By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, community leaders and organizations from Chilton County have created a broadband access feasibility study.
The study’s intent is to provide an inventory of connectivity information, identify strengths and weaknesses of connectivity, and identify potential solutions to strategically address the issues, a press release Monday said.
Chilton County leaders were already formulating plans to address broadband issues at the start of 2020, but the health emergency created by COVID-19 caused broadband expansion to move to the top of their priority list.
“The process was placed into motion when leaders of the community unanimously voted to fund the feasibility study,” County Commission Chair Joseph Parnell said in the written statement. “The mayors and I worked with respected elected members to bring this study to the forefront of major issues in our county. We understand the importance of broadband/fiber and what the absence of costs our communities.”
The Chiton County Commission, Town of Maplesville, City of Clanton, Town of Thorsby, City of Jemison, the Chilton County Board of Education and the Industrial Development Authority of Chilton County partnered with engineering firm Sain and Associates to perform a broadband study for the county.
The press release said it was vital to include the Chilton County board of education in the discussions as discussions are ongoing about how students will attend school in the fall amidst the pandemic.
Chilton County Superintendent Jason Griffin contributed staff expertise in creating and hosting an online survey for the study, with the objective of collecting opinions from Chilton County residents regarding their broadband service.
The other members a part of the Chilton County Broadband Coalition include Chilton County DHR, Chilton County E911, Chilton County Emergency Management Agency, Local Chilton County Medical Community, and Chilton County Chamber of Commerce.
Providing better broadband access for Chilton county will not only help students but also help with telehealth, emergency response, workforce resources and additional county and municipal services.
“Building a coalition to address the needs for a strong and reliable fiber network is a tremendous step for Chilton County,” said Whitney Barlow, executive director of the industrial development authority.
“Our coalition will address not only the needs of our current residents, but allow for our county to become more competitive in the digital age,” she said. “COVID-19 has brought a new era for economic development, remote workspaces are now a common actuality and not an exception. We need a strong and reliable network and access to hotspots to continue to meet the demand in the market.”
County leaders hope to identify currently available public hotspots and the possibility of other countywide resources for hosting additional hotspots.
In January, The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs released an updated map of the broadband coverage areas in Alabama which showed about half of the state’s landmass being labeled as “unserved.”
“Many of Alabama’s rural communities do not have adequate broadband infrastructure,” said Jim Meads, president and CEO of Sain Associates. “In Chilton County, more than 75% of its citizens are underserved or unserved with broadband internet. We are excited about our ongoing role in helping the Chilton County Broadband Coalition and its partners plan for improving broadband connectivity for students, industry and citizens.”
State lawmakers have made increasing broadband access across the state a priority as more of Alabama’s workforce and students have had to move online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Kay Ivey in recent weeks has awarded multiple grants amounting to several millions of dollars for projects to expand broadband in the state.