anything else you want to talk about.”

Of the legislative leaders, Johnson reiterated, “They took the time to understand the issue and ask, ‘What do we need to do to swing the pendulum?’ Quite frankly, I think we’ve got one of the more cohesive public policies in the United States [now]… so I think they’ve done an excellent job.”

Stackhouse affirmed just how important SB 90 and HB 400 were from the perspective of an electric utility provider serving a rural nine-county area in central Alabama.

“80 years ago in November, our [co-op’s] first electric customer was connected… and the area flourished because of getting electricity to an area where a lot said, ‘You can’t make money at that, there’s no use doing that,'” Stackhouse advised. “It was huge.”

Now, in modern times, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s board has created a subsidiary to handle communications services, like broadband.

“Communication is now the electricity, and without [the legislation], it just doesn’t happen,” Stackhouse said.

He praised Scofield for his leadership, adding of SB 90 and HB 400, “It has really helped us step up.”

“And we’re not building our [broadband efforts just] on grants, we’ve got a business model we believe we can make work,” Stackhouse continued. “But grants help a lot, though, especially when it’s sparsely populated areas that need it just as much.”

Without broadband expansion, ‘they’re going to die’

Following up on just how much many rural areas in the state really do need broadband access, Howe then recalled an op-ed that Scofield wrote and Yellowhammer News published during the 2019 regular session when Scofield stated the survival of rural Alabama depends on broadband expansion.

Howe asked Scofield to outline the various aspects of modern life that are affected by access to high-speed internet services in his district and others like it across Alabama.

“In about every way you can think of,” Scofield said. “Not just agriculture, but economic development — you’re not going to recruit a company with 21st century jobs to an area without a 21st century infrastructure. You’re not going to train a 21st century workforce without 21st century infrastructure.”

“Telemedicine is the future for our healthcare, which I believe is one of the things that’s going to help bring healthcare costs down for a lot of Americans,” he continued.

Scofield stated that this is especially true, “In rural areas where we see increased levels of diabetes and obesity and a lot of ailments that seem to go up, because the healthcare isn’t easily accessible.”

“So, the thought that a person can connect to MD Anderson for a cancer screening in Greene County, and never leave Greene County, can save that person’s life,” he explained. “It’s a game-changer for a lot of people, and I think that a lot of folks just don’t realize that 830,000 or 840,000 Alabamians still don’t have [broadband] access.”

He then reaffirmed just how crucial these broadband expansion efforts are.

“It’s critical that we get this infrastructure out, that we get people hooked up in our rural areas because they’re going to die — they’re going to be left behind, they’re being left behind right now,” Scofield emphasized. “So, I think the quicker that we do that, the quicker we’re going to save some of the best areas of this state.”

‘This is a legacy’

Later in the forum, Scofield did also caution that broadband expansion to all Alabamians logistically cannot and will not happen instantaneously.

However, success will be achieved only when “we get to a point where, like power … if you want high-speed internet [wherever you live] in the state, you can connect to it,” Scofield believes.

“I think that’s where we’ve got to get,” he said. “And that’s not going to happen overnight… Everyone’s got to be patient. Lake Guntersville didn’t fill up in a day, they didn’t build the dam in a day and they didn’t give power to rural Autauga County in a day — or even here. It’s going to take a long time to build this infrastructure out, but I believe that we are on the right track.”

Scofield wrapped up the forum by lauding the integral support and teamwork of some of his fellow legislators who were in attendance, including Livingston, Ledbetter and State Sen. Andrew Jones (R-Centre), along with Shedd, who was unavailable to make the event.

“I’m really proud of what we came out with,” Scofield said of SB 90 as signed into law. “And I think that whether you’re an elected official or not, if you had something to do with this, I think that this is a legacy that we’re going to be able to leave this state. It’s going to benefit generations. And that’s why I do what I do, and I know that’s why they (the legislators in attendance) do what they do. I think it’s going to be something that’s going to move this state forward in ways that we can’t even envision today.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

Mayor Randall Woodfin throws down the gauntlet at Birmingham Business Alliance meeting

BIRMINGHAM — Delivering opening remarks at the Birmingham Business Alliance’s (BBA) annual meeting on Wednesday, Magic City Mayor Randall Woodfin challenged the region’s business leaders to stop being so “risk averse.”

