Alabama Power, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative tackle broadband gap

Published on June 11, 2021 by Kim Riley

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When Alabama needed to bridge the rural broadband gap for scores of underserved and unserved rural customers, Alabama Power Co. and the PowerSouth Energy Cooperative rose to the occasion.

Both Alabama Power, the Birmingham, Ala.-based electric utility serving 1.5 million customers, and Andalusia, Ala.-based PowerSouth, which serves more than a million consumers via 16 electric cooperatives and four municipal electric systems in Alabama and northwest Florida, are helping fill the chronic internet service gaps in their state that mirror those existing nationwide. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission estimates some 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet. 

The problem is particularly stark in rural areas, where a lack of broadband internet access holds back customers from educational and health opportunities, job creation, and much-needed economic growth and development, said Brian Wolff, executive vice president of public policy and external affairs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the national association of investor-owned electric companies. 

Utilities like Alabama Power and PowerSouth have rapidly stepped in and partnered with the telecommunications sector to provide the middle-mile infrastructure that’s needed to link the internet backbone to the last-mile networks of local broadband service providers, like cable or phone companies.

Alabama Power and PowerSouth “are leveraging that universal nature of the energy grid to tackle this long-standing and difficult problem,” said Wolff, who moderated the June 10 “Bridging the Nation’s Broadband Gap” breakout session during the EEI 2021: The Road to Net Zero virtual conference.

In fact, access to high-speed internet access across the state of Alabama lags behind much of the rest of the nation, said Mark Crosswhite, chairman, president, and CEO of Alabama Power, who noted during the conference session that 475,000 residents, or 10 percent of the state’s population, are currently without such access, and of that 10 percent, 83 percent of them live in rural areas of Alabama.

“Alabama Power believes that improved connectivity can create great opportunity and elevate Alabama communities, very similar to the way that electricity benefited the state when it began to expand across the state of Alabama,” Crosswhite said.

To help address the lack of broadband, the company is currently deploying fiber, which Crosswhite said is “absolutely foundational to our infrastructure.” Thus far, Alabama Power has deployed roughly 800 miles of fiber and Crosswhite said the company is constantly adding more fiber to the system.

“This benefits us in many ways,” he said. “It gives us faster outage restoration. We have fewer customers affected per fault. We have increased security. We have enhanced grid device coordination. So we have enormous benefits from the electric service standpoint.”

At the same time, Alabama Power also saw that it could use available fiber capacity to help expand broadband access across the state, especially in rural areas, explained Crosswhite, who said the company does not provide retail broadband service; it partners with telecom companies to help expand their networks.

PowerSouth has a similar story, according to Gary Smith, president and CEO of PowerSouth, which he said serves the state’s most rural, poorest areas. And as a generation and transmission cooperative, Smith said the company’s members provide distribution services at the retail level. “So we don’t have that retail connection that Alabama Power has,” he said.

PowerSouth also moves 40 percent of its electricity across Alabama Power’s system and builds substations off those lines. Yet, the other 60 percent of electricity that PowerSouth moves on its own transmission system still needs to have access to those substations to communicate with them to balance its load, said Smith.

“So we built telecommunications systems in the past — mainly digital microwave, radio and other means of communications — but like Alabama Power, we’re now moving to fiber because we need a more enhanced communications network,” Smith said. “And as we move there, it provides opportunities to partner with people in these other areas to provide internet services, broadband services — whatever we need for economic development.”

PowerSouth has roughly 325 miles of fiber currently deployed and is moving toward having 800 miles, Smith said, adding that the company “is also looking for partnerships in dark fiber and other ways to build out to those systems that we don’t necessarily have transmission lines to.”

In addition to deploying fiber to help solve the lack of access, both executives said that state policy also has had a positive impact on the process.

Both Alabama Power and PowerSouth worked together to help create the Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition, which is comprised of more than 50 entities from different industry sectors working to expand rural broadband access across the state via proactive policy solutions.

The coalition has worked to help create legislation like the Broadband Using Electric Easement Accessibility Act, House Bill 400, which Crosswhite said paved the way to allow electric providers the ability to use their existing infrastructure and easements to support high-speed internet. 

“I think it could be a national model for allowing creative partnerships to expand the use for infrastructure so that broadband really can reach all areas of the state,” Crosswhite said. 

The coalition also helped secure the passage of legislation to establish the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, which awards grants to expand access to high-speed internet. To date, the fund has distributed nearly $20 million that has been used to connect 25,000 Alabama households and community anchors, the executives said on Thursday, noting that grants also may be used for middle-mile infrastructure.

Smith said the grant program has helped the utilities expedite their ability to get fiber across the state, while the partnership between PowerSouth and Alabama Power has worked well for both companies “in a number of ways and in a very positive manner… so that we can put telecommunications on our system and allow others to use it for the benefit of other retail consumers,” he said. 

And while the companies are competitors, they “have been able to work on a number of things for the good of the state,” added Crosswhite. 

“One area where you will always see PowerSouth and Alabama Power working hand-in-hand is promoting economic development,” he said.