5 months ago

Broadband mapping effort to ramp up in Alabama — ‘Absolutely essential’

GUNTERSVILLE — During Yellowhammer News’ “Connecting Alabama’s Rural Communities” News Shapers forum regarding broadband expansion on Thursday, the panel of four experts from industry and government dove deep into the weeds on the important issue.

State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Arab), Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative’s Fred Johnson, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s Tom Stackhouse and Maureen Neighbors of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) were asked questions from moderator Tim Howe of Yellowhammer Multimedia over a 45-minute span at Guntersville Town Hall.

Approximately a third of the way through the forum, Howe turned the conversation to broadband mapping, which attempts to pinpoint which areas have access and which do not.

This practice is especially important for purposes of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, which provides state grants for service providers to supply high-speed internet services in unincorporated areas or communities with 25,000 people or less.

Under the law, eligibility is also dependent on whether respective areas are already “served” (have broadband coverage that meets certain a threshold) or not. Hence, accurate mapping is crucial to ensure grants are going to the right places.

As ADECA is responsible for administering the grants, Howe asked Neighbors what role the department plays in the mapping process.

With the latest update to the state of Alabama’s broadband map over her shoulder, Neighbors explained that mapping is still “a tricky issue.” She also outlined how ADECA will attempt to address the problem.

(Orange represent ‘unserved’ areas, while the grey/brown spots represent served areas with service coverage already at or above 25/3. Red represents projects already funded through the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, while black signifies areas that will be required by federal law to be covered within five years.)

“We are getting ready to issue an RFP,” Neighbors advised. “It will be, I believe, it will be posted on Monday for broadband consulting that will include planning and mapping for the state of Alabama.”

You can view the RFP, which was issued first thing on Monday, here.

Continuing her thoughts on Thursday, Neighbors told the crowd that current mapping is essentially based off of providers’ self-reporting alone.

“No one’s required to tell us anything and we can’t make them tell us,” she lamented.

“So, the map is only as accurate as the information that we receive,” Neighbors continued to explain. “The maps that we have now are based on FCC data — that’s a self-reporting tool that providers use. The FCC and the providers all know it’s not terribly accurate. It’s really all we have right now to tell us where there are clusters of service, but it doesn’t do a good job of telling us where there isn’t service. So, that’s something we hope to be able to address with a consultant, whoever it is. We’ll be looking for folks who have worked in other states and have helped them with their mapping weaknesses. Because it is a difficult issue, and it’s hard to get the data — and it’s hard to have something that’s accurate. And without the data, it’s hard to target the funds to those areas that are in most need of broadband service.”

Following up, Johnson did not mince words on mapping from a provider perspective. He has had extensive experience with the issue on the state level and nationally, with experts across the United States widely respecting his industry leadership.

Johnson told the crowd in Guntersville that mapping is “absolutely critical” to broadband providers.

“And it’s an absolute disaster,” he emphasized, commenting on the current state of mapping.

Howe asked Johnson how that situation is to improve.

“Well, pray would be a good place to start,” Johnson joked.

“The challenge with the mapping process is that nationwide under the FCC auspices, all providers are supposed to provide their service characteristics across the geography of the nation,” he said.

Johnson then explained that the “challenge process,” or how alleged errors in a provider’s self-reporting are adjudicated, is weak, meaning errors often go uncorrected.

“And in defense of some of the reporting, you have to understand that in some cases, a local telephone company, actually in many cases, may have changed hands 10 or 15 times since the map of its service territory was perfected,” he outlined. “So, the current owner has no data to support them, no way to really accurately enter things.”

He credited FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for a currently open notice for proposed federal rule-making that Johnson believes will be a step in the right direction. However, Johnson said that the federal government still has a long way to go, which makes the current ADECA effort that much more important.

