Alabama will receive almost $192 million in federal funds to expand broadband internet access in rural areas, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday.
The funds, part of the American Rescue Plan to help bolster the U.S. economy rebounding from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, will expand coverage to an estimated 55,000 locations across the state.
In addition to homes, schools and libraries will benefit from the expanded broadband coverage, according to Gene Sperling, senior adviser to President Joe Biden and American Rescue Plan coordinator.
“The pandemic was a national teaching moment that reliable, strong, affordable internet access is an economic and educational necessity, not a luxury,” Sperling said in a conference call with reporters. He went on to say that it was evident “in the most visceral and tangible way” that homes that did not permit a parent to work or a child to do schoolwork remotely that “that family faced serious economic and educational disadvantage.”
Awards for expanded broadband service were also announced for Kentucky, Nevada and Texas. Altogether, broadband funding for the four states added up to about $793.7 million.
The treasury department approved Alabama for $191.9 million for the Alabama Broadband Capital Projects Fund. It’s a competitive grant program designed to deploy last-mile infrastructure projects in rural areas of the state. The money is part of the state’s $2.1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds.
The treasury department’s announcement Thursday gives approval to the state legislature’s plan outlined more than a year ago to use $192 million in ARP funds for capital broadband projects.
The state legislature in 2021 allocated $400 million of the ARP funds to build two new prisons and $80 million for hospitals and nursing homes.
Specifically, the Alabama Broadband Capital Projects fund will provide internet service speeds of 100/100 megabits per second to households and businesses. And each of the internet service providers funded by the program will participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30 subsidy for low-income families.
Making high-speed internet more accessible has been a focus of state officials for years. In addition to the $192 million, the state legislature last year allocated $85 million for broadband expansion from the fiscal recovery fund.
“It means survival or death,” state Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said in 2020 of expanding broadband. Scofield, the Senate Majority Leader, has been on the forefront of the need to make high-speed internet more accessible.
“Access to broadband is a necessity in today’s world, and I continue to make it a priority that our state has the full ability to be connected to high-speed internet,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement Thursday. “I often say that broadband expansion is a journey, not a short trip. These funds will enable us to take several more strides in that journey toward full access no matter where you live in Alabama.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, brought U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to the state in 2018 to help shine a spotlight on broadband needs in rural Alabama. Aderholt also convened a forum that same year featuring Gov. Kay Ivey and Anne Hazlett, then-assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We think about kids that are living in small towns these days,” Hazlett said at that 2018 conference held at Lake Guntersville State Park. “I’ve traveled to 38 states in the 16 months I’ve been on this job and the number of stories I hear of children who are doing homework in a McDonald’s parking lot is staggering. For those kids to be able to do homework – whether at McDonald’s or at all – that connectivity is needed.”
During Thursday’s conference call, Sperling made a similar reference. He alluded to the funding working to eliminate the “homework gap” that now requires in some rural areas “a devoted parent have to drive to a fast-food parking lot in the middle of the night so that their child could complete their homework.”
The governor’s office said Ivey has awarded $63.9 million in state funds to support 100 broadband projects since 2018.