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: 136549

Reported Deaths: 2378
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson19833350
Mobile13471292
Montgomery8865184
Tuscaloosa8744118
Madison797878
Shelby604349
Lee594560
Baldwin558850
Marshall396743
Calhoun354844
Etowah354045
Morgan332728
Houston293521
Elmore269148
DeKalb243521
St. Clair234036
Walker233084
Talladega217729
Limestone213520
Cullman191120
Dallas179326
Franklin179029
Autauga178525
Russell17653
Lauderdale174033
Colbert167526
Blount161815
Escambia161424
Chilton159330
Jackson158911
Covington140327
Dale139944
Coffee13656
Pike120510
Chambers117242
Tallapoosa116685
Clarke110416
Marion97129
Butler91439
Barbour8867
Winston74512
Marengo72620
Pickens66814
Randolph66013
Bibb65710
Lowndes65727
Hale64928
Geneva6384
Lawrence62823
Cherokee61413
Bullock60714
Clay5928
Monroe5908
Washington56113
Crenshaw54232
Perry5426
Conecuh53711
Wilcox53211
Henry5085
Macon48318
Fayette4678
Sumter43819
Cleburne3895
Lamar3772
Choctaw35112
Greene30315
Coosa1723
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 193732

Reported Deaths: 2389
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby31034460
Davidson26685307
Hamilton956495
Knox955080
Rutherford940890
Williamson534136
Sumner488398
Wilson353845
Putnam335541
Montgomery312344
Unassigned30476
Out of TN299727
Bradley296717
Madison294364
Sevier264715
Blount254824
Maury242024
Washington233736
Robertson223135
Sullivan222033
Hamblen194326
Tipton183619
Gibson171323
Trousdale16687
Hardeman158326
Wayne15025
Dyer140314
Bedford137017
Dickson127715
Coffee125513
Cumberland121718
Weakley121219
Fayette120619
Anderson120213
Obion120011
Henderson119124
Loudon11906
Carter117928
Greene116644
McMinn115025
Jefferson113414
Warren10787
Lawrence107713
Macon106821
Monroe105818
Hardin105216
Lauderdale99516
Haywood99221
Franklin98910
Lake9252
McNairy91818
Roane9096
Carroll90520
Bledsoe8624
Rhea85013
White8499
Hawkins82318
Cheatham81910
Marshall7805
Overton7666
Cocke75310
Smith73411
Johnson7292
Chester64610
Giles63717
Henry6289
Lincoln6281
Hickman5998
DeKalb57214
Crockett54419
Marion5388
Decatur5317
Fentress5273
Campbell4564
Claiborne4425
Polk40610
Grainger3863
Union3712
Benton3399
Jackson3325
Morgan3213
Grundy3126
Cannon2950
Unicoi2881
Humphreys2633
Sequatchie2421
Clay2345
Houston2283
Meigs2283
Stewart2192
Scott2182
Lewis2071
Moore1801
Van Buren1660
Perry1530
Pickett1232
Hancock1073

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