From Elmore County Commission
The Elmore County Commission recognized the need for additional broadband infrastructure in the county and began formulating plans to address the issue in early 2017. After research and numerous meetings with communities and private sector innovators, the Elmore County Commission supported the Elmore County Economic Development Authority (ECEDA) partnering with Sain and Associates to perform a broadband study for the county in the spring of 2019. The study’s intent was to provide an inventory of connectivity information, identify strengths and weaknesses of connectivity, and identify potential solutions to strategically address the issues.
Simultaneously, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative was formulating a plan to enter into the broadband arena. Through the formation of Central Access, the implementation process to install broadband within their service area was initiated. Phase I of their infrastructure installation would consist of connecting fiber to their power facilities while providing service to existing coop members.
As completion of the County’s initial phase of the county broadband study approached, Elmore County Board of Education Superintendent Richard Dennis contacted the County Commission to seek assistance to identify ways to reach his student population remotely. When this contact was made, the County Commission was able to share about their active engagement with ECEDA for the last eighteen months developing a broadband plan for the entire county. With the assistance of ECEDA’s consultant, Sain and Associates, the County Commission and ECEDA had begun utilizing data captured in the plan to identify weaknesses and strengths in the county’s broadband infrastructure network. With the study in hand, the partnership moved swiftly to identify currently available public hotspots and the interest of many countywide resources who would entertain hosting a potential hotspot. During the gathering of this data, several municipalities expanded access to their facilities as public hotspots as well as Spectrum sharing their data of currently available public hotspots. These hotspots are designed to allow citizens to be able to access the free broadband connection from the safety of their vehicle at the specified locations allowing proper social distancing measures to be observed.
Central Alabama Electric Cooperative and Central Access have been a valuable asset to the group during the study process and during the hotspot discussion. When the Elmore County Commission, ECEDA, and ECBOE, brought this issue to the partnership, Central Access stepped up to help expand the availability of public hotspots. Currently, there are 74 public hotspots available throughout the county between Central Access, Spectrum, Windstream, municipal, ECBOE and other community sites. Plans are in place to increase the public hotspot opportunities to close to 100 sites over the next several months. To view the available and future public hotspots, the partnership has developed a digital map hosted on the Elmore County Commission website. The map is available on the Elmore County Commission website (www.elmoreco.org) at https://elmorecounty.maps.arcgis.com As additional public hotspots come online, the map will be updated so citizens have access to the most current set of active and available sites.
With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis timeline, these public hotspots give parents and their students options for safe and social distance compliant access to educational tools. Moving forward, these public hotspots have the potential to provide many other opportunities related to areas such as telehealth, workforce resources, public safety, emergency response, and additional access to county and municipal services/ resources.
While the Wi-Fi hotspots have their utility, the expansion of broadband infrastructure throughout the county is still the overall goal of the County Commission. Currently, Sain is preparing recommended investment patterns and projects to assist the County Commission in selecting the most productive options to assist in grant and investment decisions in an effort to provide service opportunities to businesses and citizens.
Commissioner Bart Mercer has taken the lead on this project from the Commission standpoint. “My role in this project from the Commission standpoint is to provide ECEDA the direction needed to produce usable data. Broadband is the electrical grid of the past. At one time the national push was to electrify areas. Now it’s to get fiber to houses. I get as many or more calls as a commissioner about broadband as I do potholes” stated Mercer.
Commissioner Kenny Holt has one of the two largely rural districts on the Commission. His constituents clamor for reliable and affordable internet service. “The creation of Central Access by CAEC has been a great addition for our citizens. Affordable and reliable internet is vital in today’s world, and Central Access is providing that service in areas previously untouched.”
“The Elmore County Commission and its economic development partner, ECEDA, embarked on a plan to help the county’s citizens gain digital connectivity long before this current pandemic highlighted the need for better broadband in rural areas,” said CAEC President/CEO Tom Stackhouse. “They reached out to several partners, including CAEC, and began working the plan. And today, the citizens of Elmore County are reaping the benefits of this team’s early planning effort. We’re excited about the digital future for Elmore County.”
“I’m so proud of all of the partners that pulled this complex project together. Companies that are usually competitors pulled together for the benefit of Elmore County and especially our students. We are now in a digital age and options are limited to those without reliable, high speed internet. ECEDA is proud to be part of this partnership”, stated ECEDA’s director Cary Cox.
“Thanks to the County Commission for having the foresight to pursue a study of this nature. The study helped accelerate needed infrastructure to serve our students. The County Commission with partners like Central Access are going to drive the competition to expand broadband significantly in Elmore County,” Superintendent Richard Dennis remarked.
“Many of Alabama’s rural communities do not have adequate broadband infrastructure,” said Jim Meads, P.E., President/CEO of Sain Associates. “In Elmore County, more than 40% of its citizens are underserved or unserved with broadband internet. We are excited about our ongoing role in helping the Elmore County Economic Development Authority and its partners plan for improving broadband connectivity for students, industry and citizens. The proactive planning by these partners has been greatly beneficial in helping students and families impacted by the COVID -19 pandemic.”