Knock-Knock… the World’s Calling: Gig-Speed Broadband Changes the Game in Northern Alabama

North Alabama Electric Cooperative (NAEC) has provided its members reliable, affordable electricity for more than 70 year. In 2013, NAEC introduced NaFiber in Jackson and Marshall Counties, which was Alabama’s first community-wide fiber broadband network. In late-February of 2018, NaFiber again led the way by introducing the first community-wide Gigabit and 10 Gigabit broadband service, which is already delivering some significant economic development wins.

Reaping the benefits are local companies such as Great Western Products, which is now marketing and selling its food and nonfood concession supplies globally. Great Western calls the new service a “game changer.” Allison Dunn, lead relationship manager in CoBank’s Atlanta office spoke with Bruce Purdy, NAEC’s general manager, and John Drake, IT manager and network administrator at Great Western Products, to better understand the impact of the recent service expansion within each company and the community.

Tell us about the impact of broadband to the economy in your region.

Bruce Purdy: We have approximately six small operations that recently returned to this area. It was broadband that allowed the owners, who were originally from the area, to bring their companies back and re-establish their operations here. The community is also now attracting new industries. We are currently in competition for a couple of large projects. While not announced yet, our broadband service has kept us in competition for these projects. We landed a Google data center and we are on the radar for some other big technology projects. Broadband has been very helpful for economic development.

John Drake: The availability of broadband allows companies in this area to better compete in a global economy. Our connectivity has allowed us to obtain customers that wouldn’t have considered our area before. And, we’ve been able to increase our export business significantly. We’re now reaching people around the world who hadn’t heard of us because our website wasn’t consistently up and running.

What has been the impact for the employees of North Alabama Electric?

BP: From an operational perspective, we tried for years to base customer deposits on credit scores. The problem was that our previous provider didn’t have enough bandwidth to allow us to complete the on-line process before the credit reporting service timed out. We would almost always time-out before we got the information we needed. That problem is now solved with broadband.

More generally, we have gig-speed internet service in our building. When a visitor comes in – an on-site auditor, for example – we supply high-speed Internet access. Most people are very impressed that they can work with that rate of speed.

As far as our employees go, gig-speed allows them to function at a high level. Instead of spending minutes performing a function, they literally spend two to three seconds.

What changes have occurred that you did not anticipate after you had broadband?

JD: After we got this connection we were able to migrate our phone system to voice over IP. In doing that, we significantly reduced our monthly cost and ended up with a much better phone system. That was not something we originally planned. But with the bandwidth, we were able to make that change.

BP: I never expected our older citizens to be excited about broadband. What I discounted was their excitement that now their grandkids will come and spend the night instead of walking in the door and being immediately ready to leave because they didn’t have Internet. We have a much larger percentage of our older population subscribing to broadband than I ever anticipated.

I’ve taken more phone calls from grandparents, just sharing their thanks for that one simple thing. It shocked me.

The availability of broadband allows companies in this area to better compete in a global economy. Our connectivity has allowed us to obtain customers that wouldn’t have considered our area before.

Is there are contract between North Alabama Electric and Great Western Products?

BP: No. We have never required contracts. If we do it right and provide the level of service that I expect us to provide, we will not need contracts. To the best of my knowledge, out of thousands of installations, no one has ever signed a contract – residential, commercial or industrial.

John, what is unique about the business relationship between Great Western Products and North Alabama Electric?

JD: With North Alabama Electric, we’re not just an account number. The rare occurrences where we had a problem, I was able to get assistance right away. They knew who I was when I called. You don’t get that with a lot of these for-profit companies. That means a lot.

What would Great Western look like today if it had not been for the North Alabama broadband project? Were there any other options?

JD: That’s something I kind of shudder to think about. Our previous connection limitations basically prevented us from engaging with anybody new.

Now, our larger customers prefer to handle their ordering and invoicing electronically. Our previous connection was maxed out and we had a lot of downtime. Our websites were either very slow or they wouldn’t come up at all.

We explored every provider in the area and they refused to serve us because it would have cost them too much to build out to our location. We were between a rock and a hard place and looking for other options before North Alabama Electric introduced its service.

Bruce, from your perspective, what is unique about the business relationship between North Alabama Electric and Great Western Products?

BP: My main objective as manager of the co-op is that Great Western Products – and all of our customers – stay in business. We’re not just providing broadband, electricity or phone service. It’s the general idea that they remain open, profitable and employing members of the co-op. Or, if not my co-op, at least Sand Mountain Electric Co-op, which is another electric cooperative in the area.

We went into broadband to help this area. First, to be a better place to live; and second, to be a place people would stay or return to and live. The recession of the 2000s took a heavy toll on our area. In terms of new business coming out of that recession, broadband is key to making the cut when being evaluated by those businesses looking for a location.

What do you see for the future of your organizations and the region in general?

JD: We can’t say exactly what the future holds, but if we continue to expand our business the way it’s been going, I think we’ll be around here for a long time.

As far as the region, I expect to see more companies growing because they’re able to better market their goods and services globally. And I see this area becoming more attractive to businesses relocating.

We have a large influx of high-tech companies moving to the area since it’s 60 miles or so from Huntsville. I’d expect to see more of them look to our area once they discover our Internet connectivity and our real estate prices. We’ve got a beautiful area and, by comparison, bargain priced real estate. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some big industries come in.

BP: It’s improving – we’ve begun to see month-to-month gains. We are now providing some transport. We have dropped two gigs to Google. Facebook has announced in Huntsville and immediately two of the data centers – one existing, one under construction – have been in my office discussing wavelength out of Huntsville, which we’ll be happy to accommodate.

Transport situations are possibly even better than commercial and industrial accounts because they’re utilizing your fiber. There’s a little bit of expense, but only a fraction compared to the revenue opportunity. It has taken a few years, but we’re now on the radar and people are stepping in wanting us to light fiber and provide transport. For the region and broadband, that’s very advantageous.

Do either of you have any closing thoughts?

JD: From my perspective, if somebody’s out there and has the opportunity to engage with a company like North Alabama Electric, do it. The difference in the level of service and the up time is huge.

BP: In the larger picture, it is becoming more difficult to live in rural America. People are leaving and they’re going to the metro areas. Without broadband, I think rural America will struggle to survive. I don’t know how you plan for the future without high-speed internet.

Bruce Purdy is general manager of North Alabama Electric Cooperative and its subsidiary North Alabama Fiber Co-op. He has been with NAEC for 25 years, serving as general manager for the past 15 years. Mr. Purdy serves on the executive committee of the Jackson County (Alabama) Economic Development Authority. He is also a member of numerous other education-related and industry-related boards, including the Rural Broadband Initiative. He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting and his MBA from Jacksonville State University.

John Drake is IT manager/network administrator with Great Western Products, which is a vertically integrated manufacturer and master distributor of food and nonfood concession products, concession supplies, and janitorial cleaning solutions based in Hollywood, Alabama. Mr. Drake has worked in the computer technology field for more than 25 years. He holds a computer programming specialization from Mario Umana Harborside School of Science and Technology and several Microsoft certifications.

This interview was originally published in Broadband Partnerships: A Key to High-Speed Success for Rural Electric Co-Ops.