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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