An essential service: Montgomery City and County seek to increase broadband internet access to residents

By Joseph Bryant

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA – Residents across Montgomery County are closer to gaining access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity.

City and county leaders through the Montgomery Thrive initiative seek to level the playing field where communities of all sizes in the River Region have access to high-speed internet access.

The broadband initiative involves conducting a community wide broadband assessment and developing a plan to fund efforts to provide broadband to areas without service. Proposals are currently being evaluated for the Countywide Broadband Expansion Program.

The need for reliable broadband is one that Montgomery County Commissioner Carmen Moore-Zeigler knows well. She too lives in an area with limited internet availability. The lack of access became clear during the height of the pandemic when her child’s schoolwork was done remotely from home.

“Some days the service worked and some time it didn’t,” she said, recalling the frustration that she shared along with her neighbors in the Legrand community and throughout the county. “It was extremely hard during Covid. So this is near and dear to my heart, especially for the people who are raising their children and grandchildren.”

Montgomery Thrive has budgeted $500,000 for the initiative, with the possibility of matching funds to seek additional grant support for broadband expansion. Officials could also apply for additional funds from the state and other sources to bolster efforts to create widespread broadband infrastructure throughout the county.

Partnerships could include the Alabama Department of Economic and Community
Affairs (ADECA), private internet service providers, broadband design and engineering firms and local nonprofit entities.

Affordable and reliable high-speed connectivity is an essential utility needed to support education, safety and health in every sector of the county, said Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed.

“In today’s world, broadband and reliable internet service is just as important as power and water to sustain homes,” Reed said. “Each priority of the Montgomery Thrive initiative is the result of citizen input. We are excited to begin the process of uniting our city and county through broadband connectivity and closing the digital divide.”

Moore-Zeigler also noted that the Internet provides a communication outlet for some elderly residents who might not otherwise have outside options for interaction.

Evidence for the need of expanded service is clear. There are pockets of Montgomery County that do not have the fiber required to access high speed broadband.

The new Alabama Broadband Map, a tool created by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, shows large swaths of Montgomery County with limited access to even low speed internet and some communities without reliable access at all. Even where broadband infrastructure and services are available, they are not accessible to everyone due to high cost.

State officials too have identified connectivity as a priority with the creation of the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority. The Alabama Broadband Map will be used to help the authority determine eligibility for additional state and federal broadband investment to connect areas that lack service.

Moore-Zeigler said rural residents deserve the same internet infrastructure that their neighbors in more urban areas have come to expect. Moore-Zeigler is confident that the service will arrive, but notes that the ultimate goal of universal access is a lofty one that will take time.

“They have been promised this for years now. We want the same opportunities that people in the city have,” she said. “I am passionate about it. It will take time to get this done, but we are finally focusing on the rural areas of this county.”

Comm. Carmen Moore-Ziegler

Montgomery is taking a lead in a national trend. A 2021 national survey of more than 120 government and nonprofit groups by the Broadband Equity Partnership, showed a strong desire to increase support for quality internet availability.

According to the survey, 88 percent of respondents called the development of fiber cable as a high priority investment in their communities. The respondents represented a broad constituency and diverse political perspective, yet they shared a consensus on the need for greater local support to increase internet access for residents.

Additionally, 70 percent of respondents expressed confidence in their local entities’ abilities to use federal funds effectively in eliminating the digital gap. The Broadband Equity Partnership was created by a national consulting firm.

Survey authors noted that closing the digital divide also requires closing affordability gaps. This was a point also echoed by Moore-Zeigler, who said existing service in her area is cost prohibitive for some of her neighbors. Moore-Zeigler said expanded broadband infrastructure could make areas attractive to multiple service providers and lower service through competition.

Montgomery Thrive is a nearly $86 million program by the City of Montgomery and Montgomery County designed to support transformative projects with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

In addition to broadband, Montgomery Thrive spending priorities include support for public safety, mental health crisis intervention, community restoration initiatives, small business assistance and waste disposal infrastructure.