4 weeks ago

Rural broadband partnership highlighted at Yellowhammer News Shapers event

DOTHAN — Yellowhammer News last week held the fifth of its 2019 “News Shapers” events: “Connecting Alabama’s rural communities.”

Hosted at Troy University’s Dothan campus, key stakeholders from industry, government and academia came together to discuss building partnerships and community awareness related to broadband expansion efforts across the state.

Yellowhammer co-owner Tim Howe moderated the panel discussion between State Senator Donnie Chesteen (R-Geneva); Brad Kimbro, CEO of Wiregrass Electric Cooperative; Jake Cowen, CFO/general manager of Troy Cablevision, Inc.; Dr. Carmen Lewis, associate dean of Troy University’s Sorrell College; and Sean Strickler, VP public affairs of the Alabama Rural Electric Association.

While the second News Shapers event touching on broadband this year, the Dothan event brought fresh perspectives to the important topic, as well as two unique pieces of news to light.

After Lewis explained how crucial accurate and comprehensive data is to the efficacy of broadband expansion efforts in the state, she advised that the university had helped conduct a recent study providing just that for parts of southeast Alabama.

This was done through Wiregrass Electric customers voluntarily taking internet speed tests, with the 3,400 respondents’ locations also being collected and tracked.

Calling the results “startling,” Lewis emphasized how profound the lack of quality broadband truly is, as so many Alabamians are lacking the internet speeds needed for many functions across modern education, industry and business.

“It was so sad to see that people are really not getting broadband internet speeds that they need and frankly deserve,” she remarked. “We’re living in an age in 2019 where there really shouldn’t be a digital divide between the ‘haves and have-nots.'”

The study specifically concluded that 71% of respondents were not getting 25 megabits per second in download speed and 66% were not getting 3 megabits per second in upload speed. These numbers represent the federal minimums that define what constitutes broadband.

‘We’re standing in the gap for rural America’

With the data now in hand, both Troy Cable and Wiregrass Electric are set on helping provide the people in and around their service areas with high-speed broadband access.

To do this, the companies have formed an innovative partnership, which was covered by WTVY and WDHN as a result of the News Shapers event.

“Serving rural America is what we do, and we’re standing in the gap for rural America,” Kimbro stressed.

While a striking contrast to the political battle that unfolded between the cable and electric utility industries this past regular session of the Alabama legislature, this cross-industry partnership may also be instructive for other entities around the state who are looking for creative ways to increase the rate and cost effectiveness at which broadband can be expanded.

However, one-size-fits-all solutions are certainly not the answer — and really would be the antithesis of the message that this partnership is sending.

Instead, as Strickler outlined, local and regional solutions are needed to best match their respective areas in Alabama. Electric cooperatives around the state are as community-minded as you can get, enabling them to understand the needs of and potential solutions for their locales.

Kimbro echoed recent comments made by other electric providers around the state by explaining that the rural broadband issue of today is akin to the rural electricity deficiency of the early-mid 1900’s.

“It’s not just a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity,” he said.

Cowen chimed in, elaborating on the importance of the partnership to addressing this modern necessity.

He said that in sparsely populated rural areas, the partnership is absolutely necessary for Troy Cable because of the high capital costs involved in building out broadband infrastructure to serve relatively few people. Cowen also mentioned the critical public-private collaboration born from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, which was created by legislation spearheaded by State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) and also championed by Chesteen.

“Without these partnerships with the electric coop letting us get access to their right of way, the state kicking in some grant funds and the university helping prove that it’s a need… we really couldn’t even think about building into these areas,” Cowen emphasized. “So the partnerships are extremely, extremely important.”

Kimbro added that the partnership between the companies helps both of them better leverage these public grant dollars.

He summarized why this is so important for the Alabamians in Wiregrass Electric’s service area.

“If a business doesn’t have [broadband], they’re not going to stay or they’re not going to locate there,” Kimbro outlined. “And if businesses aren’t there, then jobs aren’t there. If jobs aren’t there, families aren’t going to be there.”

Cowen detailed a concrete list of recent economic development projects in and around Troy that perfectly exemplify this point, saying projects like Rex Lumber would not have happened without broadband expansion efforts.

“If you’re trying to have a chance to recruit [new industries or businesses], you have to have high-speed internet,” Chesteen added. “And for those small communities now that have industry, it is imperative that they are able to provide that in order to keep these companies that they have. Because that’s the way they do business.”

The popular state senator expressed his optimism that rural and small town areas will have the potential for growth once quality broadband connectivity is extended to them, rather than the current trend of population loss.

