The “unconnected” must be our first priority as we expand broadband in Alabama

Every government dollar we spend on broadband in this state should be spent connecting those without service and ensuring people can afford to connect

By Fred Johnson

One of the joys of working for a cooperatively owned broadband provider is that you get to live among the same people you serve. As part of the local community, you share experiences — and hear stories. And for the past year, I have heard so many stories of how broadband has impacted peoples’ lives.

I’ve heard from school teachers and parents as they quickly adapted to a remote learning environment, while dealing with the uncertainty of when in-person classes would resume. Small businesses owners have told me how they had to change their operations in order to protect their employees and customers while trying to keep their companies afloat. People of various ages have shared their experiences of doing telehealth visits with their doctors for the first time, adjusting to a new approach to health care.

The thread that runs through these and similar stories is a technology many people in Alabama took for granted before the pandemic — broadband. In this new world of working from home, remote learning, telehealth, extensive online shopping, and connecting virtually with family and for entertainment, broadband has become the critical connection we all need.

And yet, by some estimates there are a half-million Alabamians who still do not have access to this vital technology. At Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative, we have been working hard the past several years, along with our fellow cooperative and independent broadband providers who comprise the Telecommunications Association of the Southeast, to build world-class broadband networks. We’ve made tremendous progress, but there is still much work to be done.

Alabama took a giant step forward with the creation of the Broadband Accessibility Fund. This program has been expertly managed by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, and is a strong example of the good that can be accomplished when state dollars are leveraged in public/private partnerships with companies such as ours to improve the quality of life for our citizens.

We now stand on the cusp of another major step as Senate Bill 215 is being considered by the House of Representatives. TELSE members support the efforts of lawmakers to create a new framework that will guide investment in broadband networks to finish the job of connecting all Alabamians.

We are concerned, however, about loopholes in the legislation that could leave behind those families and businesses in our state who lack broadband access. The ADECA-managed program has worked so well in part because it has provisions to ensure state taxpayer dollars go toward connecting the unconnected. Such protections are missing from SB215.

Without those provisions, we would see taxpayer dollars spent on building broadband networks where other broadband networks already exist. This act of overbuilding could potentially leave thousands of families on the sidelines, watching as those who already have access gain more choices while they have no choices at all.

Every government dollar we spend on broadband in this state should be spent connecting those without service and ensuring people can afford to connect. To do otherwise would be to create a class of citizens who can’t work from home, who can’t take classes remotely, who can’t attend doctor visits in a virtual setting.

This is not a matter of competition, but rather one of stewardship. The fund managed by ADECA has been a success because it has wisely expended state dollars with a goal of bringing broadband within reach of everyone in Alabama. TELSE member companies have been strong partners in these efforts — in fact, we have collectively invested more than a quarter-billion dollars in advanced fiber networks throughout the state, beginning years before state funding became available. These independent and cooperative providers take care of their communities, doing the hard work to bring broadband to areas that are often a challenge to reach. Such efforts are often lost in the big picture, but have made all the difference for people who would otherwise be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

We want to see SB215 become law so we can continue this great work together. But we encourage the House of Representatives to amend the legislation to ensure every Alabamian is given the opportunity to participate in our highly connected world. Broadband is now critical to success and prosperity on so many levels, and our state should mirror the accessibility and affordability provisions of the existing Broadband Accessibility Fund, as managed by ADECA, in any new initiatives.
Giving every person the opportunity to write their broadband story — no matter where they live in this great state — is the right thing to do.


Fred Johnson is the CEO of Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative, headquartered in Rainsville, Alabama. He serves on the board of director for the Telecommunications Association of the Southeast, and is the current board chairman of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, the nation’s premiere industry organization.