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Aderholt announces that USDA is making a $62 million investment in rural broadband in Alabama

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, announces that USDA is spending $62 million to expand broadband in rural Alabama.

“This morning the USDA is announcing an investment of 62 million dollars to improve access to high speed internet in Alabama,” Aderholt said. “This is part of money my office and I helped secure in 2018 as part of a $600 million dollar investment in rural American broadband. Thanks to President Trump and Secretary Perdue for sharing my goal of expanding access. This money will be going to DeKalb, Jackson, Colbert, Walker, Fayette, Lamar, Winston, Marion and Franklin Counties. U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald “DJ” LaVoy announced that USDA has invested $62.3 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure that will create or improve e-Connectivity for more than 8,000 rural households, 57 farms, 44 businesses, 17 educational facilities, 14 critical community facilities and three health care facilities in rural Alabama.

This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“Today’s announcement is fantastic news for Alabama,” Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Montrose) said. “This significant investment from USDA of $62.3 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure across rural Alabama is critical for economic development, education, healthcare, and quality of life in our state.”

“Beyond connecting us to our friends and family, high-speed broadband internet connectivity, or e-Connectivity, is a necessity, not an amenity, to do business, access opportunities in education and receive specialized health care in rural America today,” LaVoy said. “Under the leadership of President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA is committed to being a strong partner to rural communities in deploying this critical infrastructure, because we know when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.

“When the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee created the Re-Connect program back in 2018 under my leadership, our goal was to help expand broadband to rural areas and help close the ‘digital divide’ that isolates so many parts of rural America,” Aderholt added. “I believed then, and continue to believe now, that the expansion, maintenance and upgrading of broadband service should be of highest priority. This program is beginning to pay dividends in rural Alabama and America. I want to thank the men and women of the United States Department of Agriculture and, of course, Secretary Perdue, for sharing this goal of expanding access.”

The Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, Inc. will use a $29.5 million 50 percent loan-grant combination to develop an All-Dielectric Self-Supporting (ADSS) fiber network in unserved areas of Marion, Lamar, Fayette, Franklin, Winston and Walker counties. This investment is expected to reach 2,152 households, 20 farms, 15 businesses, 10 critical community facilities, five educational facilities and one health care facility.

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“Expanding freedom FIBER broadband to residents across northwest Alabama meets a critical e-Connectivity need,” said Steve Foshee, president and CEO of Tombigbee Communications. “From students having the ability to complete their schoolwork, to our neighbors in need of receiving adequate healthcare, freedom FIBER broadband will help improve the lives and communities of rural northwest Alabama. Thanks to our partners at USDA, Tombigbee will help close the digital divide, advance our communities and allow rural America to flourish.”

Freedom FIBER currently is connected in Hamilton and Winfield, with construction underway in Haleyville, Hackleburg, Sulligent and Vernon. After receiving a $2.98 million grant under USDA’s Community Connect Broadband Grant Program in May 2018, Tombigbee Communications expanded service to Brilliant, a rural community in northwest Alabama.

Millry Telephone Company, Inc. will use a $28.2 million 50 percent loan-grant combination to develop a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network in Choctaw and Washington counties. This investment is expected to reach 3,797 households, 20 farms, 15 businesses, 11 educational facilities, four critical community facilities and two health care centers.

Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative, Inc. will use a $2 million loan to develop a FTTH network in Jackson and DeKalb counties. This investment is expected to reach 1,676 homes and one educational facility.

National Telephone of Alabama, Inc. will use a $2.7 million 50 percent loan-grant combination to develop a fiber-to-the premises (FTTP) network in Colbert County. This investment is expected to reach 378 rural households, 17 farms and 14 businesses.

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities.

In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

“Thank you President Trump for your ongoing commitment to improving the lives of rural Alabamians,” Byrne said. “I also offer my appreciation to Secretary Sonny Perdue for his partnership and support of rural Alabama and to my friend and colleague Rep. Robert Aderholt for his leadership on the Re-Connect grant program. Together with this Administration we are doing great things for rural America.”

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Congressman Robert Aderholt is serving his twelfth term representing Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District.

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Infrastructure

Cable provider wants more access to broadband as schools stay closed, go to E-learning

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that Alabama’s K-12 schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,”

For many wealthier suburban children, this will mean a transition to E-learning. For many poorer and more rural children, they don’t have broadband in their homes.

Some schools already have this in place. Other systems will be scrambling to get compliant with Superintendent Eric Mackey’s directives and parents will have to figure it out once their local schools do.

If your internet connection consists of going to the McDonald’s parking lot (sitting in the dining portion of a restaurant is now illegal due to COVID-19 fears) being a good E-learner will prove to be challenging it if happens at all.

Alabama cable providers want to supply that broadband to unserved and underserved communities. The Alabama Cable and Broadband Association welcomed the news.

