Op-ed: Cullman internet speeds 33% lower than Alabama average. Can it be fixed?

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Residents of Cullman are likely familiar with this frustrating situation: only one or two options for internet service, and high prices for slow speeds.

Unsurprisingly, local internet speeds are 33 percent slower than the average for Alabama. According to speed test data, the average internet connection in Cullman only delivers 24.4 Mbps, which is just shy of the 25 Mbps the U.S. government considers as “basic service.” A full quarter of Cullman has only one option for internet service faster than 25 Mbps download — or no option at all.

According to BroadbandNow data, Cullman is falling behind state and national standards for internet availability. This has major consequences for economic development, as businesses and skilled workers relying on internet access are forced to move to better-connected areas.

In Cullman, Spectrum promises speeds up to 200 Mbps for around $50/month. Nearby areas with fiber options like Huntsville can get close to 900 Mbps “gigabit” internet for the same price.

Is there a solution? There is: more competition for AT&T and Spectrum. Cities like Huntsville that have multiple internet providers always have lower prices and higher speeds, since companies are incentivized to compete for customers.

The question is: how do you tempt new providers to the area? This isn’t easy, but it can be done, and it has worked in the past. Huntsville, for example, saw success creating a public-private partnership where the city invested in fiber lines and leased them to private companies. Those private companies were able to enter the market quickly and affordably and invested in their low lines to extend to new addresses. The result: distributed risk for all parties involved, and dramatically improved service for residents.

For Cullman, the first step is community involvement. Grassroots groups can pressure local legislators to adopt fiber-friendly regulation (or de-regulation).

So-called “dig once” laws are a common approach that require the installation of fiber conduit (underground pipes for internet cables) any time the street is dug up for general construction.

Another common strategy is installing public-owned “municipal” broadband. Unfortunately, Alabama currently has a variety of laws restricting this practice, thanks to extensive cable lobbying. Community groups promoting local internet alternatives have to complete referendums and extensive feasibility studies before local government can move forward on infrastructure investments.

Partnerships between public and private institutions, like those in Huntsville, might be the best choice for an area like Cullman. With the promise of 5G still years away, the only way for some communities to get decent internet is to demand it — and convince the government it’s worth investing in the connected future of local economies.

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