Navigating the Last (and Middle) Mile: The Time and Money It Takes to Get Statewide Broadband

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By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield says he’s being asked by Alabamians about one topic more than most: high-speed internet and when they’ll get it.

So he tells them about the state’s recently enacted plan to get broadband to unserved and underserved areas, about the money the state has allocated to the effort in recent years and the collaboration that has been required of internet service providers to map out who has and does not have fast service.

And he responds by saying that, like any other major infrastructure, statewide broadband will take time.

“We’re going as fast as we can,” Scofield told the Alabama Daily News recently. “And frankly, it will depend on funding.”

The state’s goal is for new publicly funded projects to have speeds of 100 megabits per second for downloads and 100 megabits per second for uploads. Getting this statewide will cost billions.

While Scofield, R-Guntersville, has been advocating for broadband for several years, it’s been in recent years that the state has begun to put a plan in place and dedicate public funds to the initiative.

It’s an investment the state must make, Scofield said, or communities will be left behind by economic growth and opportunity.

“Those areas that don’t have (high-speed internet) are over,” Scofield said. “They’re lost if we don’t hit them. And frankly, they’re cost centers. I want to make them production centers.

Accelerating

Mapping shows that 13% of Alabama’s 1.65 million addresses are unserved by broadband of at least 25/3 megabits per second, the federal definition of unserved. Nineteen percent of addresses are not served by 100/20 megabits per second, the federal definition of underserved. Only about 25% of addresses have the 100/1000 megabits per second that the state requires of grant applicants.

The broadband plan is overseen by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and its new Alabama Digital Expansion Division.

“Alabama’s goal is to connect currently unserved households to a higher threshold of an average 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload speed,” said ADECA Director Keneth Boswell. . “Broadband projects funded by ADECA grants require these higher speeds.”

The state estimates that it will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion to get this 100/1000 to areas of the state currently not served by 100/20.

Multiple funding streams

There are multiple funding sources currently in play for broadband, including significant federal funds.

In late August, officials announced $26.6 million in grants from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund to expand high-speed Internet access to approximately 15,000 homes, businesses and entities, including schools. , in 10 counties. Since 2018, $64.1 million has been awarded through the fund. An additional $25 million is expected in fiscal year 2023.

Earlier this year, lawmakers and Governor Kay Ivey agreed to spend $277 million of about $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds for broadband expansion. About $85 million of that will be spent on a statewide “middle mile” project. An entity for this contract could be announced soon.

The remaining $191 million will be used for “last mile” projects. It could be next spring before those funds are distributed.

“We’re snacking on it,” Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, told the Alabama Daily News of the recent grants. “We don’t know exactly when it will be in every home or business, but we have hope now. We just have to stay focused.

The state also expects to receive at least $100 million for broadband expansion under the federal infrastructure program approved late last year, but details on that are still in the works. waiting.

There are also other federal funds. Last Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission said a provider would receive about $28.1 million from the Federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to bring broadband to about 7,616 locations.

Yet many more dollars will be needed.

“It sounds like big, big dollars when you hear $100 million,” Shedd said of funding the federal infrastructure bill. “Too many people will think that we have nothing to do. But that’s why the second round of ARPA will be important, that’s why the (constitutional amendment) will be important.

In November, voters will see an amendment on their ballots specifying that local governments can spend money from the US federal bailout law on broadband expansion. It is necessary because the current wording of the constitution prohibits local governments from granting “public funds or things of value in favor of, or to any individual, association, or corporation…”

Purchase from supplier

A significant part of the state’s plan includes information from internet service providers about where they operate and urging them to expand their networks.

Communication between ISPs is essential to ensure that services are not duplicated and public funds are not wasted. An example would be if an ISP applies for a subsidy to serve an area where another provider already operates, said Michelle Roth, executive director of the Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, which represents the state’s largest internet providers.

“We really want to approach the unserved in this way,” Roth told the Alabama Daily News of the “worst-first” those who have no or very slow internet.

State Accessibility Fund grants, created in 2018 and funded by the state education budget, now allow the state to pay up to 80 percent, or $5 million, of an expansion project.

“There’s a reason why so many of these areas are unserved,” Roth said. The distance makes them difficult to reach and even after deployment there are maintenance costs.

“Any business of any type will need to consider its break-even point,” Roth said. “We want to be good neighbors and provide that, but we also have to say, ‘Where can we break even on our ROI?’

In August, nine state awards were presented to projects in parts of 10 counties. There were a total of 137 applications, according to ADECA.

It shows the need, Scofield said.

“It’s not that (internet service providers) don’t want to serve rural Alabama, it’s that they can’t afford it,” Scofield said.

Shedd said he wants grants to fund “middle mile” fiber optic infrastructure, then enabling “last mile” connectivity to homes, businesses and public entities, including schools.

“There are areas that are just hard to get to,” Shedd said. “We have to be fair to these people.

“…(Middle mile) is a big part of the plan – and a part that’s not easy to do,” Shedd said.

Boswell agrees.

“Due to different routes, technologies and service delivery methods, it is difficult to estimate the exact miles of fiber needed,” Boswell said. “The current mid-mile infrastructure is owned by service providers and proprietary information, but we know there is a need to create a statewide mid-mile with rental access for all suppliers. Once this project is completed, last mile providers will have more options to provide services to unserved households. »

Shedd and Scofield both want a portion of the state’s $1.1 billion in a second tranche of ARPA funds to be spent on broadband. Ivey and lawmakers will decide how to appropriate that money next year, and exact amounts are yet to be publicly discussed.

Many states are using federal money for internet infrastructure, and Scofield said supply chain and labor issues are a concern, especially with the end-2026 spending deadline on funds. ARPA. The state’s existing subsidy plan and program, along with ISP approaches, put Alabama “ahead of the game,” Scofield said.

“Talking to our ISPs, they’re ready to go,” he said.

Shedd and Scofield said broadband can be expanded statewide in five to 10 years, depending on funding.

“That said, we’ll have to make adjustments along the way,” Shedd said. “It’s something we’ll have to look at at every stage, every funding round, to make sure we’re doing it in the right way and in the fairest way possible.”

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