HAMILTON - An area in west Walker County, as well as parts of Winston and other surrounding counties, will be upgraded for broadband service within five years thanks to a grant for Tombigbee Electric Cooperative.
Tombigbee held an event at its Hamilton headquarters Thursday to announce that Tombigbee Communications, a subsidiary, received a nearly $29.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant as a loan-grant combination in the first round of the USDA's ReConnect pilot program.
"The company will use the awarded funds to develop an All-Dielectric Self-Supporting (ADSS) fiber network and extend freedom FIBER, the company's ultra-high-speed fiber optic service, to 1,100 square miles of unserved areas of Marion, Lamar, Fayette, Franklin, Winston and Walker counties," according to a press release.
Construction will start in spring 2020 in Marion County, and then proceed to the other counties, the release said. Residents of the expansion areas should have ultra-high-speed internet within three to five years.
The company indicated the investment would reach 2,152 households, 20 farms, 15 businesses, 10 critical community facilities, five educational facilities and one health care facility.
Currently freedom FIBER is connected in Hamilton and Winfield, the release said. Haleyville, Hackleburg, Sulligent and Vernon all have construction underway. The company expanded to Brilliant after the company got a $2.98 million grant in May 2018, under the USDA's Community Connect Broadband Grant program.
Steve Foshee, the president and CEO of Tombigbee Communications, told reporters after the event that in Winston County the area will be expanded "almost to Double Springs from Haleyville, coming south to just north of Carbon Hill and east of Carbon Hill." Officials said service will be expanded on the Fayette area next year, and eventually areas such as Glen Allen and Berry.
In the release, the company said the expansion allows Northwest Alabama "to be the first region in the state to offer universally available fiber optic services."
The service is offered to residential customers at speeds of 100 mbps up and 100 mbps down, or 1 gigabit up and 1 gigabit down, the release said. Businesses will have 10 gigabit service, at varied rates depending on need. The service is not metered or data capped.
VoIP phone service will also be available, the company said.
USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald "DJ" LaVoy, told reporters that Alabama is in the forefront of connecting rural America.
"Using this model, we want to replicate this around the country," he said.
Three other state utilities also got ReConnect broadband grants in the process, and were represented at the event. USDA invested $62.5 million high-speed broadband in rural Alabama, affecting 8,000 rural households.
"There was $600 million available were available in his program; $63 million came to Alabama," Foshee said.
Kenneth Boswell, the director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said after the event the grants put Alabama education at another level. "Those in the rural area, some have it but a lot of them don't. Having access puts it at their fingertips as a resource," he said. He said rural students will be put on "a level playing field" with urban students with internet.
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt was seen in a taped statement during the event, thanking the utilities for bringing high-speed internet to more areas. He said the service can change lives for the better whether it is for education, healthcare or job opportunities.
"When the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee created the ReConnect program in 2018 under my leadership, our goal was simple: To help expand broadband to rural areas and help close the digital divide that isolates so many parts of rural America," Aderholt said, adding that expanding and maintaining broadband service "should be the highest priority."