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Busby continues work on countywide broadband

LANETT — At Thursday’s noon hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club, Chris Busby of the Chambers County Development Authority (CCDA) staff talked about one of his top goals: to get Chambers County fully covered with broadband service.

Busby has been with the CCDA for the past six years and has specialized in commercial and community development.

“I’ve been working on broadband for a long time,” he said. “In general, if you don’t live in Lanett, Valley or LaFayette you don’t have broadband internet.”

Busby said that having broadband cannot be viewed as a luxury.

“It’s a necessity,” he said. “It’s as important to have it at home as it is to have water and sewer service. It’s something you have to have for people to come here to live. If our county is going to grow, we have to have more broadband in rural areas.”

The need for more broadband became painfully apparent in 2020. When local schools went to virtual education due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many children who lived in rural areas were put at a disadvantage. Since they didn’t have internet at home, they could not participate in class instruction. In some cases, kids were driven to town to park outside Burger King, McDonald’s or Jack’s and be connected with their smartphone via wifi. They could also get it on the bus going to or from school.

Some county residents have gone to great lengths to have internet in the home. Busby said he knows someone in Five Points who paid $5,000 to have internet at home.

“People have been calling us asking if there’s anything we can do to help them,” he said.

It’s something that will take time and money to fix. There’s ample grant money out there right now, and Chambers County has been extremely successful in getting its share. A total of $52 million in funding over a 10-year period has been approved.

“It may not be an immediate impact, but it’s a start,” Busby said. “There’s substantial need in the northeast and southwest parts of the county and in the Cusseta area.”

The Five Points and Fredonia areas in northeast Chambers County could have lines run by TEC out of Roanoke. TEC serves approximately 380,000 people with internet in four Southeastern states.

Busby said there’s a bonus in going with the company.

“They will have free internet service in the town halls and at the volunteer fire departments,” he said.

On the southwest side of Chambers County, the Waverly area will be benefiting from a $600,000 grant. Point Broadband will be coming off Highway 280 into the town and surrounding area.

A big problem right now is that some areas have service that’s not reaching a lot of households. Ample funds are available in the American Rescue Plan, and Chambers County needs to get its fair share so as many households can be served as possible, Busby said.

“Getting better service to southeast Chambers County is a big focus for us,” Busby said. “It’s a fast-growing area. It’s near the industrial park, and people are moving in from Opelika and Auburn. This is an opportunity for growth we don’t need to miss out on. Sooner or later, we need for all of Chambers County to be covered. That’s our goal.”

It will be an expensive undertaking to meet this goal. Busby said it costs somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000 a mile to run lines above the ground. It’s even more costly to run them underground.

“It’s a monumental task, and there are all kinds of problems we will have to tiptoe around,” he said. “If you serve an area with 600 people, another nearby area with fewer people will wonder why they were passed over. You have to prioritize where the people live.”

Busby said there are lots of headaches to deal with, but he knows it’s something that has to be worked through if Chambers County is going to grow.

“I know people who moved away from Chambers County because they couldn’t work from home because they weren’t on the internet,” he said. “Having internet service is a quality of life issue. It’s almost a moral obligation to provide this now.”

The older generation isn’t as internet conscious as younger people.

“Something they do like, though, is being visited by their grandchildren,” Busby said. “It’s a big, big, big deal for the kids. A great selling point to the older generation is that their grandchildren will come to see them and stay longer if they can get internet at grandma’s house.”

Busby said that the CCDA is going through a very busy period.

“It has been an intense time in our office,” he said. “A lot is going on both locally and across the country. A lot of money is coming down through the American Rescue Plan.”

A member of the club asked Busby what was going on with some land clearing near Exit 77 on I-85.

“It’s industrial land, and Jeremy Colley is clearing it for us,” Busby explained. “We worked a long time with the Alabama Department of Transportation to do this. When Jeremy finishes what he’s doing, we will market it for industrial development.”