INTERNET AND CABLE: Connectivity an issue in rural parts of Limestone

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A scheduled public hearing at Monday’s Limestone County Commission meeting revealed frustration from residents and the business community regarding the lack of high-speed internet and cable service in rural areas.

The purpose of the hearing was to hear comments related to Charter Communications’ request to renew its franchise agreement with Limestone County. The current agreement, which expires Dec. 18, provides about $370,000 per year to the county.

Charter is not the only cable and internet company with a franchise agreement with the county. A public hearing on the county’s franchise agreement with Mediacom is set for Oct. 15.

With more than 16 million subscribers in the United States, Charter is the third-largest data provider in the nation. However, there are pockets of the country, including rural Alabama, where the company does not provide service.

Several residents who spoke at Monday’s meeting asked the commission not to renew the agreement until a plan is established to provide better service in the western part of the county. Residents and commissioners also stressed the need to be able to speak to a real person when calling Charter.

Gary VanWagnen, who has developed Brigadoon Village in western Limestone, said it has become harder to draw interest to his development because there is no high-speed internet available. He added it’s also difficult to “have a civil conversation” with anyone at Charter when he calls.

“We all live on the internet. Children are required to have access for homework,” he said. “It’s not just for TV access, but for the very fabric of our existence.”

Limestone resident Tim Bower, who lives off Bill Black Road, said there are 17 homes in this subdivision with no option for cable or internet. He’s been unsuccessful in convincing a data provider to run cable to the subdivision.

“Everybody needs internet,” he told the commission. “Just get a commitment from Charter to expand coverage in these areas that don’t have coverage.”

Farmer Kyle Bridgeforth, whose family operates one of the largest farming operations in the state, said his business needs data access for a number of reasons. He told commissioners some of the family’s “peers” had surpassed the Bridgeforths because no high-speed data connection is available in the Tanner community.

“We make sales across the world. We host delegates and other groups on the farm. Without internet access, there’s no ability to give presentations,” Bridgeforth said. “We deal with a lot of issues with not being able to have accurate data because of low internet speeds. At our one farm on Bridgeforth Road, we have four internet devices and hardly any of them work. … We need a high-speed source.”

Lenwood Herron, a consultant and former mayor of New Brockton, Alabama, told the commission high-speed internet would be a necessity as North Alabama’s industrial boom continues. He explained to the commission that officials with Hyundai in South Korea wanted to know if high-speed internet was available prior to building a manufacturing industry south of Montgomery.

“If you look at Limestone County and Huntsville, you’re primed for explosive growth,” he said, adding there is a “donut” in southwestern Limestone where data service is not available. “You’re going to have 4,000 jobs coming to North Alabama (as part of the Mazda-Toyota development). Where the plant is locating, Tanner and all the area south, you’re in for a massive push of economic development.”

Robert Smith, who was at the meeting representing Charter, said there is an effort to map out what parts of the county are not currently being served. He explained that of the state’s 67 counties, 30 have the same issues as Limestone.

“It’s a costly process to go from pole to pole. If you run cable from one pole to another, that’s $14,000,” he said. “We don’t receive incentives from the state or federal government. We’re not a utility; we privately invested money to build a cable company. We want to serve the county, but there are cost restrictions.”

Each commissioner who spoke said there were internet availability issues in their district. However, it’s mostly residents and businesses in western and southwestern portions who are most affected.

Most of those who spoke Monday did so at the urging of District 3 Commissioner Jason Black. He said the county’s students are being hurt the most by lack of access.

“We’re sending kids home with (laptop computers), and they’ve got to drive to Rogersville or Athens to hook up at McDonald’s,” Black said. “It’s like sending them home with a textbook with no words on the pages. They may be able to play games (on the computers), but they’re not able to use it for what it’s for.”

District 4 Commissioner Ben Harrison, who represents West Limestone residents, said he would like to sit down with Charter and discuss availability issues before signing the franchise agreement. He added New York is current battling Charter and its subsidiary, Spectrum, because of a failure to extend broadband internet service to underserved communities.

“I wish some of the (data) companies would be more forthcoming with us.”

Commission Chairman Mark Yarbrough urged the commission to consider amending its agreement with Charter to ensure concerns are addressed. He said commissioners should also have a point of contact with the company before renewing the agreement.

Other business

In other business Monday, the commission:

• Approved an Alabama Department of Youth Services Agency grant agreement in the amount of $44,100 for the Juvenile Diversion Program, pending the following statistical changes: diverting 60 youth annually, based on an average capacity of 15-18 youth with an average length of participation of 16-20 weeks;

• Approved an agreement for services with Katye Hanson beginning Oct. 1 and ending Sept. 30, 2019 to coordinate community services for juveniles assigned through the Limestone County juvenile court. The contract is for 30 hours per week at $14 per hour. Her salary will be paid from the Alabama Department of Youth Services Agency grant;

• Approved an agreement with Tracking Solutions for electronic monitoring services for juveniles beginning Oct. 1 and ending Sept. 30, 2019. The agreement will be paid from the Alabama Department of Youth Services Agency grant;

• Approved a memorandum of understanding with the Family Life Center Inc. to provide off-site substance abuse treatment and related services for juveniles referred by the Limestone County juvenile probation officer or juvenile court beginning Oct. 1 and ending Sept. 30, 2019. The $15,000 cost will be paid from the Alabama Department of Youth Services Agency grant;

• Approved a Alabama Department of Corrections contract for the Limestone County Community Corrections Program beginning Oct. 1 for an allocation of $287,124 reimbursement funding, and to authorize Tony Graviet as director to execute the contract;

• Awarded a bid of $30.06 weekly for 36 months to Aramark to lease uniforms for county appraisers;

• Awarded a bid to NAFECO for dispatch and jail uniforms;

• Awarded a bid to W.H. Thomas Oil Co. for gasoline and diesel (30-cent margin over rack);

• Hired Tevy McDole as case manager at community corrections, pending a drug screening;

• Hired Stephen Usery as HVAC technician in the custodial department, pending a drug screening;

• Hird Bill Lindsey and Patsy Appleton as van drivers for the Council on Aging, pending drug screenings;

• Gave preliminary approval to the Hogan Hill subdivision, a 31-lot major subdivision on the east side of Gatlin Road in District 1;

• Agreed to sell a 10-foot 2610 Legend Flex Wing bush hog on GovDeals;

• Set a public hearing for 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 15, to receive comments relative to the proposed action to vacate a portion of Sugar Creek Road right of way; and

• Set a public hearing for 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 15, to receive comments relative to the proposed action to rename Seaman Road to Big Creek Road.