MONTGOMERY — Expanding access to high-speed broadband internet has been one of the hallmark issues in the Alabama Legislature the last two years. Most all lawmakers agree the issue is a priority, but how exactly to go about it remains the subject of much debate.

The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved a 2020 education budget that includes $30 million in potential grant money to expand broadband internet access in the state. If approved by the House and signed by the governor, that money would go to fund a program enacted last year that helps subsidize the cost of internet providers running fiber-optic lines to less-populated areas.

Such areas often lack the potential customer base necessary for internet providers to justify the expense of building the infrastructure that carries the broadband service. The state grants aim to offset those costs to make it financially feasible for lines to be run to rural communities.

Meanwhile, the House debated and passed legislation that goes about the task in a different way.  House Bill 400, sponsored by Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, would allow electricity providers to offer broadband services and use their existing infrastructure to access areas that don’t have high-speed internet service.

“We know that a lot of our rural counties are losing their population,” Shedd said. “We know there is a digital divide and a lot of rural Alabama has no internet. We know our grandchildren will not stay in these locations if they do not have connectivity to technology.”

The proposal would alleviate the cost of running new fiber lines to rural areas.  Utilities such as Alabama Power, Tennessee Valley Authority and regional electric cooperatives could piggyback their existing networks with high-speed cable lines.

However, concerns that the bill could give an unfair advantage to utilities and electric cooperatives over cable companies led to a lengthy floor debate. There were multiple attempts to delay a vote on the bill.

“It makes me concerned when we are offering up exclusivity to a certain utility company and how the bill could give the utility companies the ability to obtain the easement on private property,” Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said.

The bill says “an electric provider may acquire by condemnation ways, rights-of-way, and easements, without limitation as to width, on, over, under, or across the lands or easements of others, to erect, construct, replace, use, install, operate and maintain advanced communications capabilities.”

Bill proponents said agriculture and business groups who support the legislation understand property rights and don't take issue with the language.

Michelle Roth, executive director of the Alabama Cable and Broadband Association, said the organization is watching House Bill 400 and Senate Bill 90, pertaining to broadband grants, and wants to make sure lawmakers know the difference between “unserved” and “underserved” areas of the state.

The association, she said, “urges members of the Alabama Legislature to maintain their focus on the unserved areas of the state, and to ensure that the Rural Broadband Investment grants, which are funded with Education Trust Fund dollars, are being allocated for that intended purpose.

“Any efforts to divert ETF dollars to already-served areas or to infrastructure projects that do not provide broadband to end users in homes and businesses will be a disservice to the very Alabamians in need of broadband access.”

Shedd and others said some “underserved” areas need to be upgraded before providers can access unserved areas.

Lawmakers eventually amended the bill to clarify how municipalities and utility companies dealt with easement and right-of-way issues, which allayed many lawmakers' concerns.  House Bill 400 passed by a vote of 92 to 2.

Anniston-area representatives Ginny Shaver, R-Leesburg, Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, K. L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, Steve Hurst, R-Munford, and Randy Wood, R-Anniston all voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, abstained.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, is happy that the Legislature is finally addressing broadband.

“This is something we’ve been talking about for many years now and we’ve been really trying to get broadband across the state and to those rural areas that have just been left out of everything because they don’t have proper internet access,” Wood said.

"I'm excited about the $30 million in the budget," said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

"We talk about rural broadband, but really high-speed internet is needed all throughout the state. It's about being competitive economically, it's about our kids being able to access the internet at any school throughout the state and also at home."

Coalition of support

The Alabama Farmers Federation, Alabama Power, the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama Association of Realtors, the Alabama Rural Electric Cooperatives, the Alabama Hospital Association, Auburn University and the University of Alabama System were among the entities joining together to push for broadband expansion.

For hospitals, accessing high-speed internet is an essential part of modern medicine, according to Danne Howard, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association.

“Hospitals are grateful for any efforts to expand access to care, and in many areas tele-health can be extremely helpful in providing access to specialists and avoiding unnecessary travel for patients " Howard said.

Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said broadband would be a game changer in some rural areas of the state.

“We are very supportive of expanding broadband across rural Alabama not only for our students but also for the tremendous opportunity for economic growth this will provide,” Hollingsworth said.