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Central Alabama Electric Cooperative ramps up broadband push — ‘Alabama’s best days are ahead of us’

PRATTVILLE — High-speed broadband access is on the way to Alabamians in Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s (CAEC) primarily rural 5,000 square-mile service territory.

At a packed announcement event on Friday, the cooperative explained that it has formed a wholly owned subsidiary, named “Central Access,” to construct a 400-mile fiber optic ring that will connect CAEC’s 24 electric substations and six offices.

This is Phase 1 of a plan approved by CAEC’s board of trustees last year to expand broadband access to their customers.

Construction for this initial phase will begin on Monday and is estimated to take approximately 15 months to complete. Central Access’ first activations are expected by January 2020.

After Phase 1 is proven to be financially viable for the company, the next phase can begin. This would entail additional infrastructure being built beyond the 400-mile core so Central Access could reach even more people with broadband access.

Speeds are expected to exceed the FCC definition of broadband, starting with 200 Mbps up and down (no data caps) and up to 1Gbps. Additional options will be made available to business customers.

Alabamians in CAEC’s service area can click here to see if they fall into Phase 1 or to pre-register for service.

At the Friday event, CAEC President and CEO Tom Stackhouse and Central Access Executive Vice President Chris Montgomery were joined by members of the community and leaders in state government, including Governor Kay Ivey, to celebrate the start of Phase 1.

However, Stackhouse emphasized that while well worth it, the process would not unfold overnight.

After reiterating how “critical” expanding broadband access to rural Alabamians currently is, much like connecting them to electricity was last century, Stackhouse said, “Just like [how long] that electric system took to build, this will not be done quickly.”

“There’s not a magic wand, I can’t wave the fiber over [the service territory] and everybody be connected,” he continued. “But we are going to get started. And our goal is to get to that very end person that’s on our (power) lines. That is our goal. And our goal is not to rest until we get there … every day we’re going to be closer than we were.”

During her remarks, Ivey identified two bills she signed this past regular session as being key to rural broadband expansion efforts like Central Access: SB 90 by State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) and HB 400 by State Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Fairview).

“What an exciting day this is for Central Access, for rural counties and the entire state of Alabama,” the governor said. “Y’all, broadband is just essential for our students’ education, for our economy, for recruiting business and industry, for improving our healthcare and for the overall, general quality of life of our people.”

Reaffirming broadband as a modern “necessity,” she noted that access is a widespread problem throughout the state that many take for granted.

“Currently, there are some 840,000 Alabamians without access to high-speed internet,” Ivey advised.

She added that efforts like Central Access will greatly help bring that number down.

“Y’all, we have many reasons to celebrate today,” Ivey stressed, calling the start of Central Access’ fiber optic installation “a momentous occasion.”

“Let’s just remember that Alabama’s best days are ahead of us,” the governor concluded.

‘Extremely important’

Additionally, State Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) and State Rep. Ed Oliver (R-Dadeville) were both on hand for the announcement.

Chambliss hailed Ivey’s vision on issues like rural broadband, saying she is governing with a focus on a better future for all Alabamians.

A local official who is looking to join Chambliss and Oliver in the state legislature was also in attendance.

Autauga County Commissioner Van Smith, who is a member of the CAEC board of directors and a Republican candidate in the House District 42 special primary election, spoke with Yellowhammer News after the event.

Smith said that as a career educator and farmer, he understands the vital need for rural broadband in HD 42, CAEC’s service territory and rural areas like them all around the state.

“I see a lot of our rural areas losing population,” he explained. “And, in an effort to keep population, we really want to have all the infrastructure that people need … those infrastructure needs are extremely important — broadband being one of the major ones.”

“When young people want to be able to do their homework — and we talk about students having access to i-Pads instead of books, that’s a great idea but without broadband… they can’t do that,” Smith outlined. “The other thing is, too, there’s a growing population of our people who want to work from home. They can’t do that without adequate up and down speed. Also, our rural healthcare will benefit from this, as well.”

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