Lee County sets aside $4.4 million to improve rural broadband, waits to see what companies do first | Local News



Lee County is taking a wait-and-see approach before making decisions about how to spend the COVID-19 relief money it’s earmarked for the broad rural brand.

That’s because the state has already provided funding directly to broadband companies, including Charter Spectrum and Point Broadband.

The Lee County Commission recently voted unanimously to use $4.4 million, or 20% of its designated American Rescue Plan Act funds, to help provide better broadband access throughout the count. In the meantime, the county is waiting to see what companies do before announcing any plans, which Commissioner Robert Ham said the state has advised counties to do.

“When we were trying to designate this ARPA money, the state told us, ‘Before you designate money for broadband, wait until you see what we’re going to do to help you,'” a said Ham. . “The way they decided to do it was just to let the contractors apply.”

As a result, the county currently has millions of dollars in broadband funds, while the state and internet service providers figure out where they go first. The logic is to let the broadband companies start laying cables where they feel the need, and then the county can step in and fill in any remaining gaps later. Essentially, where the most homes are will be served first, and areas with fewer homes will come later.

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Lee County Administrator Holly Leverette recently outlined the county’s thinking on this process.

“If you only have one house down the road, it doesn’t make economic sense that you spend all that money doing that infrastructure,” Leverette said. “But if you see the need and it’s going to affect the largest majority of people in a certain area and they don’t have broadband, then those are the areas we want to target: areas where it doesn’t there is no money yet, but there is a gap.”

Lee County Commissioner Doug Cannon, who has led his campaign for better broadband access in the county, also cited cost as a main reason for waiting for cable companies to come first.

“It’s going to cost the cable company so much money to do it, so the state is going to put millions of dollars into trying to give people access,” Cannon said. “That’s why I wanted to allocate 20% of our ARPA funds to this. Once we find out what the state is going to do, we can go ahead and put the internet where it needs to go.

Last year, Governor Kay Ivey awarded Spectrum $302,245 to expand broadband in Lee County. It’s just one of many pockets of money the state has given to broadband companies to help improve infrastructure in Alabama. According to a state release last summer, Spectrum Southeast intended to make broadband service available to more than 430 homes and five businesses in western Lee County.

Point Broadband is also currently working in the northwest part of the county. In a June 27 speech to the county commission, Point Vice President of Strategic Growth David Ficken outlined his company’s current plans for the area.

Point began serving homes along Highway 280 toward Waverly and on Lee Road 14 to Loachapoka and up to the Macon County line. Ficken said he expects all of those homes to be fully serviced within the next 30 to 45 days. Point is also doing work in the eastern part of the county around the Spring Villa area.

“I think we all recognize that broadband has become pretty much an essential part of our lives,” Ficken told the commission. “We all need more than last year. And the real acute pain is in rural areas where it is not being reached due to lack of investment usually from the bigger suppliers.

This “sharp pain” is felt by many rural residents of Lee County. Over the years, broadband access has become a normal part of everyday life. For those living in urban areas, internet access is often taken for granted. It is easily accessible from homes to cafes. But just a few miles from Auburn or Opelika, broadband access is quickly disappearing.

Sandy Pouncey, who lives near Lee Road 11 outside Beauregard, agrees with neighbors that a lack of broadband has prevented them from being able to reliably work and go to school remotely from home , not to mention the ability to stream movies.

Pouncey also mentions another situation where Internet access is important: bad weather. Pouncey is a survivor of the tornado that hit Beauregard in 2019, and she started a petition last year called “We Want Reliable Internet in Beauregard, Alabama.” The petition currently has 108 signatures.

“We have two options,” Pouncey said of limited internet access in his area. “We had HughesNet or ViaSat. These are two satellite companies. If you know anything about satellite, you know when it’s raining we don’t have internet.

According to Pouncey, the 2019 tornado destroyed a Verizon tower not far from her, and that tower was never replaced. Additionally, she said, a tornado siren near Samford Middle School has been down for some time and has not been repaired.

“When it started raining early that morning, the TVs all went dark, the internet went dark and all we had was our phones,” she said. “We had a Verizon cell tower here. But everything came out and so all these people who were in church, then they come home and that’s why we had so many deaths here, because nobody knew it was so bad.

Without a reliable internet connection and sirens, residents were effectively in a vacuum. The nearest internet antenna is several kilometers away on the Beauregard water tower.

Ham touts this antenna as a proud moment for Beauregard.

“When asked about this years ago, Beauregard replied, ‘Of course, come and install antennas on our water tower. Won’t hurt anything. All it will do is help our citizens,” Ham said.

Pouncey, however, remains skeptical. “It’s 13 kilometers from the school,” she said. “We’re actually three miles from Russell County and seven or eight miles from Macon County, and we’re almost out of Lee County here. We are the forgotten zone.

Cannon said he understands the situation many rural Lee County residents find themselves in.

“Broadband is a necessity today, just like electricity was 50 years ago with medical devices, and people are now working from home,” he said. “Due to the pandemic, children couldn’t even go to school, so they had to go and sit on school buses to get broadband.

“People in the city have access to it, but people in rural areas didn’t have access to broadband, so they couldn’t work from home. That’s why it’s a necessity these days to get it.”

Cannon says its goal is to implement broadband across the county as soon as possible.

With $4.4 million on top of state funds, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Meanwhile, development continues in the county. Two new water towers and a sheriff’s tower were recently erected in eastern Lee County, not far from Beulah. According to Ham, these three towers will eventually have broadband antennas and help cover the Harding Lake area.

“If you look at all three of them, the two water towers and the tower that was put up for the sheriff’s department, it’s kind of like a triangle that’s good for broadband,” he said. declared. “This will cover all areas of Lake Harding where we haven’t had very good broadband as well as poor coverage for our sheriff’s department.”

Cannon said if Lee County needed even more resources to get countywide broadband coverage, he was ready to go to the mat for it.

“We’ll see how far it goes,” he said. “If it’s going to cost a lot more, we’re going to fight for it because we need to protect the citizens of Lee County.”


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