By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Two years ago, the Alabama Legislature passed and Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a plan to allow utilities to use their existing infrastructure to expand high-speed broadband internet into underserved rural areas of the state. By piggybacking fiber cables on the vast networks of electricity lines, the thought went, it could help allay the costs of running fiber and reduce barriers to expansion.
Now, two of those utilities – one an electric cooperative and the other the state’s largest provider of electricity – are partnering together for a unique project aimed to bring high-speed internet to West Alabama.
Freedom FIBER, a subsidiary of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, and Alabama Power have announced a partnership to facilitate the expansion of rural broadband internet service to residents and businesses in Fayette County. It is the first time an electric cooperative and an investor-owned utility have entered into such a partnership.
“We are excited to continue the deployment of broadband throughout Northwest Alabama alongside our longtime partner, Alabama Power,” said Steve Foshee, President & CEO of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative.
Mark Crews, vice president of Western Division for Alabama Power agreed.
“Ourpartnership with Tombigbee Communications highlights the importance and value of businesses joining together to help bridge our state’s digital divide and lift up unserved and underserved rural areas,” he said in the a joint news release.
Since the enactment of the broadband law, known as the Broadband Using Electric Easement Accessibility Act, Alabama Power has partnered with other local utilities to expand broadband, including C Spire in Jasper and Trussville and Point Broadband on Lake Martin. But this is the first time they’ve been able to partner with a member-owned electric cooperative, which could portend other partnerships in the future. Many of the state’s residents are served by such entities.
Last year, the Central Alabama Electric Cooperative announced a massive investment intended to bring broadband to its customers in Autauga, Coosa, Chilton and Elmore Counties.
Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, has made expanding rural access to broadband internet a priority in his work as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. He was on hand at the announcement and applauded the Tombigbee partnership.
“New partnerships and fresh ways of thinking are what will close the digital divide,” Aderholt said. “Expanding broadband in Alabama has been one of my top priorities in Congress and will continue to be until we have rural America connected as well as the urban and suburban areas of our country. Our families, businesses and communities all deserve fast, reliable broadband regardless of where they call home.”