MONTGOMERY — More than six weeks after unanimously passing the Alabama Senate, SB 215 finally got a hearing in the House Urban and Rural Development Committee on Thursday morning.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and carried in the House by Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), is viewed as a “transformational” piece of legislation aimed at expanding the availability of affordable, high-speed broadband internet service to every Alabamian.
While the bill would benefit from historic levels of funding if the current legislative effort to legalize a lottery and gaming in Alabama succeeds, it has been emphasized by elected officials that SB 215 has paramount standalone importance, as well.
As underlined by multiple proponents in Thursday’s public hearing, SB 215 would create the type of cohesive planning that the state’s broadband expansion efforts currently lack. With funding and incentives coming from different directions at the local, state and federal levels, it is important to finally get one clear game plan of how money will be spent and resources prioritized. The bill would also act as a vehicle to draw down federal funds and would create a new state-entity with bonding authority for broadband expansion.
Garrett reiterated that Alabama is 47th in the nation in broadband connectivity, even lagging well behind Mississippi, as well as other neighboring states.
He said SB 215 is an “effort to develop a comprehensive, aggressive and robust strategy and process to expand broadband across the state.”
“Doing so will enhance Alabama’s education, health care system and economy,” added Garrett. “The state actually has no connectivity strategy or plan right now. All we really have is the ADECA (grant) program — which works very successfully, it’s a very good program. We like the way it operates. But $20 million a year is not going to solve the problem, which is to get internet access throughout this entire state.”
He explained that the endeavor to expand broadband access to all Alabamians carries a price tag between four and six billion dollars.
“So chipping away $20 million or so a year on a grant program is not going to do it,” Garrett added.
“This is a very serious issue for the state,” he stressed.
Proponents of the bill participating in the hearing included Blake Hardwich, speaking on behalf of the Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition; Jeremy Walker, CEO of the Alabama Association of Realtors; and Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs for the Alabama Rural Electric Association. Other key industry leaders, such as NFIB Alabama State Director Rosemary Elebash, have also expressed their support for SB 215.
“We’re in full support of SB 215,” emphasized Hardwich. The Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition is comprised of a diverse membership across the business, education, health care and agriculture communities.
“We all believe that SB 215 will benefit the state of Alabama,” she added, speaking to the wide swath the coalition represents. “It is my belief, and our belief, if we continue down the current path that we’re on, Alabama will continue to fall further and further behind. We cannot afford to do that.”
Committee Chairman Randall Shedd (R-Cullman) noted that there is a draft of a substitute version of SB 215 that the committee members have; a final version of that sub is expected to be completed in time for a committee vote next week.
Some potential “tweaks” aside, multiple members of the committee expressed an urgency to bridge the digital divide.
Rep. Debbie Wood (R-Valley) said, “We cannot keep doing business in Alabama without proper internet services.”
She outlined an account of children in her district having to sit in cars parked near a bus with a hotspot during the pandemic to even do school work.
“That’s why we need this,” Wood underscored. “It’s vitally important.”
“We want a plan that’s best for the state, that utilizes all the tools in the toolbox,” Garrett reiterated. “We’re trying to do what’s best to provide internet access throughout the state.”
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn