A new broadband project is expected to bring not only high-speed Internet access to Alabama's Black Belt region, but also more than 1,200 jobs.
The more than 100 Alabama contractors who met at Alabama State University on Wednesday to find out how to become part of that project learned they might not get rich doing it, but they could enrich one of the state's most economically distressed areas and change the lives of those who live in it.
Alabama contractors with experience building communications infrastructure would accomplish this by putting broadband access in reach of thousands of homes and businesses in that region by 2013.
Thanks to millions in federal grant money, the first phase of a project that would install more than 2,200 miles of fiber-optic lines to provide broadband access in Butler, Crenshaw, Conecuh, Dallas, Escambia, Lowndes, Macon and Wilcox counties is set to begin in April.
The South Central Alabama Broadband Commission, a consortium of government and nonprofit organizations, with the help of the Bessemer-based Trillion Communications Corp. secured the money to build out a network that would provide community-funded Internet services. The project also will build out wireless capabilities to support access for public safety and government agencies.
The first phase of the project will extend from Montgomery to Selma, along U.S. 80. Ultimately, the network would extend to Escambia County. But Antwon Alsobrook, president and CEO of Atlanta-based A2D Inc., said the network could expand west to Mississippi and east to Georgia. A2D Inc. is a network systems integration firm that specializes in broadband-based infrastructure development. The company is facilitating the rollout of the project.
Alsobrook said while there is plenty of labor intensive work for contractors to do in getting the network up and running, there is still plenty of work for advocates of broadband to do in their communities. He said community partners would be needed to help those who don't know how to use a computer, don't own a computer or don't see the need for a computer to overcome those barriers.
And that's where the state's broadband initiative will come in, Connecting Alabama Executive Director Jessica Dent said.
Dent said with the help of partners at Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the state's regional teams, the state would reach out to people in rural communities. But they're going to be doing more than cheerleading to raise awareness about the importance of broadband. They also plan to provide basic skills about how to use computers and broadband access. State partners also will be working to help rural Alabamians understand how to use broadband for economic development.
"We'll teach them how to get online, how to sell products online," she said.
Dent said that if anything could make rural Alabama more economically viable, it would be access to broadband. She said one in four people in Wilcox County is unemployed but can't apply for a job in another county without going in person because they might not have access to a computer that is connected to the Internet. But things could be very different once the network is up and running.
"It will change their lives," she said of rural Alabamians.