Alabama makes strides in bringing high-speed internet to rural communities

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Fiber infrastructure is a key tool in attracting new and expanding businesses across Alabama, and local providers are actively working to install innovative internet technologies, particularly in the state’s rural areas.

In recent years, AT&T has invested nearly $1.2 billion in Alabama to enhance its wired and wireless networks, in both urban and rural areas.

While AT&T has been deploying fiber in Alabama since the mid-1980s, a new initiative allows local leaders to designate industrial parks, office campuses and other business locations as “AT&T Fiber Ready” and use that message in marketing materials.

“In today’s world, internet connectivity is an important part of the puzzle,” said AT&T Alabama President Fred McCallum. “No matter the size or the sector, companies rely on high-speed internet access to grow and scale their business.”

“Our goal with Fiber Ready is to highlight the existing presence of fiber optics and high-speed communications infrastructure and — hopefully — in turn, support economic developers and local leaders as they diligently work to attract new businesses and drive growth for the businesses that already call Alabama home.”

To date, 31 sites in the state have been designated Fiber Ready.

Rural targets

Other local providers are also making strides in boosting connectivity in the state. Just last month, Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative Inc. (FTC) announced a new fiber infrastructure investment in Marshall County, starting in Albertville and later moving into Boaz and Guntersville.

Angela Till, deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, speaks at an AT&T Fiber Ready event in Prattville. (Made in Alabama)

The Rainsville-based company serves the northeastern corner of Alabama, including Jackson, Marshall and DeKalb counties.

In 2015, FTC was the first provider in Alabama to launch active Ethernet-Based GIG internet to residents and small businesses.

“Active Ethernet service essentially means each customer is served with a dedicated fiber from the serving wire center,” said Fred Johnson, FTC’s executive vice president and general manager. “This means that from the wire center to the customer there is dedicated bandwidth rather than a sharing of bandwidth between customers as in the case of a passive optical network (PON).”

In all fairness, Johnson continued, the public internet itself is shared bandwidth, so that distinction must be allowed.

“Nevertheless, assuming that wire centers are adequately supported, as ours are, with high-capacity links, the customer experience is improved because there is less shared bandwidth in the distributed portion of the network,” he said. “A PON essentially takes a single fiber and ‘splits’ it multiple times among a group of customers who effectively share the bandwidth of that fiber.”

Johnson added that every business park in the FTC service footprint has optical fiber available. Service may be provisioned in any of those parks up to and beyond the 1 Gig level.

“Having ‘GIG’ residential service available has brought the area a degree of notoriety — we have an even more robust system than the ‘Gig Poster Child’ of Chattanooga — but is less significant economically than the even higher capacity afforded the business and industrial community,” Johnson said.

“The local economic development associations inform us that almost every prospect checks off broadband availability as a condition precedent to any further evaluation. To date, I am unaware of FTC’s facilities failing this checkoff. They are literally as modern as any in the country.”

Recruiting 21st-century jobs

Alabama Sen. Clay Scofield of Guntersville said FTC is providing critical support to the quality of life in the region.

“We’re very excited that Farmers has made the decision to expand in Marshall County,” he said. “It’s a significant investment that we think is going to have a huge impact on economic development in our area.”

The region is trying to recruit 21st-century jobs, Scofield said.

“The only way we’re going to be able to do that is with this type of infrastructure,” he said. “From here and into the future, high-speed internet is going to have to be just as important for a utility to offer as power and water are.

“It’s going to be critical that our communities throughout the state of Alabama have access to this if we want to really grow, not only to recruit jobs but also to recruit people to live in those areas.”

Scofield is sponsoring legislation that would provide incentives to companies to expand broadband into rural and underserved areas of the state.

“It’s very costly to expand as it is, and in our more urban and suburban areas, it’s easier for companies to make it profitable. But in rural or poor urban areas, it’s not as profitable for them to expand,” he said.

Scofield’s bill stalled in the House during the last legislative session, but he continues to work on it and intends to introduce it again in the next session. He said he recently spoke to the Marshall County Realtors Association, and he asked them how many of their clients inquire about internet connectivity before they purchase a home.

