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Pandemic Worsens Internet Disparity in Alabama Black Belt

Among the 24 counties studied, 22 counties had access percentages below the state average for high-speed Internet. At least one of the counties studied was without coverage up to 25 mbps, a broadband baseline.

by Ramsey Archibald, al.com / October 20, 2020
Shutterstock/Jakub Krechowicz

(TNS) — As the coronavirus pandemic raged this year, more and more of the average American’s daily life was pushed online. Zoom became a household name, schools met virtually, people worked from home and even got medical help online or over the phone. But in Alabama’s Black Belt — and other rural parts of the state and the rural United States at large — the Internet access that many take for granted simply doesn’t exist.

“Alabama’s Black Belt region is markedly behind the rest of the state when it comes to Internet access,” reads the latest entry of Black Belt 2020, a series of issue briefs addressing issues affecting the Black Belt — one of the poorest regions on the country — from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

On average, around 86 percent of Alabamians have access to high-speed Internet — but access in the Black Belt is much worse. The report, written by Stephen Katsinas, Noel Keeney, Emily Jacobs, Emily Grace Corley, and Hunter Whann, defines high-speed Internet as a connection with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second.

In half of the Black Belt, less than half the population has access to high-speed Internet. Two counties, Perry and Choctaw, have no access at all. In 22 of the 24 counties studied by the Education Policy Center, percentages are below the state average for high-speed Internet access.

And it’s not just high-speed Internet access that’s a problem.

Perry county doesn’t have coverage up to 25 mbps, which is the baseline for Broadband access, according to the Education Policy Center. It’s one of 10 Black Belt counties where fewer than half of people have access to any broadband at all.

“The national average [Internet speed] is around 100 to 120 megabits per second," said Noel Keeney, one of the brief’s authors, in an online panel hosted by the Center on Monday. He said speeds in some parts of Alabama are much, much worse. He said Loachapoka, a small town in Lee County just outside the Black Belt, has average speeds up just 0.16 mbps.

“I can’t tell you what you can do with that, with how slow that is," he said.

Brad Glover, a student at the University of Alabama, is a resident of Linden, Alabama, which is in the Black Belt’s Marengo County. Just 13.3 percent of Marengo County residents have high-speed Internet access, according to data from the Center. Glover moved back to Linden and had to take classes online when the coronavirus pandemic began, and called it a “terrible struggle.”

“It was so incredibly challenging for me to even finish the required schoolwork ... I even had to ask my professors for a brief extension period because I knew the challenges that I would face," said Glover, who couldn’t connect to the panel through video because of his poor connection.

“Just to be in this meeting today was a tumultuous task,” he said. “If I didn’t have a cell phone... I would not even be able to be here right now.”

Glover’s experience isn’t unique. Alabama ranks 38th in the nation for broadband access, according to the Center.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had to go at a sprint to get to online learning,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center. “And COVID has exposed the flaws and shortcomings that we have in our system right now.”

WIDESPREAD IMPLICATIONS

As the coronavirus pandemic began, it wasn’t just students who saw their lives move online. Many workplaces moved online as well, and telemedicine, which has been around for a years, experienced an “explosion” of growth during the pandemic, according to Eric Wallace, Medical Director of Telehealth at UAB.

“Since COVID-19 started, UAB... has done about 230,000 telehealth visits,” Wallace said. “Only 60 percent of those 230,000 visits have been video. 40 percent have been audio-only, and why is it audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband.”

He also said he doesn’t expect telehealth to go away any time soon, especially in rural areas where access to health care was a struggle even before the pandemic began.

“This is 100 percent necessity,” he said. “The Internet is not just your healthcare anymore — it’s healthcare, it’s commerce, it’s education. At no time has there ever been a bigger need for the expansion of broadband into the patient’s home. Into everyone’s home.”

Wallace also said brining telehealth into rural hospitals could help stave off the types of hospital closures that the nation has seen in recent years. He said hospitals in Selma and Demopolis have been success stories in that regard recently.

Katsinas said having adequate Internet access — and a workforce that knows how to use it, is key for the longterm economic health of the region.

“If our rural Alabamians are going to access the lifelong learning that they need... that they have to have [Internet] access," Katsinas said. “We haven’t come to grips yet with thinking about how investments in this are workforce training programs, that that’s how we can improve our labor force participation rates.”

“If we’re going to attract businesses to those areas, we’re going to have to have Internet," Wallace said. “If you were a business owner, and you wanted to locate in a rural area, would you pick somewhere that had no Internet? The answer is no.”

Wallace said someone had to make an investment up front to get things to change, and he said it has to come from the state level. According to the issue brief, some things are already in the works.

In 2018, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, creating the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund to expand access to underserved communities, the brief says. And Ivey has awarded more money in the form of grants targeted at the issue this year. And the state also allocated hundreds of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act money toward increased broadband capabilities in rural communities, especially as it relates to education.

“Thanks to the Broadband Accessibility Fund and broadband providers,” Governor Ivey is quoted as saying in the brief, “we are making progress in ensuring that Alabamians have access to high-speed Internet services... [But] there is no question we have a long way to go on completing this mission.”

ACCESS AND COST

And in many parts of Alabama, it’s not just an issue of access. “There are two major barriers to entry for Internet access,” Keeney said. “There’s the cost barrier and also the provider barrier.”

He cited a study that estimated there were 154 different Internet providers in the state. But 226,000 Alabamians live in a county with no providers, he said, and another 632,000 who have only one provider.

“Data show only 44.4 percent of Alabamians have access to an ‘affordable’ Internet plan of $60 or less per month," the brief reads. “In other words, a majority of the state’s residents lack access to affordable Internet — a twenty-first century necessity for business, education, and communication.”

And when it comes to the cost barrier, it’s not just a rural issue.

“The cost is a big deal,” Wallace said. “We like to focus on rural areas, but let’s talk about Birmingham. Birmingham has plenty of infrastructure, and despite that, we still have a very high audio-only telehealth rate. Why? Just because there is infrastructure doesn’t mean that a person has access because of socio-economics."

Wallace also said he thinks even $60 a month is too much for many Black Belt residents, and he thinks Internet should be available cheaper.

Data provided by the Education Policy Center shows Jefferson County, home of Birmingham, has the highest high-speed Internet access percentage in the state. But data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates show even within Jefferson County there are many areas who struggle with access.

In one Census tract in Jefferson County, half of households didn’t have Internet access.

Katsinas said this is a national issue, and he compared it to the spread of electricity to rural America in the 1930s.

“In the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes had had for 40 years," he said. “The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure. Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed Internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s."

Black Belt 2020 is an ongoing series by AL.com and the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama examining demographic, economic, and education issues, challenges, concerns, and options facing the Black Belt in Alabama.

(c)2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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