Casting a Broadband Net across North Alabama

Local fishing guides suggest skipjack and shad as the best bait for catching the monster catfish swimming in the muddy waters of Wheeler Lake.

But if you want to reel in broadband hungry subscribers living and working in nearby Morgan or Lawrence County, the Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corporation (JWEMC) is hoping fiber optic lines and a free Amazon Fire TV Stick will lure subscribers to sign up for the electric co-op’s new gig speed Internet service, FlashFiber.

Trinity, just a few miles away from Wheeler Lake, is where JWEMC began hanging fiber optic cables before launching construction of a new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network weeks before the start of the new year. The $95 million project is expected to take five years to finish, though some subscribers may get service as early as this year despite construction delays caused by the COVID crisis with manufacturers of network components temporarily shut down under quarantine protocols.

Once the total buildout is complete, the network will cover JWEMC’s service area in both counties where the utility has been delivering electricity for the past 83 years. When it’s all said and done, the fourth largest electric co-op in “The Heart of Dixie,” will have deployed 15.8 million feet of fiber (nearly 3,000 miles), making the network accessible to all of the utility’s 43,000 members.

That’s a lot of fiber. But then again, Lawrence County is 700 square miles with a population of 34,000. The neighboring Morgan County is about 600 square miles with a population of 120,000. Both counties are considered part of the Decatur, Alabama Metropolitan Statistical Area, with about half of the Morgan County population residing in the City of Decatur while only about 3,200 people live in Moulton — the Lawrence County seat.

Neck-and-Neck with Google Fiber

“Google Fiber in Huntsville is the only network of this magnitude in the state right now, and we may beat them to it,” JWEMC Director of Communications Michael Cornelison told The Moulton Advertiser when construction was launched in December 2020. “We’re pushing to make our community a gig-speed community by offering this world-class Internet service, which will also help our areas attract more business.”

The high-speed residential prices are certainly attractive.

FlashFiber offers three service options: a symmetrical 300 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection with no data caps and an Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite for $60 per month; 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) for $80 per month; and a 2 Gbps plan for $100 per month. Gig subscriptions also come without data caps, and instead of a free “Lite” Fire Stick, the top two service tiers come with a free full-featured Amazon Fire TV Stick.

Subscribers can also get VoIP phone service — $30 per month with Internet service and $60 per month for phone-only.

Back to the Future

Having completed a feasibility study in 2017, the fact that JWEMC is building the network speaks to the level of member support. More than 90% of the 7,210 co-op members who voted in a November 2019 special election approved the construction of the network. After the vote, JWEMC contracted with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), a cooperatively owned company of which JWEMC is a member, to provide engineering, design, and project management services. Read more about its origins here.

At that time, JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens said the plan called for connecting 18 of the utility’s electric substations to the fiber grid during the first 12 months of construction and that residents who lived along roads with major power lines connected to the substations would likely have access to FlashFiber sooner than those who lived in the more rural reaches of JWEMC’s service area.

“Chattanooga and Huntsville advertise as being ‘gig cities.’ We’re going to be ‘gig counties,’” Kitchens said. “I have a grandson that’s 14, and I’d love to see him come out of high school with the same access to information that the kids in those bigger cities have.”

With a $2.3 billion Toyota-Mazda plant under construction just across the Tennessee River (about 40 minutes west on I-565) in Huntsville, now that FlashFiber is finally coming to fruition JWEMC is working with the Lawrence County Industrial Board and the Morgan County Economic Development Association to recruit businesses to the area.

In one Morgan County community, Hartselle Mayor Randy Garrison spoke of the region’s hunger for high-performance connectivity, expecting the new fiber network to make far more of a splash than the biggest blue catfish ever fished out of the Wheeler Reservoir in Cabela’s King Kat Tournament.

“This is a great opportunity that many in the Joe Wheeler service area are needing and wanting. Especially with many working from home and students on virtual learning, access to high-speed Internet is a must.”

The cooperative has produced two short videos about the benefits it hopes to bring to the region. Watch them below.