4 weeks 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

10 hours ago

Jones: ‘Whole lot of blame to go around’ for COVID deaths — Points to Trump administration, China, WHO

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) on Thursday hosted a live-streamed availability with Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris regarding the coronavirus.

Jones and Harris each made opening remarks, including updates on Alabama’s COVID-19 data as well as ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic.

The two officials then answered questions from members of the media that were submitted ahead of time.

For example, Jones was asked, “What would you tell people now that the number of deaths from coronavirus in the U.S. has surpassed 100,000? Many commentators are blaming the White House response. And are the current reopening strategies of Alabama and other states premature?”

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“Well, you know, look, I’ve seen the commentators — and I don’t think we’re at a point where we should be pointing a whole lot of blame,” Jones answered, before appearing to do just that.

“There’s a whole lot of blame to go around,” he continued. “I think we have to point to China for some of the issues that they raised. I was disappointed at some of the early response from the [World Health Organization], even though we could have done a better job with testing in this country.”

Jones then placed some “blame” at the feet of President Donald J. Trump and his administration.

“I’ve been disappointed in the administration and their early responses,” the junior senator advised. “You talk about ‘cavalier attitudes,’ I think the president had one early on. All of that has, perhaps, affected where we are in this country.”

“But I think the key right now is where we are today and what we’re planning on doing going forward,” Jones added.

He subsequently questioned the notion that reopening strategies for Alabama and other states in general are “premature.”

Jones outlined that reopening can be done safely if people continue to listen to health experts like Harris and follow social distancing/sanitation guidelines.  Jones urged Alabamians to wear masks in public.

“I don’t think that reopening is inconsistent with trying to stop this spread by [doing] the same things that people have been saying since this virus came to this country,” he said. “And that is to social distance, that is to make sure you wear the masks… to protect you and others. If we continue to do that, if we could just get used to that — I think that’s been the biggest issue right now. Some people just don’t want to be told to do it, and I get that. But the fact is if people could just get used to doing this, we could stop the spread.”

Earlier in the live stream, he was complimentary of recent state-level efforts led by Harris and Governor Kay Ivey related to the pandemic.

“Alabama is still seeing a significant number of cases. We have begun to open up, and we’ve begun to open up — I think — carefully and wisely, following the science,” Jones commented. “And I think the governor has done a very good job of trying to get two messages out. Yes, we want to open up, we want to get the economy rolling again. But at the same time, we’ve got to do it safely. And it’s that latter message that I’m not sure folks are hearing as much. You only have to see the pictures from the beaches and other places in Alabama and around the country to see that folks are not quite getting the message that this virus is still out there, it is still dangerous, it is still deadly. And we want to open up, but opening up is not inconsistent with what we should be doing to protect ourselves and our families and our communities.”

Jones further remarked that Harris “has done a great job” helping lead Alabama’s response to the pandemic.

Other topics covered during the live stream included Jones’ hope that live sports can return with fans in attendance this fall, as well as Harris explaining that while increased testing could explain a portion of Alabama’s rising number of positive COVID-19 cases, community spread is occurring in multiple hotspots.

You can watch the entire live stream below:

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

11 hours ago

Huntsville doctor using hydroxychloroquine for some COVID-19 patients

An infectious disease doctor at Huntsville Hospital says he continues to use the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat some patients with the coronavirus.

The drug, often championed by President Donald Trump, has been the subject of intense nationwide discussion during the pandemic.

A recent retrospective study published in the scientific journal The Lancet showed evidence that hydroxychlorquine had no positive results for hospitalized patients.

WAFF asked Dr. Ali Hassoun of Huntsville Hospital about the article published in The Lancet. He said the type of study and characteristics of the subjects meant that it was not good enough evidence to stop using hydroxychloroquine.

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Hassoun says he continues to treat patients with the drug as long as they are not at risk for the side effects.

A top infectious disease expert at UAB Hospital recently told Yellowhammer News that he and his team do not recommend hydroxychloroquine for hospitalized patients.

Most of the published evidence used to fuel media articles on hydroxychloroquine’s ineffectiveness have used studies done on hospitalized subjects.

Another member of the team at UAB, Dr. Turner Overton, is currently helping conduct a trial studying hydroxychloroquine’s ability to treat the coronavirus in its earliest stages.

Hassoun did not reveal in his interviews the condition of the patients to whom he is giving hydroxychloroquine.

