A newly formed company began Monday in Wetumpka to build a high-speed internet system it hopes will benefit rural customers in Elmore and Coosa counties beginning in January.

Gov. Kay Ivey joined elected officials and administrators of Central Access, a subsidiary of the Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, on Friday in Prattville to announce the start of the $20 million project.

“High-speed broadband is a necessity,” Ivey said. “There are 840,000 Alabamians without access to high-speed internet. Central Access will make a huge dent in that. It’s going to benefit education, the economy, business and healthcare. There are many reasons to celebrate today. It’s a momentous occasion. Alabama’s best days are ahead of us.”

Ivey used her clout to help get an infrastructure bill passed by the legislature allowing utility companies to use their existing rights of way to install fiber optic cables, making it easier and less expensive to expand service into areas with no broadband.

“The governor is not stuck in the past or present, she’s looking to the future in many ways,” said state Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville).

Making broadband available today is the equivalent of making electricity available 100 years ago, according to Central Alabama Electric Cooperative president and CEO Tom Stackhouse.

“The difference will be made in their lives,” Stackhouse said. “It will change generations. Like with electric power, this will not be done quickly but we’re getting started. Our goal is not to rest until we get there. We’re coming.”

Central Access vice president Chris Montgomery said construction began Monday in Wetumpka near the Russell plant on the first 140 miles of a 400-mile ring that will include 24 substations and six offices. He expects the first activations by Jan. 2, 2020.

“The ring will start here (in Prattville) and go through Millbrook, Wetumpka, Titus, Kelly’s Crossroads and Verbena,” Montgomery said. “That will be the inner ring. We’ll have fiber cable separate from our power lines but it will be on the poles.”

The monthly cost for the service will be $59.99 for up to 200 mbps upload/download speeds, $79.99 for 500 mbps speeds and $99.99 for 1 gig speeds. Montgomery said no contract is required.

Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Committee as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (mbps) download speed and 3 mbps upload speed. The standard before 2015 was 4 mbps download and 1 mbps upload.

“When you look at an area like Kelly’s Crossroads with no cell service and no internet, those people will have gig service if they want it,” Montgomery said. “They’ll have the same quality of service as someone in town. People have to take their kids somewhere to get wi-fi. We’re talking about providing it to community centers as well.”

The Elmore County Commission and Elmore County Economic Development Authority have been proactive in seeking broadband expansion, conducting surveys to determine where high-speed internet is needed and what citizens are willing to pay for it, and county commissioner Bart Mercer welcomed Central Access’ investment.

“It will be a big boost,” Mercer said. “Just like when electricity was made available, the co-op came in and electrified most rural areas. They know broadband is vital to our citizens and quality of life and for businesses to be successful.”

Mercer and Elmore County Economic Development Authority board chairman Art Faulkner said the lack of broadband coverage in Elmore County is the most frequent complaint they hear.

“We hear stories about parents having to carry their kids to McDonald’s or the library to have access to broadband so they can do their homework,” Faulkner said.

Stackhouse said the $20 million investment will pay for the first 400 miles but to make the business model work and expand beyond that, Central Access needs 3,200 customers to connect. Central Alabama Electric Cooperative serves 5,800 miles, 5,000 of it above ground. CAEC said approximately 80% of its service territory lacks quality high-speed internet service.

To see if your area will be included in the first phase of expansion, visit www.centralaccess.com.