Broadband: The New Electrification

September 2, 2020

By: Esther Heymans

It’s hard to imagine America without electricity. No matter which state or region you travel to, you can be almost guaranteed to have access to electricity. This access is because of something called electrification. Electrification took place in the 1930s and 40s as part of an effort to ensure that everyone had equal access to the thing that was becoming so vital to everyday life. Now, most people in the United States can take access to electricity for granted. However, in the 21st century, a new movement has emerged to ensure access to another vital resource: broadband.

For those who live in large cities, it may seem like broadband access is as prevalent as electricity. However, that broadband access is disparate. Many rural communities don’t have stable connections, without which they cannot keep up with an increasingly digital world. Houston Smith, Vice President of Government Affairs at Alabama Power refers to these rural communities the “middle mile.” “We like to think about these a lot like the nation’s transportation system, roads and highways. So middle mile is that ‘road’ that connects your driveway to the major interstates,” Smith explained.  Parents that were sent home from their jobs didn’t have the means to work from home, and children who were sent home from school didn’t have the connection to attend classes. Local legislators have felt the push from these parents and children alike to expand broadband access to their rural communities. Legislators in Alabama found support in a local electric company, Alabama Power.

Alabama Power never had any aspirations to become a broadband company. Instead, they wanted to use their experience to help their community receive broadband access. After noticing that Alabama’s grant programs surrounding broadband access weren’t getting used as efficiently as they could be, Alabama Power stepped in. They began to work with state officials and businesses around Alabama to pass legislation regarding broadband. They passed bills that permitted companies to use their electric easements to place and construct broadband. This legislation allowed for increased partnerships between broadband companies and electric companies.

In fighting for expanded broadband access, electric companies like Alabama Power may have felt a sense of déjà vu. Expanding rural broadband access is, in many ways, this century’s electrification. This parallel gave electric companies a unique opportunity to support broadband companies. They have, after all, done this before. “What we care most about is that communities have broadband, and we don’t need to be the ones to make it happen, but if traditional providers aren’t willing to go into rural communities,  we want to make it easier,” said Smith.

The conversations that Alabama Power sponsored have allowed diverse groups to come together over a shared interest, the betterment of their rural communities. Businesses, healthcare groups, education groups, and politicians united to form the Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition. “Anybody who cares about economic development knows that we need rural broadband,” Smith said.  The Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition acts as a landing point for anyone interested in expanding broadband access to rural Alabama. They compile resources, create templates for contacting legislators, and spread awareness to those who might not have thought about broadband before. Thanks to power companies like Alabama Power, broadband is beginning to spread across rural areas that have ever before had these high-speed connections.

Listen to episode 14 of “The Current” to learn more!

Episode 14: Millions of Americans resorted to working and studying from their homes as COVID-19 shut down offices and schools. The dramatic shift underscored that many families still lack access to basic broadband services, leading to businesses struggling and students falling behind their peers. Brad speaks with Houston Smith, Vice President of Government Affairs at Alabama Power, to discuss the electric power industry’s role in expanding access to broadband services.