“Without it (broadband access), they really don’t stand a chance,” Chesteen warned.

Panelists further mentioned education and telemedicine, in addition to general quality of life, as other major areas affected by quality broadband access.

Strickler later concluded the panel discussion itself by saying rural Alabama, aided by partnerships, has the chance to be at the forefront of broadband expansion compared to similar areas across the southeast and the nation.

During the question and answer period that followed, Strickler also gave the crowd a poignant note to end on.

“Our number one export in rural Alabama has to quit being our children,” he stressed. “We have to give them a place to stay at home.”

“In rural Alabama. Absolutely,” Chesteen said in agreement.

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

1 min ago

Sewell: Trump tweet comparing impeachment inquiry to ‘lynching’ is ‘despicable’

Along with Senator Doug Jones (D-AL), count Rep. Terri Sewell (AL-07) as an ardent critic of President Donald Trump’s Tuesday tweet comparing the ongoing House impeachment inquiry to a “lynching” of him.

Trump tweeted, “So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”

In a Facebook post sharing a screenshot of that tweet, Sewell outlined, “From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement, 3,446 African Americans were murdered by lynching.”

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“The history of lynching in our nation is one of white supremacy, humiliation and dehumanization,” she continued.

Sewell, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, represents a district that includes Selma.

“For President Trump to liken the impeachment inquiry—a lawful investigation—to the racial terror millions of African Americans endured is despicable,” she concluded. “And for the people of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, who marched, bled and died to end this type of terrorism, the sting of the President’s words is especially sharp.”

RELATED: Rep. Sewell: ‘You don’t need a quid pro quo’ for an impeachment inquiry

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

19 mins ago

Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce launches initiative to support local startups

The Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday launched a new  initiative to help boost the River Region’s entrepreneurial  ecosystem.

The new “Work Together” business studio and coworking space located at 600 S. Court Street in Montgomery will be more than just a physical space, according to a press release.

Starting in 2020, “it will also feature dynamic programming and events focused on creating a haven for makers, creatives, small businesses, entrepreneurs, freelancers and the community to connect, innovate, create and learn.”

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The Work Together location offers flexible space for working, training and community building that can accommodate up to 100 individuals and includes WIFI and audio-visual resources. Additional smaller spaces inside Work Together provide areas for small group or one-on-one meetings, and it also offers a conference room set-up that can accommodate up to 10 people.

The chamber announced the new initiative at InnovateMGM, a half-day event celebrating  those who are innovating within traditional and non-traditional businesses, start-ups and creative ventures.

The event served as a taste of the community building that Work Together aims to provide, which goes far beyond the limits of a physical gathering space and seeks to provide meaningful programming that empowers users to achieve their greatest potential.

In a statement, Montgomery Area Chamber Chairman Willie Durham said, “Supporting and strengthening our start up and entrepreneur community is one of our biggest priorities at the Chamber.”

“Our mission is to connect people to people and people to resources and this space allows us to do just that,” he continued. “By providing the training and the space for creatives and entrepreneurs to connect, we are enhancing our ability to build community, elevate the quality of life of the region and ensure the prosperity of our business community.”

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

56 mins ago

Clyde Chambliss named 2019’s ‘Outstanding Public Official’ by American Society of Civil Engineers

State Senator Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) was recently named the 2019 Outstanding Public Official by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

ASCE’s Committee on Advancing the Profession selected Chambliss to receive the prestigious national honor for “impeccable service and dedication to the State of Alabama, as well as to the civil engineering profession and land surveying professionals.”

“Instituted in 1963, the award is made to those members of ASCE who have contributed substantially to the status of the engineering profession by meritorious public service in elective or appointive positions in civil government,” Lawren Pratt, the ASCE member who nominated Chambliss for the award, advised in a statement.

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During his tenure in the Alabama Senate, Chambliss has led the effort to reform and modernize government regulations on the engineering profession. He was first elected in 2014 and reelected in 2018.

In 2018, Chambliss helped write and pass Senate Bill 316, which required Qualification Based Selection (QBS) to be included in the State Administrative Code and added two public members to the Alabama Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors.

Brad Williams, P.E., president of the Alabama section of ASCE, praised Chambliss’ leadership.

“Senate Bill 316 led to one of the strongest QBS laws in the nation; it would not have passed without Senator Chambliss’s leadership,” Williams outlined.

Chambliss and his wife, Tara, also a civil engineer, own and operate a civil engineering firm that provides engineering services to small towns, water systems and developers in central Alabama.