Another drug, remdesivir, has shown in studies to be effective at treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but the supply is low.

Hassoun told WAFF he is prescribing remdesivir as well.

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

11 hours ago

Twitter should back down, and Trump should back off

American politics are about to enter a precarious place where the messages put out by politicians, or maybe only one politician, are going to be filtered by nameless and faceless tech employees that work for Twitter.

As we all know, Twitter is the tool used by President Donald Trump to get around the gate-keeping and absurd bias of the mainstream media.

Until this week, he had an unfiltered avenue to speak directly to the American people, and they had an avenue to hear him.

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Of course, afterward, anyone and everyone with a TV, newspaper byline or Twitter account could respond and call him a liar, fraud, treasonous monster or whatever they wanted.

But Twitter decided to step in and decide that they would start behaving differently, just for Trump, and editorialize on his content.

While they could have chosen to do so on his claims that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough needed to be looked at as a potential murderer, but they didn’t.

SIDENOTE: There is a tape where he jokes about having an affair and killing her.

Instead, Twitter decided they needed to go after the president on the issue of voter fraud.

Twitter editorialized this tweet by adding: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” with links to content accusing the president of getting the facts wrong.

The reality is Democrats are pushing for all vote-by-mail elections.

Some states are automatically mailing ballots to all registered voters, while some are just mailing applications.

But this is far worse than this particular case. It’s the precedent being set.

Why Trump?

When Trump gets some of the info wrong, let the media and his political enemies call him out.

Why not all the elected officials who continued to allege Russian collusion for years, and still do to this day on Twitter?

What about media figures who spread dangerous misinformation about the motives of their fellow citizens and use Twitter to delimitate their attacks?

Why not Ayatollah Khomeini, who openly threatens Isreal?

Why not the official Chinese government Twitter accounts that accuse the United States of spreading the coronavirus?

The last two don’t even allow their citizens to use Twitter, but Twitter will bow down to them?

What about the people claiming former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t have to recuse himself? He did.

What about those who think U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) has a chance at reelection? He doesn’t.

What about the anonymous guy who accuses me of numerous crimes and misdeeds on Twitter daily?

Does that guy now get a note depicting that his comments are untrue or unfounded?

What about essentially every column written by the bitter losers at Alabama Media Group? They had to dump their comment section because their commenters were crushing their souls. Will Twitter’s CEO or site integrity police call out their misinformation?

We could do this all day.

That’s the point. Moderation of this kind and on this scale is impossible.

It can’t be done effectively. That’s the purpose of the rule Trump wants reinterpreted.

More importantly, it should not be done — and it especially should not be done to one individual.

It shouldn’t matter how many times Joe Scarborough or any of CNN’s interchangeable talking heads declare, “This should be taken down,” Twitter should just stay out of moderating political debates because they will inevitably get it wrong and if they don’t editorialize, they now accept it.

What if Trump tweets “LOOK at all the lies Joe Biden has told, from the lies about his wife’s death to the lies about his son’s business dealings!”

If Twitter lets them stand, they are now confirmed? (SIDENOTE: They are confirmed)

Facebook actually got this as close to right as you could expect. They have attempted to discredit things linked to their site with a bit of a mixed bag approach that has angered liberals and conservatives alike.

But Twitter has now awakened the president, and he has the ability to raise questions about their status as a forum and not a publisher.

If Twitter is smart, they will follow the lead of Facebook’s CEO of stop trying to act as the arbiter of truth. Zuckerberg believes Twitter went too far, saying, “I think in general private companies probably shouldn’t be – especially these platform companies – shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Truthfully, Zuckerberg knows that Twitter is dragging him (and Google) into this, and he wants no part of it, nor should he.

Trump’s potential executive order makes his position clear, “This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic. When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power.”

He wants to strip them of immunity, meaning if they want to editorialize, then they are responsible for anything that they allow.

This will either force Twitter to back down on moderation or die as it currently exists and take down most social media sites with it.

As with any executive order, the next president can change the rules (except for DACA, apparently).

It’s pretty clear that Twitter has over-stepped here, and they only have two options if the president’s order becomes a reality and survives a court challenge: back down on moderation of political speech or be crushed by lawsuits and government oversight.

The correct move by Twitter would be to stop this nonsense right now, acknowledge that they will stop moderating political speech, and move on knowing they messed up.

