1 month ago

Broadband can be foundation for rural Alabama’s post-pandemic prosperity

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will create fundamental changes in the way industry, retailers, education systems, and average citizens perform tasks that were previously considered routine. This social evolution will occur at an increasing pace as the effects of social distancing and other virus prevention directives continue to modify traditional ways of life in the United States and abroad.

As the people of Alabama continue taking the steps necessary to restore the economy, our post-pandemic prosperity will depend largely on strategies instituted during this emergency; teleconferencing, telemedicine, expansion of e-commerce, distance learning within our education systems and on-line career training. To ensure future economic prosperity, it will be critically important to continue developing and increasing access to virtual technologies that assist business, industry and the citizens of Alabama.

In many rural areas of Alabama, progress in economic development, education and quality of life will be largely affected by the availability of reliable, high-speed broadband. As we continue to modernize our economy, funding through federal, state and local governments to assist in the expansion of broadband should become and remain a priority. In addition to supporting legislation to protect consumers participating in e-commerce and other on-line activities, elected representatives should be encouraged to create incentives for private investment in the infrastructure needed to expand access to broadband.

This need is urgent, especially in rural areas of Alabama. According to an analysis by U.S. News & World Report, the state of Alabama currently ranks 47th in the United States in broadband access. Furthermore, more than one-quarter of the population of rural areas of Alabama still lack internet access in the home.

Since the closure of school systems across Alabama in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the “digital gap” among households has contributed to a “homework gap” among students. In rural Chilton County, Board of Education Superintendent Jason Griffin states, “We have a very serious challenge with internet access in our county. I would say, a large majority of students do not have access to online learning.” This lack of access creates disparities in the progress and achievement attained by affected student populations. To eliminate these disparities, it is imperative that availability of broadband is expanded to make education opportunities readily available to better prepare our young people for future workforce and employment opportunities.

Recent work at home mandates have further emphasized the need for expanded access to broadband. For those who commute from rural areas to jobs in cities, the lack of on-line access created significant barriers to maintaining employment in the COVID-19 environment. Further complicating “Safe at Home” and other mandated directives, the inability to take advantage of on-line shopping for curbside pick-up of groceries and other staples due to the closure of retail outlets not only had a negative impact on individual lives but on the general economy as well.

Increasingly, the agriculture and timber industries predominant in rural counties require high-speed internet to gather real-time data to better manage production and increase yields. The impacts of events like the COVID-19 pandemic on the production and distribution of the nation’s food supply further illustrate the critical need for expanded access to broadband across Alabama.

During 2018, Alabama’s technology sector added 1,900 jobs with a resultant $13 billion in related economic activity. This sector of the Alabama economy will continue to expand and provide career opportunities for properly trained workers. The availability of modern communications systems that provide fast and reliable broadband access will be critical in retaining and supporting our existing technology-based industries as well as attracting expansion opportunities of out of state firms.

The administration of Governor Kay Ivey has recently awarded grants of totaling more than $9.5 million through the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund to expand access across the state. In announcing the initial grants, Governor Ivey stated, “Availability of high-speed internet has always been vital, but the events of the past several weeks (COVID-19 Pandemic) magnify how imperative it is that all Alabamians have access to broadband.”

All too often, federal programs relating to the expansion of broadband in rural areas are well-intentioned but lack oversight and enforcement of contracted requirements. In 2011, the administrator of the Rural Utilities Service announced $3.5 billion in aid to expand high-speed Internet access to the hardest-to-reach areas of the country. Six years later, one-half of the 300 projects approved by the Retail Utilities Service had not been completed. Furthermore, more than 40 of the projects initially approved were never initiated. In addition to enacting effective legislation to provide broadband access to rural areas of the United States, legislators must create effective mechanisms to ensure proper oversight of these federally funded projects, and to get rid of outdated red-tape that prevents some of our most experienced and capable broadband providers from competing for federal broadband funds. We need all hands on deck to extend broadband access to all corners of Alabama.

Not unlike the telegraph, telephone and personal electronic devices that represent paradigms in the evolution of communication technologies, broadband will be the catalyst for a new era of social interaction, personal and professional transactions and career development. Although convenient access to broadband will not ensure organizational or personal success in a specific endeavor, the lack of convenient access will most certainly create an insurmountable obstacle to economic prosperity. Every citizen of Alabama should encourage their elected representatives to support the expansion of broadband as a critical investment in our future.

Billy Singleton serves as the President of the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce and Secretary of the Chilton County Industrial Development Authority.

2 hours ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.

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Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

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

4 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.

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Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

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

4 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.

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“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”

Watch:

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

5 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.

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Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

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

5 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.

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“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

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