For Alabama’s economy to flourish in the twenty-first century, it is essential that all Alabama families, schools, and businesses have access to high-speed Internet. And the best route to provide the best product always involves competition.
If a fifth grader in a rural Alabama county can only access the Internet via a dial-up connection, she will be at a competitive disadvantage compared to her peers in Birmingham or Atlanta. For a recent college graduate who has moved back to his hometown to start a new business, access to quality, high-speed Internet is essential to grow his company and create jobs. A young doctor opening a rural health clinic must send huge amounts of data to other medical practices and hospitals to effectively care for her patients. In each instance, data and information must be transmitted quickly via broadband networks for our Alabama student, entrepreneur, and doctor to succeed.
Yet there is a roadblock confronting Alabama’s economic growth: right now, only 66% of Alabamians have access to high-speed (broadband) Internet and only a minority of that 66% have Internet access via fiber-optic cable. Fiber-optic is a method of delivering broadband that is significantly faster than either cable or DSL, the two alternative delivery modes for broadband. So currently, some Alabamians don’t have access to any high-speed Internet and far too few have access to the fastest delivery method in fiber-optic broadband.
Because of the large initial cost to install fiber optic networks necessary for broadband Internet, many private telecom/cable companies are unwilling to invest in extending crucial Internet services to rural Alabama. That is why only 44% of Alabamians living outside cities have broadband Internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
To help fill the broadband gap and spur economic growth, I have introduced legislation in the Alabama Senate to allow public providers of municipal telecommunication services to invest in fiber optic broadband Internet networks. These public entities are already delivering much needed phone service and other utilities to areas that traditionally would not receive a connection. Now, they need to be given the same chance to help increase high-speed Internet connectivity. It levels the playing field for competition, which only benefits consumers.
My legislation will improve Internet access by creating new providers, which will directly correlate to increased economic development. Locking our municipal telecom providers into arcane coverage areas is a shortsighted approach to protect growth-limiting monopolies.
I believe competition is a good thing for consumers. Internet providers – private and municipal alike – have a profit motive to provide the best service at the best price. However, the municipal service does not have to generate large profits for shareholders, which means they are more likely to expand coverage to areas where a longer return on capital investment is expected.
Some private companies like Google have decided to partner with cities like Huntsville and Austin, Texas to build new fiber-optic networks. That is wonderful. But I am not willing to penalize a smaller city or a rural area if a private company makes a business decision not to invest there. If private Internet providers choose not to build broadband networks in smaller locales, then municipal utilities should have the option to develop those underserved areas. To my mind, it is question of economic fairness for the consumer and economic development for the state.
A lot has been said recently about the need to improve Alabama’s roads and bridges, and I certainly agree that our transportation system needs an upgrade. Yet if we ignore the pressing need to expand broadband Internet in Alabama our schools and businesses will languish behind other Southeastern states, no matter how much money we spend on new roads.
Over 1.6 million Alabamians lack access to high-speed Internet: that number must be reduced, and quickly, if our state is going to compete and thrive in the twenty-first century.
Senator Tom Whatley (R-Auburn) represents Lee, Russell, and Tallapoosa Counties. He is chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee.