Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Cooperative hopes to hold public meetings in August concerning a vote that could bring high-speed internet to rural areas in Lawrence County.
JWEMC Manager George Kitchens announced that the cooperative’s interest in fiber optic internet service could come into fruition in about five years following public approval for the plan.
In a community leaders meeting hosted by the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board on Monday, Kitchens said the JWEMC Board will vote to approve a plan that will be ready to present to the public by the end of the summer.
“We’re looking at an August timeline,” he said. “We will hold six community meetings, three in Lawrence County and three in Morgan. There will be a presentation and Q-and-A session with our members.”
Kitchens said a feasibility study was conducted during the fall of 2017, and a survey that was held earlier this year yielded “positive responses.”
“Our members are the owners of the cooperative, and without their approval, none of this moves forward,” Kitchens said.
The series of meetings will allow Joe Wheeler EMC time to address concerns about cost and extent of services.
District 1 Commissioner Jesse Byrd questioned whether Courtland and North Courtland communities would have the opportunity to sign up for internet services through JWEMC even though residents in the area do not receive utility services from the cooperative.
“Non-members may form a subsidiary—that’s within the realm of possibilities,” Kitchens said. “We would have to make arrangements with the town and discuss fiber optics and price before it can be approved by a vote.”
He said the residential service offered to the area would provide internet speeds of 100 megabytes per second with business services offered at one gigabyte.
Satellite companies with slower speeds including HughesNet, DirecTV and Viasat currently provide internet service to Lawrence County, while Moulton and Town Creek residents may receive access from land-line companies Charter and AT&T.
District 5 Commissioner Bobby Burch said many rural areas throughout the county do not have internet access at all.
“We’re fortunate that Joe Wheeler EMC had the foresight to look into ways this service can further improve quality of life within the county,” Burch said.
Lawrence County Career and Technical Center Principal Robby Vinzant said broadband internet service would also open a world of new possibilities to the students throughout the county.
For college students, internet access at home is a must, he said. “With more courses offered online, they need service to complete the work.”
Kitchens said internet service could also improve the way business is conducted or even medical expansion in Lawrence County.
“(Having high-speed internet) will also help in attracting young people and workers to our area,” IDB President and CEO Tabitha Pace said. “We see young workers moving to larger cities outside the county and even the state because they need high-speed internet.”
Kitchens said the cooperative will also apply for state grants to help bring broadband to rural areas in its coverage area.
“We can’t let Lawrence and Morgan counties fall behind as surrounding areas continue to grow,” he said. “Over a five-year building period, almost everyone who wants (the internet service) will have it by that point.”