“But until we get down to a point where all providers are required to essentially tell you the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates of every location they serve and the top of service provided there, and that is subject to a reasonable challenge process so that if somebody is playing fast and loose with the rules — which will happen, has and will continue to happen — then what Maureen (Neighbors) and what ADECA is doing to address the issue on a more statewide level is absolutely essential,” he advised. “Because this legislation (by Scofield) was well-written to make sure that it (the funding) went to where it needed to go.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

6 hours ago

Mayor Randall Woodfin throws down the gauntlet at Birmingham Business Alliance meeting

BIRMINGHAM — Delivering opening remarks at the Birmingham Business Alliance’s (BBA) annual meeting on Wednesday, Magic City Mayor Randall Woodfin challenged the region’s business leaders to stop being so “risk averse.”

Woodfin opened his speech with words of praise for outgoing BBA chairwoman Nancy Goedecke and incoming chairman Jim Gorrie.

He then transitioned into a call-to-action.

“Usually I would get up here and give you all some stats about what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” the mayor advised. “I think it is fair to say that 2019 has been a good year for many [in] your organization — individually and collectively for our Birmingham Business Alliance.”

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Woodfin advised that the BBA leadership is pointing the region’s business community in the right direction.

“And the question is: as members of this organization, are we prepared? Are we ready?” he added.

“I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that since the Great Recession… 60% of all jobs have only gone to 25 cities in America,” Woodfin continued. “You need to know that Birmingham is not on that list. So the question becomes, when you walk out of this room, are we prepared to invest in our competitiveness? Do we want to compete? Do we want to set ourselves apart and not be like any other city in America?”

“We don’t have to be like Nashville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or Austin,” he said. “We need to be the best versions of ourselves.”

The mayor outlined the road to getting to that goal.

“That is going to require us to shake off the way we’ve always done things… just based on the sheer nature of what you do, you’re risk averse. But being risk averse in this time as we move into 2020 under Jim’s (Gorrie’s) leadership will not work for us as an organization or as a city. Or for the future and present of what we want our business community to be — to attract, retain, grow and many other things we have to do,” Woodfin stressed.

“As my challenge I leave to the members of this organization in this room, that we are willing to stand behind Jim, just as we did with Nancy (Goedecke), but really be aggressive,” he concluded. “Really be the opposite of risk averse and be hungry enough to do something that’s going to be different to make Birmingham a place that attracts more businesses and for the current businesses in this community to be and remain successful.”

RELATED: Almost two years in, Randall Woodfin reflects on biggest initiatives

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

9 hours ago

Above and beyond: Regions associate honored with Better Life Award after learning sign language to serve deaf customers

Regions Bank on Wednesday honored one of its Alabama associates in a major way for going above and beyond to better the lives of the company’s customers.

In a story posted on Region’s “Doing More Today” website, the company announced Gayla Land was presented with the Better Life Award. This is the top honor bestowed upon Regions associates “for outstanding dedication and job performance, as well as exemplary involvement and commitment to the community.”

For Land, a Regions Bank branch manager in Dothan, the genesis of the award goes back to 2016. She was reportedly serving a deaf customer but wanted to be able to do so better, as communicating properly was a real issue.

“I felt there was something missing. It frustrated me,” Land reminisced. “I could only provide what I could write down. I couldn’t share the information in his approved language.”

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The Regions associate turned that frustration into a solution. Land, on her own time, went out of the way to enroll in American Sign Language classes at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

However, her dedication did not stop there. She not only learned sign language herself but decided to strike up a partnership with the school.

“I fell in love with the deaf community and the language itself,” Land explained. “Then I told the school, ‘Let’s make a partnership to have them come into the branch for financial education seminars,’ and they agreed.”

The student subsequently became the teacher, as Land began teaching in sign language a series of lessons that cover money management, retirement, identity theft and fraud prevention. Her first group reportedly graduated earlier this year.

This is having a real impact on the lives of Regions customers with hearing impairments.

“They feel more confident in their ability to make financial decisions, and I learn something new every time they are with me.” Land advised.

Her commitment to the hearing impaired continued to be displayed Wednesday when she received the award from Regions. The company donates $1,000 in the honoree’s name to a nonprofit organization of his or her choice, and Land chose the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to receive the money.

“They do great work providing skills and education to the deaf and blind communities,” she remarked. “I know they will make great use of the money to provide for those families.”

