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Rural broadband Bill would encourage investment

by Allison Law

As a full-time farmer from a rural area, state Sen. Clay Scofield knows first-hand the issues with having limited internet connectivity. It’s why he’s again this year sponsoring a bill to provide tax credits for companies willing to invest in rural broadband infrastructure.

“We don’t have access to higher speed internet, and it affects our ability to do business and be connected with markets around the world,” Scofield says.

It’s not just an economic development issue, though that is an important component. “We’re putting our students at a serious disadvantage if they don’t have Internet in their homes,” he says. And students can’t take online classes at colleges and universities without adequate internet.

And the uses for telemedicine continue to grow. With today’s technology, “we can connect someone in Greene County or Geneva County to specialists at UAB,” he says. Telemedicine also allows for high-risk patient monitoring and for remote yet real-time diagnoses in such specialties as wound care, neurology and stroke.

The biggest portion of the bill will provide a tax credit of up to 10 percent of the total investment in rural and underserved Alabama. That will be capped at $20 million per year, for a limit of 10 years. Scofield says the state would also abate some sales and use taxes and ad valorem taxes as well.

If the state maxes out at $20 million a year, that would mean that providers are investing $200 million a year in rural Alabama to get that $20 million tax credit. That has a potentially huge return on investment: How many times are those dollars turned over in the rural areas, in terms of wages for people who build the infrastructure and for the materials to do so?

After 10 years, the abatement goes away, Scofield says, so the state can begin to collect on that new infrastructure. “So it’s a good deal for them, and a good deal for us.”

The bill addresses the biggest reason why there isn’t high-speed Internet in many areas of rural Alabama: the prohibitive cost. For years, it hasn’t been cost-effective for big Internet companies to extend their services to rural areas; Scofield’s bill aims to address that issue head-on.

During the 2017 session, SB253 passed the Senate but got bogged down in the House. Scofield has been working with his colleagues to ensure support in 2018.

“We have a lot of support for it, and it has bipartisan support,” he says.

Before the session starts, legislators will get the results of an initiative to map the internet connectivity in Alabama. Part of the problem, Scofield says, is that it’s hard to offer incentives to companies to invest when there isn’t an up-to-date map that reflects the coverage statewide.

Some maps, which are based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, aren’t really accurate, Scofield says, because if one person within a census block is served, then all the people in that block are considered served, which isn’t the case. “That’s why getting a map is critical, so we can determine what we are really looking at.”

The Alabama Rural Electric Association, which publishes Alabama Living magazine, as well as the Alabama Farmers Federation support this legislation. Contact your legislators and let them know that you want them to support Scofield’s rural broadband bill.