When schools and offices throughout the country closed to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, stressed students and employees turned to the internet to stay connected. For many rural Alabama residents, poor connectivity left them lacking.
Data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission show 26.4% of rural Americans lack access to broadband compared to 1% of urban Americans. Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell said the state’s largest farm organization continues to seek solutions to bring connectivity to underserved areas. The organization has been a strong proponent of rural broadband access at the state and federal levels.
“Farmers and other rural Alabamians are at a significant disadvantage without high-speed internet access,” Parnell said. “The pandemic illustrates many of those problems, particularly for people who need access to telehealth services, as well as employees and students trying to stay connected.”
Rural students without broadband access have limited ability to connect with teachers and peers and stay on top of their schoolwork, he said. In many cases, adults in rural households have off-farm jobs that may require them to work from home.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey also recognizes the problem. In March, she announced $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants. The grants, part of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, were awarded to nine broadband providers to fund multiple projects. Counties with areas affected by the grants include Autauga, Bibb, Butler, Chilton, Coffee, Colbert, Covington, Crenshaw, Dallas, Geneva, Houston, Lauderdale, Lowndes, Mobile, Montgomery, Pike and Randolph.
“Availability of high-speed internet has always been vital, but the events of the past several weeks magnify just how imperative it is that all Alabamians have access to broadband,” Ivey said. “I am pleased to support these projects and look forward to the day when every household, school, healthcare facility, emergency service and business throughout Alabama is afforded broadband availability.”
The fund, which is being administered through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, was created by the Alabama Legislature in 2018 to provide high-speed internet to rural and underserved areas of the state.
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, has fought to narrow the digital divide for rural residents. In March he sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting emergency funds be directed to expand rural broadband access.
“These new realities have left millions of rural Americans who have little or no access to broadband feeling abandoned and desperately in need of help,” Aderholt said in his letter. “As you negotiate with Congress on upcoming emergency legislation regarding COVID-19, I strongly urge you to prioritize the expeditious delivery of broadband to rural areas to ensure students have access to remote educational services and residents have full access to telehealth services.”
The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved in April included $100 million to expand rural broadband and $25 million to increase access to distance learning and telemedicine.
Ensuring reliable access to broadband throughout rural America is a priority for the American Farm Bureau Federation, of which the Alabama Farmers Federation is affiliated. The groups praised Congress’ recent passage of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which requires broadband providers to report more specific data to create a significantly more accurate and granular National Broadband Map.
With more precise data, federal agencies can target funding to areas that need it most.