By Erica Thomas
“Unable to connect to wireless network. “
In a digital world, some households in Alabama are being left behind, according to concerned lawmakers and educators statewide. Without being able to connect to the internet efficiently, families and communities are feeling the impact. State leaders are now working on a plan to improve connectivity, but with the state being so far behind, moves to make it right are not without challenges.
The plan to improve access to the world wide web across the state began during former Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration, but those efforts have been pushed harder since Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Broadband Accessibility Act in 2018. The following year, amendments were made to the act to increase the minimum speeds required. The state is now working to bringing high-speed broadband service to rural areas in need of the internet or improvements to the internet. According to the State of Alabama, “high-speed broadband” offers at least 25 megabits per second downstream and three megabits per second upstream.
A study in 2021 by broadbandnow.com ranked Alabama as 38th for broadband access in the nation. Perry and Lowndes counties only had .5% and 14.3% coverage, respectively.
Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), said the new plan will tackle challenges beyond connecting to the internet.
“We have made some efforts in the past couple of years to improve the internet access in schools," said Garrett. "But Alabama has never had an internet connectivity plan.”
No plan until now, Garrett said.
In the regular session this year, legislators passed a bill establishing the “Alabama Digital Expansion Authority.” Senate Bill 215 was sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston).
“I think it is the most important issue for the state,” Marsh said. “To me, it’s needed as much as power or gas. You have to have it in place if you’re going to compete with your adjoining states.”
In September this year, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) released a survey to find out where the internet is unavailable and where low speeds are impacting internet users. That data will be used to put together a strategy to connect citizens.
Marsh said as technology changes, the strategy for internet expansion will also change.
"We have to look into the future and make sure that we put a plan together that continuously improves itself," Marsh said.
The Authority is to be comprised of 13 members to oversee high-speed broadband services. As part of the bill, the Connect Alabama Advisory Board was also established, which will make recommendations to the Authority on how to most efficiently implement broadband across the state. A six-member Alabama Digital Finance Corporation was also authorized to issue bonds in an amount not to exceed $250 million in any fiscal year “which shall not constitute an obligation or debt of this state.” Finally, the bill established the Connect Alabama Fund, so that money appropriated for the Authority that is not used by the end of the fiscal year can be rolled over to be used by the program in the following fiscal year.
The impact of unavailable internet has made its mark on school teachers and students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. On days students had to stay home and attend a virtual classroom, many in rural areas were unable to complete their assignments.
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One east Alabama family has struggled with internet access and has had to travel out of state to get connected. Ed and Heather Reece both work across state lines. When they are in Georgia, they have internet access. But when they return to their home in Randolph County, they say their internet is so poor they are forced to use a mobile hotspot.
“We have to drive to the top of our pasture to get two bars of service on our cell phone and to use our cell phones as a hotspot,” said Heather Reece.
The use of their mobile hotspot has cost the family over $400 a month at times - in addition to their nearly $100 a month HughesNet bill.
Ed Reece, who teaches Public Safety, is forced to enter grades and create tests from his pasture.
“We’re paying for high speed but you can’t even connect your laptop and stuff,” Ed Reece explained.
The Reece’s son, Aiden, said he has struggled with virtual learning. The honor student wants to learn but finds it challenging when he has to wait for documents and pages to load on his laptop.
“I can’t learn properly if I can’t even access the materials,” Aiden Reece said.
“We’ve driven up from Wadley into Wedowee to the restaurants, we’ve gone to my parents’ house, we had to print out his work there to be able to take a picture with our phones and send it in,” Heather Reece added. “You have to get really creative to be able to make it through digital days.”
The family has even offered their property as a tower site but they said they haven’t gotten responses from any companies.
The Chairman for School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA), Ryan Hollingsworth, said stories like the Reece’s are all too common.
“All of our schools have high-speed internet and we’re good to go during the school day,” Hollingsworth said.
Garrett has heard those stories too.
“I can’t even imagine these schools during the pandemic,” Garrett said. “Kids weren’t in class, they were doing virtual. I can’t imagine where these kids had to get on a bus, where the bus picked up the kids and took them to a hotspot so they could work a few hours. That’s terrible. I can’t imagine!”
But it’s when students are at home that issues arise.
“There’s some really extreme issues there and lots and lots of parts of Alabama struggle with the speed of the internet,” Hollingsworth said. “So, to say that we have it (internet), yes, we may have it but I can get on and maybe transact business or make an online payment but as far as streaming a lesson or something to that effect, no I can’t. I don’t have the speed. It’s not dependable, or maybe it’s so expensive, I can’t afford it.”
After schools shut down in March of 2020, Hollingsworth said the impact of poor internet was made clear.
Hollingsworth said he is thankful that lawmakers, like Marsh and Garrett, are making moves to make a difference.
“The bottom line is, no we can’t continue doing what we’ve been doing,” Garrett said. “We can’t continue just to replicate the same models and follow the same strategies and spend the same dollars. It’s got to be something unique and different.”
The plan is to allow the state to invest in the internet and into businesses in areas where there is poor internet access.
"Many times, the problem is that your typical carrier cannot make a business case for expanding into an area because of the low numbers or volume of possible customers," Marsh said.
Marsh said the state is trying to work with all internet providers in Alabama, to find a way to bring internet to rural areas.
"What we're trying to do in the Broadband Initiative, is get everybody connected," Marsh added. "We understand that in some cases, it may not be cost-effective but if the state can play a role in supplementing the cost to encourage people to go into these areas, that's what we want to be able to do."
Although it is estimated to cost $4 billion to $6 billion to get the state connected, Garrett said it will serve as an investment for the state.
“A byproduct of internet expansion is that it is going to enable businesses to grow and develop in those areas,” Garrett explained. “People are going to move to where there’s jobs and where there’s school systems. Businesses are going to locate to where there’s good school systems. That’s where people want to live.”
Garrett said the state is undergoing changes that are necessary.
“We’ve got to think out of the box and we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing,” Garrett said. “The state is going to need to rebrand itself because people in the younger generation want to work remote and want to be able to have a lot of time to do things like mountain biking, mountain climbing, going to the lake, beach ... The whole thing is changing and it is really because of technology.
With some households having low-speed internet that only allows for one user at a time, Garrett said he can see how business owners would shy away from rural areas.
“Just because you have internet access doesn’t mean you can operate a business,” Garrett continued. “There’s a world that people don’t know about. What I think is really important and the opportunity we have is with this Innovation Commission and this Broadband Authority, I think we could more than catch up. We could leapfrog people.”
The Commission and the Authority are tasked to find the best ways to spend money and invest in the internet. Thanks to CARES Act funds, there will be more money available than there was when internet expansion was first considered.
The Authority is already meeting and is set to have a report by the end of the year on where there is and is not internet service available. By June 30, 2022, the Authority has been charged to have a strategic plan in place on how to address gaps where citizens are unserved or underserved.
Companies that will be used in the expansion of broadband have not been determined, but Marsh said he believes several companies will be supportive of the state’s effort. He hopes better internet will one day improve business, education, health care and much more for the people of Alabama.