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

12 hours ago

Wind Creek facilities in Alabama reopening June 8

Wind Creek Hospitality has announced that it is reopening all three of its resort-style gaming properties in Alabama over the next two weeks.

A release detailed that a soft opening to small groups of invited guests will begin Thursday, June 4, followed by a public opening for the “new” full operation on Monday, June 8.

The Wind Creek properties affected are in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery, resepctively.

The company is instituting new policies to ensure that guests can enjoy themselves as safely as possible. This will include temperature checks for all guests and employees, and masks or face coverings will be required for everyone.

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Guests are asked to bring their own mask, however players who do not have their own mask will be able to acquire one on property for a small donation supporting local first responders, health care providers and COVID-19 patient relief funds.

Smoking will only be allowed in designated spots separate from the gaming floor, restaurants and other public areas.

To accommodate social distancing, all of the properties will be limiting the number of guests on the casino floor; this new maximum capacity will be roughly one-third of normal operations. All locations are employing increased distances between tables in dining venues and clearly marking appropriate distances near hotel check-in, player services and other areas where lines historically formed.

Upon reopening, the casino floor will be open to the public for four sessions each day and deep cleaning will be conducted between sessions. These deep-cleaning efforts will come in addition to the cleaning of each machine before and after every guest.

Once Wind Creek properties open for general admission on June 8, special waiting areas will be available for guests at each property if a property is at capacity.

For those who want to plan ahead, Wind Creek is introducing a new reservation system that lets guests make a reservation for a particular session up to 14 days in advance.

According to Jay Dorris, CEO and president of Wind Creek, “Just like your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, a reservation isn’t required. But if you absolutely want to join us on a given day and time, reservations are available.”

With limited capacity, demand is sure to be high. By encouraging guests to reserve a visit, Wind Creek is hoping to eliminate any lines that make it difficult to maintain a six-foot distance.

The reservation system will be open to guests by June 3 online here. Reservations can also be made by calling (866) WIND-360 [866.946.3360] or a casino host.

It has not yet been announced when the Wind Creek-owned Mobile Greyhound Park will reopen. All of Wind Creek’s properties across the globe voluntarily closed in early March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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

12 hours ago

Sessions says DoJ regulations requiring recusal ‘basically had the impact of law’; Questions Tuberville’s commitment to Trump’s China, trade policies

What happened regarding the 2017 decision by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from involvement in any investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election will have a lasting impact on presidential appointments for the foreseeable future.

Future presidents and presidents-elect will be reluctant to appoint anyone politically active to the U.S. Attorney General post in the future given the interpretation of the Department of Justice regulations on investigations into campaigns.

During an interview that aired on Auburn radio’s WQSI, Sessions, candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, explained the regulation he was following and how it was “basically” the law. He also called his decision fundamental in that a law enforcement official could not investigate himself.

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“The code of federal regulations is where it is,” Sessions said. “It’s not just guidance, letter or a policy point from the attorney general or something. It is a notice. It is published nationwide. People can hear it, make complaints to it, and then it becomes adopted. For the people at the Department [of Justice], it basically has the impact of law. The attorney general can’t change it, number one. Number two, it’s just basic. The district attorney in Lee County can’t investigate if he worked at a bank the bank he worked at, where he would be a witness to the investigation, in which they may have suggested he was involved in wrongdoing at the bank. You can’t investigate yourself. This is a fundamental principle. But the regulation says if you participate in a political organization in a substantial role, you’re not able to investigate yourself.”

Sessions noted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and former U.S. Attorneys General Ed Meese and Mike Mukasey agreed with his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

When asked if he would accept the appointment now knowing what he knows, Sessions offered his mindset on the 2016 offer from then-President-elect Trump.

“Look, I believe that I was ready to lead that department,” he said. “I spent 14 years in that department. I had supervisory oversight for 20 years. I knew what the problems were, and we did some tremendous things.”

When asked for a yes or no answer regarding what he might do had he known about the obstacles that were to lie ahead for him when offered the post, Sessions declined.

“You can’t go back on those kinds of things, Jeff,” he replied. “That’s just a silly thought, frankly. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but we’re not going there. I took the job. I did my best duty. I serve at the pleasure of the president. The question is right now — we talked about my situation over and over and over again. Let’s talk about Tommy Tuberville.”

Sessions went on to raise his July 14 GOP primary opponent Tommy Tuberville’s comments about U.S. policy regarding China, trade.

“Who is going to help the president carry out his agenda?” Sessions added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.