Cullman County libraries celebrate fiber internet connections

Left to right are (front) Debra Wallace, Josie Harrington and Sharon Townson, (middle) Nancy Pack, Randall Shedd, Millie Freeman and Renee Welsh, (back) Cary Hill, David Ivey, Garlan Gudger, Garry Marchman, Jamelle Dimbo, Walter Overby and Tanya Allcorn. (Heather Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – As many residents around Cullman County worry about internet access for their children’s online school work, the Cullman County Public Library System (CCPLS) is celebrating the completion of a project that brings high-speed fiber internet to each library in the system – Holly Pond, Hanceville, Colony, Garden City and downtown Cullman. This project was accomplished with the help of the Alabama Supercomputer Authority (ASA) and legislation passed in the Alabama Legislature last year.

Friday morning, a prestigious group of guests was invited to the Cullman Public Library’s main branch in Cullman to talk about the project, including Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman;  Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview; Cullman County Commissioner Garry Marchman; Alabama Public Library Service Director Nancy Pack; and four representatives from the ASA: Walter Overby (CEO), Cary Hill (director of education and outreach), Debra Wallace (director of business development) and David Ivey (program director – Huntsville office). They were also joined by CCPLS Director Sharon Townson and members of the Friends of the Public Libraries of Cullman County: Tanya Allcorn (president), Millie Freeman (vice president) and Renee Welsh (secretary and treasurer).

“We are extremely thankful for that fiber – we call it our ‘fabulous free fiber.’ It has definitely sped things up, and it’s going to save our library system as a whole about $5,000 a year,” Townson said. “We are just thankful we don’t have to do E-Rate paperwork. (E-Rate is the commonly used name for the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund.) That’s something that some libraries really struggle with; some hire outside consultants just to complete those forms, but it’s money and it still helps the library, but that will be passed on now.”

Said Overby, “We are so excited about this – 176 libraries that we are gonna be able to touch throughout the state. That’s in every single county throughout the entire state. We have a network that extends from Huntsville to Montgomery, Mobile, and it’s extended to all 67 counties. We’re really proud of it, we’re proud of what it can do. This is just another example of that network and the power it can provide to libraries, but we do that to education. We support about 95% of all the schools in the state. We support all the colleges and just about every one of the universities. We really appreciate the role we play in that, and the staff we’ve got is second to none.”

Said Pack, “Prior to the ASA and the state legislators funding our libraries, we had 220 public library systems – 360 if you wanna count individual libraries – and 40% of those were under 10 megabytes. They would have people come use the resources they have through the Alabama Virtual Library, and the people would get knocked off because of the lack of being able to get on the web and download what they needed.”

“This whole project, I’ve learned about it in the last few years through Cary and Walter being able to educate me,” said Gudger. “We got out legislative phone calls and brought some other senators on board to educate them as well as myself. Just a little story, there’s a gentleman two blocks away who doesn’t have internet at his house. They can’t afford it, so he comes here and sits in the parking lot for the WiFi for his unemployment. It’s not the fact that he’s coming here for reading, which is what most people think libraries are for, but it’s a day-to-day process that he has to be able to function and have a payroll check right now during this COVID and he’s not able to work. From that, this project gives so many people opportunities to continue the life that they’ve always had.”

“Libraries have to evolve just like everything else does, and you’ve done a good job of evolving to meet the needs of the community. We all know nowadays that most everybody, if you have to do something, the first thing that’s usually said to you is ‘go online,’ and sometimes there’s no other option. It always frustrates me to have a state agency say to go online to do something when people don’t have an opportunity to go online, so I’m grateful for the partnership between the City and the County at this library that will give these people the opportunity to go online and have high-speed internet,” said Shedd. “We’ve been talking about broadband for a while in the Legislature, and we’re not moving as fast as I’d like to see it move but we’re making progress.”

As guests mingled and enjoyed some of Cullman’s famous treats (orange rolls from the All Steak and donuts from The Duchess Bakery), Overby spoke more in-depth about what exactly the project entailed.

“What we’ve done is we’ve taken this library from whatever connection they were using to a true fiber optic connection. It gives a lot more bandwidth and it enables them to be able to do a lot more at the same time without interruption. It also allows more people to be on at one time,” he said. “The project has gone extremely well. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, we had to take a knee for several weeks until we felt like our technicians could be safe being out and working with the libraries. We started back up very slowly and very cautiously after that pause, but we did get started and we hope to wrap up with the last library around September or October.”

“There’s a lot of people in the community that don’t know that there is a network of internet throughout the state of Alabama that goes directly to the libraries and to some of the schools, and that allows free high-speed internet especially in my district, rural Alabama, to be able to compete against urban and business connection,” said Gudger. “Through the funding that the state gave – Randall Shedd, myself, Corey Harbison (R-Good Hope) and Scott Stadthagen (R- Hartselle), our local delegation – we were able to help fund the ASA, and through that they are pushing the high-speed internet throughout all of Alabama, especially our region here. What we’ve got here is not just for Cullman city, it goes out to Holly Pond and the Colony and just about every other place that’s part of this community. We’re proud of that, and I’m proud of being able to take part in it and get the opportunity to serve these people.”

Overby said at least one library system in each county in Alabama is connected now, and 176 libraries will be connected once the project is finished.

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Heather Mann