6 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

13 hours ago

Lt. Gov. Ainsworth back to work and channeling Trump on the coronavirus — ‘Don’t live in fear’

The last few weeks have been very interesting for Alabama Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth.

During a church gathering, he contracted the coronavirus and then passed it to his wife. Although he was not entirely asymptomatic, he did not require any medical treatment. He is now headed back to work and ready to do the people’s business.

This mirrors the recovery of President Donald Trump, who was back to work long before many expected he would be.

Wednesday morning, Ainsworth appeared on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show” to speak about his experiences with this illness and how Alabama Democrats attempted to use the diagnosis to raise money for their party, a move Ainsworth said was “typical” of the behavior of their members. Ainsworth even noted that some in the leadership of the Alabama Democratic Party contacted him to check up on him before the fundraising email went out.

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For Ainsworth, the bigger issue was how they misrepresented his positions by claiming that he opposed masks and science. Neither position is true, he said.

Ainsworth advised that while he opposes the mandate, he doesn’t oppose mitigation efforts like masks and social distancing

“I’ve been wearing masks when I go to events. I practice social distancing, I use proper sanitation. I still got it,” he outlined.

His issue, as it is with many people, is the top down mandate.

“I do not think it’s the government’s role to mandate whether or not we should wear masks. I just don’t believe that,” he advised. “I believe in personal responsibility.”

Ainsworth believes that the fundraising email got sent because Alabama Democrats are in trouble, and they know U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) is going to lose. Ainsworth believes the message Democrats are selling just doesn’t work.

He stated, “They’re desperate, they’re grasping at straws, and I think Dems know in Alabama that their policies and positions don’t resonate with people so what do they do, they try spin stuff and lie.”

While Ainsworth mostly shrugged off the Democrats’ tactics, he also warned that people should take the coronavirus seriously and not weaponize for political gain as some in Alabama and on the national level are doing.

Like President Donald Trump, Ainsworth thinks America has to get back to work but it has to do it safely. He noted that “New York has ruined their economy” with shutdowns and restrictions yet they continue to have issues with the coronavirus.

His advice to Alabamians is simple: “[D]on’t live in fear. Continue to live your life but do it safely.”

Listen:

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

14 hours ago

Alabama AG Steve Marshall slams ‘Big Tech’ as greatest threat to free, fair elections in America

Attorney General Steve Marshall (R-AL) is continuing his leadership in calling on Congress to regulate tech monopolies’ control over the flow of information and political discourse in America.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Marshall commented on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony that day to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. This comes after Twitter blocked the distribution of bombshell reports, beginning with the New York Post, regarding the Biden family’s foreign business dealings. The New York Post’s Twitter account has been locked for two weeks and counting.

In calling for change to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Marshall remarked, “Twitter is not the Ministry of Truth. It should concern us all when a platform that holds such tremendous power over information uses that power in contradiction of the principles of free speech and freedom of the press.”

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In a statement to Yellowhammer News on Wednesday afternoon, Marshall expounded on the topic in strong terms.

“In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that there is a need to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996,” Alabama’s Republican attorney general advised. “The egregious actions taken two weeks ago by Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook to suppress a news report of significant public interest—along with speech about it—published in one of our country’s oldest and most-widely-read newspapers in the run-up to a presidential election, has only made the need for reform more evident than ever.”

“Big Tech holds tremendous power over information and brazenly wields that power according to its social and political biases,” he continued. “Indeed, social-media platforms oftentimes appear less guided by the principles of American democracy—such as free speech and press—than by the principles of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth: amplify favored voices and viewpoints, censor disfavored voices and viewpoints.”

Marshall noted, “I agree with Justice Thomas’s recent assessment that courts have expanded Section 230 ‘beyond the natural reading of the [statutory] text,’ and support the recent announcement by Chairman Pai that the Federal Communications Commissions will undertake rulemaking to clarify the meaning of Section 230. But there are issues inherent in Section 230 that can only be fully cured by legislative action.”

“At today’s hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator Ted Cruz opined that Facebook, Google, and Twitter ‘collectively pose … the single greatest threat to free speech in America, and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.’ I concur and urge Congress to take action,” he concluded.

Marshall also published a must-read op-ed in Real Clear Policy on this same issue, calling Twitter’s and Facebook’s censorship of the New York Post’s reporting “un-American.”

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

15 hours ago

Ivey administration’s allocation of CARES Act funds underscores importance of, support for first responders

Wednesday is National First Responders Day, and the importance of America’s tremendous first responders is even more magnified this year as the nation continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey’s administration recently established the Health Care and Emergency Response Providers grant program. This enabled first responders, including private ambulance and other emergency response service (EMS) providers, to receive federal funds through the state’s share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The grant program received a total allocation of $35 million, building on the Ivey administration’s total allocation of up to $250 million in CARES Act funds for healthcare-related purposes in Alabama.