However, her journey is not done yet.

Land is planning to sharpen her sign language fluency by taking advanced classes.

She also used her new platform to urge others to learn the language as well.

“Don’t be fearful or feel judged. Just try to learn. Even if it’s just one new word every day,” Land concluded. “Your eyes will be opened to a new perspective, and you’ll be embraced by the deaf community because you tried.”

You can watch an almost six-minute video on see Land’s work in action below or here.

RELATED: Merry and bright: How Regions’ headquarters building lights became a holiday tradition

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

10 hours ago

Auburn’s Bo Nix named SEC Freshman of the Year, Derrick Brown named best defensive player

The Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) 14 coaches have voted Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix as the SEC Freshman of the Year and defensive tackle Derrick Brown as the Defensive Player of the Year.

The honors were announced Wednesday by the league office. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players.

Brown was also named by the Associated Press as the AP’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the week.

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Nix now holds the Auburn Tigers’ freshman record for passing yards (2,366), pass completions (200) and touchdown passes (15) in a season. The Alabama native also rushed for seven scores.

Brown had a monster season on the defensive side of the ball and landed as a finalist for just about every national award possible.

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

11 hours ago

Rogers’ report from Washington: The season of giving across East Alabama

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Each Christmas season, I like to highlight a few of the kind things folks across East Alabama are doing for others.

Below is a small sample of ways our fellow Alabamians have cared for each other over the past year.

In Clay County at Central High School, a teacher, Amanda East, gathered the school supplies that were going to be disposed of from the locker clean out. Those items are now set up to donate to students who need them.

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In Lee County, The Hallmark Channel is coming to Beauregard to present new homes to the 15 families who lost everything when the EF-4 tornado devastated the area.

Hallmark will also serve residents a holiday meal at Providence Baptist Church with Santa and toys for the little ones, too.

In Calhoun County, Dara Murphy of Rosa Lee Boutique organized a White Bag Project for individuals to grab a white bag and fill it up for a child in need. They are also taking clothing and furniture to 20 families.

In Lee, Macon and Tallapoosa Counties, Rep. Peeblin Warren assists 400 seniors with gift baskets.

In Randolph County, the Roanoke Police Department is holding its annual toy drive to ensure local children get a Christmas gift.

In Chambers County, the Christian Service Center collects food and toys to donate to families.

In Montgomery County, Woodland United Methodist Church/Town of Pike Road distribute food. Pike Road and Central Alabama Health Care Systems also distribute hygiene items for local veterans.

Reading these stories makes me proud to be from East Alabama. It is truly heartwarming to see our brothers and sisters across the Third District taking time to take care for someone who needs it most.

May we carry this attitude of service to others all year long.

Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Remember the reason for the season.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers is a Republican from Saks. 

11 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Jaylen Waddle named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year

University of Alabama sophomore wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle on Wednesday was announced as the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Special Teams Player of the Year.

He is the first Crimson Tide player to be named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year since Christion Jones in 2013. The honor was voted on by the league’s 14 head coaches, with coaches not permitted to vote for their own players.

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Waddle, who was already selected by Pro Football Focus as a first-team All-American at returner, led the nation this season in punt return average at 24.9 yards per return. Waddle had 19 punt returns for 474 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 77 yards.

The playmaker also returned four kickoffs for 152 yards and one touchdown this season, in addition to 553 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches at wideout.

This comes after Waddle was one of 14 Bama players on Tuesday who were named to the All-SEC Coaches’ Team. He was actually named to both the first and second teams at different positions.

Juniors Jerry Jeudy (WR), Alex Leatherwood (OL) and Jedrick Wills, Jr. (OL) were first-team selections on offense, while redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings (LB) and junior Xavier McKinney (DB) were honored as first-team defense. Waddle was a first-team selection on special teams.

Redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson was named to the second-team offense along with juniors Najee Harris (RB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Tua Tagovailoa (QB) and Waddle (WR). Seniors Raekwon Davis (DL) and Trevon Diggs (DB) and redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis were second-team choices on defense.

Waddle was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018.

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