9 months ago

Senate Majority Leader Reed deems broadband expansion ‘a top five issue for Alabama’s future’

State Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) does not mince words when describing the importance of expanding access to broadband in Alabama.

“It is a significant statewide issue,” he told Yellowhammer News during a recent conversation. “I consider it a top five issue for Alabama’s future.”

Calling broadband a “fundamental infrastructure component,” Reed can easily rattle off many of the countless ways in which technology affects the daily lives of Alabamians and, as he says, the things which “make internet access and broadband access across our state a must.”

The need for high-speed internet access “has an impact on every area of our life,” according to Reed.

He points out that the state’s economy has long been the focal point for broadband expansion.

“No business is going to build a $25 million facility in an area that does not have access to high-speed internet, it’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Reed believes the conditions created by the COVID-19 crisis have brought a renewed urgency to the effort.

Healthcare, quality of life elements and education present different challenges now than before the crisis.

“Telemedicine visits are becoming more prevalent,” Reed offered. “This is another opportunity, especially in the midst of the pandemic situation we find ourselves in, to where this is something that’s very important. In my opinion, we are never going to go back to where this is not a routine part of the healthcare delivery system.”

Reed says one quality of life element brought to light during the pandemic is simply the ability to connect and interact with family and friends. He says video conferencing can provide much needed socializing in a time like this.

Education — ‘It is going to be a real challenge to do those online classes from home’

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the need for broadband expansion will be in the area of education.

“We now have a situation where our children are being educated at home which adds a whole new dimension to the need for internet access,” Reed said.

Policy discussions at the legislature, according to Reed, often center around the allocation of resources in the area of technology in order to prepare students for the 21st century economy and world.

“We have struggled with the idea of providing tablets or providing technology to students that then once they go home from the school they can’t even use them,” he outlined. “That’s an issue that persisted before the pandemic, but now we find a scenario where the only education opportunities that are out there for our hard-working teachers to provide for students is internet-dependent learning. It is not just K-12 students, either. Our institutions of higher learning have gone completely online. If you are from my district, in Winston County for instance, it is going to be a real challenge to do those online classes from home if you do not have high-speed internet access.”

Approximately 125 miles south of Reed’s state senate district, Elmore County Superintendent of Education Richard Dennis found his school system facing a similar predicament.

Dennis oversees a school system with an enrollment of more than 11,000 students in a county where more than 40% of its citizens live in areas unserved or underserved by high-speed internet.

Elmore County stands as a lesson for both how the state’s broadband grants have succeeded — and for how much further the state has to go to ensure wider access in rural areas.

When confronted with the likelihood of virtual teaching for the remainder of the school year, Dennis purchased 3,500 Chromebooks for students to use during quarantine. And that was only part of the challenge he faced in a county with large gaps in its broadband coverage.

He quickly facilitated a partnership between the board of education, Elmore County Economic Development Authority (ECEDA) and Central Access, the broadband subsidiary of Central Alabama Electric Cooperative.

Out of this partnership grew more than 65 internet hotspots for students to use across Elmore County.

Much of this would not have been possible without previous broadband expansion done by Central Access.

“Central Access is really the backbone right now,” Dennis told Yellowhammer News.

A feasibility study conducted by Sain Associates and Central Access helped the county quickly understand where the hotspots could be established to help students. It also allowed them to set up a website as a resource for parents and students to locate hotspots.

RELATED: State Sen. Scofield: ‘I don’t think anything else could have brought’ broadband more to light than coronavirus

In the long-term, the county now has a better understanding of where the gaps in high-speed internet access exist.

As the county is able to continue receiving awards from the state’s grant program, it is going to have positive effects on Elmore County students, according to Dennis.

“Central Access is going to drive the competition to expand broadband significantly in Elmore County,” he remarked. “What they have done has become the backbone of what we show on that map.”

While identifying several large unserved swaths across his county, Dennis noted Central Access will be integral to building out the county’s network.

“Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, with their backbone group, they’re looking to pursue grants over the next two years in some of these other areas that are really going to force the competition to step up or they’re going to take it away from them,” he said.

