High-speed internet in Alabama: What is the next step to expand access?

Back in January, the Alabama Legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey approved a plan to spend $276 million of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act federal funds on the expansion of access to high-speed internet.

Today, Ivey and legislative leaders will make what the governor’s office called a major announcement on the effort to make broadband available throughout the state.

Leaders of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the Alabama Senate and other legislators will join Ivey at 11 am at Central Alabama Electric Cooperative in Prattville.

It will be the latest step in an initiative Ivey and lawmakers have said is a priority for several years. The effort got a major boost when Congress approved the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a pandemic relief package that has sent billions of federal dollars to Alabama, including $2 billion for lawmakers to appropriate for state government purposes. The $276 billion for broadband comes from the state’s first $1 billion portion of ARPA funds. Legislators approved it in a special session in January. Legislators are expected to consider how to use the second $1 billion portion next year.

Last year, Ivey signed into law the Connect Alabama Act to set up a state government framework for making broadband available statewide. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the agency spearheading the effort, released the Alabama Broadband Map and the Alabama Connectivity Plan in January.

The map showed that about 13 percent of 1.65 million addresses in Alabama do not have access to broadband service as defined by the Federal Communications Commission. About 19 percent do not have access to the higher speed that the state uses to define broadband. The state’s five-year goal is to reduce the number of unserved addresses by half. The 10-year goal is for 98% of households and businesses to have access to broadband.

The Connectivity Plan said costs estimates to make broadband available statewide is $4 billion to $6 billion.

Officials say the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of broadband because of the need for people to be able to work and receive classroom instruction from home, as well as the potential of telehealth appointments for medical care. Grant programs funded by taxpayer dollars like the ARPA funds can provide an incentive for the companies to install the cable and other infrastructure that would not otherwise be feasible in remote or sparsely populated areas.

This story will be updated.

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