10 months ago

Alabama’s rural broadband expansion meets resistance

Alabama’s broadband expansion efforts may have hit a roadblock at a time when it is needed the most.

Several challenges have recently been filed against grants aimed at helping deliver high-speed internet to rural areas.

State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), the Alabama’s legislature’s long-time champion for rural broadband expansion, worries the challenges are part of a concerted effort to slow down a high-tech buildout in some parts of the state.

Scofield’s legislation created a program, administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), to provide grants to build out the state’s broadband infrastructure.

The intent of the ongoing effort is to spur economic development and enhance quality of life for rural areas through greater access to high-speed broadband.

Scofield and other policymakers envision the upgrades in infrastructure to result in improvements for agriculture and healthcare and provide the type of remote learning opportunities needed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Fourteen of the applications for the first round of this year’s grants have been challenged, according to ADECA.

Among those challenged was an application from Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative (FTC) for a grant to expand broadband access in Northeast Alabama.

“Ours was challenged by Charter Communications,” explained Fred Johnson, executive vice president and general manager of FTC.

Johnson credited Scofield and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) with helping to craft legislation that allowed ADECA flexibility in applying data to determine the areas most in need of broadband expansion.

FTC, according to Johnson, had done painstaking research to come up with their data to present as part of its application.

“To their credit, ADECA has been exceptionally diligent in also understanding – it’s actually been gratifying to see a government agency to actually see a government agency do what they were tasked to do,” he said. “They have been extremely good about [applying the data].”

Johnson believes last year’s grant awards proved the program has, thus far, been administered effectively.

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“In our first round of awarding grants in 2019 they had identified a few areas where we had made a mistake, asked us to recheck it, we rechecked it, realized we made a mistake and we just amended the grant to exclude it,” recalled Johnson. “That’s fine and it couldn’t work any better. We, like everybody else, are capable of mistakes.”

This year’s round of applications have become grounds for contention.

“When Charter filed an application protesting our grant they did so in total,” Johnson outlined. “First of all, they claimed our grant application overlapped their service territory and hence was ineligible for funding. Then they also said even if they don’t serve it someone else does, and so we should be denied. They didn’t take the time to advise ADECA that they were using the [federal] data. And the other company they identified as serving all these people, they didn’t bother to tell ADECA that the company was us – and only us.”

As part of its response to the challenge, FTC provided ADECA with a map showing it is actually the company currently serving the area.

“Charter is saying that another provider provides service to this entire census block, well we’re the provider,” Johnson said. “We just gave them a map specifically showing with latitude-longitude coordinates where we can and can’t serve so we think we know better than Charter does.”

Another expansion project being challenged belongs to Covington Electric Cooperative (CEC).

CEC has applied for grant funding to build out a “middle-mile” of fiber in the Wiregrass. Middle-mile is a line of fiber off of which other companies can build to deliver high-speed internet. It is considered a fundamental infrastructure project in broadband expansion.

Rick Clifton, president and CEO of the Covington County Economic Development Commission, wrote in support of CEC’s application to ADECA.

CEC’s project has been challenged by Charter Communications and Mediacom.

Clifton views broadband expansion as “essential” to his area’s economic development efforts.

“Covington Electric and its management are very much into economic development,” he remarked. “Broadband is important everywhere but it’s especially important in our rural areas. If you’ve got broadband you can connect to the world. Having good, reliable broadband is a priority for us, and we do whatever we can to support it.”

CEC’s middle mile project would connect their substations and then allow them to have a third-party come in and build out from that fiber to provide broadband access to people who lack suitable access now.

“It’s almost like the reason the electric coops got started, it just wasn’t economically feasible for the big companies to run lines out to very sparsely populated areas of the country so the coops formed to do that,” stated Clifton. “It would also allow us to take industrial or business service out from that middle mile of fiber.”

He views the project not as a threat to anyone else’s business but as a way to improve life in communities throughout CEC’s service area.

“I don’t think they have any interest in getting in the cable business themselves, or the internet business themselves, but once that middle mile is done then it opens up a whole lot of different options for different folks to come in and help,” he offered.

As someone who is charged with helping grow jobs in Covington County, Clifton believes there is significant incentive to expand broadband options.