This support for first responders and health care providers in general has drawn praise for Ivey and her administration. This includes the Alabama Association of Ambulance Services (AAAS).

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“We applaud Governor Ivey and her administration for recognizing the critical role that EMS and ambulance providers are playing in the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” stated Jason Trammell, president of AAAS. “This funding will support providers across the state, who are working around the clock to serve their communities in a safe and efficient manner while their workers are on the frontlines of the fight against this virus.”

The Health Care & Emergency Response Providers grant program includes cash grants in an amount of up to $15,000 for providers that meet certainly eligibility requirements.

“Our company serves some of Alabama’s largest cities as well as its more rural areas. No matter where our providers are operating, health and safety is paramount to our underlying mission,” advised Brett Jovanovich of Lifeguard Ambulance Service. “With the cold and flu season around the corner, and with the increased potential of another wave of COVID-19, we intend to utilize these funds to fully ensure that our paramedics have the PPE and supplies needed for their safety and for the protection of patients in the communities we serve.”

In a statement to Yellowhammer News on Wednesday, Ivey spokesperson Gina Maiola said, “Governor Ivey has the highest respect for the many first responders across our state, especially as they have faced unusual obstacles over the last several months.”

“As the governor remains committed to getting this money in the hands of those who need it, she was proud to award $35 million of the CARES Act money to establish the Health Care and Emergency Response Providers grant program. These providers play a critical role in our state’s response to COVID-19, as well as in our day to day lives, and especially as we celebrate National First Responders Day, Governor Ivey applauds them for their invaluable, tough service,” she concluded.

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

17 hours ago

Air superiority then, space superiority now — The Battle of Britain 80 years hence

Eighty years ago this week, hurricane season ended when the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain by stopping the Nazi war machine at the edge of the English Channel. Before the summer of 1940, Hitler had derided Great Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Göring’s seemingly superior Luftwaffe pilots were outdone by the young British RAF, aided by friendly forces — not the least of which was a squadron of Polish pilots. They had shown the world that the Nazi juggernaut could be countered through perseverance, aided by the novel design of quick and lethal airplanes: the spitfire and hurricane.

Churchill named this battle when he declared after Dunkirk that with the conclusion of the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain would begin. Unlike past battles, the critical objective was as amorphous as it was strategic: the achievement of air superiority. It was a testament to the fact that warfare had changed forever, tilting the scales in favor of technology over brute strength.

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Even Hitler and his retinue of yes-men knew that subjugating Britain would require a risky and complex invasion. The English Channel, though relatively narrow at some points, served as a giant moat that required amphibious landings on slow-moving vessels, which would be vulnerable to attack from above. Nazi control of the air would be the key to a successful invasion. With proper preparations for a seaborne invasion many months out, Göring pushed for an air campaign, and Hitler approved.

The Luftwaffe’s first objective was to destroy RAF airfields, but Luftwaffe planes were not designed for this mission, and their pilots — though experienced — were no match for the RAF’s pilots in spitfires and hurricanes. These planes had unmatched maneuverability, and home-field advantage played an equally important role. The British had a superior early warning radar system that enabled them to plot the likely flight path of incoming enemies and to scramble their gassed and fully loaded planes efficiently. Over Britain, each downed German represented not only a lost airplane but also a lost pilot. Maintaining air superiority was a fight for survival, and the British pilots knew that the fate of freedom for their island, and perhaps for civilization, rested on their shoulders. They turned the tide of the war in fighting, as Churchill noted, “undaunted by the odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger.”

While the concept of air superiority was initially academic, the Battle of Britain proved it critical to modern military success. Since then, the need for air superiority has remained unquestioned. A country might not win with air superiority, but failure was guaranteed without it. The use of airpower to master the skies has been the first order of business in every major conflict since World War II. Even today, with the development of defensive missile shields and the capability of intercepting incoming aircraft and missiles, air superiority is and will remain a critical objective in any conflict. But air superiority is starting to give way to space superiority.

As we become more and more dependent on satellites, and as human activity in space becomes less of a novelty, controlling space will be critical not only for commercial and economic success, but also for global stability and the defense of our nation. The nation that controls space will control the destiny of the entire world. To be dominant in space is to be dominant period, and the dominating nation will have the final say over many aspects of our lives.

Those who would object to the militarization of space do not understand, or refuse to see, today’s reality. The activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in space are similar to those of the nations who sought to control the sea in the 19th century and the air in the 20th century. At present, these activities are largely unchecked by other nations and international organizations.

