The Quest to Provide High Speed Internet Service to Rural Alabama

As ambitious as that goal is, Tombigbee benefits from some key partnerships. With financing and support from CoBank, a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and an unfailing sense of mission, Tombigbee Communications, the co-op’s broadband subsidiary, has already installed 400 miles of fiber line and plans to lay an additional 1,600 miles. CoBank asked Foshee to talk about the project.

When Steve Foshee, president and CEO of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, describes Tombigbee’s quest to provide ultra-highspeed fiber optic internet service to all residents across 1,000 square miles of Northwest Alabama, the typical response is disbelief. “Our objective is to serve every home at the end of the line in our most rural areas,” Foshee says. “People constantly say, ‘You’re kidding! I can’t believe we’re going to have this.’”

Can you describe the area that Tombigbee serves?

Steve Foshee: Our service area represents typical rural America – and like most of rural America, we’re hurting. In rural Alabama, we have a per capita income that’s about 40 percent of the state’s, and income in Alabama lags that of much of the rest of the country. With our project to expand access to true broadband internet – which about 80 percent of our families don’t have – we want to change that narrative.

How does your broadband initiative fit your mission as an electric cooperative?

SF: In a sense, we were created in 1941 to distribute electricity. But the real reason for our founding by the rural farmers in northwest Alabama was to make life better for our rural people. Fiber takes us in a completely new direction, but it still fulfills our original mission.

What are some ways a broadband connection increases opportunity?

SF: One of the most important is to improve education. We have to give our students a way to be connected to the latest information, and we’re doing that by giving every child a fiber connection at home. The number one educational system in the state of Alabama, even better than in the rich communities, is going to be right here in northwest Alabama.

The reason for our founding in 1941 was to make life better for our rural people. Fiber takes us in a new direction, but it still fulfills our original mission.

The second thing is health care. Why should people have to go into a medical office to receive routine care? Why can’t there be smart sensors that send blood pressure readings or other information instantaneously to your doctor? And with a 10 gigabyte connection that has high resolution audio and video, your local doctor will be able to connect you with the best specialists, anywhere in the world.

The third is economic development. You can’t have a robust economy without good jobs. Rural America brings so much value to the table, yet so many projects go to more urban areas. Having high-speed connections opens the door to better-paying high-tech jobs and plants in our area.

Beyond those key issues, how does broadband access affect the quality of life in rural areas?

SF: It’s a profound change for all of us. We live in a communication society, and fast internet connections help our people participate in it. If you have a very high-speed connection, you can see your grandkids, talk to them and watch the football game they’re playing at a high school 500 miles away. By providing a fiber connection that’s as good as any in the world, we change the entire negative narrative about quality of life in rural areas.