Guest Column: Let’s accomplish our goal of high-speed internet for all Alabamians

The Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund is critically important in allowing us to hit the gaps in providing all of Alabama with high-speed internet access

I’ve worked with Gov. Kay Ivey for quite a while, and when she says she wants something done, she means it.

When Gov. Ivey asked me to serve as director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) back in 2017, she made one thing perfectly clear — expanding access to high-speed internet to all Alabamians was a top priority of her administration.

It has been a true honor at ADECA, the state agency charged with coordinating and executing broadband expansion projects using state and federal funds, to help Gov. Ivey accomplish her goal.

I am proud to see the tremendous progress our state has made in achieving that goal over the past few years thanks to Gov. Ivey’s leadership, support from the Alabama Legislature, and the internet service providers working to put fiber into the ground.

Just a few short years ago, our state ranked in the forties for high-speed internet access, according to Broadband Now’s state rankings. Now we are ranking in the low twenties.

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While this progress has been realized at an incredibly rapid pace, it has not come easy. This has happened as a result of tireless effort, collaboration, investment and teamwork from countless leaders, groups and entities — both public and private — taking the necessary steps to get to where we are today.

Kenneth Boswell, director of ADECA.

Let’s talk about a few of those steps.

Since 2018, Alabama has invested $82 million in state funds to support more than 100 projects in unserved areas. Once completed, access to broadband service will be available to more than 72,000 previously unserved households, businesses and community institutions in Alabama.

In 2021, Alabama set the national standard when we released the Alabama Broadband Map and Alabama Connectivity Plan to guide the state’s efforts and recommend strategies to expand access to the internet.

We held technical assistance meetings in all 67 of Alabama’s counties to help answer questions from local communities and inform them on how they can take advantage of state programs.

And with federal American Rescue Plan Act funds deliberately allocated for broadband expansion by the Alabama Legislature, hundreds of millions of dollars in projects are being launched throughout our state.

In 2022, we issued an $82.45 million grant to the Alabama Fiber Network that brought together internet service providers and other private companies throughout our state to launch an ambitious middle-mile effort. We have released approximately $180 million from the Capital Projects Fund for last-mile projects. And more than $200 million will support the Alabama Anchor Institution/Middle Mile Program to fund fiber connectivity to anchor institutions like colleges and universities, rural hospitals and government facilities.

All of this, in addition to $1.4 billion in federal funds through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, which will be available in 2025, represents tremendous resources being dedicated to such an important need for our state.

It is our mission at ADECA to make sure that every single one of these federal dollars is being deliberately and effectively utilized to get the greatest possible result.

We’re proud of the progress we have made thus far, but as Gov. Ivey has said time and time again — our state’s broadband journey is a marathon, not a sprint. And we still have a lot more work ahead of us to achieve her goal of getting all Alabamians connected.

These federal resources we have received have been critical in allowing us to accomplish her goal. But there are certain areas throughout the state that are not eligible for these federal funds, and for us to be effective in those areas, we need more flexibility.

That is why our state broadband expansion program, the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, is critically important. It allows us to hit the gaps that we cannot cover through federal programs. This is important because we need to make sure that not a single Alabamian gets left behind.

Through sustained funding for this key program, we can continue to go into areas of need to initiate projects that will transform communities and bring them into the digital age.

Let’s not slow down as we continue to push our way to the finish line. Let’s strike the iron while its hot and accomplish our governor’s ambitious goal of giving Alabamians access to high-speed internet.

Kenneth Boswell is director of Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

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