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Broadband Out of Reach for Some Huntsville, Ala., Residents

A portion of the city is too rural for some Internet companies to offer the service, but ironically, not rural enough to be eligible for federal funds to help them gain the service they want.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — Huntsville City Council President John Meredith admits some residents in the Limestone County portion of the city are being treated like “red-headed stepchildren” when it comes to updated broadband service.

That portion of the city is too rural for some internet companies to offer the service, but ironically, not rural enough to be eligible for federal funds to help them gain the service they want.

“The concern is that we’re citizens of Huntsville city too,” a frustrated Byron McGlathery told Meredith at a recent town hall in Limestone County.

“We need to feel like we’re considered and worthy of funding and getting those upgrades,” McGlathery said.

He and fellow Rabbit Lanes residents feel internet service is one of the biggest challenges in this part of the city where they have Madison postal addresses, Athens Utilities electric service, and Decatur phone numbers if they still have landlines.

“We have AT&T old wire,” McGlathery said. “I know up in the subdivision in Westlake, there’s better options. But for us that are not in that subdivision, we have to deal with the old wire. It works. But it’s still not the speed or the options that we would like to have.”

Meredith – who represents the area – acknowledged there is a problem with internet service in that part of the city.

“My folks in Rockhouse Landing will share your sentiment,” he told McGlathery. “Frankly they have weaker service than you guys do. They can’t even get ADT, the home monitoring systems, because their speeds are so slow, and no one will service them.”

Meredith told residents at the town hall he had been “butting his head against the wall” trying to bring broadband service to the area.

“The biggest problem with getting internet service out here is that internet is essentially not considered a utility,” the councilman said. “It is a private venture operation. So, people who provide that are looking to make money.”

Meredith said he has been told by internet providers that there are not enough residents “for them to, in their words, to justify laying fiber to various homes, because it’s a loss for them. There is not enough revenue there for them to make a profit.”

“They’re really hesitant and at this point unwilling to upgrade your wire to fiber and frankly laying the fiber to Rockhouse Landing,” he said. “That’s my conversation with AT&T.”

Meredith said he met in the last couple of weeks with the Limestone County Commission to discuss the issue. He said the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs administers a federal program for rural internet and bringing broadband to rural areas.

“Unfortunately, you are hurt by the fact that the city of Huntsville is considered a ‘Gig City,’ " Meredith said. He said it was hard to make an argument with ADECA for a rural designation with the area being within Huntsville’s city limits.

“We’re bumping our heads against that,” Meredith said. “I’ve also reached out to SAIC who provides internet services and switches and all of that. They are very engaged in providing internet services. I’m turning over rocks.”

Meredith said at one point he thought a solution had been worked out with former Limestone County Commissioner Jason Black.

“He was proposing putting transmitters or responders or something on telephone poles and triangulating wireless signals into the communities around here, particularly Rockhouse Landing,” Meredith said. “You all being in the proximity of it would have benefited. Unfortunately, that was an ADECA program and ADECA didn’t approve it.”

Athens Utilities also does not offer internet service, Athens Communication Specialist Holly Hollman told the Lede. But she said the utility, which provides service to the area, has pole attachment agreements with various phone and internet providers.

New subdivisions getting broadband

Pouring salt into the wound, Meredith said, is the fact that new subdivisions being built in the area do have broadband service.

“You can’t sell a $300,000 home without it,” he told the Lede.

That is the reason Westlake subdivision has the service, but McGlathery does not.

If an almost 500-home subdivision approved for Rabbit Lane gets built, it will have the service, as would a mixed-use development coming before the Huntsville Planning Commission that is proposed between Swancott and Barlowe roads.

“Any development that happens within the city of Huntsville now is going to get sewer, going to get broadband and unfortunately, you all won’t benefit from that, at least not directly,” Meredith told Rabbit Lane residents. “You would have to pay to tie into service that runs past your house. It is unfair. It does treat you like a red-headed stepchild. Unfortunately, that’s just the way things operate.”

McGlathery asked Meredith if the city could stipulate to developers to run a trench with fiber to existing homeowners so they would be able to have broadband service.

“No, but we can certainly ask for it,” Meredith said. “A lot of things we ask for, they are giving us. I’ve been kind of surprised to the amount of yeses to our asks. There’s no right, no regulation, no jurisdiction to force something on the development. We’ll ask them, and then they’ll say yes or no.”

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