“Taking into account the events of the last three weeks, greater reliance on high-speed internet service from our homes has emerged almost overnight,” said ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth, Executive Director. “Fortunately for many Alabamians, high-speed or ‘broadband’ access already existed in the home. But for many who live in rural areas of the state, and for those who cannot afford broadband service, the spotlight exposed the absence of broadband in homes and small businesses.”

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

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Even prior to the current public health crisis, Alabama’s cable providers had already been planning to invest more than $13 million to bring broadband telecommunications services to rural Alabama citizens who do not yet have high-speed internet services. The investment would be incentivized through $4.67 million in grant funding from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund (ABAF), a state fund established in 2018 to help extend broadband services to rural Alabamians who do not yet have them.

These ABAF grants can fund up to 35 percent of project costs to extend broadband technology, would enable the full $13 million cable provider broadband investment. These grant-funded projects would be in addition to the ongoing rural broadband investment being made by Alabama’s cable providers, Roth said.

For the current ABAF grant cycle, the 18 grants applied for by Alabama cable providers cover nearly 8,000 rural Alabama homes and businesses, including 35 community anchor locations such as rural hospitals and libraries. The grants seek to serve the highest number of unserved homes, businesses and community anchor points for the least cost and best level of service. Projects including the highest broadband speeds are emphasized in the evaluation process.

“Alabama’s cable companies have been providing broadband to rural consumers since the late 1990s, and we are proud to continue efforts to expand broadband service in rural areas,” Roth said. “But bringing high-speed, broadband access to Alabama’s rural customers takes more than just cable provider investment. It takes all broadband providers across technology platforms working together for a common good as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

“No stakeholders can say for sure how our economy and society will change as a result of the COVID-19 crisis; however, this much is clear: we must expedite our collective industry efforts to bring broadband to the state’s rural and low-income citizens, so that everyone has a chance at a much brighter future,” Roth said.

While unserved communities is the focus on the state’s broadband efforts, there are also many communities with an obsolescent cable connection that don’t have enough bandwidth and speed to get the most out of the internet.

As of press time, 526 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had already been found and hundreds of COVID-19 diagnosed persons, as well as people who were admitted to the hospital with symptoms that appear to be COVID-19 are filling Alabama’s intensive care wards and many of them are on ventilators. Children’s Hospital already has one of these patients.

Families are being advised to shelter in place for their own protection and so as not to spread the virus to other people. The Mayors of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa have both given orders forbidding nonessential movements. This will be somewhat perplexing for the parent that has to drive miles to a library, Jacks, or McDonalds to access the WIFI for the child to fulfill their public school assignments.

We don’t know yet whether grades and advancing to the next grade or not will be dependent on how a child performs in the remaining eight weeks of distance learning.

COVED-19 has already killed 1,300 Americans, including at least one Alabamian, as of press time and over 84,000 Americans have been confirmed with the disease. Many more are infected and are showing only mild symptoms. Others are waiting on labs to process their test results. A shortage of test kits has also delayed getting many people tested.

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Health

Natural gas company Spire suspends disconnections, late fees until at least May

Eddie Burkhalter

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Natural gas company Spire on Wednesday announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic its employees would now only do essential work, and disconnections and late fees for customers have been suspended until at least May 1. 

“If you’re worried about your natural gas bill, please give us a call. We’re always here for you, ready to work with you on finding the best solution for your situation,” The company said in a statement.

Spire’s full statement: 

To all those we serve,

As your local natural gas provider, we’ve been closely monitoring the evolving coronavirus events across the communities we serve—because we believe nothing is more important than your safety and the safety of Spire employees. This holds true whether we’re delivering energy to homes and businesses or doing our part in preventing the spread of the virus.

And that balance of delivering reliable energy while helping our communities stay safe is incredibly important right now, because we’re considered an essential utility and part of our nation’s vital energy infrastructure.

As an “essential service” designated by government authorities, we’ll continue to operate even under a state of emergency and any shelter in place orders.

So, when you see our field technicians working, know that we’re there to provide you with the energy you need to cook homemade dinners and warm your homes while our communities shelter in place.

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Simply put, these are uncertain times. And as we face them together, your trust in us is important.

So, I’d like to share with you what we’ve been doing to take action and care for each other and all those we serve.

For you, our customers

We’ve adjusted the services we provide, performing only essential work. This will help protect both you and our team members as we continue to closely monitor developments. The CDC is regularly updating their guidelines and best practices, and we are following these guidelines carefully.

We’ve officially suspended late fees, disconnection notices and disconnections until at least May 1. If you’re worried about your natural gas bill, please give us a call. We’re always here for you, ready to work with you on finding the best solution for your situation.

We’ve provided field employees with the tools they need to do their jobs, requiring everyone to maintain social distancing and safety guidelines provided by the CDC. And, we’ve increased the frequency of deep cleanings of our equipment and at our facilities. 

