WAAY 31 I-TEAM: Alabama leaders working to increase broadband availability, bridge Digital Divide

State leaders know broadband isn't as available in Alabama as it should be. WAAY 31's I-TEAM investigates what the state is doing to fix the problem.

Posted: Sep 9, 2019 5:47 PM
Updated: Sep 9, 2019 6:51 PM

People in Alabama face a bigger hurdle to accessing high-speed broadband internet than many others in the U.S.

A new report from the analytics provider, NDP, shows 31 percent of Americans don’t have access to broadband. Alabama ranks toward the bottom. That means some folks here might face a struggle to work, stream and even study.

It’s called the Digital Divide, and Alabama is on the wrong side of the dividing line.

When Melanie Holiday opens the door to her classroom, she knows some of her students are shut out from high-tech learning tools.

“Kids who live further out in the county don’t have access to internet,” Holiday told WAAY 31. “That makes it really difficult for them to get extra help.”

Holiday teaches history at West Morgan High.

“Our students in Morgan County have access to Chromebooks,” she said.

Still, the learning tools can go untapped at home.

“A lot of teachers put all of their assignments online and it’s really difficult for the students to complete those assignments at home if they don’t have internet,” she said.

Estimates put more than 800,000 people in Alabama without a fast, wired broadband connection. More than a quarter-million have no wired internet connection at all.

“It happens quite often,” Holiday explained. “Kids will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have access to the internet at home,’ which means they have to scramble and finish their lunch quickly so that maybe they can finish their assignment.”

Across the county line: “There are areas in Lawrence County and in Alabama where we have no broadband,” Larry Smith told WAAY 31. “The problem is having a connection to the internet that has enough bandwidth to be able to do what you need to do.”

Smith is the Technology Coordinator for Lawrence County Schools.

He makes it clear internet is available on cell hot spots, relatively slow DSL and expensive satellite hookups. However, Smith says students need an affordable, fast broadband connection at home to take advantage of online learning.

“For example, our teachers use Google Classroom. They give assignments and they have quizzes and they do other things online, and the students may not have an opportunity to see that and respond from home,” he said.

When it comes to broadband, Alabama’s rural areas are often under-served. In Lawrence County, for example, the population is fairly thin near Bankhead Forest. Some people simply don’t have access to broadband.

“We would like to see broadband be expanded into areas where we don’t have that so we could serve our students better,” Smith said.

Here’s what state leaders are doing to make that happen. In May, Governor Kay Ivey signed legislative bills intended to boost broadband access.

Right now, the state is evaluating proposals from prospective consulting firms. Expected to be chosen early November, that contractor will develop a strategic plan and map Alabama’s communities that need broadband.

Also, a new law allows electric utilities to use power line easements to provide broadband service. New legislation expands Alabama’s grant program to encourage providers to make broadband more available in rural areas.

Larry Smith insists folks in Alabama need broadband access. “And we want to make it better and expand it in the future is our virtual school, which is very dependent on the student being able to get online.”

Back at West Morgan High School: “Some kids don’t have access to that and that’s really heartbreaking for them,” Melanie Holiday said.

Without broadband access at home, she says some of her students face a setback.

“It certainly puts them at a disadvantage. They have to find other times at school that they can finish. So, it can be pretty stressful for those kids,” she said.

One utility provider is already working to make broadband available to any customer who wants it. Joe Wheeler Electric Cooperative serves parts of Morgan and Lawrence counties. If co-op members vote in November to approve, Joe Wheeler has a five-year plan to install fiber optic cable and make broadband available throughout its system.

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