Initiative promotes broadband use, expansion throughout county

Published 4:25 pm Monday, April 8, 2013

Chilton County residents are among billions of people across the globe who use the Internet for commerce, news, communication, social media, education and entertainment purposes.

The Internet’s resources are nearly limitless for those who have access to the Internet via broadband, or signals over a wide range of frequencies in high-capacity telecommunications.

The problem is that not everyone in the county or the state of Alabama has broadband.

While a quick and easy solution does not exist for making broadband available to all residents, more than 30 people met in Maplesville on March 21 to discuss the importance of broadband in Chilton and Bibb counties and how people could extend the future reach of broadband, especially in rural areas, by vocalizing their need for it.

Chilton County Extension Coordinator Gay West, along with Bibb County Extension Coordinator Matt Hartzell, led the Boosting Broadband Connected Community Forum in Maplesville as part of a statewide broadband initiative led by Auburn University’s Economic and Community Development Institute.

ECDI is partnering with county extension coordinators to help them deliver training modules and hold forums in all 67 Alabama counties to boost awareness of broadband capabilities and the benefits of Internet access.

“We received a grant through our state office to teach why broadband is important and how it can benefit your life,” West said. “Under conditions of the grant, we are required to go out and share a presentation with groups.

“The forum just sort of gets into the community’s mind that, yes, it is important and we need to have access to the Internet. With more demand from the public, the (Internet) access will be better and faster.”

The March 21 meeting was comprised of a cross-section of community members—mayors, leaders and average citizens alike—who discussed the role of broadband in their daily lives, the challenges of accessing and using broadband and how broadband benefits the local economy.

“I believe participants left with an increased awareness of the need for adequate access to the Internet for personal use as well as for business expansion and economic development in the rural areas,” West said. “We don’t teach how to use a computer; it’s more what’s out there and what it can do for you.”

Benefits of broadband can be seen in distance education with online classes available to people obtaining a college degree; small and large businesses selling goods or services over the Internet; consumers buying products over the Internet; municipal and government agencies using broadband for communication purposes; and “telemedicine,” or online health care services available to people with Internet access.

“Broadband is now a core infrastructure,” said Dr. Joe Sumners, ECDI director, in a press release. “Communities without reliable high-speed Internet access cannot compete in the 21st century economy. Broadband can also greatly improve people’s lives at home, at work and at school. Things like distance education and telemedicine bring many new opportunities for citizens in the rural parts of our state.”

The initiative’s nine training modules include e-home, e-commerce, e-workforce and e-health and provide training session participants with information about anything from how to communicate remotely with a medical specialist to assess one’s health issues to computer safety and virus protection to online banking and finance management.

West said cost is one reason broadband is not available everywhere.

“I do think cost is a problem for some people,” West said. “The more people who demand service, hopefully the lower the cost will be. The grantors think by increasing the demand for broadband, it will become more accessible and less expensive. We have a few months to do this, and we’re very interested in working with groups.”

Broadband is becoming increasingly important since many basic services are now only available online, such as applications for work and government assistance.

According to the release, Hartzell helped 11 local seniors register for nutrition vouchers, which can only be accomplished online, at a recent training session in Bibb County.

For this reason, the broadband initiative especially aims to reach underserved rural populations, who often lack access to and experience using the Internet.

“Most of the people who understand the benefits of broadband already use it,” Hartzell said. “With this program, we’re hoping to reach the have-nots, especially when it comes to workforce opportunities.”

Hartzell partnered with the Alabama Career Center to provide workforce education to inmates at the Bibb County Correctional Facility. These presentations showed inmates how to use the Internet to seek work and to acquire skills online.

Warden Willie Thomas, who attended the Maplesville forum, confirmed the importance of broadband for improving workforce skills among the population he serves and said, “Broadband is the technology of the future.”

Sumners said he hopes the discussion stimulated by the forum will continue in Chilton, Bibb and other counties across the state.

“The idea behind these forums is to engage citizens around the issue of broadband in order to create ongoing discussion and effort to boost digital literacy in our communities,” Sumners said. “Our hope is that leaders will emerge who understand the essential role broadband plays in our lives and are prepared to take the next steps.”

In Chilton County, West said a Generations Online program is being offered at LeCroy Career Technical Center on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The program is free for senior adults and consists of one-on-one training sessions.

Those interested in attending a session should call the center at (205) 280-2920.

Groups wanting to hear the broadband presentation should call Gay West at the Chilton County Extension Office at (205) 280-6268.