A taxpayer watchdog group is urging Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to take a “minimalist approach” as he tries to provide broadband Internet services to underserved rural areas.
In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Bentley said he’s “embarking on an ambitious plan” to offer Internet to the “over 1 million Alabamians (who) do not have access to even the slowest and most basic high-speed wireless technology.”
Bentley said the state would work with private sector providers.
“We will first begin by cutting the bureaucracy that stands in the way of providing broadband access,” he said. “We will first work to provide the infrastructure needed to provide broadband.”
“Private providers will then be able to provide access and offer it at a more affordable and manageable cost to our communities,” Bentley continued.
The governor’s communications office didn’t immediately return a call from Watchdog.org inquiring about the cost of his plans.
David Williams, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance, told Watchdog he gives Bentley credit for incorporating the private sector in his speech, but it remains to be seen how the governor will approach the task.
“There are two ways he can go with this,” Williams said. “He can go the big government route and spend $300 million to $500 million installing fiber-optic cable, or he can try to encourage the private sector to step in. We’re hoping he takes the minimalist approach as it relates to taxpayers.”
As Bentley declares his desire to allow private providers to offer services once the infrastructure is in place, there’s a movement afoot in the Alabama Legislature to let city utilities, like that in Opelika, expand their reach into rural areas. Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, who introduced a bill that stalled in 2015, plans to try again during the 2016 legislative session that began Tuesday.
Bentley previously told reporters he hopes to get federal grants to help expand telecom infrastructure. He created the Office of Broadband Development last summer to push expansion in Alabama. A task force within that office has the specific mission to find money — including funds from taxpayers — to help pay for those plans.