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Houses passes bill to expand broadband access in the state

The legislation would set up a plan for broadband expansion in the state of Alabama.

(STOCK)

The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation that would provide broadband service to much of rural Alabama if a funding source is found.

Senate Bill 215 is sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. The legislation seeks to expand broadband across the state of Alabama. State Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, is carrying the bill in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Garrett said Alabama ranks 47th in broadband access.

Garrett introduced a floor substitute for Marsh’s original bill. This set off a firestorm as Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, objected to Garrett’s surprise announcement. The substitute effectively meant that the House would be voting on a bill that none of them had had a chance to read.

Garrett explained: “The state has hired a consultant for the last year who is working on a report.”

Garrett said that money for broadband expansion “will go into this fund and go out according to the plan. Now it would go to ADECA.”

“Each of these authorities we are creating have the authority to create advisory boards,” Garrett explained.

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Parts of the state have no broadband access outside of personal WiFi hotspots sold by cell phone companies. Parts of the state have broadband available through their phone company or cable TV provider. In some cases, those existing providers may have comparatively low bandwidths.

“Our priority must be the unserved areas of the state,” Garrett said. One internet provider is not the same as another. “Our priority is the last mile — the unserved.”

Hall asked that this and all of the remaining bills be read at length in retaliation for Garrett’s decision to substitute the bill without sharing that substitute with members of the body before the day that it was to be considered on the floor of the Alabama House.

Garrett explained that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many school systems went to online learning. Some kids thrived in that environment and others have struggled with e-learning.

Hall said, “There are probably some kids who had no schooling at all (during the pandemic).”

Marsh’s original plan was to use $1 billion of the first funds collected from new casinos he wanted to legalize at the dog tracks to fund his broadband initiative. Marsh’s complicated gambling bill, however, was defeated in the house of origin weeks ago; but his broadband initiative advanced.

The major elements of that bill were resurrected in a new gambling bill that is currently being considered by the House. The money to fund broadband expansion could come from gambling if that was passed by the Legislature and then ratified by the Alabama voters. The Legislature is also talking about using federal American Rescue Act funds to pay for the broadband initiative.

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SB215 passed by a vote of 95 to 0. It now goes back to the Senate for their consideration of changes made to the legislation by the House.

Tuesday will be day 26 of the 2021 Legislative Session. The Alabama Legislature is limited to no more than 30 days in a 105 day calendar day period.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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