By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
As more Alabamians rely on internet access for virtual learning or telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s Black Belt region is largely unable to meet even the basic standards of adequate broadband access.
In a new report from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, most Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of having access to 100 megabits per second of broadband. All except for two of the 24 counties that the EPC has identified as being part of the Black Belt are below the statewide average of 86% coverage and half are below 50%.
Choctaw and Perry counties don’t have any coverage of 100 mbps and Greene county has a negligible 0.02% coverage.
The Federal Communications Commission’s official definition of an area being “served” is a minimum of 25 mbps of broadband download ability. But even meeting that standard, Black Belt counties are still mostly below the state average of 88.6% of the population.
Dr. Eric Wallace, a nephrologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told reporters on Monday that the need for better broadband access across the state is important now more than ever given the difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on every part of life.
“In today’s day and age, with COVID being out there, this is 100% a necessity,” Wallace said. “The internet isn’t just your healthcare anymore, it’s commerce, it’s education, so at no time has there ever been a bigger need for the expansion of broadband into the patient’s home.”
The Black Belt region already has a lack of access to health care services and by not having adequate broadband reach, it limits telehealth abilities as well.
Wallace said since COVID-19 reached Alabama, UAB has done around 230,000 telehealth visits, but only 60% have been through video communication. The other 40% have only been through audio communication only because the patient didn’t have adequate broadband coverage.
The report mentions availability and affordability as the two main factors contributing to the “digital divide” in Alabama.
Only 44% of Alabamians have access to an “affordable” internet plan, which is described as costing $60 or less per month, the report says.
Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report, said on Monday there are 154 broadband providers in the state but 226,000 Alabamians live without a single provider in their county and 632,000 only have one provider in their county.
The state has been working on expanding broadband coverage in recent years. The Legislature passed the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act in 2018 to further expand access to underserved communities.
The state has also allocated around $275 million in federal CARES Act funding to increasing access to broadband for K-12 students undergoing virtual learning, help local education agencies with virtual learning and to help institutions of higher education.
A bill passed in 2019 allows local electric cooperatives to use existing infrastructure to help place new fiber optic lines and reach more rural areas of the state to provide better broadband service.
The report says the 2019 law and funding from the Broadband Accessibility Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service could lead to thousands of miles of fiber cables in the next few years in the Black Belt.
Stephen Katsinas, director of the EPC, said while state leaders are tackling short-term solutions to broadband access now, finding a longer-term solution will be difficult since technology is changing rapidly and the definition of what is acceptable broadband service change every year.
“I think what we have is a moving target and we’re going have to develop a long-term plan on the fly just as we are developing a short-term plan,” Katsinas said.