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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: 134231

Reported Deaths: 2357
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson19676351
Mobile13373292
Montgomery8834184
Tuscaloosa8621118
Madison788178
Shelby597849
Lee589760
Baldwin547750
Marshall394343
Calhoun351544
Etowah349045
Morgan329228
Houston290321
Elmore266748
DeKalb241621
St. Clair232235
Walker231684
Talladega216629
Limestone210120
Cullman189920
Dallas179026
Franklin177129
Autauga176425
Russell17603
Lauderdale171333
Colbert164626
Blount161115
Escambia160824
Chilton158530
Jackson157511
Covington140127
Dale138644
Coffee13486
Pike119810
Chambers116442
Tallapoosa116085
Clarke109116
Marion96429
Butler91239
Barbour8827
Winston74412
Marengo72020
Pickens66214
Bibb65410
Lowndes65327
Randolph64713
Hale63528
Geneva6254
Lawrence62023
Cherokee60813
Bullock60414
Monroe5898
Clay5858
Washington55713
Perry5416
Crenshaw53732
Conecuh53511
Wilcox53111
Henry5055
Macon48018
Fayette4578
Sumter43819
Cleburne3805
Lamar3672
Choctaw34712
Greene30315
Coosa1713
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 190891

Reported Deaths: 2374
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby30755458
Davidson26474306
Hamilton944394
Knox937879
Rutherford929389
Williamson525236
Sumner481998
Wilson347645
Putnam331540
Montgomery307044
Unassigned29495
Bradley293417
Out of TN289627
Madison287764
Sevier262315
Blount251624
Maury236124
Washington229736
Robertson221035
Sullivan216433
Hamblen191426
Tipton181819
Gibson165823
Trousdale16577
Hardeman157026
Wayne14975
Dyer137014
Bedford134517
Dickson125715
Coffee123613
Cumberland120118
Weakley118919
Fayette118819
Henderson118124
Anderson117913
Loudon11726
Obion117110
Carter116828
Greene115644
Jefferson111914
McMinn111925
Warren10617
Macon105521
Lawrence104313
Monroe103618
Hardin103016
Lauderdale98316
Franklin9699
Haywood96921
Lake9192
Roane8954
Carroll88920
McNairy88318
Bledsoe8544
White8379
Rhea83412
Hawkins81218
Cheatham80710
Marshall7565
Cocke7469
Overton7456
Smith72311
Johnson7112
Chester63210
Henry6259
Lincoln6191
Giles60717
Hickman5858
DeKalb56614
Crockett53819
Marion5298
Decatur5207
Fentress5053
Campbell4464
Claiborne4425
Polk38810
Grainger3763
Union3591
Benton3369
Jackson3265
Morgan3173
Grundy2915
Cannon2860
Unicoi2861
Humphreys2513
Sequatchie2332
Clay2265
Meigs2263
Houston2203
Scott2142
Stewart2042
Lewis2011
Moore1751
Van Buren1660
Perry1500
Pickett1162
Hancock1063

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