Riley wants to expand broadband

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Kathy Johnson asked for a show of hands among Chilton County residents to find out how many relied upon a dialup Internet connection. She was surprised — but not shocked — at the results.

Johnson, the director of Gov. Bob Riley’s Alabama broadband initiative, Connecting Alabama, spoke yesterday at a public luncheon sponsored by the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce.

Johnson said the lack of opportunities in rural areas is causing people to move elsewhere to find high paying jobs. Broadband, or high-speed Internet, is one of those missing opportunities.

“That just breaks my heart,” she said.

The state has formed an advisory board that comprises several directors of major agencies and corporations, three members of the Alabama Legislature, and several universities to see that everyone in the state has the same access to broadband.

The group is spearheading a mapping project with Internet service providers to form GIS layered maps, Johnson said. The intention is to reveal gaps in broadband availability across the state. By year’s end they hope to make an interactive map available online.

“People will be able to log on and see where the gaps are locally,” Johnson explained, calling for local involvement in the project. “State level teams will trickle down to regional teams and county teams.”

For those who do not understand the difference between dialup and broadband, she explains:

“It’s kind of like drinking a malt through a tiny straw. You can’t do it,” she said of dialup. “That is why people in rural Alabama are so frustrated. I will say they are no longer frustrated — they are downright mad.”

The Federal Communications Commission recently redefined “high-speed Internet,” which was previously defined as having a bandwidth of at least 200 kbps (kilobits) per second. Now, in order to be called high-speed, the bandwidth must be at least 768 kbps per second.

“Broadband is just as important to this century as rural electric was to the last century,” Johnson said, pointing out that Alabama ranks 43rd among the 50 U.S. states in PC ownership and 44th in Internet access.

“As long as we are 44th in a country that’s 15th in the world, we are going to continue to have problems drawing business internationally,” she said.

Everyone from farmers to small business owners to large industries to students benefit from the Internet, and having a high-speed connection makes all the difference.

The different types of broadband include DSL, which uses existing telephone infrastructure; cable modem, which uses the same coaxial lines as TV; fiber optic cable, made up of bundled glass fibers; and wireless, which is self explanatory.

“(Wireless) is a good technology. It’s probably going to be one of the best solutions for rural Alabama,” Johnson said.

The Connecting Alabama team, led by Gov. Bob Riley’s broadband office, is made up of Ohio-based Costquest Associates, a highly experienced broadband mapping firm. Costquest located the other team members, Washington state-based EFRSource, Mobile-based Strategy Public Relations, and Washington D.C.-based e-Copernicus.