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PSC chair agrees lack of broadband a serious problem

MUSCLE SHOALS — Public Service Commission Chair Twinkle Cavanaugh told board members of the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments they must band together to bring broadband internet to their communities. Cavanaugh was the guest speaker at Thursday’s board meeting, and is perhaps the first member of the Public Service Commission to address the board. The lack of broadband is a recurring issue for board members, most of whom are county commissioners or mayors of cities in Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Winston and Marion counties.

Many have horror stories about weak or non-existent broadband, which hampers their economic development efforts. Cavanaugh said the PSC does not regulate cellular phone service or broadband, but she admitted the number of devices using broadband is growing at a fantastic rate. She said the PSC’s only involvement is through the Connect America fund.

The state agency will ensure that a company bringing broadband to an area through Connect America is “doing what they say they’re doing for the federal dollars.” “In the U.S., most homes have in the ballpark of 13 devices on broadband,” she said. “There are so many different ways we are connected, and it’s going to continue to grow.” Cavanaugh encouraged government officials to take advantage of grant programs to help develop broadband in their areas.

Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes said many broadband providers are hesitant to develop the infrastructure in rural areas due to the high costs. He said companies will not locate in an area that does not have sufficient broadband. Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri said the schools in town have adequate broadband internet, but nobody can link to it to provide broadband for other users.

The broadband was provided by the federal E-Rate program, which helps defray the cost of telecommunications and internet for schools and libraries. Cavanaugh said the state needs to move forward in developing broadband in rural areas, especially for education and job training. She said leaders like the NACOLG board members need to band together and speak to legislators about broadband development.

Cavanaugh, who said she will make an announcement this summer concerning a possible run for governor, also discussed changes she made at the PSC when she was elected in 2010. The PSC staff was downsized from 119 employees to 71 through attrition, and the 59 state vehicles used by the agency were reduced to a pool that employees could check out when they needed to travel. Cavanaugh said she did not take a state vehicle.

She was surprised to discover a “slush fund” that would have paid for any state vehicle she wanted and to redecorate her office, which she described as being the same size as the NACOLG boardroom.

Much of that money and other fees collected by the PSC are returned to the state General Fund.

Cavanaugh said the same “rightsizing” needs to be done in all areas of state government.

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