Bette Brand, Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced that Central Alabama Electric Cooperative and its broadband subsidiary, Central Access, will receive $8.2 million in Broadband ReConnect Grant funding as part of $37 million invested by the Trump Administration and the USDA to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas of Alabama. The announcement was made at CAEC’s headquarters and was attended by USDA State Director Chris Beeker, Congressman Gary Palmer and other dignitaries.
“The real reason we’re here today is there are 21 million people who still lack high-speed Internet, and of those 21 million, 80 percent are in rural areas,” said Brand. “In this day and age, all of America needs this robust, modern infrastructure to thrive. It’s no longer an amenity, it’s an absolute necessity.”
The $600 million USDA Broadband ReConnect Program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
“Today’s announcements highlight a tangible reminder of our mission—helping to improve the economy and quality of life in rural America,” said Beeker.
CAEC worked for over half a year on the application process before it was submitted for the federal grants in March of this year. The ReConnect grants will further aid in the deployment of retail broadband to connect 13,853 people, 149 farms, 77 businesses and one fire station in Bibb, Chilton, Perry, Autauga, Talladega, Elmore and Coosa counties.
To qualify, the identified grant areas can only have within its borders 10 percent of sufficient access to broadband, defined at the federal level as 10 Mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, leaving 90 percent with less than this minimum. This excludes mobile or satellite service but does include fixed wireless. CAEC had previously applied for similar federal grants during the last award process, but the six requests were rejected because cellular and satellite Internet services were available in the percentage of 10 to 1 minimum speed.
“Today truly is a landmark journey to help people change their circumstance with high speed, reliable and affordable broadband service,” said CAEC President and CEO Tom Stackhouse. “This is not the first time that this cooperative, and many others across this country, has been a part of rural development and improving the quality of life—it’s what cooperatives have done and still do. The new normal will include many who will work from home and telemedicine will provide a much better quality of life, but none of this will happen without fast, reliable internet. And it is closer today than it was yesterday for many in rural Alabama.”
Construction on the main infrastructure fiber core needed to service the ReConnect Grant areas is expected to begin once environmental clearances are given by Federal agencies.