For the third year in a row, state Sen. Tom Whatley is sponsoring legislation that seeks to bring high-speed Internet and cable services to parts of Auburn that have gone without for years.
He is sponsoring three different options, all that would allow Opelika Power Services to expand outside of Opelika to fill in where private Internet and cable providers have left gaps. Opelika is known as "Alabama's first GIG city" for building its own fiber optic network that offers high-speed Internet, TV and phone services throughout the city.
Whatley said he is in favor of the success of private business, but that the needs of Lee County residents are not being met.
"When a private business makes a decision not to serve certain areas because it's not economically feasible for them to do so, then if the municipality or co-op or governmental agency wants to get in and provide that service where private industry will not, I do not see a problem in that," he said. "(The city of Opelika) is willing to serve parts of Auburn that presently do not have Internet and cable services."
The lack of Internet in some pockets of Auburn is not a new problem. One resident, Dana Camp, emailed Whatley a statement of support for his bills, saying she and her husband have been without an Internet provider for four years — having built a house in north Auburn with no Internet or cable infrastructure.
Camp has contacted Auburn Mayor Bill Ham Jr. and City Council members, and was recently told WOW would be making efforts to move into her area in the "near future," but said she has seen no evidence of that.
"Internet is not a luxury anymore," she wrote to Whatley. "As a former educator, I don't see how children in my neighborhood can complete assignments without affordable access to the Internet."
The three bills would all allow Opelika to expand its services into Auburn, with slight differences. SB151 would allow Opelika to provide services in adjoining counties; SB192 would include a constitutional amendment that allows Opelika to go outside its current service area after a vote of the people; and SB228 would allow Opelika to provide service anywhere in Lee County.
All three have a stipulation that Opelika would have to supply a notice of its intention to serve, meaning Opelika Power Services would be required to give notice to the private industry that it wants to serve a particular area. Then, the private businesses have a period of time to decide if they want to serve that area, and if so, Opelika will not be allowed to do so, Whatley said.
Interim City Manager Jim Buston said that he, Ham, Councilman Ron Anders and Councilwoman Beth Witten have met on several occasions with representatives of WOW, Charter and AT&T to share information about underserved areas in Auburn.
Buston said that with recent commitments from WOW and AT&T to expand services, there are only small pockets in the north and a few in the south that remain without Internet.
"Some of those areas that were not served, but have been served or soon will be served as a result of our meetings with the three cable companies are The Preserve — all phases — Plainsman Hills, Tuscany Hills, Shelton Cove and various homes along the routes that WOW and AT&T will use to get to those areas," Buston said. "I do not know, at this time, what those routes are."
Areas in the south that are not covered include Chapel Hill Estates, Nash Creek and McCurry Hills, he said.
Buston said that while private businesses seem to slowly be expanding, the city would support Opelika serving customers outside its city limits.
"We would view them just like any other cable company that would request a franchise to deliver services within the city limits of Auburn," he said, adding that the cable companies already in Auburn would still offer healthy competition. "WOW delivers up to 1GB of Internet service to residential customers at a very competitive rate. AT&T says that it, too, will be delivering GIG service to customers in Auburn."
In previous years, Whatley's broadband bill either did not make it to a vote, or did make it to a committee vote but did not pass.
"I've made this bill pretty local, pretty central to just East Alabama and that's what I'd like the rest of the House and Senate members to understand," Whatley said. "I truly hope the legislators will look at it this year and see there is a need for this and a want for it and be able to pass it."
Rep. Isaac Whorton told The Villager last week that he thinks the broadband bills are a good idea.
"I like the idea, generally speaking," he said. "Obviously, we're going to have to make a decision on which three of those passes, and I think that's something the local delegation will get together on in the coming weeks and make a call on that."
In the meantime, Councilman Ron Anders encouraged people to do research on a neighborhood before moving into it to make sure it has the infrastructure for Internet and cable, especially if it's a newer neighborhood.
"The reality is Auburn is growing so fast that the cable companies seemingly have not budgeted enough money to invest in Auburn's market, and they're playing catch up," he said.
Anders added that since he was re-elected to serve on the Auburn City Council in 2014, a lack of Internet service in Ward 2 has been one of the two problems he has talked with residents the most about — the other being traffic concerns on Richland Road.
"We need to get the situation taken care of and expedite this as quickly as possible," he said. "We've got people in Ward 2 and in Auburn in general who have a need, and however we can get the need met, I'm all for."