“Every hand went up. This is really going to affect smaller areas’ ability to recruit people to move there,” he said.

It’s also important when it comes to training the workforce of the future, Scofield said.

“We’ve done a great job in Alabama of getting technology into the classroom, but what happens when those students go home? I think this is critical when we look at workforce development and training to make sure we have connectivity,” he said.

‘Highways of the future’

Alabama Rep. Kyle South of Fayette, who also is general manager of West Alabama Cable TV, agreed that a robust fiber infrastructure is key to a region’s economic growth.

Officials in Thomasville celebrate the arrival of AT&T’s Fiber Ready initiative in the rural Alabama community. (Contributed)

“There’s no question it’s terribly important,” he said, citing the automotive industry as an example of the industries that rely on the network. Suppliers and auto manufacturing plants operate on a just-in-time strategy, with parts being shipped and received as they are needed.

“There’s no way they can stay on schedule without proper communication between companies,” he said. “Broadband and fiber are the infrastructure highways of the future.”

Beyond that, fiber infrastructure enhances medical and education offerings in rural areas, he said.

South cited a telepsychiatry program that contracted with a doctor from UAB who was able to see patients remotely, saving the time and expense of driving. Additional programs could be a big cost savings for rural health care, he added.

Similarly, a strong fiber infrastructure can support Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses for students where they might not be offered otherwise.

South said a number of industrial parks in rural western Alabama are well-equipped with fiber infrastructure, but that hasn’t always been touted. That’s why programs, like AT&T Fiber Ready, that highlight where fiber optics are readily available are so important for companies looking to expand or relocate to Alabama.

“A lot of this infrastructure has been around since the 1980s, but we have not been quick enough to blow our own horn and market the fact that it’s there,” he said.

Making upgrades

At AT&T, officials are always thinking of new and innovative ways to enhance connections across the nation, including in urban and rural parts of Alabama, McCallum said.

The company is currently expanding its fiber-optic network to offer up to a gigabit connection on its 100 percent fiber network. In Alabama, this speed option is being marketed to homes, apartments and small businesses in parts of Alabaster, Athens, Birmingham, Chelsea, Daphne, Fairhope, Florence, Helena, Killen, Madison, Mobile, Montevallo, Northport, Opelika, Pelham and Tuscaloosa, with more on the way.

Additionally, AT&T accepted about $427 million per year in Connect America Fund Phase II support designated for deploying, maintaining and offering internet access and voice service in FCC-identified census blocks in 18 states within AT&T’s traditional exchange areas by 2020.

From 2015 to 2020, AT&T Alabama will bring high-speed internet access to nearly an additional 66,000 predominantly rural homes and small businesses in the FCC-identified census blocks.

To reach these hard-to-reach locations, AT&T is primarily deploying its fixed wireless internet technology. The service uses a fixed-wireless “last mile” connection between the fiber at a cell tower and the customer premises to provide high-speed internet access.

Construction began in the second quarter of 2016 and is expected to be at least 40 percent complete by the end of this year.

“I am also proud to share Alabama was one of four trial locations in the U.S. for this new technology,” McCallum said. “The consumer experience was incredibly positive in Walker County, and we successfully trialed 85 participants in the Carbon Hill area — far exceeding our initial goal of 50 trial participants.”

As for the future, McCallum said several efforts are under way to support communities and the rapidly growing demand on AT&T’s mobile network.

In Alabama, AT&T is working with local officials to begin deployment of small cells, which are used to “densify” the network by bolstering capacity and bringing the network closer to its users. The result is increased data capacity, faster speeds and an overall better wireless experience.

“As our world continues to become more connected, with residents and businesses increasingly turning to wireless connections and devices, the pressure on our mobile network continues to mount. Since 2007, data usage on AT&T’s network has increased by more than 250,000 percent, mostly due to the surge in mobile video,” McCallum said.

“Together, these innovations will enable an upgraded network and help continue to position Alabama, whether welcoming new or expanding existing business in our communities.”

Republished with permission of Alabama NewsCenter.

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