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franklin county times

County broadband expansion receives additional funding

From school to business, work, entertainment, reading and other pursuits, reliable access to fast and affordable Internet is something nearly everyone needs nowadays; however, it isn’t available to everybody, even if they can afford it, in Franklin County – that is, not yet. Efforts are underway to remedy that situation, with some residents already reaping the benefits. Plans are being made to extend this to the rest of the county.

“High-speed Internet is essential to almost all aspects of our lives,” explained Rep. Jamie Kiel. “That’s why getting broadband Internet to all of Franklin County has been one of my focuses.

“Last year, I announced a $3,875,141.90 grant to expand fiber optic high-speed Internet into parts of rural Franklin County. That grant has made possible fiber installation in the southern and eastern parts of the county, and some of these areas are already using the service, but we still have work to do.”

Kiel said it takes a lot of money, time and work to bring about this reality as a viable option for Franklin County residents.

“That’s why I am working to get our share of the $243 million in new funding through the American Rescue Plan Act to expand rural broadband access in our state,” Kiel explained. “These ARPA funds will provide grants through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to areas in need of expansion.

“I believe that, together, we can make this possible for our citizens,” Kiel added. “The Franklin County Commission has more than $5 million that can go toward making sure every citizen in the county has world-class internet speeds for work, education, healthcare and entertainment.”

During the commission’s work session Jan. 10, Randy Schultz and Scott Mugno, members of the Board of Directors for the Franklin County Water Service Authority – the state statutory authority charged with bringing broadband to rural Franklin County – spoke to the commission. They shared copies of a map showing the portion of the county already being covered, as well as the parts still needing adequate internet.

Mugno and Schultz asked the commission to publicly commit, in a manner appropriate and binding, all the remaining COVID relief funds awarded to Franklin County for the purpose of building reliable, affordable, last-mile fiber optic broadband in the areas discussed and shown on the map presented during the meeting, explaining reasons for doing so.

Mugno said even if funded immediately, it will take at least two or three more years to build out the system.

“Study after study shows rural counties that don’t develop and grow economically will die,” Mugno said. “Ask Sherye Price at the Development Authority what one of the first questions prospective businesses interested in our county ask, and you’ll find out it’s to inquire whether there’s reliable and affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service.”

Because of a lack of funding, Schultz said, a good bit of the county was not initially covered in the build-out plans.

“The map we passed out shows where reliable, affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband is being built-out in several portions of Franklin County currently,” explained Schultz. “Due to a lack of allocation of funds for the completion of our county’s broadband network, a significant portion of the county is not on a build-out schedule.”

Schultz said while people east of Highway 43 will have broadband in two to three months, some in the southern portion of the county, where Alabama Power provides service, already have it.

“An example of this is the Hodges area, where customers were recently allowed to connect to full 100-megahertz service up and down with unlimited data for only $49.95 per month,” Schultz noted, “and a full gigabyte is available to them for a slightly higher price.”

He said the service in all areas where the build-out is underway is being provided by Freedom Fiber, a subsidiary of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative – and, in the eastern portion of the county, in cooperation with Franklin County Electric Cooperative, under a memorandum of understanding between Tombigbee and the electric cooperative.

“The unfunded sections of the county must be treated as if they were a separate county for engineering purposes,” explained Schultz. “Freedom Fiber cannot wait for funding since the ADECA grant awarded to fund the build-out requires the completion of the east of Highway 43 build-out by August 2022.”

“So, the time is now,” Schultz went on. “Failing to move on expanding this buildout would leave a significant portion of our youth without broadband at home. Most Belgreen students currently lack adequate broadband access, as do many other students in the county. Based on my 30 years of experience in the telecom/wireless industry, it is my opinion that we have a rare opportunity here to take action.”

Schultz said the unfunded areas of the county are the least densely populated areas for the most part, therefore requiring the most grant funds per customer to make reliable, affordable internet in these areas sustainable. “No one, not even Freedom Fiber, can build these rural areas out without federal, state or local government financial support for the initial build,” he said.

Full coverage is not the only goal; there is also a focus on increased speed.

“Freedom Fiber has committed to make Franklin County the first county in the state to have 10 gigabyte service available to our users,” explained Schultz, “and this would be a huge technological jump from one gigabyte – currently the highest speed generally offered by most providers.”

Schultz said within the past few months, Franklin County was awarded $6 million in COVID relief funds by the federal government – funds that were largely unrestricted compared to most grants, FCC auction awards or other government funding.

“The Franklin County Water Service Authority began discussions with the commission to ask that the $6M be invested in the toughest part of our county to build reliable, affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband,” he said.

He went on to note that when the FCWSA first approached the commission about funding for the project, Freedom Fiber anticipated needing another $2M to complete its build-out.

“That was several months ago,” explained Schultz, “and the costs of fiber optic cable alone have risen as much as 30 percent since the build-out began. As a result, it should not be a surprise that the new estimate involves an additional $2M – and potentially $4M – estimated, in total, to complete the build-out.”

The Commission voted in favor of the request during its Jan. 18 meeting.

“We’ve been talking about broadband in Franklin County for a long time,” explained Commission Chairman Barry Moore, “and it’s a huge necessity for economic development as well as for individual homes.

“We have roughly $6M through the rescue plan. Out of that, we have to pay some fees, and the premium pay authorized for county employees is coming out of that, so that leaves around $5M. We’re willing to commit at least that much, or more, if it’s leftover, toward that end.”

Moore said the commission hasn’t received the entire amount of the funding that will make this possible yet.

“We were awarded this money in March, and we got the first half in June,” Moore said. “We’re also waiting for guidance about how to administer it. Once we have that guidance and the rest of the money, we will be ready to move forward.

“We have to have the guidance to make sure we do it right.”

In the motion, the commission stipulated that it would like to commit at least $5M, pending final guidance from the treasury department and the affiliate group that’s assisting.

“We expect to get the other part of the money around June or July this year,” Moore said. “Once we receive it, we will issue the money at that time, based on the guidance of the treasury.”