Unincorporated Camp Hill and Waverly and the Lake Martin waterfront may represent two very different pictures of Tallapoosa County, but they have one thing in common — both meet the definition of "unserved."
Earlier this month the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund awarded $17 million in grants to internet service providers in an effort to expand high-speed internet to the "primarily rural, unserved areas of Alabama." Four of those grants were in Tallapoosa County, two to Point Broadband, one to Windstream and one to Charter Communications subsidiary Spectrum Southeast.
Two of those grants — one to Point Broadband and one to Windstream — will bring high-speed internet to a scattering of about 350 households in the Waverly and Camp Hill surrounding area.
The other two will provide connection to two communities on Lake Martin, including 56 households in the Overlook Drive community, for which Point Broadband received $71,612, and 244 households in Lakeside Village, for which Charter received $144,688. The latter is part of a waterfront development with home prices up to seven figures, according to real estate website Zillow.
The Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, created in 2018, awards 35% of the cost or up to $1.5 million per project to incentivize companies to expand to rural areas not typically worth their while.
"If it were very profitable, it would already be done," Windstream regional president of operations Stacy Hale said of the provider's Camp Hill-Waverly project. "But the problem is you have to spend so much money to get these services out to rural areas it's just cost-prohibitive. So with the government providing this money, it allows all the carriers to make it a good business case."
What Windstream and Point Broadband are providing to the two nearby areas of southeastern Tallapoosa County is fiber-to-the-home, "as good as you can get in terms of residential service" comparable to that of Boston, New York or Dallas.
Most of these grant-eligible projects fulfill two criteria. The first is the location must be reachable from an already-connected area. To bring broadband to a rural business or residence, Windstream must dig a trench in the roads or right-of-ways and lay fiber-optic cables all the way to the unit. Not unlike the expansion of the railroads, Windstream can only build off of what it already has — in the case of Waverly, it was a natural springboard off Windstream's pre-existing hub in Opelika.
The other criterion is the area must meet the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) definition of "unserved," which is places where the average internet speed is slower than 25 megabits per second downstream three megabits per second upstream.
"If you have service greater than that you are currently considered 'served,'" said David Ficken vice president of strategic growth at Point Broadband. "Now you and I might disagree that that's a very good line in the sand but that's what they have determined."
Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) has a map for internet providers to see where they can apply for grants, in which all the unserved areas are highlighted yellow. As of November 2020, in Tallapoosa County that covers the Wind Creek area, much of the northeast including Goldville and Daviston and much of the southeast, with the exception of within Camp Hill city limits.
In these "yellow" areas, whatever slow internet they may have is often delivered through retrofitted copper telephone wires. "But it's very, very limited in speed; it would not qualify as 'served,'" Ficken said. "Who could have conceived that they would need to carry data in 1899 or whatever?"
Compare that with fiber-optic cables, "the top of the food chain." Fiber broadband is also "symmetrical," meaning it's just as fast to upload something as it is to download.
For Point Broadband, Waverly is a logical choice as the closest unserved area to its base in Opelika that can be reached by U.S. Highway 280. As for Overlook Drive, the project is a natural extension of Point's previous investment in the Lake Martin area.
"We have a significant initiative at Lake Martin and we've established 600 connections in the year already, and this is another 50 to 60 homes that we can serve," Ficken said.
While the Lake Martin community used to be mostly second homes, since the pandemic, many of those second homes have turned into primary homes for remote workers, making an even better business case for Point Broadband to expand there, said Ficken. However, unlike Waverly, the Overlook community was not highlighted on ADECA's map of unserved areas, so Point Broadband had to petition for it to be grant-eligible.
"We were already building up there, and we were recognizing the fact that it was, quote, 'served.' But we realized it really wasn't served," Ficken said, meaning they found its speeds to be lower than the defined threshold. "And so we have letters of support and speed tests things of that nature that validated it's a good use of the state's money."
According to the same ADECA map, the Lakeside Village area near New Water Farms is also "not meeting the definition of unserved," i.e. not eligible for the grant without a petition.
Patti Michel, a spokesperson for Charter, confirmed the provider was awarded $144,688 to connect 244 homes in the Lakeside Village area but did not comment on how Charter chose when to apply for grants.
"We anticipate beginning construction on the first of six projects sometime this summer with service activation occurring soon thereafter," Michel said. "We fully expect to complete construction and connectivity to residents within the two-year grant timeframe."
This month's round of Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund grants is the latest in several since 2018. In July, Alabama awarded Charter a quarter million dollars to extend service to 316 households in the Marina Marin development on Lake Martin, originally built by disgraced HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy.
Several news outlets pointed out the wealth of the community, including The Selma Times-Journal, quoting the development's average home price of $1.5 million, and Opelika-Auburn News, which described it as an "affluent neighborhood" before quoting the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund's stated purpose of providing "in mainly unserved rural areas." Opelika-Auburn News also pointed out former Auburn football coach and now-senator Tommy Tuberville used to live in Marina Marin.
Despite several interpretations of the word "unserved," ADECA's grant takes a literal definition of unserved, meaning any place without the minimum level of internet speed. The grant does not stipulate certain income levels or access to infrastructure.
According to the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund's annual report, Charter received an average of $777.11 in grant funding per household connection for its Marina Marin project, $10.79 less than the average for all grant projects.