Like Reed, Dennis believes the COVID-19 crisis has infused additional intensity into Alabama’s effort to improve its broadband infrastructure.

“This situation is going to drive expanding broadband access to happen much quicker,” he predicted.

Elmore County had an existing virtual program which it was looking to grow at a moderate pace. Now, Dennis aims to merge its use into every school.

The school system has purchased an additional 2,800 Chrome books, which he says will put Elmore County “one-to-one” for K-12.

“As we start the next year, we will begin immediately to integrate the Chromebooks and the platforms that we are using, Edgenuity and Odysseyware, into our curriculums,” he said. “Having our students involved, teaching them how to login in, access and how to manipulate the programs. We are also going to conduct trainings for parents when we have an opportunity to actually bring them in.”

He plans to build off the lessons of the last few months and make it a learning experience for his entire system.

“This is a learning opportunity,” said Dennis. “We’ve been tossed into the deep end of the virtual pool, and we’ve had to learn how to swim, and that’s what we’re doing.”

While he feels confident his system will be trained and ready to learn in an increasingly virtual environment, there is still one big hurdle.

“The big issue then is going to be connectivity in these areas,” explained Dennis. “We are going to be looking to help out with hotspots and whatever else we can do. I think expanding broadband will help everybody, but specifically to education I know it will support us more because we will be able to utilize the tools we have, with the students they will be able utilize it in their homes.”

Funding

Additional funding will be critical to ensuring more Alabama students have access to high-speed internet.

Reed remains confident in the legislature’s ability to meet those needs.

“We pursue all options for funding,” he outlined. “We have resources in the budgets. We have a very aggressive grant program.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) recently proposed allocating some of the federal COVID-19 relief money toward broadband expansion, an approach Reed finds favorable.

“If we can use some of those resources through a methodology that we already have, like the grant program, but we have additional funding there, what does that mean?” Reed offered. “It just means our incentivizing of these companies that are the providers in these markets will ensure they go faster and deeper into these unserved areas. If that’s something that can be a use of these new resources to be able to benefit the people of Alabama long-term, not just in the next year, then I think that’s a smart thing for us to do.”

Reed supports use of the relief money coming from the federal CARES Act to reimburse the state, counties and cities for unexpected COVID-19 expenditures. He also thinks long-term needs should be a consideration in how that money is spent.

“Some of these dollars we want to make sure they would be spent on things that are the gift that keeps on giving,” he said. “The opportunity that continues to be a benefit to the people of Alabama long after I finish being in public service. I think that’s something the legislature and the governor are going to be very interested in doing.”

And he knows of at least one policy initiative meeting that criteria.

“I think a larger, broader, more in-depth broadband network in Alabama is a really positive thing, not only for today, but also for tomorrow and years and years into the future,” he concluded.

RELATED: Alabama’s rural broadband expansion meets resistance

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

2 hours ago

Mobile native Hank Aaron, the greatest ever to play baseball, passes away

Native Alabamian Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, widely regarded as one of history’s best ever baseball players, passed away on Friday at the age of 86.

Born and raised in Mobile, Aaron spent most of his childhood in Toulminville. Growing up in a poor family in the segregated South, his family could not afford baseball equipment, so Aaron practiced the game he loved by hitting bottle caps with sticks. He would also create his own bats and balls out of materials he found on the streets.

As a teenager, he started rising through the ranks as a member of the Mobile Black Bears, a semipro team at the time in the Negro Leagues. At age 20, he made his Major League Baseball debut with the then-Milwaukee Braves.

Over the course of his 23-year MLB career, Aaron became a giant across the country. He would end his legendary playing days as the all-time leader in home runs, RBIs, total bases reached and extra-base hits. He won a World Series in 1957 with the Braves and was the NL MVP that season.

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Among a litany of honors, Aaron was selected to an All-Star team 25 times, which is the most by any player in MLB history. His No. 44 is retired by the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1982 on the first ballot and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

Aaron spent much of his post-playing career in Atlanta as an executive with the Braves. He made the city his own for decades, and passed away in his home there on Friday morning, according to Georgia’s CBS 46.

Governor Kay Ivey mourned Aaron’s death in a tweet.

