The jungle book

Alabama makes progress on broadband access and infrastructure in Black Belt

Infrastructure in Alabama’s Black Belt region — and rural Alabama in general — lags far behind the rest of the state, but some progress is being made.

From roads and bridges to sewer systems to broadband internet access, there has been a shift among Alabama’s leadership in recent years that will benefit rural areas in the long run, according to experts. researchers from the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

“In recent years, infrastructure policy in the state of Alabama has moved from reactive to proactive,” said Dr. Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, during a news briefing on infrastructure in Alabama. black belt this week. “I give to the governor. [Kay] I have a lot of merit.

Katsinas spoke at the press conference as part of Black Belt 2022, a series about issues facing Black Belt residents. Previous questions were about level of education and access to health care.

For years, Alabama’s black belt — the poorest region in the state and one of the poorest in the country — has lagged behind in infrastructure. Lack of access to proper sewage systems in Lowndes County led a UN representative to investigate the area in 2017, and there are entire counties where 0% of residents had high internet access. throughput as recently as 2020, according to the Education Policy Center.

Some of that is now starting to change.

The Education Policy Center reported that over the past two years, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access has become a major public policy issue with bipartisan support.

“The pandemic has exposed large holes in the state’s broadband,” Katsinas said. “We’ve learned that it’s not enough to have broadband access, you have to have high-speed broadband access. And that’s what we miss in rural Alabama.

Governor Ivey used $17 million from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund to help expand rural broadband access during the pandemic and signed the Connect Alabama Act of 2021, which have already started to help.

“While broadband access still has a long way to go, a noticeable improvement in the black belt of those with high-speed Internet access (100+ Mbps) has occurred,” says a memoir published Tuesday by the Education Policy Center. The brief pointed to data that showed significant increases in high-speed Internet access in Choctaw and Perry counties, which previously had no such access.

Statewide, Alabama jumped from 47th in broadband connectivity to 38th after Ivey signed the Connect Alabama Act, which included a plan to level the playing field in rural counties. By adopting the plan, Alabama became the latest state in the Southeast to commit to a plan, Policy Center researchers said.

“We were late for the game, but we’re moving fast now,” Katsinas said. “It’s a problem we’re about to solve.”

Reliable Internet access has never been more important. The pandemic has shown that many jobs can be done from home, but that’s only true if you can get good internet where you live. In many parts of Alabama, this is still not possible. And recruiting industry and workers to a region without the infrastructure in place for high-speed internet is also difficult, said researchers from the Education Policy Center.

“If you don’t have high-speed internet at home, you can’t do remote work,” Katsinas said.

Alabama has also made small progress in terms of roads. The American Society of Civil Engineers rated Alabama’s roads at C- in its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, up from a D+ in 2015. While that’s not a huge gain, it’s a step in the right direction. direction.

And there are plans in place to help physically connect the Black Belt to the western Alabama corridor, a project that would turn the two-lane US 43 into a four-lane freeway that would run from Thomasville to Tuscaloosa. , wrapping up one of Alabama. most remote regions.

The vast majority of Alabamians commute to work by driving alone, according to data from the US Census Bureau. And those in rural counties have more time to travel, often on poor roads. This means a higher cost to the commuter in terms of mileage — gas money and vehicle wear and tear — but may also involve a greater risk of mental and physical health problems, according to the Education Policy Center.

Unlike some of the other problems facing the Black Belt, where the solutions are messy and complicated, many of the region’s infrastructure problems can be relatively simple to solve – it’s just a matter of money . And Katsinas said the state’s new proactive approach is good for the region because small, rural counties like those that make up most of the Black Belt need state assistance to take advantage of development opportunities. get federal dollars.

He said some of the state’s smaller counties lacked dedicated staff to do things like apply for grants. Because of this, when the state government is more proactive in these areas, smaller counties benefit the most, he said.

Do you have an idea for an Alabama data story? Email Ramsey Archibald at [email protected]and follow him on Twitter @RamseyArchibald. Learn more about Alabama data here.