There was a time when the United Nations was capable of limiting space to peaceful means. Similar to the control of nuclear weapons, the United Nations provided a means of achieving an international consensus that limiting weapons in space was beneficial for all nations. But, as with any large organization attempting to achieve consensus among diverse groups, the only real agreement among nations became the lowest common denominator. Thus, UN limits on the militarization of space are limited, weak, and ineffective.

This void of international leadership is being filled by a resurgent communist China, intent on achieving world domination — a long-term national goal. With few international limitations, the CCP is seeking space superiority to impose its ideas on the world and thereby supplant civilization’s shared liberal principles. The UN has been aggressively helpless or simply unable to check China’s dreams of space superiority. While the CCP has yet to obtain the domination it seeks, it is clearly on track with covert military missions, like developing its own GPS system that would aid in obtaining space superiority.

The United States cannot let this happen. Students of history know that many of the great and terrible military conflicts could have been prevented or mitigated with proper foresight and preparation. Unless the United States acts soon to check CCP aggression in space, we may have extremely limited choices in the future.

Our new Space Force must explain the seriousness of this threat and develop strategic plans to protect space from the domination of any one country. This grand effort will require allies who not only understand the threat, but who are financially able to join with the United States to dominate space for peaceful purposes. The free world’s shared cultural and civic traditions could form the basis for ensuring that space can never be dominated by one country.

During World War I and in the following decades, Churchill stressed the importance of developing radar, the tank and the airplane. Without these developments, the Battle of Britain would have ended much differently. As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of victory at the Battle of Britain, and as we understand the strategic necessity of air superiority in protecting the island nation from foreign invasion, we should recognize the strategic necessity of space superiority today.

The United States and her friends cannot allow a country that is utterly opposed to freedom to control space and, in turn, Earth. The free world must develop space first and create enforceable laws to allow space to be an extension of the liberty we currently enjoy. In order to do that, we must overhaul our outdated legal regime concerning the development and deployment of space technologies, support the private development of space properly, and remove the bureaucratic barriers hindering important breakthroughs. We must not surrender space to totalitarians who would use it to subjugate free peoples around the globe. If we heed the call to action and engage in this new endeavor, we can ensure that the limitless possibilities of space are secured for future generations.

Will Sellers is an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

17 hours ago

Mental health crisis care centers to be built in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville

MONTGOMERY — State officials gathered on the steps of the capitol Wednesday morning to announce the details surrounding three new mental health crisis care centers to be built around the state.

AltaPointe Health in Mobile, the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority and WellStone Behavioral Health in Huntsville will be receiving grants from the State of Alabama to build the crisis centers.

Governor Kay Ivey, House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) and Dept. of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear all spoke at the announcement.

Each center will be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They are intended to keep people with mental illnesses out of jails and hospital emergency rooms, two places not designed to accommodate such patients.

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“Most importantly,” said the governor at the event, the centers will “improve the quality of life for Alabama families and communities.”

The three centers have been a top priority for Ivey and Ledbetter this year. The governor first mentioned the initiative in her State of the State address in January, and Ledbetter shepherded the funding of the project – $18 million – through the legislative process during the spring session.

Commissioner Beshear referred to the newly announced centers as “pilot grantees” who were selected by an “independent review panel comprised of national experts in crisis care along with subject matter experts in mental illness and substance use.”

Stays in the centers could be as short as a few hours and as long as a few days, according to Beshear, who noted the locations will be staffed by mental and physical health professionals.

Beshear called the type of care that will be provided “recovery-based” and relayed that patients will be given a “warm handoff” after their short stay to services or agencies that can provide longer-term assistance.

Each center will have a “mobile crisis teams” with a law enforcement component that will be able to go into nearby communities and deal with dangerous situations that have mental health issues at their core.

Beshear reiterated multiple times that her department will work closely with the centers to ensure they provide a “continuum of care” to the patients they take in. She said her department has the goal of “opening the gateway to care.”

In terms of size and design, the three centers will vary.

AltaPointe’s center in Mobile will have 21 beds with 15 designated for temporary observation. The center will be open for dropoffs from several nearby counties.

Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority is partnering with two similar organizations to have its center serve 11 counties. The building will be in the capital city, and it will have 21 beds with 10 for temporary observation.

The facility to be built by WellStone Behavioral Health in Huntsville will be the largest of the centers. Local governments in the area are providing an additional $2.1 million. It will have 39 beds, including 15 for temporary observation.

Ivey was asked near the end of the event about the decision not to locate a center in the Birmingham area. She replied that the three centers announced Wednesday were “just the beginning” and “plans for more” are already underway.

“Today is a day of celebration,” said Ledbetter about the approval of the funding for the three sites.

He further remarked he had “never seen a more bipartisan effort” than the legislative push around the project.

“Today’s announcement will not only change Alabamians’ lives. It will help to save lives,” Ledbetter advised.

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