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Experts, legislators talk importance of broadband

Access to broadband has become a topic spread across not only broadband providers but politicians as well.

Alabama ranks near the bottom at 41 out of 50 in the most connected states with an 81 percent broadband coverage, according to the Federal Communications Commission and broadbandnow.com. The population lacking broadband coverage in the state is at 26 percent, also according to the FCC.

“It has become a political topic for about 10 years now and the politicians are starting to pick up on it,” said John Nettles, President and CEO of Pine Belt Communications, a locally owned communications company that serves six Black Belt counties with wireless and telephone service. “It is something that is needed. Broadband access is today what the thought of electricity and telephone was 30 years ago.

“It is deemed something that should be universally available,” he said. “The Telecom Act of 1933 that established the Universal Services Doctrine had a statement that basically said that everybody everywhere should have reasonable access to telephone service and over the next 50 years, a lot of stuff was done within the regulatory environment to make it possible for companies such as ours to make a living and provide services to sparsely populated areas.

“It is a system that worked and that notion has moved over to the broadband access world,” he continued. “About seven or eight years ago the FCC brought under the universal service fund umbrella a program that made money available to schools across the country to get broadband access.

“It has worked well. I think every school in Dallas County has a fiber connection and most private schools do too. The private were not supported by the school and library funds, but that extension of fiber to the school themselves has made it sway into both the public and private school sector.

“Where we are now is that the schools are serviced but there are still a lot of areas where homes are not adequately served, and so one of the terms that is used is the Homework Gap,” said Nettles. “The kid needs access to the Internet at their house when they leave the school and they can’t get it at home for whatever reason.”

Nettles said one of the main challenges to providing broadband in all areas of coverage is money to extend the fiber lines.

“For example, we are starting a project where we are providing 100 percent fiber to our incumbent local areas,” he said. “It is going to take $19 million to do it. We put together a business plan and applied for money from a USDA Utility Service Loan. It is a 20 year loan and has a pretty competitive interest rate.”

Nettles also said that the group is looking to challenge some of the coverage areas that are dominated by big name providers like AT&T and Verizon.

“If you’re talking about Dallas County as a whole, it is pretty much already covered at least by AT&T and Verizon,” said Nettles. “The FCC is in the midst of a process that is going to make money available for 4G LTE, which is the current standard of broadband connection.

“What we have started is a data collection effort to challenge some of their (AT&T and Verizon) claims through the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase 2,” Nettles said. “Right now, we are licensed to service Choctaw, Marengo, Dallas, Wilcox and Perry Counties wirelessly. We have a cellular license for those counties and we have a network of about 56 towers.

“What the FCC has going is that they are making money available to carriers that are willing to extend their 4G LTE services into areas that are deemed un-servable based on the filings that the existing carriers made,” said Nettles.

In Dallas County, Nettles said there is a small area in the county that is deemed un-servable by major providers. However, Nettles said their claims are not accurate.

“The rules are written that we have to go through this data collection process,” he said. “If they believe us, then there will be other areas that are opened up in areas that we can bid on. If we are the low bidder then we can get the money, and we will use that money to enhance the services that we have up here.”

Nettles said the Pine Belt’s project to allow all users to have fiber access to their homes could take a while to get to Selma because of the incumbent providers.

“You can’t get that in say New York City, and it will be a long time before you get it in Selma,” said Nettles. “One of the reasons is because of the incumbent wired providers are basically big publicly held companies that can get a better return in Birmingham than in Selma.”

Nettles said that Pine Belt is using a consulting engineering firm out of Oklahoma City to oversee the challenging process.

Legislation is also being put in place to help those without broadband on both political sides of the aisle.

In March of this year, Gov. Kay Ivey signed SB149, the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, authorizing the creation of a broadband accessibility grant program to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, and Rep Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, also creates the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, according to a report from The Moulton Advertiser.

“As a senator and a resident of a rural part of Alabama, I understand the need for broadband expansion across our state,” Scofield said in a press release from the governor’s office. “With this expansion, we can see more growth in our economy, our residents can find better health care and there will be more opportunity for our students to learn. I appreciate Governor Ivey for fully supporting our efforts to improve life in rural Alabama.”

Sen. Doug Jones, R-AL, also is pushing legislation that will help Alabama move forward with broadband in the state.

“One of the biggest issues of our time is access to high-speed internet,” Jones said. “Access to the internet is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity to the modern-day economy.”

He said Alabama consistently ranks 39 out of the 50 states in terms of access to high-speed broadband.

“We’re not at the bottom, but we’re dang sure near the bottom,” Jones said. “Thirty-ninth is not a good number for Alabama.”

Jones said local public officials are critical in expanding access to high-speed internet.

In Prattville, the Central Alabama Electric Cooperative (CAEC) asked from the community to help determine if there is an interested a need for high-speed internet, or broadband in the cooperative’s service territory which includes places like Clanton, Wetumpka and Rockford. The CAEC asked for a $25 commitment fee to help go towards the connection fees.

“As cooperative members, we live in some of the most beautiful parts of the state,” said Tom Stackhouse, CAEC President and CEO. “Although we have much to be thankful for and proud of in our communities, many of us lack the technological resources of high speed internet. As a cooperative, this project is similar to why we were formed 80 years ago to provide electricity in rural communities when for profit companies could not justify the investment in areas that did not meet the density they felt was necessary to provide service.

Stackhouse said that high speed internet is something necessary in today’s world. “from economic development, education, medical services or simply enjoying the many conveniences it offers in everyday life,” he said.