The most prevalent complaint Elmore County commissioners and other officials hear isn’t about crime, potholes on streets or garbage pickup.
It’s about the lack of high-speed internet, also known as broadband service.
“We weren’t here in the 1930s and 1940s but we’re having the same conversation now about broadband like when they were trying to put electricity in most rural areas,” county commissioner Bart Mercer said. “We are increasingly getting more calls about the lack of broadband in the county. There is an incredible need for broadband and I mean true broadband.
“People want it for educational purposes and some need it for take-home medical devices where they can send information back to the doctor’s office.”
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.
The lack of broadband coverage in Elmore County inconveniences a huge percentage of the population in ways unimaginable to many people, according to Art Faulkner, chairman of the board of the Elmore County Economic Development Authority.
“I’d say it is the No. 1 complaint we hear among existing businesses and residents,” Faulkner said. “In today’s economic development world, companies don’t look at if you’ve got water or electricity. The first thing they want to know is what type of access you have to broadband.
“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. We’ve got to figure out ways to get providers to enhance their capabilities in the county but these companies have got to see they are going to make a profit before they invest here.”
The county commission and the ECEDA are working on a strategy to do that but Faulkner said problem is widespread, not just in rural swaths of the county.
“There are places on the fringe of metro areas and even smaller places like Millbrook, Wetumpka and Tallassee where you can go just a few miles outside the city limits and they don’t have broadband,” Faulkner said. “There are areas around the Bass Pro Shop in the Elmore County part of Prattville and some of those businesses don’t have access to broadband. They’re using dial-up (internet) for their point-of-sale credit card readers. Some may be using a wireless signal.”
The economic development authority hired Sain Associates Inc. to provide a map of where broadband is needed so the county can procure grants to help private companies expand access to high-speed internet. Mercer and Faulkner said they expect the study to be finished in three months.
“We want something we can use, not fluff that tells us what we already know,” Mercer said.
What is already known is broadband is scarce in Elmore County, even in more populated areas, and it’s too expensive to connect to individual homes.
“The infrastructure was first installed in the early 2000s and we had a lot of new homes and cable companies service them,” Mercer said. “But now we’re seeing more growth in the county and people aren’t necessarily buying new homes. A lot of people are building near densely populated areas. For example, Ingram Road in Elmore and Millbrook, some people buy a 5-acre parcel and there is a fiber (optic) line running in front of their house but they have no service. And the cable systems say, ‘We’re not willing to invest in the money to run it to your house.’
“I’ve heard it costs anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 just to run a fiber line to one house. I had a friend who asked about a mile run of fiber to his house and he said it would cost him $40,000 to $50,000. That’s not economically feasible for the customers or the business.
“We’ve done a lot of research. This commission is very conservative when it comes to taxpayer dollars. I think what you see now is federal and state (government) trying to solve the problem. There is all kinds of grant money available.”
Mercer said he doesn’t want the county commission to adopt a plan merely to capture grant money but to serve the largest number of people in the most cost-effective way.
“We want to go to the areas with the lowest access but with the highest-density population where they need service then go after grants and help private business come in and put in infrastructure,” he said. “We’re trying to look forward to increase the quality of life and help businesses.”
Mercer emphasized the county commission is not going to provide broadband service but make it easier for private companies to supply it. He said Spectrum owns the vast majority of the infrastructure that delivers it in Elmore County, followed by AT&T and some smaller broadband companies which provide a wireless signal.
“We don’t want to go into business against a private company,” Mercer said. “That’s not the job of government. If the situation is where it’s not economically feasible to provide a service as desperately needed as broadband, it is our job to facilitate the development of infrastructure to help private companies come in and provide service.”
Faulkner said one of the goals of the study is tailoring broadband service based on what residents can afford.
“We really don’t have a lot of accurate information so part of this study is to see where the low-hanging areas are that with a minimal amount of investment could make a tremendous difference,” Faulkner said. “We have to see what we actually have in the county. One thing we’re going to do as part of the feasibility study is get input from the public about what they need and want. How much are they willing to pay? Lower speeds or higher speeds? It wouldn’t make much sense to put in a lot of high-speed broadband if people don’t want to pay $80 or $100 a month.
“What we want to do is increase the availability of broadband for economic development and more importantly enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”
A different approach has been approved by the Alabama House of Representatives, which recently voted 92-2 to approve a bill allowing broadband providers to install their lines along existing utility routes to underserved areas, drastically cutting costs. But critics say that would give utility companies an unfair advantage over cable companies.
“I’m not all that familiar with the legislation but Elmore County doesn’t want to do that,” Mercer said. “The bottom line is all the cable lines are owned by private companies.”
Mercer and Faulkner said expanding broadband in Elmore County won’t happen as fast as the high-speed internet they seek.
“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Faulkner said. “We’re trying to get the best foundation we can to systematically improve broadband in the county.”