Almost 100 years ago, communities across Alabama started pulling together to form cooperatives like Joe Wheeler Electric. Private power companies bringing electricity to the big cities looked at the rural parts of the state and didn’t see the profit in extending service there. So, if they wouldn’t bring electricity to rural communities, the people in those areas decided to build the lines themselves.
Alabama Congressman Robert Aderholt sees a lot of similarities between those early days of electricity and the state’s current disparity in broadband access between urban and rural areas. And just as the cooperative model has proven tremendously successful in the decades since the first power lines went up, electric co-ops may hold the key to closing that gap.
“There are so many cities that have broadband, but so much of rural America has been left out. And a lot of that is just pure cost,” he says. “I liken it a lot to what we saw with electricity. If you were trying to operate a business back in those days, it was very difficult without electricity. Today, it would be very difficult to operate a business if you didn’t have access to broadband.”
State Sen. Arthur Orr agrees. As Alabama continues to grow, he sees broadband as an essential tool for attracting the kind of businesses that, in the past, would only have been available to major cities.
“The problem for a lot of rural areas is they can’t attract companies because they don’t have high-speed internet,” he says. “Widely distributing broadband could be really transformative for those areas. It won’t happen overnight, but it will enhance small businesses and appeal to smaller companies that don’t need to be in the city.”
Blazing a Trail
Here in North Alabama, Joe Wheeler Electric is at the forefront of efforts to expand broadband with the FlashFiber project. Once complete, the network will offer internet speeds of up to 2 gigabits to households and businesses within the cooperative’s service area.
“The bottom line is that FlashFiber is going to areas that private companies probably wouldn’t go, because their bottom line is about making money,” Aderholt says. “A lot of my constituents will have the opportunity to get internet at speeds just like you would find in cities like Atlanta or Birmingham.”
Orr has been particularly impressed by Joe Wheeler’s readiness to expand into a new industry for the good of its members. He imagines others wouldn’t be so quick to take on what some might see as an unnecessary risk.
“I can’t say enough good things about Joe Wheeler and their leadership,” he says. “They could have said, ‘We’re an electric utility. Internet service isn’t our business.’ Despite that, they were willing to step into a new venture to better the lives of their ratepayers. I’m very appreciative to have that kind of leadership locally.”
A Flash of Inspiration
As much progress as the state has made in closing the broadband gap, Aderholt recognizes there is still a long way to go. He finds encouragement in the fact that, while the country may be divided on many issues, he has seen bipartisan agreement in the nation’s capital that broadband access should be a priority.
“This is an issue that I believe is really beyond party lines,” he says. “I was talking to a colleague from a liberal district in Wisconsin recently, and we were having the same issues around broadband access. We can all agree that we don’t want two Americas: one with internet and one without it.”
Aderholt is also optimistic that increased funding for the USDA’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, targeted at expanding high-speed internet access in rural areas, will encourage further investment in rural connectivity. The program picked up additional funding from the CARES Act earlier this year, along with $2 billion from the infrastructure package passed late last year.
“I think Alabama is well on its way, and FlashFiber will be part of that success,” he says. “Alabama has received somewhere around $100 million in grants and loan combinations for companies to connect thousands of homes and businesses throughout the state. Farms, schools, health care facilities, you name it.”
The Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, created by the state legislature in 2018 to expand high-speed internet in Alabama, also passed the $20 million mark last summer. Orr says that fund shows the governor’s and legislature’s support for continuing to invest in broadband access for rural areas.
“That $20 million seems woefully insufficient now, but we knew we needed to get started. So, I’m glad we’re a little bit ahead of the game,” he says. “We have utilities like Joe Wheeler and other vendors who got started under the state program, and now we’re going to see this huge influx of federal cash.”
While Joe Wheeler’s FlashFiber project is a big step forward for our own members, Aderholt hopes other regions in Alabama and beyond take notice.
“I think this is a model that rural America — not just in our state but around the country — can emulate. It’s the type of program that I think will make sure rural America is on a level footing with the rest of the country.”