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Alabama broadband network plan hinges on federal dollars

By   /   February 18, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

The vast majority of the cost to build the high-speed broadband network proposed by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley will be borne by federal taxpayers, not state residents.

The Republican governor recently revealed that his plan hinges on federal E-Rate dollars flowing to the state to connect public schools to fast Internet. Bentley emphasized during a forum on broadband last week that the “state is not involved in business.”

“I want you to succeed. I want you to make a profit. We’re not in the profit business,” he told a room full of lawmakers and telecommunications providers.

“Y’all don’t go over there (to the state house) and try to kill something without trying to work things out. That’s all I’m asking. Because I‘m interested in doing something for the people, and economic development, and health care and all these things that will help rural Alabama,” he said.

HB41, filed earlier this month by state Rep. Donnie Chesteen, would redirect some funds from the Alabama Ahead Act earmarked for pen-enabled tablets and mobile computers toward establishing broadband infrastructure in public schools.

Bentley plans to use state education trust fund money to match federal grants to build the networks. The E-Rate program will pay up to 90 percent of the costs of running fiber-optic cable to rural areas, and the plan is to start with some three dozen schools this year.

The total state cost would likely be $20 million to $30 million.

“We’ve got to take advantage of the $200 to $300 million we’re going to have available to the state of Alabama,” Bentley said of the E-Rate program. “If we don’t take advantage of it, this probably will never take place.”

Kathy Johnson, director of Bentley’s Office of Broadband Development, told AL.com that schools will seek bids from companies to build, operate and maintain the networks, but the state will keep ownership.

Telecommunications companies will be able to tap into the fiber-optic network to serve residents in those rural areas.

“We want to complement and supplement companies,” Bentley said at the forum. “We want to help ya’ll provide affordable, high-speed Internet to everybody.”

The E-Rate program hasn’t been as kind to KentuckyWired, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s grand plan for a 3,400-mile broadband network across the Bluegrass State. But Kentucky ran into trouble attempting to siphon business from private companies to a state authority, while Bentley says Alabama would be creating public school networks from scratch.

David Williams, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance, recently met with several Alabama lawmakers in Montgomery and said there seems to be plenty of distrust surrounding the broadband initiative. He called Bentley’s speech “very encouraging,” however.

“He seems to understand the importance of the private sector doing this versus the public sector (i.e. taxpayers) doing it,” Williams told Watchdog.org on Wednesday. “He did mention putting in an infrastructure so we will keep a close eye on what he does next. The folks in Alabama will be best served if Bentley keeps to his word when he says that they don’t want to compete with the private sector.”

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Johnny Kampis is a content editor and staff writer at Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, Kampis is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. You can follow him on Twitter @TuscaloosaJohn or reach him via email at [email protected]