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December 18, 2009   Email to Friend 

Efforts Seek to Bring Broadband to Rural Areas
Darryal Ray

A decade ago, Madison County farmer Dennis Bragg saw the Internet as nothing more than a form of entertainment. But today he says it's the best thing to come to the Tennessee Valley since TVA strung its first power line.

Without it, he says, we'd all be in the dark.

It's a story shared by thousands all around the state by the haves and the have-nots -- those who travel the information highway and those left behind on dusty rural byways.

It's also a story that the ConnectingALABAMA would like to change. A two-year effort to bring broadband availability to all of the state's 67 counties, the initiative also seeks to advance the use of broadband technologies to enhance education, healthcare, public safety, agriculture, tourism and more.

A first step in the process was completed last summer with the "mapping" of the state to determine where the various kinds of broadband were available.

"Working with over 100 ISPs (Internet service providers) across the state, we collected data on where DSL, cable, wireless and broadband over power line (BPL) service is available," said Kathy Johnson of ConnectingALABAMA. "The maps not only help us better understand where service is, but more importantly, where it is not."

Those maps, posted online at www.connectingalabama.gov in July, are being converted to an interactive interface. Once that's done, visitors to the site will be able to search an address to find what technology is available, through which companies and at which advertised speeds.

Even in the remote farming community of Hillsboro in Lawrence County, the value of Internet is immeasurable to Don Glenn of Glenn Acres Farm.

"It makes the world a smaller place," says Don, a precision ag advocate who last year helped spearhead the efforts to establish a CORS (Continuously Operating Reference Station) unit that links a satellite signal to his tractors in the field. "So much of what we do is done over the Internet now," says Don who operates the farm along with brother Brian and father Eugene. "I contact suppliers, order inputs, get price quotes. It allows us to have the office with us in the cab. I won't say we could not function without the Internet, but, boy, it would change the way we do business!"

Frankie Davis, chairman of the Dale County Farmers Federation's Women's Committee and a former state committee chair, lives just outside Skipperville, about 12 miles north of Ozark. She wonders what she's missing with high-speed Internet.

Dial-up -- that painfully slow squawking box abandoned by most areas long ago -- is all she can get.

"We're just a few miles too far out they tell us. It's terrible! If you haven't experienced it, it's as slow as slow," she says. "If I get email from somebody, or try to look at something with a video or pictures in it, I might as well forget it."

Connecting Alabama's rural byways won't be immediate -- those in the hinterlands may have to wait awhile, depending on evolving technology, demand and other factors. "Each area is different -- different needs, different topography, etcetera," says Johnson of ConnectingALABAMA. "In an area that is strictly residential, bandwidth needs may not be as great as in areas where schools are using distance learning to teach students, video-arraignment for correctional facilities and judicial buildings, and technology to deliver healthcare through telemedicine or telepsychiatry."

Johnson also stresses that ConnectingALABAMA is not an Internet Service Provider and isn't installing any special wires, cable or any other kind of infrastructure -- it is only laying the groundwork by identifying where broadband is needed and then working with state-level and regional teams and ISPs to identify any barriers to making that happen.


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