Elmore County commissioner Bart Mercer had a vision for broadband internet access in Elmore County.
Mercer, the Elmore County Commission and the Elmore County Economic Development Authority partnered in 2017 to come up with a plan to improve broadband access across Elmore County.
“I was on the economic development committee for about 13 years before I became a commissioner,” Mercer said. “After about the 20th phone call I got about getting help to get broadband to a home, I knew we had to do something.”
The group pulled in Sain Associates of Birmingham to help with studies to determine unserved and underserved areas in Elmore County that could use broadband, creating maps of existing fiber structure and where it might be able to go next. The study showed 40% of Elmore County residents were unserved or underserved in terms of broadband access.
Central Alabama Electric Cooperative (CAEC) serves rural customers in Elmore and Coosa counties and was quick to join the project. Now that CAEC subsidiary Central Access is launched, CEO Tom Stackhouse is hoping to expand fiber internet to its entire footprint including Coosa County — and soon. State grants have helped make the project possible in Elmore County helping it become one of the electric cooperatives in the state to have broadband service.
“We knew we could do it after the surveys,” Stackhouse said. “All we have to do is break even on our projects. We started before everybody was ready on these grants. It has been kind of a process. The state grant we got helped a lot. Part of this involved (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs) grants. We started building in August. We billed our first customers in March. Right now we are serving more than 900 customers. ”
Stackhouse said federal funds would come into play in Coosa County.
“Our goal is to have fiber on every pole we serve,” Stackhouse said. “Some of the funding we are going after for Coosa County is heavily involved in the ReConnect funds the federal government has. We are waiting on that grant now. If that doesn’t work we are also involved in a consortium with the ARDOLF dollars. We are going after every angle we can.”
ReConnect Program is an United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) innovative new pilot program that offers unique federal financing and funding options in the form of loans, grants and loan/grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that don’t currently have sufficient access to broadband.
Mercer understands how broadband access affects recruitment of developers and industry.
“We know from being involved in economic development in the county, years ago when people came to Elmore County they wanted to know about the workforce, size of a building you may have, land, now access to fiber is right there at the top,” Mercer said. “If you don’t have access to fiber, they are not interested in the property whether it be for residential or industrial development.”
Stackhouse learned bringing broadband to the Titus area is likely keeping some property owners in the area and attracting more. Even the rollout of Central Access for broadband service has helped the electric cooperative in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have talked to a number of people who were either getting ready to leave an area because the area didn’t have broadband and a lot of folks, even us, we saw when we sent almost 40 employees home to telework,” Stackhouse said. “I had people who couldn’t telework. We kind of ran into a problem. We saw the issues. It has ramped it up.”
Mercer and other Elmore County leaders thought the idea of expanding rural broadband would help with economic development when the planning started in 2017. Then COVID-19 struck earlier this year forcing leaders in Elmore County and Elmore County Schools superintendent Richard Dennis to see the same issue Stackhouse saw for his employees.
“I was concerned about my students having access,” Dennis said. “We were putting technology in the hands of as many students as possible to do a virtual learning platform.”
Dennis said Elmore County Schools was facing a challenge as many students had limited to no internet access while schools were attempting to roll out virtual options as the pandemic started.
“You are looking at bringing technology and putting it in the hands of the students for a digital platform,” Dennis said. “It immediately becomes apparent how huge an issue internet connectivity is.”
A map of infrastructure from 2017 and what Central Access already installed of its fiber backbone overlaid with an Elmore County Schools’ map of concentrations of students led to a slight change of plans for installing broadband. In March a shift was made to quickly install 22 hotspots on the new fiber ring to allow students access for a virtual education.
“If it had not been for the presence of this fiber loop just installed, these 22 sites would not have been possible,” Mercer said. They played an important role in the project.”
Stackhouse said, “We rolled those out a little more quickly than we had planned. We knew eventually we would need hotspots as we built the system out.”
Stackhouse said work will continue on the broadband system.
“We have almost 1,000 services out and starting to build a staff,” Stackhouse said. “We will work as fast as we can to get more fiber out there to get more hotspots to deliver. We are still rolling out the backbone and are continuing that process.”
Stackhouse said the CAEC survey resulting in 3,100 customers of its more than 10,000 services showing interest in broadband service. The project when completed will result in more than 400 miles of fiber cable being installed.
“All of Part 1 is hung, most of Part 2 hung and ¾ of the way on Part 3 is done,” Stackhouse said. “Then there is Part 4. All of the fiber will be hung by October or November. Then you have to splice it all. As you splice it and get light, you can connect (to the internet).”
Broadband also means residents in Elmore County can utilize telemedicine.
“Telemedicine has been a growing part of the medical community for the past few years,” One Oak Medical Park nurse practitioner Bentley Labriola said. “It has been really pushed to the front because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Broadband) access is key to telemedicine. It has allowed us to screen patients, decrease exposure and increase social distancing. It has helped with (personal protective equipment) preservation.
“A lot of our patients can not afford to go to Birmingham or Atlanta for specialty care. Telemedicine has helped us bring these providers into the patients’ homes.”
Dennis added the continuing work to roll out broadband access across Elmore County through Central Access, Windstream, Spectrum and other providers will make virtual education more feasible.
“You cannot begin to know how you are going to impact students, especially in the coming year,” Dennis said.
Mercer hopes broadband means more than just helping educate students and recruit developers and industry.
“Access to broadband is a quality of life issue,” Mercer said. “This is just one project our county commission has been focused on related to quality of life. I feel like we are just now getting involved and will be involved for years to come.”