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Rural Alabama County Receives e-Connectivity Grant

In 1935, only 11% of America's rural homes had electricity. The low figure prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) to create the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which would serve as a loan agency to cooperatives in an effort to provide electricity to rural America.

“FDR spoke of rural electrification and what it meant to people in those communities. He said it was ‘a modern necessity of life, not a luxury. That necessity ought to be found in every village, in every house, and on every farm in every part of the United States,’” says U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. 

Today, there are a little over 800 electric cooperatives that serve 42 million people in the U.S. Two and a half million miles of electric distribution lines service 18 million businesses, homes, schools, churches, farms, and irrigation systems. These lines cover three fourths of the nation’s land.

While FDR’s nearly 80-year-old message was directed toward electricity, the same can be said about broadband internet access today.

“Rural America doesn’t have the essential ingredient today, which is communication,” says Steve Foshee, CEO, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative located in Hamilton, Alabama. “We’re a communication world, and so much of rural America, and certainly rural Alabama, is very much lacking in the ability to have access to basic broadband services. It’s the issue for rural America in the 21st century.”

Founded by nine Alabama farmers who were determined to improve the quality of life for those living in Marion, Lamar, and portions of Fayette counties, the cooperative believes it’s important to build on what was initially created.

“They fought to have the same opportunities and luxuries as their big city neighbors,” says Foshee. “We are simply following in their footsteps. Our goal and our mission are the same as those nine farmers when they fought for their right to have electricity. Now, we’re fighting to improve the quality of life in a different way, but in a way that is just as important.”

By awarding Tombigbee Communications, a subsidiary of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, $2.9 million, one gap will be closed in Brilliant, Alabama, and the surrounding areas of Marion county. The company will use the USDA Community Connect Grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network. The project will connect nearly 500 households to high-speed broadband as well as businesses and essential community services in the area. In addition, it must offer free broadband to all critical community facilities in the proposed service areas for two years and establish a community center to allow local residents access to the internet free of charge for two years.

The program provides funds to bring high-speed broadband to rural communities where there is not yet a business case for private providers to deliver service. Grants from $100,000 to $3 million are available to state and local governments, federally recognized tribes, nonprofits and for-profit corporations. The funds must be used to provide broadband service at a minimum bandwidth of 25 megabits downstream and 3 megabits upstream, which are the benchmark speeds the FCC adopted for broadband connectivity.

Far-Reaching Implications

Nestled in the southeastern corner of Marion county, the town of Brilliant is home to nearly 1,000 residents. As the city clerk, Kayla Gunnels says this project will have a major impact on the community.

“This means a lot for a small town like ours,” says Gunnels. “About 20% of our community is connected to the internet today. Once the project is complete, everyone will have access. By providing that access, it will help our community grow.”

From education to medicine to farming, the impact of connectivity will be far reaching for the residents of these communities.

“Poultry is big in our area,” says Foshee. “Many of those growers will put up to $2 million into their farms. With that kind of an investment, they need the latest technology to understand what’s going on in those buildings. If we get fiber to those farms, they're going to be able to monitor everything on a real-time basis. In other words, they don't have to be right there. They can get regular updates because they've got a high-speed connection. It makes all the difference in the world.”

Yet, implementing a strategy to achieve its goal hasn’t come without its challenges – and a very large price tag.

“We’ve been looking at this issue since 2008,” he says. “Initially, we were looking at a $40 million project. We did a feasibility study and filed for stimulus money in 2010. While we thought we had an outstanding application, it did not get funded. After years of work, we were discouraged.”

Disillusioned, the initiative was shelved.  Yet, the problems of rural northwest Alabama weren’t getting any better.

“They actually got worse,” says Foshee. “The question was, what do we do about it? To me, the most effective thing we can do to change the narrative in rural America is this.”

Reenergized, the cooperative took the lessons learned from its first attempt and developed a business plan that it thought would work. In January 2017, Tombigbee Communications was created to move the project forward.

“We took almost 80 years of experience in the electric utility industry and applied it to this,” he explains. “Basically, we are building another utility from scratch. We launched phase one, which was an $8 million capital investment to extend fiber to two of our communities. If we could get that to work, the idea was then to go to phase two. If we failed in phase one, it would make no sense to plow ahead.”

Yet, just because you build it doesn’t necessarily mean the residents would flock to it.

“The argument in the 1930s was that rural people were too poor to be able to afford electricity and too uneducated to know how to use it,” says Foshee. “The same thing was being said about broadband.”

Not only was adoption successful, the numbers were tracking so well – over 50% above goal and well under the initial budgeted amount – that the board voted halfway through phase one to launch phase two.

"We are supplying 100/100 megabits and 1 gigabit both ways," says Foshee. "The former is $49.95 and the later is $79.95, which is pretty affordable for our folks."

Deploying Modern Infrastructure

“This grant is in keeping with President Trump’s directive that we use all available tools to increase prosperity in rural America,” says Secretary Perdue. “As we pursue economic expansion, we recognize that broadband e-connectivity is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.”

In April 2017, President Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory, and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the task force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local, and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

Based on the FCC’s minimum requirements (25 megabits down/3 megabits up), Foshee estimates that less than 5% of the people in their service area have access to that minimum.

“This is a battle for survival in rural, northwest Alabama,” he says. “If we’re going to go to battle and we’re going to prevail, we want to have the best that we can get our hands on. I truly believe the solution to winning that battle is fiber.”

To view the report, you can visit Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.

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