Alabama making strides on broadband access, infrastructure in the Black Belt
Infrastructure in Alabama’s Black Belt region – and in rural Alabama in general – lags far behind the rest of the state, but some progress is being made.
From roads and bridges to sewage systems to broadband internet access, there has been a shift among Alabama’s leadership in the last few years that will benefit rural areas in the long run, according to researchers at the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.
“In recent years, Alabama’s state infrastructure policy has gone from being reactive to proactive,” said Dr. Stephen Katsinas, head of the Education Policy Center, at a press briefing on infrastructure in the Black Belt this week. “I give Gov. [Kay] Ivey a lot of credit.”
Katsinas spoke at the press briefing as part of Black Belt 2022, a series on issues residents of the Black Belt face. Previous issues include educational attainment and access to healthcare.
For years, Alabama’s Black Belt – the poorest region in the state and one of the poorest in the nation – trailed in infrastructure. Lack of access to proper sewage systems in Lowndes County brought a UN representative to investigate the area in 2017, and there are whole counties where 0% of residents had broadband internet access as recently as 2020, according to the Education Policy Center.
Some of that is now starting to change.
The Education Policy Center indicated that over the past couple of years, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access has become a major public policy issue with bipartisan support.
“The pandemic exposed wide holes in the state’s broadband,” Katsinas said. “We learned it’s not enough to have broadband access, you have to have high-speed broadband access. And that’s what we’re lacking in rural Alabama.”
Gov. 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, both of which have already started to help.
“While broadband access has a long way to go, noticeable improvement in the Black Belt of those with access to high-speed internet (100+ mbps) has occurred,” a brief released Tuesday from the Education Policy Center reads. 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 at all.
Statewide, Alabama went from 47th in broadband connectivity to 38th after Ivey signed the Connect Alabama Act, which provided a plan for evening the playing field in rural counties. In passing the plan, Alabama became the last state in the Southeast to commit to a plan, researchers at the Policy Center said.
“We were late to the game, but we’re moving fast now,” Katsinas said. “This is a problem that we are on the verge of fixing.”
Reliable internet access has never been more important. The pandemic showed 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, that still isn’t possible. And recruiting industry and workers to a region without the infrastructure in place for high-speed internet is also difficult, researchers at the Education Policy Center said.
“If you don’t have high speed internet at home, you can’t do the remote work jobs,” Katsinas said.
Alabama has also made small strides in terms of roads. The American Society of Civil Engineers rated Alabama’s roads at a C- in their 2021 infrastructure report card, up from a D+ in 2015. While not a huge gain, it’s a step in the right direction.
And there are plans in place to help connect the Black Belt physically with the long-discussed West Alabama Corridor, a project that would turn two-lane U.S. 43 into a four-lane highway that would run from Thomasville to Tuscaloosa, looping one of Alabama’s most remote areas.
The vast majority of Alabamians commute to work by driving alone, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And those in rural counties have longer to go, often on worse roads. That means a higher cost to the commuter in terms of mileage – gas money and vehicle wear and tear – but can also involve greater risk of mental and physical health problems, according to the Education Policy Center.
Unlike some of the other issues facing the Black Belt, where solutions are messy and complicated, many of the problems with the region’s infrastructure 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 the bulk of the Black Belt need help from the state to take advantage of opportunities to get federal dollars.
He said some of the state’s smaller counties lack specialized staff to do things like apply for grants. For that reason, when the state government is being more proactive in these areas, it’s the smaller counties that benefit the most, he said.