Hank Aaron Stadium immortalizes the late, native Mobilian in his hometown. This is the former home of the semipro team now known as the Rocket City Trash Pandas, when the team was the Mobile Bay Bears.

UPDATE 11:10 a.m.

Ivey has ordered flags in Alabama be flown at half-staff immediately to honor Aaron. Flags should be flown at half-staff until sunset on Friday.

Congressman Jerry Carl (AL-01), who represents Mobile in the U.S. House of Representatives, released a statement.

“I’m deeply saddened to learn of Hank Aaron’s passing,” said Carl. “A Mobile native, ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ was a baseball legend respected not only for his performance on the field, but also for his personal integrity and character. Hank Aaron never let his humble upbringing and lack of access to baseball equipment as a young boy hamper his growth or dedication to the game. Throughout his storied career, he would ultimately smash multiple baseball hall of fame records, most notably shattering Babe Ruth’s home run record by hitting 755 home runs. I’m proud to call him a fellow Mobilian, and I know his family and friends take comfort knowing his memory lives on in the lives of so many. My prayers are with the family and friends of Hank Aaron today.”

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

2 hours ago

Gen. Lloyd Austin confirmed as secretary of Defense with Shelby’s, Tuberville’s support

U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin (Ret.) on Friday was confirmed in a bipartisan 93-2 vote by the United States Senate as the next secretary of the Department of Defense.

Austin, who is a native of Mobile and currently serves on the Auburn University board of trustees, becomes the first black defense secretary in American history. He was nominated by President Joe Biden for the post.

U.S. Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) voted to support Austin’s confirmation.

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Tuberville said in a statement, “Retired General Lloyd Austin is a son of the great state of Alabama – born in Mobile and an Auburn University alumnus and Trustee – who understands the critical role our state’s five military bases play in supporting America’s armed forces. General Austin’s decades of service make him well-positioned to lead the Department of Defense and confront the threats facing our country. I look forward to working with him for the benefit of Alabamians, Americans, and all of our men and women in uniform to advance the safety and security of our great nation.”

The Senate vote came after both chambers of Congress the prior day granted him a waiver to the law requiring that the secretary of Defense either be a civilian or someone who has been retired from the military for seven or more years.

After a nearly 41-year decorated military career, Austin retired in 2016 as a four-star general. Some of his former posts include service as the commander of U.S. Central Command, commander of the Combined Forces in Iraq and Syria, and as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army.

Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds master’s degrees from Auburn and Webster University. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Auburn, and his wife, Charlene, is also an Auburn graduate.

Additionally, the retired general currently serves on the board of directors for Raytheon Technologies and Nucor, both of which have significant Alabama presences.

UPDATE 11:30 a.m.

In a tweet, Congressman Mike Rogers (AL-03), who represents Auburn in the U.S. House of Representatives, applauded the confirmation. Rogers is ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“Congratulations to General Austin on his historic confirmation. I appreciate his longstanding commitment to our military, and I look forward to working with him to provide our men and women in uniform all the resources they need to successfully defend our nation,” said Rogers.

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

3 hours ago

Two Alabama Democrats file lawsuit, claim Doug Jones tried to ‘give control of the Alabama Democratic Party to Whites’

Two members of the Alabama Democratic Conference have filed a lawsuit against Tom Perez, the national Democratic Party’s former chair. They claim he and former Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) attempted to “give control of the Alabama Democratic Party to Whites.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court by Randy Kelley and Janet May. Both are affiliates of the Alabama Democratic Conference, a group that describes itself as the “Black Political Caucus of Alabama” and operates independently of the official state Democratic Party.

The case stems from a years-long dispute over Democratic leadership in Alabama.

Barry Ragsdale, an attorney who was has supported the Perez-aligned faction of Alabama Democrats that now controls the party, attacked the validity of the lawsuit.

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“The Plaintiffs are just sore losers, who can’t accept their defeat and who now recklessly scream ‘racism’ because they know that neither the law or the facts support their legal claims,” Ragsdale said in a statement to Alabama Media Group.

The lawsuit is the latest action in an extended legal imbroglio that began in 2018.

