The Alabama Senate on Wednesday passed a bill for the state government to subsidize a dramatic increase in the spread of broadband into unserved areas of the state.
Senate Bill 215 is sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
Senate Bill 215 would set up an authority mirroring the State Port Authority that would have the power to issue contracts to companies to carry broadband to communities that are either unserved or underserved presently.
Marsh said, “Today Alabama ranks 47th in internet access according to USA News and World Report and we are moving further behind.”
“This sets up a broadband authority to identify priorities,” Marsh said. “Private companies would build the lines.”
Marsh explained that passing this out of the Legislature and on to the governor is ultimately contingent on the passage of his controversial gambling bill.
The most recent version of that legislation would set up a state lottery, allow between six and nine casinos in the state and urge a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians who presently run two electronic bingo halls in Alabama. The casinos would be at existing greyhound tracks and bingo halls and would include a new facility near Chattanooga.
“If we get the gaming we will have the revenue needed to move this forward,” Marsh explained.
Marsh explained that the governor has five appointments on the new broadband authority board, which would also include some cabinet members.
“I am proud that this body is ready to take this step to get the internet connectivity better than it has ever been before,” Marsh said.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, said that he was frustrated that he was sent one copy of the substitute on March 1 and now has received a substitute dated on March 3.
Marsh said that the only changes were the clarity on the open meetings, the supercomputer authority language and changes related to a biology lab in Mobile. The changes were all made after input from members of the Senate.
“My goal today is to keep up the momentum,” Marsh said. “It is going to the House they are going to make changes and send it back up here and put it in the basket. It makes no sense to pass this if we can’t fund it.”
Marsh promised that the Senate would not act on this legislation unless his gambling bill also passed the House.
“This creates an authority that would get $1 billion in revenue and have bond authority,” Givhan asked. “A billion dollars in unbid bonds in Alabama? What could go wrong?”
“I represent Huntsville which is said to be the most connected city in Alabama. Maybe it is. I live in Huntsville and have five broadband options where I live. I also represent rural Madison County,” Givhan said. “Some areas of rural Madison County are remote. Most of Alabama is remote. The Black Belt where I grew up is really underserved.”
“I think our priority should be to get it where there is no service,” Marsh said in response to concerns that this money would just improve service in places where it already exists.
Givhan said: “If we have got lines in an area, if we have got poles in the area, I don’t want to create a situation where we subsidize a service that comes out and competes against somebody who is already there providing service.”
Givhan offered an amendment requiring that for the first two years of this program 70 percent of the funds be used to bring broadband to people who don’t have service now, with just 30 percent of the funds going to improve the service for persons who have an internet provider available now.
Givhan expressed concerns that governors would have too much power over the broadband authority and would select too many members of the board. Givhan also advocated term limits so there can be no lifetime board members who just keep getting appointed over and over again. Givhan also wanted limits on the authority’s bonding authority.
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said, “It amazes me how much authority we give people that we appoint to boards.”
“The governor has two thirds of the board and the authority has unlimited bonding authority,” Gudger said. “That worries me that one person has one voice on an authority that can bond $7 to 10 billion.”
“I am happy to work with you if you want to bring an amendment,” Marsh replied. “This is a working document. I have no problem who makes those appointments, as long as they are experts in their area.”
“In the past we have had limited money to spend on broadband,” Marsh explained. “We will have a $billion here. There will be no problem getting it to that end user. For the first time there will be the revenue source to do it.”
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, said: “It is critical that we expand broadband in our state. My concern is the technology that is out there. They are moving at lightspeed and we move at the speed of government.”
“I don’t think we should subsidize anything beyond reasonable capacity and need,” Marsh said. “I do think that we should have some minimum standard and that is in the bill. I don’t know what future technology is going to be.”
Marsh said that there has been slow use of the state’s existing grant program to provide assistance to companies to expand broadband.
“As of last week ADECA had $30 million in grant money left,” Marsh said.
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, said: “My biggest problem with the bill is that we are creating four entities and they are exempt from the state bid law and the ethics law.” “I am offering an amendment to make sure that these entities are held to the same standard as other entities especially when they are handling this amount of money.”
Chambliss’s amendment would require competitive bids, open meetings, and that members of the authority follow state ethics laws. Marsh accepted the amendment and the Senate adopted it.
Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, offered an amendment directing 70 percent of the money to the last mile users for the first two years. That was adopted.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked, “Why are we spending a $billion and then relying on someone’s business model?”
Singleton offered an amendment to make sure that the authority could direct that the broadband actually reach unserved communities. That was adopted.
The Senate passed SB215 on a vote of 32 to 0. It now goes to the Alabama House of Representatives for their consideration.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, told Marsh: “I want to complement you on behalf of all of the people who this will benefit. I want to tell you that you have brought hope to a lot of people’s lives.”