 For our employees

Because we live and work in the communities we serve, caring for our employees has an impact on our communities at large. That’s why we:

  • Enacted our preparedness response plan, which defines how we adjust the service we provide in response to the changing situation
  • Canceled all travel and events
  • Provided emergency leave for employees who are unable to work from home and are quarantined, caring for a loved one who is quarantined or taking care of a child or family member because of coronavirus-related school and child care facility closures
  • Ensured all employees who can work from home do so

As an essential service that you depend on, we’ll continue to monitor our processes as the situation evolves. And, if you’d like more information about all we’re doing to keep Spire employees and communities safe, visit us 24/7 at  SpireEnergy.com/Coronavirus.

Through it all, our promise to you is that we’re focused on the safety and well-being of those we serve.

We’re in this together.

 

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Health

The numbers show COVID-19 could cripple Alabama’s hospitals

Chip Brownlee

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Even in the best-case scenarios, we could run out of ICU beds. In the worst, thousands could be without a bed. Will this crisis cripple our hospitals?

Read more here

 

 

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Health

Top Alabama hospital official fears a “tsunami” of cases, ventilator shortage

Chip Brownlee

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The head of Alabama’s Hospital Association said Thursday that he fears the coronavirus outbreak could overwhelm Alabama’s health care system if the public doesn’t take social-distancing guidelines seriously.

“My big, big concern is as this tsunami approaches us in the coming weeks, we are going to be challenged to have enough ventilators for the state at large,” said Dr. Donald Williamson, President and CEO of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Concerns about whether hospitals across the country can handle an influx of COVID-19 cases on top of their normal patient load have been growing as the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow at an exponential rate.

Across the United States, 13,000 cases have been confirmed through testing. Because testing across the country has been limited, there are sure to be more cases.

The number of cases in the state jumped by 50 percent on Thursday. At close of business on Wednesday, 51 cases were confirmed. By Thursday evening, the state had 77 confirmed cases of the virus, prompting Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Scott Harris to issue a new statewide directive that closed beaches, limited restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery service, and banned gatherings of more than 25 people.

“The challenge Dr. Harris has is the actions of today can’t be aimed at today’s 68 cases,” Williamson said. “They have to be aimed at what is already infected that we’re going to see two weeks from now.” The virus has an incubation period of about five days, but up to two weeks, meaning people could already be infected with the virus but not showing symptoms yet.

About 20 percent of those infected with the novel virus will require hospitalization, and about 5 percent require intensive care, and hospital officials and public health experts fear the increased load could cripple hospitals.

“Ideally you’d like to reduce the number of cases,” Williamson said. “But really what you’re trying to do is make sure the surge on the health care system is never so great that you can’t respond—you keep the demand low enough that you can actually continue to provide service.”

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In New York and other states like Washington with large outbreaks, hospitals are already facing strain. Doctors in Seattle are being asked to re-use masks that are only supposed to be used once, and some are having to make homemade masks that aren’t nearly as effective. Officials in New York state are beginning to make plans to convert college dormitories and other facilities into make-shift hospital rooms, and President Donald Trump has said he would send a U.S. Navy ship, the USNS Comfort, to New York City to help provide care for sick patients.

In Alabama, hospitals have been ordered to cancel elective procedures to prepare for the next few weeks, when officials fear the cases here could skyrocket. Supplies are already running low in some places, particularly personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and face shields. Officials are asking private health care providers to prepare for the possibility that they might need to give up health care supplies to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.

Jefferson County, Alabama’s hardest his county so far, issued new guidance Thursday, too, which prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people. The county has 34 cases as of Thursday, and the number is expected to grow as more test results come in. The Birmingham area also has the fewest open hospital beds available. At any point in time, about 90 percent of the Birmingham area’s 7,000 hospital beds are in use.

In an effort to blunt the spread of the disease, starting Friday at 5 p.m., all nonessential services in Jefferson County will be closed. That order includes entertainment venues, recreation facilities, swimming pools and spas, nail salons and spas, casinos, museums, body art facilities or tattoo parlors, performing art centers, social clubs, formal events, proms, concert halls, massage parlors and fraternity/sorority meeting events.

Williamson said Thursday that the state’s hospitals have about 1,344 ventilators on hand. On any given day, about 550 are in use on average. That means the state has a surge capacity of only 800 ventilators.

Estimates from the Harvard Global Health Institute suggest that if 20 percent of adults are infected in Alabama, 34,370 people would need ICU care. 158,906 people would need to be hospitalized. Of course, all of those hospitalizations wouldn’t be at once, but if cases surge all at once, hospitals could be overwhelmed and would need to ration care.

“And that’s a challenge not only in Italy, where they have had to make unbelievable decisions about who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t, but in our own country, in Seattle, they’re facing the challenge of not enough ventilators,” Williamson said.

Across Alabama, hospitals have about 14,900 beds. At any given time, only 5,000 beds are available. Even fewer intensive care beds are available.

“So I am very concerned about that over the long haul stressing our health care system and that’s why social distancing is so important,” Williamson said.

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