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Area co-ops included in state’s ‘middle-mile’ broadband plan

PRATTVILLE — A more than $82 million grant to help expand broadband service in Alabama will include three North Alabama rural electric cooperatives.

Gov. Kay Ivey, state and regional officials announced the $82.45 million grant will be used by Fiber Utility Network to fund a “middle-mile” broadband network.

The Fiber Utility Network is an eight-member corporation of rural electric cooperatives, including the Cullman Electric Cooperative, the Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp., and the North Alabama Electric Cooperative.

The project involves filling in gaps in broadband expansion, according to the governor’s office. The cost-effective effort seeks to provide broadband service availability to residents in rural areas.
However, the Cullman Electric Cooperative said the money would not directly aid its members in the short-term. Cullman serves more than 44,000 members in Cullman, Winston, Morgan and Lawrence counties.
“Although this grant will not directly provide funding for Sprout Fiber Internet to expand service to Cullman Electric Cooperative members, it is a critical project that will create an even more reliable service for our Sprout subscribers while also connecting our community to government, education, health care and law enforcement agencies across the state,” the co-op said on its website. “In simple terms, this grant will benefit Sprout subscribers long-term by providing better connectivity to the rest of the state of Alabama and to the world.
“Cullman Electric Cooperative is also seeking ‘Fiber to the Home’ grant funding which would help expand Sprout Fiber Internet to the members we serve in our service territory.”
Joe Wheeler is the fourth largest electric co-op in Alabama, with more than 4,200 miles of line, serving more than 43,000 customers in Morgan and Lawrence counties. Joe Wheeler sells more power than any other electric cooperative in Alabama, the co-op said.
The North Alabama Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Stevenson, serves 18,800 members with 2,288 miles of line in Jackson and Marshall counties.
Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), chairman of the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority board, hailed the Middle-Mile Network project a being a “great leap forward” in expanding broadband.

“In terms of broadband, this is a great leap forward,” he said at the announcement. “This will really put us at the forefront of broadband in Alabama, and it will help us expand much quicker and at a more economical cost.”

Once connected, residents will have the opportunity to become a customer of the last-mile broadband providers. The project’s funding was made available though the congressionally-approved American Rescue Plan Act.

State Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Cullman), co-chairman of the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority Board, said the project “is probably the most significant step we’ve taken to get high-speed Internet access to everyone in Alabama.”

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the award through its Alabama Digital Expansion Division.

ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said the project would serve as a “springboard” in fortifying the state’s digital infrastructure.

“The project is the springboard to supplying broadband services for rural residents, businesses, educational facilities and other community anchors,” said Boswell. “I commend the Fiber Utility Network for their willingness to undertake this necessary step to ensure more Alabamians have access to these services.”

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