Alabama communities with lower population density haven’t attracted big national Internet access providers, but their electric cooperatives are increasingly picking up the slack. In recent months, yet another electric cooperative announced that “it’s about time” for Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) for members.
Members are Ready
With over 90 percent of members voting in favor, Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Cooperative (JWEMC) will soon be joining an increasing number of electric cooperatives providing access to broadband. JWEMC’s General Manager, George Kitchens, hopes to have the first customers connected by the fall of 2020 and all members on the network within five years. Kitchens notes that strong support from the community could expedite the timeline. Construction is expected to begin late next summer and the co-op will connect members in both Lawrence County and Morgan County.
“We have studied this internally for over a year,” he said. “We hope to have 18 substations and 1,000 customers hooked up in Year One, 3,800 customers in Year Two and between 3,000 and 5,000 annually Years Three through Five,” said Kitchens.
JWEMC has predicted it will need 10,000 subscribers to break even. Currently, folks in rural Lawrence County depend on satellite Internet access, while those who live in the more densely populated areas of Moulton (pop. 3,200) and Town Creek (pop. 1,100) may have access to AT&T DSL or cable Internet access from Charter Communications. Kitchens indicated that the network could be finished in three years, if demand is high and the cooperative can manage a rigorous construction schedule.
The electric cooperative held six public meetings in Lawrence County and Morgan County regarding the fiber optics Internet access project before asking members to vote. The meetings allowed JWEMC authorities to address concerns of cost and services and gave co-op officials a chance to answer questions from members. Following the series of well-received meetings, the cooperative mailed a ballot to members in October. The support for the project was overwhelming — 6,750 of 7,210 voting members supported the fiber optic project.
After the vote was tallied, Kitchens commented:
"I want to thank the members for taking the time not only to vote but for participating in this process. It has been encouraging to see the members come to meetings, asking questions, and taking a stake in their cooperative. I see these numbers as a vote of confidence for us to move forward with this project and bring this much-needed service to all of our members. Now it's time for the real work to begin."
More Than Connectivity
The cooperative's broadband project is part of a larger move to upgrade the infrastructure, which will also enhance electric operations with smart grid technology. While JWEMC members can choose to take advantage of the high-quality Internet access via fiber, advantages from smart grid upgrades benefit all members on the system. In Chattanooga, a 2017 report estimated that community savings due to the smart grid came to about $67.1 million.
Cooperative leadership estimates the project will cost between $95 million - $110 million to complete. The project will be funded by a loan from CoBank, a national cooperative bank. In the past, CoBank has provided $20 million in loans to Oklahoma’s Lake Region Electric Cooperative, given MLEC supplement grant awards, and assisted in several fiber network deployments by rural electric cooperatives. JWEMC will also pursue state and federal grants.
Rates have not been established at this early stage, but the co-op estimates that subscribers will pay between $40 to $60 per month for 200 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical FTTH Internet access. The cooperative intends to offer other options, including business connectivity at 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps). JWEMC has also stated that they will not charge installation fees during first five years.
JWEMC has released two promotional videos, focusing on both counties and the people who live there. Each video uses the phrase "It's about time" to point out the benefits that the rural communities in the region are ready to pursue with fiber connectivity:
Lawrence County, located in northern Alabama, has a population of 34,339 and a total area of 717 square miles. Neighboring Morgan County has a population of 119,490 people and a land area of 599 square miles. Both Lawrence and Morgan County are considered part of the Dectur metropolitan area; about half of the people in Morgan County live in Decatur. Moulton, which is Lawrence County's seat, is only home to about 3,200 people.
Huntsville, where the city has invested in publicly owned fiber in order to work with Google for better connectivity, is only about 30 minutes from Decatur and an hour from Mouton.
For 80 years, JWEMC has served Lawrence and Morgan Counties. Currently, the cooperative oversees 4,200 miles of power lines and connects to over 43,000 homes and businesses.
Image of the Lawrence County Courthouse in Moulton by Brian Stansberry [CC BY 4.0]