Broadband Divide: Elmore County’s Response to COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the nation, schools have turned to online learning as a means to finish the 2020 school year. Many school systems have adapted to this new normal, but what about Alabama’s rural communities that do not have the broadband infrastructure to support the demand?

The Alabama State Legislature defines “broadband” as an internet service that provides a minimum data download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 3 Mpbs. In many areas of Alabama, particularly rural areas, broadband internet is limited or unavailable. The State has taken measures to alleviate this issue by raising awareness and subsidizing the expansion of broadband service through grants. However, to apply for these grants, organizations must have a handle on existing conditions along with a plan to address broadband issues.

Elmore County, Alabama, where more than 40% of its citizens are underserved or unserved with broadband internet, has taken a proactive approach in addressing their broadband gaps by performing a broadband feasibility study. In a collaborative effort, Elmore County partnered with Central Alabama Electric Cooperative (CAEC), Elmore County Economic Development Authority (ECEDA), and the Elmore County Board of Education to begin a connectivity pilot program. ECEDA contracted with Sain Associates to conduct a feasibility study, which in turn helped identify grant areas and led to grant awards.

According to Julie Young, CAEC’s Vice President of Business and Administrative Services, “The long-term work has paid off because when this pandemic began, Elmore County was ready to initiate steps addressing their students’ distance learning needs.”

Sain’s feasibility study evaluated existing broadband infrastructure and coverage areas and provided a framework for planning and funding projects that address gaps in broadband service to its constituents or customers. Objectives of the study included:

  1. Define clear broadband coverage goals and benchmarks.
  2. Document existing broadband infrastructure and coverage areas.
  3. Develop a plan for addressing gaps in broadband service.
  4. Develop short and long-term recommendations.
  5. Compile information needed to apply for grant and/or other funding.

The result of the study was a report containing various maps that helped Elmore County better understand the gaps in broadband internet service. The report also provided recommendations that allow the client to formulate a plan for addressing those broadband shortfalls in their area of influence.

As part of the natural progression, a second phase was developed to provide the County with a prioritized and detailed list of potential broadband projects that could be used to begin expediting the proliferation of broadband internet service in unserved and underserved areas of the County. This part of the study involved identifying the most viable and cost-effective projects based on potential customers to be served, square miles of area to be served, and the overall cost of each project. After a preliminary screening of all potential projects, the list was narrowed to 10-15 projects and more detailed cost information was provided to allow the County to develop budgets for project implementations.

Over the past several weeks, Elmore County assisted the Board of Education (BOE) in identifying potential public Wi-Fi hotspots in locations that would best serve students in the unserved and underserved portions of the County. As an unforeseen benefit of our broadband studies, with information provided from the reports and student location data provided by the BOE, we were able to provide two essential products.

First, we developed a list of potential hotspot locations that would best serve the students of Elmore County who needed internet access the most. Second, we were able to prepare a web application published on the County website that shows the location of existing public hotspots as well as the location of proposed hotspots and their status as they come online.

Lack of connectivity brings a magnitude of challenges to numerous counties in Alabama. Luckily, there are solutions for bringing better internet to unserved or underserved areas. Elmore County Commissioner Bart Mercer mentioned that in today’s climate, broadband is just as crucial as roadway infrastructure. During this current climate of social distancing, it is critical to provide internet connectivity for businesses and students as they work and learn remotely.

Team Member Perspectives

Central Alabama Electric Cooperative

“For 80 years, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative (CAEC) has worked closely with our communities to provide reliable electric service, and for the past 20 years, we’ve had a dynamic partnership with Sain Associates on economic development projects. Elmore County leadership (Elmore County, Elmore County Economic Development Authority, and Elmore County Board of Education) and their economic development team chose Sain Associates to work with us and others in a collaborative effort to provide reliable, affordable broadband service to their county’s citizens, we welcomed the positive impact this effort could have. But it’s only been recently that all of us—Elmore County, Sain Associates and CAEC—have really understood the magnitude of that planning effort, which has paid off considerably in the last few weeks.” – Tom Stackhouse, President/CEO

“Three years ago when CAEC began investigating the feasibility of providing broadband service, we were approached by Elmore County to be a part of their connectivity pilot program. Thanks to Sain Associates, a comprehensive fiber inventory was mapped, which in turn helped identify grant areas and led to grant awards. The long-term work has paid off because when this pandemic began, Elmore County was ready to initiate steps addressing their students’ distance learning needs. I’m excited about the ongoing collaboration and look forward to future endeavors.” – Julie Young, VP of Business & Administrative Services

Elmore County Commission

“Access to broadband is as important as roadway infrastructure. We see access to broadband as a major component of our economic development planning for Elmore County. The broadband study developed by Sain tells us where broadband is available and unavailable. In addition to education, broadband will help public safety and first responders, telemedicine, and online programs.” – Bart Mercer, Commissioner

Elmore County Board of Education

“Sain was able to quickly prepare a map showing student concentrations due to the existing background information from the broadband feasibility study. We have posted the map on our website and believe that it will be a great asset for our school system.” – Dr. Richard Dennis, Superintendent