Broadband Grant

Central Access is growing. Thanks to grants, more residents of Coosa and Elmore counties will begin to see broadband intrenet service available in the near future. Pictured are, state representative and CAEC trustee, Van Smith; Congressman Gary Palmer; Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Bette Brand; CAEC president and CEO Tom Stackhouse; state Rep. Ed Oliver; USDA state director Chris Beeker; and CAEC vice president of business and administrative services Julie Young.

Central Access is growing. Thanks to grants, more residents of Coosa and Elmore counties will begin to see broadband internet service available in the near future.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Thursday it is investing $37 million through the ReConnect Program to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas in Alabama. Central Alabama Electric Cooperative (CAEC) and its Central Access is $8.6 million in grant funding to extend its broadband service to connect 13,853 people, 149 farms, 77 businesses and one fire station to high-speed broadband internet in Bibb, Chilton, Perry, Autauga, Talladega, Elmore and Coosa counties.

“(Friday) truly is a landmark journey to help people change their circumstance with high speed, reliable and affordable broadband service,” CAEC president and CEO Tom Stackhouse said. “This is not the first time that this cooperative, and many others across this country, has been a part of rural development and improving the quality of life — it’s what cooperatives have done and still do. The new normal will include many who will work from home and telemedicine will provide a much better quality of life, but none of this will happen without fast, reliable internet. And it is closer today than it was yesterday for many in rural Alabama.”

CAEC spokesperson Tiffany Trueblood said the company hasn’t yet announced what areas will be served by the grant.

“We are working on a map to publish later this year,” Trueblood said. “It will not only include the areas to receive broadband but when our customers can expect it. We want to be able to answer all of the questions at once.”

In July, Central Access announced state grants helped make the broadband project possible in the Titus are of 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 in July. “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 (2019). We billed our first customers in March.”

Stackhouse wants to serve the entire footprint of CAEC with broadband.

“Our goal is to have fiber on every pole we serve,” Stackhouse said.

CAEC worked for over half a year on the application process before it was submitted for the federal grants in March of this year.

USDA deputy under secretary for Rural Development Bette Brand visited with CAEC leadership and state officials as she announced the grant awards for Alabama.

“Access to a high-speed internet connection is a cornerstone of prosperity, and unfortunately many of America’s rural communities lack access to this critical infrastructure,” Brand said. “Under the leadership of President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Perdue, USDA is committed to leveraging all available resources and being a strong partner to rural communities in deploying high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to the people, businesses and community facilities that don’t have access yet. Connecting America’s rural communities to this essential infrastructure is one of USDA’s top priorities, because we know that when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”

Others receiving grant funding in Alabama under the ReConnect program were:

• Millry Telephone Company Inc. will use a $8.3 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 4,444 people, 84 farms, 46 businesses, four fire stations and a post office to high-speed broadband internet in Choctaw and Washington counties in Alabama.

• Pine Belt Telephone Company Inc. will use a $6.5 million ReConnect grant and a $6.5 million ReConnect loan to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 5,799 people, 143 farms, 83 businesses, five fire stations, five educational facilities and four post offices to high-speed broadband internet in Perry, Hale and Marengo counties in Alabama.

• Moundville Telephone Co. Inc. will use a $166,000 ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 111 people and a farm to high-speed broadband internet in Hale County, Alabama.

• Mon-Cre Telephone Cooperative Inc. will use a $5.8 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 2,546 people, 36 farms, 19 businesses and three fire stations to high-speed broadband internet in Crenshaw, Lowndes and Montgomery counties in Alabama.

• Hayneville Telephone Company Inc. will use a $1.5 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 1,481 people, 19 farms, nine businesses, and four educational facilities to high-speed broadband internet in Lowndes County, Alabama.

To qualify, the identified grant areas can only have within its borders 10 percent of sufficient access to broadband, defined at the federal level as 10 Mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, leaving 90 percent with less than this minimum. This excludes mobile or satellite service but does include fixed wireless. CAEC had previously applied for similar federal grants during the last award process, but the six requests were rejected because cellular and satellite Internet services were available in the percentage of 10 to 1 minimum speed.

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.