Special to the Democrat by John Zippert,
Senator Doug Jones and Shown L to R: Greene County participants in Summit, Lovie Parks Burrell, Debbie Duncan, John Zippert, Phillis Belcher, Beverly Gordan and Johnny Coleman, Jr.
The University of West Alabama in Livingston held an all day ‘Summit on Rural Technology” on Friday, April 13, 2018. The session was attended by 200 political and community leaders from the Alabama Black Belt and surrounding communities.
The session highlighted the importance of high-speed internet connectivity and digital literacy for economic development, health care, education and quality of life for the future in all communities of Alabama. The session illuminated that not all communities, especially rural communities and the Alabama Black Belt area, were prepared and positioned to equitably access to the ‘broadband highways’ of the future.
In his keynote address, Senator Doug Jones of Alabama said “270,000 people in rural parts of Alabama do not have access to high speed internet and there was a need for equal access and opportunity for all zip codes in the state.
Jones said, “ The state’s economy depends on high-speed broadband and this is a bi-partisan issue which transcends the division between political parties.’ He also said that internet access was a key to ending the ‘homework gap’ between well-heeled urban/suburban school districts and rural areas. “Ending the internet access gap will also improve the availability of healthcare and telehealth capabilities in the rural communities of the state,” stated Jones.
Jones reported that $600 million was appropriated in the latest budget for USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) programs to improve broadband access in rural areas. Senator Jones said his staff would be working to help businesses and communities that wanted to take advantage of these programs.
Dr. Roberto Gallardo of the Purdue University Center for Regional Development gave the opening talk on Rural Development in the Digital Age. He said, “Big data will be the oil of the 21st century. The digital economy has a 6.5% share of the total economy or $1.2 trillion. Rural on-line transactions today are $1.4 trillion annually.”
As an example of the exponential growth of the internet economy, Gallardo said, “Airbnb generates an average of $6,700 in income for its members. In four years, it has grown to offer 600,000 rooms. It took Hilton Hotels 93 years to grow to offer 600.000 rooms!”
Gallardo called young people “digital natives” and said they have grown up with digital skills that the rest of us must catch-up and master as well or we will be left behind in the coming ‘digital economy’.
Gallardo said that the digital future was at least 25 megabits of information down and 3 megabits up. Communities without these capabilities would miss out on the benefits of the coming digital economy. “Digital exclusion may be our gravest problem in the future,” said Gallardo.
C. Wayne Hutchens of Alabama A. T. &T spoke on some of the technical innovations that his company was pursuing and testing to bring high speed internet to more people. He spoke about small cell technology to reduce the need for large-scale towers in congested areas. These small cells could be placed on lampposts, mostly in cities. He also said that AT&T’s Project AirGig was testing ‘inductive coupling’ which was a way of transmitting high-speed internet in conjunction with electrical power lines. “If these trials work then we will have a way to serve more rural communities,” said Hutchens.
The Rural Technology Summit also has a panel of Alabama State Legislators that spoke on state funds that will be available for broadband access in rural areas. There was also a panel featuring Mayor Sheldon Day of Thomasville and Mayor Gary Fuller of Opelika on ways they were providing broadband to businesses and residents in their municipalities. Fuller explained that Opelika had a municipally owned electric system which had borrowed $43 million in bonds to finance proving high speed internet anywhere in the city limits of Opelika. This system was serving as an incentive to attract businesses of all kinds to the east Alabama city.
At the end of a challenging day of information, Dr. Tina N. Jones of the University of West Alabama said the summit was the beginning of an effort by the university to reach-out and assist rural communities in west Alabama to benefit from the growing digital economy.