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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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 518899

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson753641487
Mobile37763798
Madison33859494
Tuscaloosa25266443
Montgomery23962565
Shelby23106238
Baldwin20631300
Lee15524165
Calhoun14284311
Morgan14139268
Etowah13662345
Marshall11957219
Houston10380278
Elmore9993200
Limestone9811147
Cullman9470188
St. Clair9426234
Lauderdale9215227
DeKalb8746181
Talladega8058171
Walker7087275
Jackson6754110
Autauga6723103
Blount6483135
Colbert6203130
Coffee5399112
Dale4767110
Russell428838
Franklin419982
Chilton4083109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3893146
Escambia387674
Dallas3527149
Chambers3499122
Clarke346360
Marion3065100
Pike305875
Lawrence295395
Winston272372
Bibb256258
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224755
Hale218775
Butler212266
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176941
Monroe171440
Washington164038
Macon154548
Clay149354
Crenshaw149257
Cleburne146041
Lamar139234
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99228
Greene90734
Choctaw58724
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 822085

Reported Deaths: 12001
CountyCasesDeaths
Shelby914971575
Davidson86563918
Knox48960619
Hamilton42811480
Rutherford41428415
Williamson26942213
Sumner22909338
Montgomery18780223
Out of TN17852101
Wilson17747223
Unassigned16441132
Sullivan15781283
Blount14839194
Bradley14284147
Washington13850240
Sevier12986174
Maury12901166
Putnam11072173
Madison10628240
Robertson9486127
Anderson8539171
Hamblen8409169
Greene7645151
Tipton7171104
Coffee6782121
Dickson6643108
Cumberland6461127
Gibson6355144
Bedford6350126
Carter6332156
McMinn625595
Roane6124101
Jefferson6008121
Loudon595869
Lawrence573186
Hawkins5682105
Monroe564395
Warren549481
Dyer5340104
Franklin504987
Fayette484578
Obion447196
Cocke439598
Cheatham436551
Rhea428075
Lincoln427963
Marshall407358
Campbell405462
Weakley398761
Giles391298
Henderson368375
Carroll355582
Macon354375
White351468
Hardin346166
Hardeman345063
Lauderdale312744
Henry309775
Marion307246
Scott303145
Claiborne302373
Overton294360
Wayne294134
Hickman278345
McNairy275354
DeKalb273953
Smith271737
Haywood267660
Grainger255449
Trousdale247822
Morgan242839
Fentress236346
Johnson226738
Chester208651
Bledsoe208211
Crockett199848
Polk196024
Unicoi191149
Cannon187531
Union184034
Grundy176431
Lake169526
Humphreys168721
Sequatchie165228
Benton160940
Decatur156438
Lewis154826
Meigs132123
Stewart129328
Jackson129235
Clay108331
Houston107333
Perry105628
Moore99217
Van Buren82621
Pickett75524
Hancock53612

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