The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how disconnected rural America is from modern technology. The internet connections taken mostly for granted in larger cities are unavailable to families in less populated areas. When everyone was sent home to work or continue school because of the coronavirus, it became clear that not everyone is able to work from home or get online to do schoolwork.

But progress is being made.

On Thursday, the Cullman Electric Cooperative announced the launch of its new internet service, Sprout Fiber.

The first phase of this new venture is already underway and will have the potential to connect 12,000 cooperative members to true high speed internet. The first phase connects Cullman Electric’s sub-stations, which also provides cost-saving and efficiencies for it’s primary mission of providing electricity to members, but also creates a wide-spread fiber backbone throughout Cullman County. If the cooperative meets its benchmarks and financial milestones in the first phase, it will then move on to phase two, adding another 500 miles of fiber.

The only down side, in our view, is that it can’t happen fast enough, despite a pretty speedy timeline of 12-18 months. Judging by local reaction to the announcement, rural residents are ready to flip the switch to better internet service tomorrow.

We commend the Cullman Electric Cooperative for branching out into this new venture. It’s clearly needed and we hope the members support it by signing up for services.

We also commend our local, state and federal elected officials for making this happen and for pushing to extend internet services to rural America.

Rep. Randall Shedd, in particular, deserves recognition for his role in getting legislation passed that allows Cullman Electric and other cooperatives to provide internet service. As a former mayor and county commission chair, Shedd is keenly aware of the digital divide and the disadvantage it creates in rural areas. He pushed back against heavy opposition from entrenched telecommunication companies and got the bill passed. On Thursday, Rep. Scott Stadthagen noted that Shedd, “fought for rural Alabama for three and half hours from the well [of the House].”

In recent months, Shedd and Sen. Garlan Gudger have also gone to bat on behalf of a state grant for Cyber Broadband. Cyber Broadband, which has received two grants for internet projects at Smith Lake, has also applied for a grant for a project in the Baileyton area. Shedd and Gudger recently said they have been meeting with the Governor’s Office and ADECA to get that approved.

Congressman Robert Aderholt, too, has been pushing the interests of rural broadband at the federal level. The lack of high speed internet access in rural areas leaves entire swaths of America behind, and it’s good to see our elected officials trying to bridge the gap.

There is more work to be done. The FCC needs to take a hard look at the download and upload speeds they classify as “broadband.” Currently, speeds of 25Mbps/3Mbps are considered “broadband.” But the definition has not kept up with the technology demands. If the future of work and school is more people doing these things from home, they need real speeds to connect in real time. We’ve got to change the definition and ask telecommunication companies to provide true high speed service.

There’s a very large divide in internet access based on which dot on the map you live in, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction to connect all the dots.

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