Woodfin opened his speech with words of praise for outgoing BBA chairwoman Nancy Goedecke and incoming chairman Jim Gorrie.

He then transitioned into a call-to-action.

“Usually I would get up here and give you all some stats about what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” the mayor advised. “I think it is fair to say that 2019 has been a good year for many [in] your organization — individually and collectively for our Birmingham Business Alliance.”

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Woodfin advised that the BBA leadership is pointing the region’s business community in the right direction.

“And the question is: as members of this organization, are we prepared? Are we ready?” he added.

“I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that since the Great Recession… 60% of all jobs have only gone to 25 cities in America,” Woodfin continued. “You need to know that Birmingham is not on that list. So the question becomes, when you walk out of this room, are we prepared to invest in our competitiveness? Do we want to compete? Do we want to set ourselves apart and not be like any other city in America?”

“We don’t have to be like Nashville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or Austin,” he said. “We need to be the best versions of ourselves.”

The mayor outlined the road to getting to that goal.

“That is going to require us to shake off the way we’ve always done things… just based on the sheer nature of what you do, you’re risk averse. But being risk averse in this time as we move into 2020 under Jim’s (Gorrie’s) leadership will not work for us as an organization or as a city. Or for the future and present of what we want our business community to be — to attract, retain, grow and many other things we have to do,” Woodfin stressed.

“As my challenge I leave to the members of this organization in this room, that we are willing to stand behind Jim, just as we did with Nancy (Goedecke), but really be aggressive,” he concluded. “Really be the opposite of risk averse and be hungry enough to do something that’s going to be different to make Birmingham a place that attracts more businesses and for the current businesses in this community to be and remain successful.”

RELATED: Almost two years in, Randall Woodfin reflects on biggest initiatives

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

7 hours ago

Above and beyond: Regions associate honored with Better Life Award after learning sign language to serve deaf customers

Regions Bank on Wednesday honored one of its Alabama associates in a major way for going above and beyond to better the lives of the company’s customers.

In a story posted on Region’s “Doing More Today” website, the company announced Gayla Land was presented with the Better Life Award. This is the top honor bestowed upon Regions associates “for outstanding dedication and job performance, as well as exemplary involvement and commitment to the community.”

For Land, a Regions Bank branch manager in Dothan, the genesis of the award goes back to 2016. She was reportedly serving a deaf customer but wanted to be able to do so better, as communicating properly was a real issue.

“I felt there was something missing. It frustrated me,” Land reminisced. “I could only provide what I could write down. I couldn’t share the information in his approved language.”

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The Regions associate turned that frustration into a solution. Land, on her own time, went out of the way to enroll in American Sign Language classes at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

However, her dedication did not stop there. She not only learned sign language herself but decided to strike up a partnership with the school.

“I fell in love with the deaf community and the language itself,” Land explained. “Then I told the school, ‘Let’s make a partnership to have them come into the branch for financial education seminars,’ and they agreed.”

The student subsequently became the teacher, as Land began teaching in sign language a series of lessons that cover money management, retirement, identity theft and fraud prevention. Her first group reportedly graduated earlier this year.

This is having a real impact on the lives of Regions customers with hearing impairments.

“They feel more confident in their ability to make financial decisions, and I learn something new every time they are with me.” Land advised.

Her commitment to the hearing impaired continued to be displayed Wednesday when she received the award from Regions. The company donates $1,000 in the honoree’s name to a nonprofit organization of his or her choice, and Land chose the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to receive the money.

“They do great work providing skills and education to the deaf and blind communities,” she remarked. “I know they will make great use of the money to provide for those families.”

However, her journey is not done yet.

Land is planning to sharpen her sign language fluency by taking advanced classes.

