Broadband internet becomes reality in rural Lawrence County

JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens announces service options and construction plans at a FiberFlash launch party at West Morgan High School on Friday. JWEMC’s new broadband network will bring the fastest most reliable internet service available to Lawrence and Morgan residents beginning in early 2021. 

Trinity residents will be among the first Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. customers to be connected to the utility’s new fiber optic high-speed internet network in early 2021, according to JWEMC officials. 

The co-op on Friday announced the launch of its new broadband brand, known as FlashFiber, which will provide the fastest internet service available to JWEMC members in Lawrence and Morgan counties. 

JWEMC members are able to sign up for the service now as construction for the network continues, according to JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens. He said 288 strands of fiber optic cable and 15.8 million feet of fiber will make the network available to more than 43,000 members in the utility’s service area.  

He said the $95 million project will take five years to complete, and customer connections will occur as the network is built out. 

“If we can go faster, we will,” Kitchens said. “We’re moving as quickly and efficiently as we can. Nearly 80,000 power poles were installed when we first began serving the community, and that project didn’t happen overnight.”

JWEMC has already begun hanging the fiber optic cable in its service area, which is being mapped into 12 zones, according to Kitchens. He said the network will be built out beginning in Zone 1 in Trinity, where JWEMC is headquartered. 

An area surrounding Mallard-Fox Industrial Park will be the second zone to be connected, according to a zone map found at join.jwflash.com. The site allows JWEMC members to subscribe to the service at any time.

"This effort has been in swing for quite some time, and people will be able to connect as we go,” NRTC Telecommunications Scott Pell said. “(Joe Wheeler EMC) is holding this project to high standards. This is one of the best internet systems in the country; it’s the best of the best in technology for sure.”

Joe Wheeler EMC reached out to NRTC with Pulse Broadband to perform a feasibility study for the project in early 2019, and the co-op approved its business plan in mid-2019, Kitchens said. 

He said challenges throughout 2020, including the availability of fiber cables and shipping delays, slowed progress on the project this year. 

During the co-op’s launch event on Friday, which was held at West Morgan High School, Kitchens announced residential and business internet plans that will become available to members. 

The utility’s lowest tier plan, which offers 300 megabytes per second with no data caps, will begin at $59.95 per month plus tax. Joe Wheeler EMC’s package options also include a 1 gigabit per second plan at $79.95 per month and 2 gigabit per second for $99.95 per month. 

As JWEMC members beginning signing up for the internet service, FlashFiber customers will receive a free Amazon Fire TV Stick of a free Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite—depending on which service plan the customer opts for—while supplies last, JWEMC said. 

JWEMC Director of Communications Michael Cornelison said FlashFiber will be one of the fastest networks available in the state of Alabama once the project is complete. 

“Google Fiber in Huntsville is the only network of this magnitude in the state right now, and we may beat them to it,” he said on Friday. “We’re pushing to make our community a gig-speed community by offering this world-class internet service, which will also help our areas attract more business.”

Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, said he also hopes to see Lawrence County see an economic boost and increased industrial development in the area thanks to the new service. 

“We’ve always been behind the curve,” he said. “We want to be an example to the rest of the state to ensure rural areas have access to broadband. We are thankful JWEMC stepped up to do something we can be proud of in our communities. This project is as important as installing power lines. High-speed internet is a necessity.”

As the project becomes a reality in rural North Alabama, Robertson said Lawrence County will be better equipped to negotiate with new companies looking to locate in the area. 

In a statement released by JWEMC on Friday, the co-op said studies show that fiber optic broadband increases property values and improves the quality of life within a community.

“With bandwidth speeds up to a gigabit per second, it is widely considered a future-proof technology,” JWEMC stated. “Fiber will provide better access to health care through telemedicine, more educational opportunities through distance learning, increased opportunities for economic development and, of course, a better video streaming and gaming experience.”

Last November, a 94% majority of JWEMC members voted to begin construction of the new fiber-optic network after the co-op announced it would bring the service to its customers in rural Lawrence and Morgan counties upon approval.

“Broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a vital component of modern life,” Kitchens said. “We have fully embraced fiber for the future of this region, and we know our members are going to love all the benefits fiber has to offer.”

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