“Senator Chambliss’ knowledge of our profession as a practicing Professional Engineer was instrumental in how he was able to lead meetings, mediate between parties of differing interests, and educate legislative members on the importance of QBS,” Williams added.

In accepting the award, Chambliss said that he appreciated the collaboration between legislators and professionals in the engineering field that led to the passage of SB316.

“It is such an honor to be recognized by my peers and colleagues with this award. Passage of SB316 was truly a group effort, and I appreciate the work of my engineer and surveyor peers in the development of such a great piece of legislation. I also want to thank my legislative colleagues for their support in voting for the bill, and Governor Ivey for signing it into law,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss was recently named as a member of the 2019 Yellowhammer Power & Influence 40.

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

Byrne: How do you solve a problem like Syria?

Recent developments in Syria highlight the need for the United States to revisit its broader Middle Eastern policy.

Early last week, I joined a small meeting of House Republicans for an update on Syria from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper where he discussed a phone call from President Erdogan of Turkey to President Trump.

During that call, Erdogan notified President Trump that after years of waiting at the Syrian border, Turkish troops would finally cross over. He assured that Turkey was not coming after our troops but targeting certain Kurdish factions they consider terrorists. He gave President Trump 48 hours to relocate the two dozen or so American troops stationed on the border.

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President Trump was faced with a difficult decision. Ultimately, he decided to remove American servicemembers from harm’s way to prevent a full-blown conflict with Turkey.

Turkey’s incursion into Syria is wrong and very troubling. Erdogan should never treat our president and our country the way he did on the phone call. There will be serious consequences for his behavior.

I support seeking methods of leverage with Turkey that do not endanger our troops.

After President Trump proposed harsh economic sanctions, the administration negotiated a cease-fire with Turkey. The cease-fire has been shaky at best, but it probably prevented many more deaths in the region.

This is happening in the context of a greater strategic problem in the Middle East. For at least a decade, we’ve lacked a well-defined mission. What are our interests in the Middle East? What do we do to pursue and protect those interests?

Since coming to Congress and serving on the House Armed Services Committee, I have not seen a strategic, conventional interest for the U.S. in Syria, other than destroying the ISIS caliphate.

To be sure, Kurdish forces were the largest part of the successful campaign against the caliphate, and we need to stand by them as best we can under these challenging circumstances.

But Syria is a failed state. It is bewildering the number of groups in some form of combat. With so many factions, it is often difficult to know who the good guys are. Problems between the Turks and Kurds will persist for generations, but this dispute is one of many combustible problems in the Middle East today. Just weeks ago, Iran attacked our Saudi Arabian ally.

We need to work with our allies to determine our strategic goals and how to reach them. We should continue providing assistance to our allies, including the Kurds, but progress requires buy-in from all of our allies in the region.

Turkey, as a NATO member, does currently play a role in supporting our alliance goals. Turkey is the home of an important U.S. airbase and many other critical NATO assets including U.S. nuclear weapons.

However, Turkey’s actions cast serious doubts on whether they will honor their NATO commitments going forward, and frank discussions between Trump, Erdogan and other NATO leaders are needed.

We must be tough with Turkey. I still believe strong sanctions to weaken and punish Turkey are needed, and I signed on as an original cosponsor to Liz Cheney’s resolution to impose very tough sanctions.

After the Turkish incursion, I was disappointed that the House hastily put forward a resolution condemning President Trump’s actions without knowing the full facts. The very next day, I received a classified briefing shedding more light on his tough decision. I think everyone in Congress should have access to these classified briefings to gain a fuller understanding of what happened.

Instead of attacking the president, we need to have sincere bipartisan conversations and propose concrete solutions for Syria and the Middle East. On critical national security issues, we must put America first.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope. He is a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate.

3 hours ago

‘Shame on you’: Jones slams Trump for comparing impeachment probe to ‘lynching’

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) is urging President Donald Trump to visit the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery to see “what lynching actually looks like” after the president invoked the term when complaining about the ongoing House impeachment probe into him.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted, “So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”

In sharing the tweet directly, Jones commented, “No sir!”

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“No, @realdonaldtrump: this is NOT a lynching, and shame on you for invoking such a horrific act that was used as a weapon to terrorize and murder African Americans,” the senator continued.

“If you want to know what lynching actually looks like, go to [EJI] in Montgomery, Alabama,” Jones concluded.

RELATED: Jones on Trump: ‘Appears to be evidence of abuse of power’

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