She also used her new platform to urge others to learn the language as well.

“Don’t be fearful or feel judged. Just try to learn. Even if it’s just one new word every day,” Land concluded. “Your eyes will be opened to a new perspective, and you’ll be embraced by the deaf community because you tried.”

You can watch an almost six-minute video on see Land’s work in action below or here.

RELATED: Merry and bright: How Regions’ headquarters building lights became a holiday tradition

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

8 hours ago

Auburn’s Bo Nix named SEC Freshman of the Year, Derrick Brown named best defensive player

The Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) 14 coaches have voted Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix as the SEC Freshman of the Year and defensive tackle Derrick Brown as the Defensive Player of the Year.

The honors were announced Wednesday by the league office. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players.

Brown was also named by the Associated Press as the AP’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the week.

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Nix now holds the Auburn Tigers’ freshman record for passing yards (2,366), pass completions (200) and touchdown passes (15) in a season. The Alabama native also rushed for seven scores.

Brown had a monster season on the defensive side of the ball and landed as a finalist for just about every national award possible.

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

8 hours ago

Rogers’ report from Washington: The season of giving across East Alabama

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Each Christmas season, I like to highlight a few of the kind things folks across East Alabama are doing for others.

Below is a small sample of ways our fellow Alabamians have cared for each other over the past year.

In Clay County at Central High School, a teacher, Amanda East, gathered the school supplies that were going to be disposed of from the locker clean out. Those items are now set up to donate to students who need them.

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In Lee County, The Hallmark Channel is coming to Beauregard to present new homes to the 15 families who lost everything when the EF-4 tornado devastated the area.

Hallmark will also serve residents a holiday meal at Providence Baptist Church with Santa and toys for the little ones, too.

In Calhoun County, Dara Murphy of Rosa Lee Boutique organized a White Bag Project for individuals to grab a white bag and fill it up for a child in need. They are also taking clothing and furniture to 20 families.

In Lee, Macon and Tallapoosa Counties, Rep. Peeblin Warren assists 400 seniors with gift baskets.

In Randolph County, the Roanoke Police Department is holding its annual toy drive to ensure local children get a Christmas gift.

In Chambers County, the Christian Service Center collects food and toys to donate to families.

In Montgomery County, Woodland United Methodist Church/Town of Pike Road distribute food. Pike Road and Central Alabama Health Care Systems also distribute hygiene items for local veterans.

Reading these stories makes me proud to be from East Alabama. It is truly heartwarming to see our brothers and sisters across the Third District taking time to take care for someone who needs it most.

May we carry this attitude of service to others all year long.

Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Remember the reason for the season.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers is a Republican from Saks. 

9 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Jaylen Waddle named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year

University of Alabama sophomore wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle on Wednesday was announced as the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Special Teams Player of the Year.

He is the first Crimson Tide player to be named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year since Christion Jones in 2013. The honor was voted on by the league’s 14 head coaches, with coaches not permitted to vote for their own players.

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Waddle, who was already selected by Pro Football Focus as a first-team All-American at returner, led the nation this season in punt return average at 24.9 yards per return. Waddle had 19 punt returns for 474 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 77 yards.

The playmaker also returned four kickoffs for 152 yards and one touchdown this season, in addition to 553 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches at wideout.

This comes after Waddle was one of 14 Bama players on Tuesday who were named to the All-SEC Coaches’ Team. He was actually named to both the first and second teams at different positions.

Juniors Jerry Jeudy (WR), Alex Leatherwood (OL) and Jedrick Wills, Jr. (OL) were first-team selections on offense, while redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings (LB) and junior Xavier McKinney (DB) were honored as first-team defense. Waddle was a first-team selection on special teams.

Redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson was named to the second-team offense along with juniors Najee Harris (RB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Tua Tagovailoa (QB) and Waddle (WR). Seniors Raekwon Davis (DL) and Trevon Diggs (DB) and redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis were second-team choices on defense.

Waddle was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018.

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