Then-Senator Doug Jones, unhappy with a state Democratic party infrastructure that he felt was ineffective, attempted to install a personal friend and ally as chair of the state party during a party meeting.

That effort failed, and Nancy Worley was reelected to the position of state chair with the backing of the Alabama Democratic Conference and its longtime leader Joe Reed.

However, a group of Alabama Democrats asserted there were irregularities in how the party’s internal election was conducted.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) examined the allegations of improper conduct and found them to be valid, ultimately ordering the state party to conduct new elections.

After much intraparty fighting, which led to an extended court battle, State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) emerged as the party chairman.

England, who is the state party’s first black chairperson, had the backing of Jones and the DNC.

Worley ultimately stopped pursuing her claim to be party chair in the spring of 2020 after a state judge dismissed a last-ditch suit.

The new England-led regime at the Alabama Democratic Party passed new bylaws that govern the state party and set out how the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC) is elected.

Those changes, backed by England, Jones, Perez and the DNC, are the subject of Kelley and May’s lawsuit filed in recent days.

The suit names Perez, England and the SDEC as defendants.

Kelley and May say the changes do not comply with a 1991 federal court order that required black members of the party receive proportional representation on the executive committee to their share of Democratic votes cast.

“After Blacks became a majority of the SDEC, the governing body, Perez joined with Senator Doug Jones and others to weaken Black’ influence and give the control of the Alabama Democratic Party to Whites,” Kelley said in a release posted publicly by the Alabama Democratic Conference.

The new bylaws do change the method of ensuring a proportional amount of black members are on the executive committee. Similar to the previous arrangement, black individuals are added as at large members to ensure proper representation numbers.

However, in the new bylaws, the executive committee as a whole selects the at large members instead of leaving the selection of the at large members to the minority caucus.

Joe Reed and the Democratic Conference leadership had control over the equivalent of the minority caucus in the version of the party that existed before 2019. They regularly used the ability to select members as a tool to assert influence over the state party.

The Alabama Democratic Conference said in its statement that it believes the 2019 changes to how the executive committee is composed amount to “undermining, diluting, and discriminating against Black Democrats.”

Ragsdale pushed back on the assertions by Kelley, May and the Democratic Conference, telling Alabama Media Group that the plaintiffs “can’t accept that their side lost after an open and fair election.”

Ragsdale continued, “At its core, this most recent lawsuit is anti-democratic and an attack on the values of inclusion and diversity that guide the Democratic Party.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

3 hours ago

Alabama’s unemployment rate dips to 3.9%, lowest point of pandemic

The Alabama Department of Labor on Friday announced that the state’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted December unemployment rate was 3.9%, the lowest mark since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The latest figure came in the final full month of President Donald J. Trump’s administration and was down from November’s rate of 4.4%. December’s rate represented 87,534 unemployed Alabamians, compared to 100,374 the previous month.

While the latest rate is much improved from April’s bleak 13.4%. it is also still above December 2019’s rate of 2.7%, showing significant work is needed to get back to year-over-year parity.

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Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said in a statement, “This is the lowest unemployment rate Alabama has seen since the pandemic began, and I’m glad to see us close out 2020 on a good note.”

“While we are pleased to see our rate continue to drop, we know there is still a lot more work to be done,” he continued. “More than 26,000 Alabamians are unemployed now than at the same time last year. We are still down more than 34,000 jobs from last year. Our work in 2021 will be focused on continuing this recovery.”

Wage and salary employment grew in December by 6,200. According to a release, monthly gains were seen in the trade, transportation and utilities sector (+7,700), the leisure and hospitality sector (+3,000), and the education and health services sector (+1,100), for example. Over the year, the biggest losses in wage and salary employment came in the leisure and hospitality sector (-19,400), the education and health services sector (-16,400), and the government sector (-9,700), among others.

Counties with the lowest unemployment rates in December were: Cullman County at 2.1%; Shelby, Marshall and Franklin Counties at 2.2%; and DeKalb and Cleburne Counties at 2.3%.

Counties with the highest unemployment rates were: Wilcox County at 10.6%, Lowndes County at 10.2% and Perry County at 7.8%.

