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September 23, 2009   Email to Friend 

ConnectingALABAMA: Effort Seeks To Bring Broadband To Rural Byways
By Darryal Ray

Siblings Jeannie Harvey Bragg and Dennis Bragg of Bragg Farms in Madison County are strong proponents of Alabama's rural broadband initiative. They use the Internet extensively in their row crop operation.
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.

"When the power goes off, you switch to survival mode," says Bragg. "If it's winter, it's 'How do I stay warm?' If it's nighttime, 'How do I get some light?' Then you start worrying about, 'How do I feed myself?' It would be the same for our business. If we lost that connection to those we do business with and how we disperse and receive information, we'd have to switch to survival mode to just exist. There would be no thought of going forward; you would scratch to keep from going backwards."

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 this 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, will be converted to an interactive interface by the end of the year. 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.

According to Johnson, current data shows 89 percent of the state's households have access to broadband, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as data transmission speeds exceeding 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) in at least one direction -- either uploading to or downloading from the Internet.

All the techno-jargon and terminology can be confusing, particularly in a climate of ever-changing technology. Yet, no matter, how puzzling or perplexing it can be one thing remains remarkably clear: Alabama must either join the race or get left behind.

"If Alabama views it, as I did 10 years ago, as just a source of entertainment, then we need to get used to the words 'outsourced jobs,''' Bragg says. "Successful state economies get there by having a balance between urban and rural productivity. And if you don't treat rural areas as equal to urban, then the urban areas are going to somehow, unknowingly, subsidize what is lacking in the rural.

"It's equivalent to having electricity everywhere, phone service everywhere, clean drinkable water everywhere and a good road system everywhere. It's a piece of the infrastructure of a state -- not just a personal choice," Bragg added. "If a company is picking an area to locate a business, that will be one of the questions they will ask. They used to ask, 'What is your utility rate? How good are your roads? How good is your school system?' Now, they're going to ask, 'What type of broadband access do you have?' because that's how they're going to do business."

It's certainly how Bragg Farms does business.

Bragg and his sister, Jeannie Bragg Harvey, run their 7,200-acre row crop farm and seed business largely on the power of the Internet. While Dennis uses it to direct 19 pivot irrigation computers, download software updates for combines and order machinery parts, Jeannie uses it to make her office more efficient.

"So much more of my responsibilities are handled over the Internet now," she said. "Where 100 percent of my business responsibilities were once done over the telephone, now it might be 25 percent. I use it in all of our sales. Contracts are transmitted that way now, and of course, all the follow-up conversations. It's easy documentation, and easy storage of that documentation. We've recently added a video surveillance system that has its own Web address for remote monitoring. So when we are in our homes at night or when we're away, we can still check on things."

"At the end of the year, when it's time to compile financial numbers for my accountant for tax preparation, I can send all that directly from my computer program that manages that to him, and I don't have to print out a thing," Jeannie added.

Dennis puts it this way: "If you live on an island, you don't have to have Internet. But a business touches all other islands, all over the world. And if that business is using the Internet, then they expect you to."

Even in the remote farming community of Hillsboro in Lawrence County, the value of Internet is immeasurable to Don Glenn of Glenn Acres Farm. Just nine credit hours shy of a second major in computer programming, Don embraces technology as a necessary tool.

"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. We have no hired labor. Brian and I operate the equipment, and our management would suffer severely if we couldn't take the office with us. I won't say we could not function without the Internet, but, boy, it would change the way do business!"

Relying on a wireless signal from a mountaintop tower, Don also serves as one of the behind-the-scenes administrators of a popular agricultural Web site, www.NewAgTalk.com. The site, which features discussion boards for crops, machinery and repairs, stocks and more, has continued to generate interest from farmers and agriculture-related professionals from all across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Brazil since its inception in 2000.

"There are places all over the country where dial-up is still the only Internet connection there is, and that's one reason our site has been so successful," says Don. "We have kept it as 'Plain Jane simple' as we can. No advertisements, no graphics. We keep it so that the guy on a dial-up connection can follow, and that's one of the things that made it so successful early on."

Not surprisingly, Don also supports the efforts of ConnectingALABAMA. "It's a step in the right direction. We need to see it move forward," he says. "I don't want to move to an area that doesn't have broadband available. When I'm traveling, I don't want to stay at a hotel that doesn't offer Internet service. Why would you want to put a business in a location that doesn't have broadband access? It's a detriment to our schools if you don't have broadband access. Why would you want your kids to go to school in an area that doesn't have it?"

Frankie Davis, chairman of the Dale County Farmers Federation's Women's Committee and a former state committee chair, asks that same question from her home just outside Skipperville, about 12 miles north of Ozark.

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."

But she's not forgetting it. "A couple of weeks ago I saw a big tower going up in Skipperville, and I thought, 'Hallelujah! We're going to get high-speed!' But it wasn't that - it was just a cell tower."

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.

To Dennis Bragg, it's something that must happen for all Alabamians.

"It's as important as bringing electricity to them. It's like when TVA came in and started putting in power lines," he says. "Just because where you live isn't densely populated doesn't mean you or your business is any less important than those inside the city limits."

Why? Because, without it, he says, we'll all be in the dark.

"If not having Internet is the way to go, then why do we have houses?" he asks philosophically. "Let's just live in a cave, it's so much simpler."

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