Bridging the Black Belt Tech Gap
Alabama’s most ambitious rural broadband initiative is under way in the Black Belt, connecting 840 anchor institutions, 17,430 households and rolling out 2,200 miles of fiber optic cable.
Alabama’s most ambitious rural broadband project has begun in south central Alabama, an initiative valued at more than $80 million to deploy 2,200 miles of fiber optic cable and deliver high speed digital access to eight counties at the heart of the Black Belt.
Known as the South Central Alabama Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, the project is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and is being managed by Bessemer-based Trillion Communications and built and maintained by Atlanta-based A2D.
It is one of 12 Alabama projects among the economic stimulus funded Broadband Technology Opportunities Programs, with grants totaling $231.4 million—administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Nationally, a total of $4.7 billion is earmarked for BTOP grants to support deployment of broadband in underserved areas.
The federal grant for the South Central Alabama BTOP is $59.3 million, with local matching funds of about $26 million, bringing the total project cost to about $85 million. The project is a public-private partnership among Trillion, A2D and the South Central Alabama Broadband Commission—a recently formed consortium of local governments, colleges and universities, medical providers, nonprofit institutions, and the Poarch Creek Tribe of Native Americans. The project covers the counties of Butler, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Escambia, Lowndes, Macon and Wilcox.
“It’s a monumental step in our company’s history,” says Ralph Brown, CEO of Trillion Communications. “Typically we buy and ship equipment and have never installed equipment. So an $80 million-plus project, buying and installing equipment, is monumental to Trillion and a windfall to the communities throughout central Alabama.”
Trillion, founded in 2001, is a small company that functions as a part of the telecommunications supply chain—warehousing and supplying, just-in-time, the components of a network: the switches, cables, fiber optics, software, motherboards, multiplex routers and other high-end telecommunications equipments that connect at the end to telephones, TVs and computers. (It is unrelated to Trillion Digital Communications, also based in Bessemer, which delivers wireless broadband to schools and other institutions.)
Identifying the areas in greatest need and defining how much they are underserved is the first step of the grant process, in this case census blocks where 90 percent of households lack access to broadband service.
“The first thing you notice is that there is almost no access to Internet, or if there is access, it is dialup service,” says Brown. “We looked at the census blocks in the Black Belt area and did a lot of door knocking and surveys and phone calls, and quantified first-hand the capabilities of individuals in those areas and decided on eight counties in the Black Belt.”
Selling it to communities, getting them to buy into its benefits, is as fundamental as the 2,200 miles of fiber optic cable that will be laid.
“Trillion is the grant recipient and A2D is the sub-recipient,” says Brown. “I fund their operations and their responsibility is to be sure the community is aware of our plans to roll out broadband in the Black Belt of Alabama.”
The grass roots campaign began in earnest in March.
“Their initial response is that they think we are the service provider,” says Tony Shackelford, A2D’s vice president in charge of explaining the project to local communities. “The biggest challenge is to explain how our business model is very different from a service provider, that we are more of a utility.”
Trillion administers the federal funds, A2D is building most of the infrastructure and laying the public relations groundwork. Services will be provided by telecoms—telephone and cable companies—that will pay to travel the network managed by Trillion and maintained by A2D.
“We started the process in March of 2010, introducing the anchor institutions to the high level of benefits,” says Shackelford. “The project was funded in August 2010. There was more due diligence, then we began posting information for stakeholders—state and local governments and regional planning commissions. Then we carried the torch forward with mayors and other institutions.”
The first big public buy-in to the project came in late June, when the Lowndes County Commission approved a $3.5 million bond issue to finance the purchase and conversion of a Hayneville shopping center into the new headquarters for the South Central Alabama Broadband Cooperative District.
A total of $25 million in such matching funds is facilitated by the lower cost of public financing.
“When service providers look at rural America and the cost to deliver infrastructure, more of a return is required in terms of cost per mile and cost per connection,” says A2D CEO Antoine Alsobrook. “With government grants and loans and lower interest municipal bonds, you overcome a lot of the financial hurdles.”
A2D was founded in 2005 and for the first five years did engineering design to develop an open access platform to insure multiple service providers.
“We tested it in Atlanta in 2008,” says Alsobrook. “We dismantled the network in 2010 to prepare our business for going after larger municipal networks.”
The South Central Alabama broadband project is the next big thing for A2D, he says, and the open access design fit right in with the direction federal funding was headed.
“They are redefining how they provide grants and loans as part of the feds’ plan to extend broadband to the next generation. No longer will it just be monopoly-based networks with big service providers as the grant applicants. There will be more diversity in the types of entities, and people like us are solely focused on developing open access based networks.
“We build networks that allow the service providers to deliver their services across the infrastructure. Our networks have internal capability to deliver 15 service providers. We start with a minimum of five VoIP, five Internet providers and five video providers and the ability to allow intercommunity connectivity among anchor institutions, government agencies and utilities.”
The South Central Alabama Broadband project is scheduled for completion in 2013 and will be developed in nine phases, beginning in Lowndes and Dallas counties.
Community anchor institutions number over 884 and range from state courts and regional offices to colleges and K-12 schools and small town libraries. Private sector entities on the list range from regional offices of Alabama Power Co. to small businesses such as Harrel & Sons Quail Farm, Bates House of Turkey and Hayneville Associated Grocers.
Anchor institutions will be directly linked in a “middle-mile” institutional grid. Following that will come last-mile connections to 17,430 residences located in the Town of Hayneville, the cities of Selma, Tuskegee, Atmore and Brewton and the Poarch Creek Indian Nation, in Escambia County.
The one thing that all of these end users have in common is that they are among the estimated 40 percent of U.S. citizens who have been left out of the economic advantages of the Internet.