‘This truly is a historic moment’

First customers connected to Cullman Electric Cooperative’s Sprout Fiber Internet

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Cullman Electric Cooperative CEO Tim Culpepper, left, and Manager of Communications and External Affairs Brian Lacy, right, speak at a ceremony Monday morning outside the Simcoe Community Center on Alabama Highway 69 where the Cullman EC’s historic marker is located, celebrating the co-op’s role in rural electrification of Cullman County in 1936. A stone marker was placed next to the plaque, noting that residents in the Berlin and Simcoe areas are the first co-op members to be connected to Sprout Fiber Internet. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

Updated 1-19-21 1:06 p.m.

CULLMAN, Ala. – Seven months to the day after the Cullman Electric Cooperative announced Sprout Fiber Internet, the first customers were connected to the service- gigabit-speed internet- Monday morning.

“This is an exciting day for (the) Cullman Electric Co-op,” beamed Manager of Communications and External Affairs Brian Lacy at a ceremony celebrating the milestone.

The event was held outside the Simcoe Community Center on Alabama Highway 69 where the Cullman EC’s historic marker is located, celebrating the co-op’s role in rural electrification of Cullman County in 1936. A stone marker was placed next to the plaque, noting that residents in the Berlin and Simcoe areas are the first co-op members to be connected to Sprout Fiber Internet.

Lacy acknowledged those in attendance for their various contributions to making the Sprout network possible. In particular, he thanked Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview, saying, “He was instrumental in getting legislation passed to make this day possible. Then, Senator (Garlan) Gudger (R-Cullman) did his part on the other side of the legislative house to get that passed for us.”

In 2019, Shedd sponsored House Bill 400, which, according to him, “authorizes electricity providers to use their existing and future power lines, rights-of-way and infrastructure to partner with companies to provide or expand broadband/telecommunications services or actually be in the business themselves.” The Broadband Using Electric Easements Accessibility Act was signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey the same year.

“This truly is a historic moment, much like when the first residents in the region received electricity,” said Cullman EC CEO Tim Culpepper. “This technology carries the same potential to improve the quality of life for our members.

“There were times when I didn’t know that this day would ever come. We’ve written a lot of checks. Everybody told me that when you start a project like this that the scariest thing about it is you are spending money, but you aren’t making any money, so I am glad to see this day come.”

The installation began in the Berlin area near where Monday morning’s ceremony was held.

Culpepper added, “A co-op is a special kind of business. We’re not in it to make a profit. We are in it to provide services to our members. We saw the need for high-speed internet, and we saw how crucial that really was. I think this whole COVID mess has proven to us how crucial it is for our schools, work and everything.” He thanked the Co-op board for voting to take the risk.

Cullman EC has started building a fiber network that will connect all the co-op’s substations and offices to further enhance the quality of its electrical service. In the process, Sprout Fiber Internet will make gigabit speeds available to more than 12,000 co-op members. So far, 120 miles of the main-line fiber ring have been constructed, completing the first of five steps in the construction process for approximately 2,400 co-op members.

“We haven’t really advertised it yet because we wanted to make sure we had a good solid system and everything was working,” said Culpepper. “You’ll probably see some advertising coming in the future, but we are going to do a slow rollout to make sure we get it right and are able to provide good service.”

Shedd said of the special day, “I literally had chills about it today and seeing this come to realization. We are supposed to have a report ready for the (Legislative) Session, so I am looking forward to seeing the report the first part of the session to give to our colleagues about the progress that’s been made since the bill passed.”

“The impact of rural electrification was one of the most significant events in the history of Cullman County,” Culpepper said. “Making reliable, high-speed fiber internet service available to the communities we serve will be just as significant today and into the future.”

“Fiber optic technology is the fastest, most advanced internet technology available, and Cullman Electric Cooperative is the only provider in the region building a state-of-the-art, utility-grade fiber network for its members,” said a media release on from the Cullman EC.

Culpepper said the co-op anticipates having approximately 200 subscribers in the Berlin area active by the end of February, with plans to increase the pace of subscriber connections throughout the spring and summer.

“Sprout is an important project, and all of us on the board are very excited to see it come to fruition,” said Robert Tidwell, chairperson for the Cullman EC board of trustees. “It’s amazing to see how much progress has been made since the board approved this project in December 2019. The reality of how big and important this project is starts to sink in now that we’ve reached the point of having co-op members with Sprout Fiber Internet service in their home.”

Sprout Fiber Internet will offer Cullman EC members upload and download speeds starting at 300 Mbps and going as high as a gigabit per second. Cooperative members are encouraged to take an online speed test at www.speedtest.net to check their current internet speed and learn how much of a difference Sprout Fiber Internet can make for their homes or businesses.

Using other Alabama Co-op’s as a guide, building out internet service to the entire county could take five to six years with Phase 1 expected to be complete by spring 2022. As the name “Sprout” implies, the Co-op’s internet service is new and growing.

Said Lacy, “People understand the idea that things don’t happen overnight. You’ve got to plant seeds and it takes a while, not just on the front end, if we eventually get to a point that we have something beyond our Phase 1. That’s our hope and our dream that we can build it out to our entire system; that’s going to be a long-term project and it’s going to take time to grow.”

Visit www.cullmanec.com/sprout or call 256-737-3200 for more information.

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Representatives from the Cullman Electric Cooperative, Town of Berlin and Cullman County’s legislative delegation attended a ceremony Monday celebrating the first members connected to the co-op’s Sprout Fiber Internet. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)
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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com