Sen. Doug Jones pushes rural broadband expansion

To compete in today’s high-tech world, access to technology and high-speed internet infrastructure is a must. That’s why Sen. Doug Jones spent part of the day Thursday promoting ways he hopes to help expand that access to rural areas that are currently under served. “It’s 2018, a time when technology has advanced to incredible levels […]

To compete in today’s high-tech world, access to technology and high-speed internet infrastructure is a must.

That’s why Sen. Doug Jones spent part of the day Thursday promoting ways he hopes to help expand that access to rural areas that are currently under served.

“It’s 2018, a time when technology has advanced to incredible levels yet 30 percent of those living in rural areas communities don’t have access to broadband accessibility,” Jones said in a conference call with The Outlook. “In Alabama, there are 842,000 who still don’t have what the FCC defines as high-speed internet access. Out of those, it is believed that there as many as a quarter of a million Alabamians who don’t have any access to the internet at all.

“Internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. People need that access to be able to handle business and be able to access information and it’s time that we do everything in our power to expand broadband to rural communities that are not currently served.”

Jones talked about an initiative that was passed as part of the budget that will earmark $600 million towards the expansion he is looking for.

The bill calls for an additional $600 million to be distributed through the Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

The funding authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to create a pilot program within RUS that distributes the new funding in the form of grants and loans. There are details to be worked out, but the authorization calls for “expedited” delivery of the program.

A few conditions were mandated by the funding bill. They include:

• Ninety percent of the households served by any project funded through this program must be unserved or underserved and can’t currently have 10/1 Mbps broadband access.

• Any entity receiving funds from the program is prohibited from overbuilding an existing RUS borrower.

• No more than 4 percent of funds received through the program can be used towards administrative costs.

Jones said that’s why it’s important for rural communities to get on board and start working towards getting their share of those funds. He asked that community leaders who want to explore funding to reach out to his office either in the state or in Washington. He thinks they can help.

“This bill just passed in March and we’ve only been kicking around here since January, but we can help show communities where all the buckets of money are and how they can start the process of getting their fair share,” Jones said. “That’s why we are reaching out through the community newspapers. We want to get the word out that even though $600 million isn’t the amount it needs to be, there is money out there for those who are ready to act.”

Jones also applauded the passage and signing of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, authorizing the creation of a broadband accessibility grant program to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

“All these programs are a start, but we need to move and work to help those who are underserved,” Jones said. “In education, children need that access to compete and prepare themselves for the next level and just to be able to do the research needed to get the best possible education. Also, if we hope to recruit business or industry to rural areas, this is a must. In today’s marketplace, if they don’t have that, they will move on to a place that does have that broadband technology available.”