“In a rural area you have a lot of obstacles to overcome,” he explained. “Recruitment is a process of elimination. They don’t pick you, they eliminate you. If you don’t provide high-speed internet access, they eliminate you.”

Jasper Mayor David O’Mary shares Clifton’s sentiment toward the critical nature of offering high-speed internet options to potential employers.

He said internet access is one of the first things about which industrial targets ask.

“I’ve been to Japan twice to recruit businesses,” O’Mary said. “If you don’t have that, you don’t get a look.”

Jasper and surrounding areas have a middle-mile project of their own for which they have applied to receive grant funding. This project has been challenged by Charter Communications and Community Cable.

RELATED: Fiber network bringing high-speed internet to Jasper area

Asked what broadband expansion would mean for his city, O’Mary did not shy away from touting its impact.

“Let me put it real simple, it will make us a lot more like Huntsville, the second largest city in the state,” he said. “I have become good friends with the mayor of Huntsville, Tommy Battle, and what he says is that you have got to have technology to meet the needs of industry.”

Offering updated infrastructure by expanding broadband is an integral part of his plan.

“We’re working very hard on industrial recruitment,” said O’Mary. “We have a nice industrial park. You have to meet the expectations of people that look to live in your city. Work from home has become a big thing across this country. Without high-speed internet access, we’re flat on our back in those two games.”

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis reinforce the need for expanded broadband in Alabama, according to Scofield.

RELATED: Aderholt requests emergency funding for rural broadband

“I have been working to get the infrastructure delivered as quickly as possible,” he said. “How do we get kids to stay home and get them to do their lessons online the rest of the year?”

Scofield questioned the motive of those issuing bulk challenges to grant applications. He believes the intent is “to slow them down.”

“They don’t want to service rural Alabama, but they don’t want anyone else to pick up any market share,” he elaborated.

Now is not the time, he believes, to slow the process down.

“I’ve been working on the issue for six years now,” Scofield explained. “This year, if all the grants go through at ADECA, they could hook up about 86,000 more entities. I think, ‘If we could have been doing that for the last five years, where we could be right now?’ This expansion does not need to be slowed down right now, we need to be ramping it up and the coronavirus situation is proof positive as to why.”

Under the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, ADECA must resolve the challenges within 30 days.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

Jerry Carl: Commitment to fighting for life

On Friday of this week, our nation will recognize National Sanctity of Life Day. This tradition started when President Reagan issued a proclamation in 1984 designating January 22 as the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day. The purpose of this special day is celebrating the gift of life, remembering the lives lost to abortion, and reaffirming our commitment to protecting life from conception to natural death.

Thankfully, we have seen a decrease in the total number and rate of abortions in America. In recent years, abortions have decreased by about 25%. Much credit is due to President Trump, the most pro-life president in history, for many of these positive changes. While this is worth celebrating, there is still more work to be done. Being an advocate for pro-life policies is one of my top priorities in Congress, and I have already begun working with my colleagues on some key pieces of pro-life legislation.

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One of the bills I’m proud to co-sponsor is Rep. Virginia Foxx’s bill, The Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act, which amends the Public Health Service Act to prohibit the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) from providing federal family planning grants to entities that perform abortions or provide funds to entities that perform abortions. This is a critical step to stemming the tide of abortion in our country, and I strongly believe that no taxpayer money should ever be used in support of performing an abortion.

As a nation, we must remain rooted in the fundamental truth that every life is a precious gift from God. We should also recognize and thank the many men and women who advocate for life, whether it’s supporting women dealing with unplanned pregnancies, counseling women who have had an abortion, or supporting the adoption and foster care industries. I hope you will join me this week in reaffirming our nation’s commitment to protecting life at all stages.

Jerry Carl represents Alabama’s First Congressional District. He lives in Mobile with his wife Tina.

2 hours ago

State Sen. Butler: Space Command announcement reminiscent of Huntsville reaction to 1958 Explorer launch, U.S. response to Sputnik

In 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the United States by launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite. The news put Drs. Eberhard Rees and Wernher von Braun to work on a U.S. response at Redstone Arsenal’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville.

At 10:48 p.m. on January 31, 1958, the Jupiter-C lifted off from Cape Canaveral and successfully deployed Explorer I, the United States’ response to Sputnik. The news was greeted with celebratory sirens and horns in Huntsville.

Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced Huntsville was its choice for Space Command HQ. According to State Sen. Tom Butler (R-Madison), that announcement created an atmosphere much like the 1958 launch.

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(Huntsville Times, Feb. 1, 1958/NASA)

“I tell you, everybody here is just tickled to death,” he said during an interview on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show.” “I was here in 1958 when the Explorer went up. It was our answer to Sputnik. And the whole town at midnight — sirens were blowing, people were blowing horns up, just tickled to death. I think that same kind of atmosphere is here again. I guess we’ll have a new saying, where we’re called the Rocket City, and that’s for great purpose. Now we’ll say, ‘May the force be with you.'”

“I think it’s appropriate for winning the command center for Space Force, and we will adapt, obviously, the assets that were needed for the Space Command, are already here in Huntsville, Alabama at Redstone Arsenal,” Butler continued. “There’s plenty of land, plenty of assets at the Space Command will need. The Army Materiel Command is here. The Space Command will be here. The Army Missile Defense Command will be here. And the big one — NASA. This is where the Marshall Space Flight Center is. And we have an old saying here, too. We used to say by air and car, you couldn’t go anywhere without going through Atlanta. Well, going to outer space, you have to come through Huntsville, Alabama. We just saw that this week with the testing down at the Stennis Center, down near you, the main engining that will be lifting us to the moon in Artemis. We’re just tickled to death the way that went. Those engines are now on their way to Cape Kennedy, down at Canaveral. We’ve got a lot of interest from Huntsville here in space, and I think that helped us win the Space Command.”

15 hours ago

Alabama’s coronavirus numbers have started to go down

After rising steadily since the first week of October, new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Alabama have begun decreasing in recent days.

Alabama has seen a 9% decrease in hospitalized coronavirus patients over the last week. As of Monday, the state has 2,798 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, a decline of 286 from the all-time high of 3,084 recorded on January 11.

In the last week, Alabama has averaged 2,019 new COVID-19 cases per day, an enormous drop from the 3,080 per day witnessed on January 11.

The current rate of new cases is likely lower than reality due to a slowdown in reporting usually caused by a holiday weekend, but the decrease began in the early days of last week.

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Yellowhammer News refers to cases as those confirmed by a molecular test performed in a laboratory. When including results from rapid tests and other methods of COVID-19 detection, the average rises.

Clicking image opens interactive chart in new tab. (BamaTracker)

Hospitalizations, like cases, have sometimes seen rapid jumps in totals just after a holiday weekend. Again, like cases, the declines began before the holiday weekend.

Clicking image opens interactive chart in new tab. (BamaTracker)

Several Alabama counties, including Jefferson and Madison, are now considered “low risk” for coronavirus transmission by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

Clicking image opens interactive map in new tab. (ADPH/Screenshot)

ADPH calculates the county risk assessments each Thursday.

The virus remains widespread in the state, even as the risk is lower than in recent months. Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 63 reported a new coronavirus case on Monday.

A metric closely watched by health officials, the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive for the virus each day has decreased from 31% to 23% over the last week.

Alabama’s death toll from the virus is now estimated to be 6,121.

Of those, 5,099 have been confirmed as coronavirus deaths by the Alabama Department of Public Health, and another 1,022 are considered “probable” COVID-19 deaths but have not yet been confirmed by the department.

Over the course of the pandemic, it has been rare for a probable COVID-19 death not to ultimately be certified as a coronavirus death.

Deaths reported in one week usually occurred in weeks, or even months, before being logged by APDPH. The agency has recency confirmed a large spate of coronavirus deaths, but few occurred in the week prior to the reporting.

More positively, Alabama’s vaccine distribution program has picked up pace after a slower than wished for launch.

Alabama has now administered 148,685 vaccine doses as of Monday afternoon.

The state had only given out 89,763 doses on the week ending January 9. Alabama hospitals received their first doses in the middle of December.

The federal government has now shipped 379,875 vaccine doses to Alabama, meaning that 39.14% of the state’s received doses have gone into the arms of its citizens.

Alabama has been allotted 640,150 doses of vaccine, meaning only 59.34% of the state’s promised product has been delivered as of Monday.

Both vaccines require two doses, administered three to four weeks apart, to reach their full effectiveness.

Monday, January 18, marks the first day that Alabamians age 75 and up and non-medical first responders like police officers and firefighters are eligible to receive the vaccine.

