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Alabama Co-Op Looks for New Funds to Expand Internet

The Cullman Electric Cooperative is looking for new funding streams to expand Internet service into rural areas. Officials say partial service in some areas has complicated the funding application process.

(TNS) — For Cullman County's more rural area residents who have been patiently awaiting the arrival of the Cullman Electric Cooperative's Sprout fiber optic Internet coverage, the CEC said they have finalized construction plans for 2023 and are putting together the pieces of the puzzle to reach those residents who need Internet services the most.

To date, funding for Sprout has been paid entirely out-of-pocket by the CEC, but Vice-President of Marketing and Public Relations Lindsey Dossey said that she has been tasked with seeking out state and federal funding to help speed up the 5-year timeline that the CEC estimates it will take to deliver Internet to its entire service area. To date, Dossey said the CEC has applied for about $2.7 million in state grants through ADECA to provide coverage to several small remote areas. Originally, larger areas were submitted, but were denied due to several of those areas already having received partial funding.

"So now it's a roadblock to getting additional service to any of our rural areas. We're still going to go after it though ... what we qualify for," Dossey said.

Federal funds earmarked for infrastructure will likely not be available to the CEC until 2024, but several locations will be eligible to apply for the Reconnect Loan and Grant program through the USDA when applications open in September.

"We will continue to pursue and go after what we can. Our goal is to get it to the remote areas as quickly as possible. Those are the areas that really don't have a lot of options," Dossey said.

CEC Communications Manager Brian Lacy said funding is not the only obstacle that the CEC will have to overcome to reach its goal of complete coverage. Lacy said with much more emphasis being placed on addressing rural broadband at the federal level, demand has increased for many of the raw materials needed to complete the project creating supply chain issues.

"It is probably one of the few issues in Washington that regardless of party, everybody agrees that this is an issue we need to address. So, it's one of the few areas that can get some traction: That Congress can get some things passed, and they have, and they've gotten a lot of funding out there. That also means that all of a sudden there's a lot of increased demand for the construction materials that go into it. You take that increased demand and then add in some of the supply chain issues that we're seeing globally and it's making it difficult to get the things that we need just to actually physically do the work," Lacy said.

Performing the balancing act of reaching those areas with fewer residents with the highest need, and the more densely populated areas with the highest demand, is crucial for allowing the CEC to be able to meet their goals, said Lacy.

"We understand that there are areas that have no options. That is one of the reasons that reaching out to the underserved is another one of those reasons that we are trying to look at, what areas have no options and how do we reach them. But we also have to go to areas where there is demand, where there's a little bit higher of a population, so that we can get the subscribers to create the revenue that allows us to keep building out the project," Lacy said.

As of August 1, the CEC has invested $25 million to install 927 miles of fiber in order to give 15,000 customers access to Sprout with an estimated 6,000 more gaining access by the end of the year. To reach their goal of reaching all 35,000 members, 1,323 more miles of fiber will need to be installed.

©2022 The Cullman Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.