Meanwhile, major cities with the lowest unemployment rates were: Homewood and Vestavia Hills at 1.7%; Alabaster at 2.0%; and Madison at 2.1%. Major cities with the highest unemployment rates were: Prichard at 11%; Selma at 9.0%; and Bessemer and Anniston at 7.0%.

(Click for high-quality image)

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

5 hours ago

7 Things: Biden and Ivey keep masks on, cautious start for coming legislative session, Alabama Dems must want Mo Brooks to be a senator and more …

7. Biden’s plan for vaccinations is already on pace

  • For as much as the incoming Biden administration proclaimed the previous administration was a disaster on the coronavirus, you would think that they would set goals that far outpace the criticized output for vaccine rollout, but this is not the case. Vaccine delivery is already on pace for 100 million vaccines in 100 days.
  • Despite this fact, which angered President Joe Biden, some in the Biden administration claim that the administration is starting their distribution program from scratch. Dr. Anthony Fauci denies this.

6. Just stop with impeachment

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  • As if the nation hasn’t suffered enough from phony and politically-motivated impeachments, freshman U.S. Representative  Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has already filed articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden over his interactions with Ukraine. This is going nowhere.
  • Greene said, “President Joe Biden is unfit to hold the office of the Presidency. His pattern of abuse of power as President Obama’s Vice President is lengthy and disturbing.” She cited Biden’s threat to withhold a loan to Ukraine unless a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden as part of the younger Biden’s scheme  “to siphon off cash from America’s greatest enemies Russia and China” using his dad as leverage, was fired.

5. Keystone Pipeline shutdown wipes out up to 11,000 jobs 

  • In a move that made American liberals and foreign governments very happy, President Joe Biden decided that the previously-approved Keystone Pipeline should be stopped mid-construction. 
  • Biden’s campaign slogan was “Build Back Better,” but the cancellation of the 1,700-mile pipeline stops 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. This is a costly decision because it ends around 11,000 American jobs that would have generated $1.6 billion in wages.

4. Alabama Democrats hammer Mo Brooks

  • Coming off his controversial speech that took place six hours before the U.S. Capitol riots, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) has drawn fire from the Alabama Democratic Party and former U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith (D-Huntsville).
  • The Alabama Democratic Party is selling “No Mo Bullshit” merchandise to raise money from their email list, and Griffth recorded a YouTube video with 23 views, as of this writing, saying that Brooks should resign. He stated, “He chose to support domestic terrorism over the Constitution and has showed no remorse for his actions. Mo Brooks has become dangerous to democracy. He has disgraced and embarrassed the state of Alabama. Mo Brooks must face the consequences of his actions.  Congress must act now to expel him.”

3. Two-week pause after the beginning of the legislative session

  • The legislative session for the Alabama Legislature will begin on February 2, and now House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) has said that they will take a break after the first two weeks to assess the coronavirus pandemic situation and how it’s impacting work.
  • This will also be done to make sure that there isn’t an outbreak of cases, and it’ll be time to figure out which legislation needs to be prioritized. It appears that discussions surrounding re-upping economic incentives, coronavirus liability immunity for responsible businesses and gambling matters are all on the table, along with the normal business of passing operating budgets.

2. Biden: Take a mask with you to travel (like you already were)

  • President Joe Biden is planning to require people to wear masks when they travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thankfully, a vast majority of people are already doing this as airlines require it.
  • Biden is also looking to increase vaccine supply and testing for the coronavirus. The White House official directing the national response to the pandemic, Jeff Zients, said, “We need to ask average Americans to do their part.”

1. 15 more days to stop the spread for 6 more weeks

  • Governor Kay Ivey has announced that the statewide mask mandate will be in effect until at least March 5 at 5:00 p.m. There were no other major changes to the statewide emergency health order. Ivey said that the masks remain “the one step that we can all take in order to keep some balance in our daily lives, and stay healthy and safe.”
  • One change in the order was allowing more flexibility in recruiting poll workers for upcoming elections across the state. Although, in her statements, Ivey focused on the high number of hospitalizations the state has seen. She said that “of the 1,600 ICU beds in our state, 1,561 were occupied” last week.