ADPH estimates there are around 350,000 citizens of the state age 75 and over. An estimate of the number of people eligible due to service as a first responder was not provided.

The state’s nursing home residents and medical workers — the initial categories slated to get the vaccine — remain eligible to do so. APDH estimates Alabama has over 300,000 health care workers.

Due to limited supply, it is likely that the vast majority of Alabamians will not be able to receive a vaccination for a few more months.

Health officials are urging continued mask-wearing and social distancing to continue mitigating the spread of the virus.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

15 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Will Anderson named National Freshman Player of the Year

University of Alabama true freshman linebacker Will Anderson, Jr. on Monday was announced as the recipient of the Shaun Alexander-FWAA National Freshman Player of the Year Award for the 2020 college football season.

The award is named for Shaun Alexander, the former Bama star running back who went on to an All-Pro NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Football Team.

The Football Writers Association of America also named Anderson and Crimson Tide defensive back Malachi Moore to the FWAA Freshman All-America First Team.

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This comes after Anderson earned the starting job at jack linebacker during the fall. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and picked up second team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press. Anderson ended up tied for second in the conference in sacks with seven while ranking third in tackles for loss at 10.5.

Meanwhile, Moore earned the starting role at star for the Tide defense. The former Hewitt-Trussville star was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team and also picked up second team All-SEC honors from the AP and the league coaches. He led the UA defense with four forced turnovers, including a team-high three interceptions, while totaling nine passes defensed.

Retired from his playing days for the past decade, Alexander now travels the country speaking and teaching people about the things he is passionate about: his Christian faith, marriage, fatherhood, football, winning, leading and love.

RELATED: Shaun Alexander on life, love and loss — ‘We will see her again, worshiping God together’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

16 hours ago

Fundraiser for donation-based Alabama restaurant helps provide meals to those in need

Drexell & Honeybee’s, a donation-based restaurant in Brewton, is holding a fundraiser to be able to continue providing meals to those in need. Musician Maxamiliano Nelson wrote a song called “I Was Hungry (and You Fed Me)” for Drexell & Honeybee’s, and is giving 100% of the proceeds of his song downloads to the restaurant.

The soul-food restaurant has always been a “pay-what-you-can” place, which means customers choose how much they want to pay for the meal, whether it’s a generous donation, a few coins, a handwritten note, or just simply a thank you. There are no prices listed anywhere on the menu or in the restaurant, so customers don’t feel pressure. Owners Lisa Thomas-McMillan and Freddie McMillan have created a safe haven where everyone knows they can come get a hot meal when they need it. To them, food is about the joy of serving others and that doesn’t come with a price tag.

However, Drexell & Honeybee’s has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why they’re hosting a fundraiser.

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“With all of our donations based on anonymity and the pandemic forcing us to offer only take-out meals, we’ve had to unfortunately stop accepting contributions as we don’t want to take the chance of someone not getting a meal because they feel embarrassed about what they can or can’t provide in these unprecedented times,” Lisa Thomas-McMillan says. “Feeding the needy has always been a higher calling for us and with this initiative, we’re hoping we can rally additional support from the community and continue delivering hot meals to those who need it most for many years to come.”

Maxamiliano Nealon is a multi-lingual, Spanish-English singer/songwriter who lives in Portland but sings with a goal of spreading hope in a troubled world. He believes in the mission of Drexell & Honeybee’s, and the song “I Was Hungry (and You Fed Me)” is an homage to it. It serves as a tribute to the spirit, charity and togetherness the restaurant has shown the community over the years. The song can be purchased for $1 and downloaded here.

Lisa and Freddie have enthusiastically embraced the song, calling it the restaurant’s theme song. As passionate music lovers themselves, they saw it as a unique opportunity to raise awareness of their mission. Living by the motto “We Feed the Need,” Drexell & Honeybee’s puts serving their community at the forefront of everything they do. Now, they’re hoping their community can help to support them.

RELATED: Lisa Thomas-McMillan is a 2020 Woman of Impact

Julia Sayers Gokhale is a writer and editor who has been working in the lifestyle journalism industry since 2012. She was Editor in Chief of Birmingham Magazine for five years and is now leading Yellowhammer News’ lifestyle content. Find her on Instagram at @juliasayers or email her at julia@yellowhammernews.com.