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

Confirmed Cases: 46424

Reported Deaths: 1032
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson5486155
Montgomery4246105
Mobile4219136
Tuscaloosa234644
Marshall177011
Madison15548
Lee143337
Shelby135724
Morgan11285
Walker98525
Baldwin9809
Elmore96215
Dallas9109
Franklin90216
Etowah79013
DeKalb7615
Chambers64327
Autauga63612
Butler63228
Tallapoosa60469
Russell5680
Unassigned52226
Limestone5181
Houston5106
Lauderdale5016
Lowndes47821
Cullman4705
Pike4525
Colbert4266
St. Clair4162
Escambia4118
Calhoun3875
Coffee3863
Covington3727
Bullock36810
Barbour3572
Talladega3237
Marengo31711
Hale31521
Dale3020
Jackson3022
Wilcox2948
Sumter28512
Clarke2836
Winston2663
Chilton2622
Blount2511
Monroe2412
Pickens2386
Marion23613
Conecuh2177
Randolph2169
Macon1999
Choctaw19712
Bibb1961
Greene1868
Perry1791
Henry1363
Crenshaw1253
Washington1187
Lawrence1090
Cherokee1037
Geneva840
Lamar801
Fayette721
Clay692
Coosa591
Cleburne391
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 53514

Reported Deaths: 665
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby12176202
Davidson11599127
Rutherford311136
Hamilton286736
Sumner167053
Trousdale15035
Williamson142015
Knox13098
Out of TN10958
Wilson99917
Putnam9197
Sevier8573
Robertson85511
Bradley7734
Unassigned7312
Lake6940
Tipton6535
Bledsoe6231
Montgomery5877
Bedford5847
Macon5004
Maury3793
Hamblen3744
Hardeman3574
Fayette3282
Madison3182
Loudon2931
Rhea2890
Blount2623
Dyer2613
McMinn24318
Cheatham2361
Dickson2190
Cumberland1884
Washington1820
Lawrence1726
Lauderdale1543
Jefferson1471
Anderson1432
Sullivan1412
Monroe1406
Gibson1331
Coffee1250
Smith1241
Greene1172
Obion1172
Hardin1157
Cocke1050
Marshall981
Haywood962
Franklin903
Wayne890
Hickman880
Warren810
Marion794
McNairy760
White763
Carter701
DeKalb700
Giles701
Lincoln680
Weakley661
Overton651
Hawkins642
Roane640
Grundy631
Unicoi550
Campbell541
Claiborne530
Carroll491
Henderson480
Grainger470
Polk460
Henry450
Johnson450
Sequatchie420
Crockett403
Cannon370
Chester370
Humphreys352
Perry350
Meigs320
Jackson300
Morgan281
Fentress240
Stewart240
Decatur220
Clay190
Union190
Scott180
Houston150
Moore150
Benton131
Hancock80
Van Buren70
Lewis60
Pickett60

 

 

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