A growing group of business, civic and government leaders across Alabama are working together to improve high speed internet access, especially in rural areas.
Representatives of the group held a news conference Wednesday morning in Montgomery to highlight their efforts, which includes legislation needed to facilitate the deployment of broadband access throughout the state.
“We are dedicated to addressing the infrastructure problem in our state that keeps many people and businesses in Alabama from sharing in the 21st century economy,” Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth said. “Access to fast and reliable internet service is critical to our state’s economic viability.”
Lawmakers are currently reviewing legislation that would grant electric providers the ability to use existing electric easements for broadband purposes. Supporters say this will accelerate the cost-effective expansion of broadband internet access in rural Alabama.
“We have got to look at the future of this state with rural broadband,” said Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh. “It will have great impact for all of our education for this state as well as economic development,” Marsh said.
Whitney Barlow, executive director of the Chilton County Industrial Development Board, said a lack of high-speed internet access in rural Alabama discourages some businesses from investing in the state.
“When we talk to companies and recruit them into rural counties, after they ask about our workforce, the next question they ask is, ‘Do you have broadband and do you have accessible internet?’” Barlow said. “Not just for their companies, but also for their employees and the kids of their employees, for them to be able to have a functioning quality of life in a rural part.”
Barlow said these companies want to locate in Alabama’s rural counties.
“We have so much to offer them, but our inability to offer adequate broadband has been an issue for now over 15 years,” Barlow said.
Alabama Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed said the plan would help students who need high-speed internet access after school.
“If you go to the McDonald’s in those communities at 3 in the afternoon right after school, you realize there’s a lot of folks there, and they’re not only there for the milkshake and the hamburger, but they’re there for the WiFi,” Reed said. “If the kids in those communities are going to get their homework done in the afternoon, they’ve got to go to a spot that has internet access and, unfortunately, 70% of the schoolkids in some of the districts that I represent do not have broadband access when they leave school to go home.”
Brannon Littleton, director of the Montgomery School of Music, said this issue affects him personally and professionally.
“When I graduated from college, I landed a job opportunity that required me working out of home, and they looked at me and said, ‘Do you have internet?’ Of course, I told them I had internet, I just didn’t tell them what kind,” Littleton said. “I ended up losing this great job — not because I didn’t know how, but because I lacked the opportunity to function with good technology.”
State Rep. Randall Shedd says the plan would also help small communities access advanced medical care not traditionally available in rural areas.
“Quick, reliable internet service could even be a lifesaver in small communities that cannot benefit from the advances in telemedicine that are not available everywhere in our state simply because of this shortcoming in infrastructure that can be remedied with this legislation,” Shedd said. “This issue is so important, a large and expanding group of partners have come together to form the Alabama Broadband Rural Coalition to work together to bring all of Alabama into the internet age of the 21st century.”
Members of the coalition include ALFA Farmers Federation, Alabama Agribusiness Council, Alabama Association of Realtors, Alabama Bankers Association, Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, Alabama Community College System, Alabama Education Association, Alabama Hospital Association, Alabama Poultry & Egg Association, Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives, Alliance for Alabama Infrastructure, Auburn University, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, Business Council of Alabama, Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, Economic Development Association of Alabama, Energy Institute of Alabama, Home Builders Association of Alabama, Manufacture Alabama, NFIB of Alabama, School Superintendents of Alabama, Southeast Gas, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority and The University of Alabama System.