Broadband expansion in Alabama will be a hot topic in 2022 after the state legislature teed up over $276 million in broadband-related spending from funding provided under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The appropriations bill passed during the final day of a special session called specifically to divvy up ARPA funding for broadband expansion and other state priorities such as water/sewer investments and healthcare. The Alabama Legislature provided few details on how the broadband money will be spent, leaving implementation specifics to state regulators. The Legislature is expected to take up more broadband-related items in regular session this year, including action to allocate millions more in broadband funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Taken together, this federal funding represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote broadband deployment and adoption that deserves close attention by both service providers and state/local governments.
The Alabama legislation earmarks ARPA funding for broadband expansion in three buckets with overlapping goals:
- $191,887,857 from the ARPA Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, which supports (1) broadband infrastructure projects involving the deployment of high-speed networks, especially in underserved areas; (2) digital connectivity technology projects facilitating access to computers and other broadband devices in low-income communities; and (3) multi-purpose community facility projects designed to construct or improve local centers enabling work, education, and health monitoring. Capital Projects Fund spending will be subject to a statewide grant plan and specific program plans that Alabama will need to submit to the U.S. Treasury Department by late September 2022.
- $51 million from the ARPA Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund, which supports projects designed to provide access to affordable high-speed broadband service in locations with an “identified need” for additional investment, as well as cybersecurity modernization projects for existing and new broadband infrastructure.
- $34 million from the ARPA Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Revenue Replacement Fund, which supports projects to improve and expand broadband network access that otherwise would be provided through state programs.
The Legislature did not provide detailed timelines or procedures for distributing the ARPA broadband money. Instead, that responsibility will fall on the Digital Expansion Division of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which will develop specific funding eligibility, application, performance, and other requirements in the coming months. The Digital Expansion Division already administers the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund and recently issued a statewide Connectivity Plan with broadband deployment and adoption recommendations for Alabama lawmakers.
The ARPA appropriations bill likely represents just the first in a series of broadband-related items the Alabama Legislature will take on in 2022. First, the Legislature will need to allocate millions in additional federal funding provided under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to support broadband deployment in unserved/underserved areas, build broadband network backbone infrastructure, and promote broadband adoption in low-income communities. This will be a complex task, with the White House recently issuing a guidebook outlining the money available and restrictions imposed on the multiple broadband funding programs supported by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Second, the Legislature likely will consider a state constitutional amendment to remove barriers to broadband project funding by Alabama counties and municipalities. Finally, the Legislature could be called into special session again in the summer of 2022, when the final tranche of ARPA relief funding arrives.
Bradley’s Governmental Affairs team is closely tracking ARPA appropriations and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding – for broadband expansion and other projects – and can advise you on how to take advantage of these opportunities and comply with relevant funding obligations. Our Governmental Affairs team regularly works with state and local governments, other public entities, and service providers on identifying and obtaining federal and state grants and other types of funding. If you have any questions or need assistance regarding broadband regulation or funding opportunities, please contact the author.