Alabama Gig Cities

ABOVE Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle at the headquarters of Adtran, a leading U.S. provider of internet networking equipment and software.


In early 2016, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle announced that Huntsville Utilities would begin constructing a new fiber network to meet the city’s growing needs for data and communications. The new network will eventually be used by Google Fiber to bring its high-speed internet service to residents and businesses across the city. In addition to Google Fiber, providers such as Southern Light, Comcast and AT&T also are beginning to provide gigabit internet service to Huntsville area customers. 

The next generation of broadband internet service, also known as gigabit internet, is usually delivered over fiber optic lines and provides internet speeds of 1, 000 megabits per second. 

“A rocket city deserves rocket speed, and that means a network that connects to the internet at one gigabit per second, ” Battle said in a prepared statement. “Your internet will be 50 to 100 times faster than it is today.” 

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Huntsville isn’t the only locale looking to become a “gig city.” Municipalities across the state are making strides to beef up their cyber infrastructure. 

“We consider high-speed internet access to be a very important part of life, it’s evolving into a necessity, really, ” says Walt Maddox, mayor of Tuscaloosa. “Providing gig access not only improves quality of life in a variety of ways, it impacts our ability to conduct business and has educational applications.”

The Case for Going Gig

The demand for extremely fast internet service continues to grow, as each household and business has multiple devices connected to the internet. As increasing numbers of devices become internet-enabled, broader infrastructure is needed to support those devices and transport data and information. 

“When you start looking at the internet of things, all of the internet items that will pile one on top of the other, you’re going to need broader bands, bigger portals and faster speeds to be able to use that, ” says Huntsville’s Mayor Battle. “But as you use that, you get more efficient, and you add to your GDP, and you add to your home value. All of it makes a community a smarter community, more technology driven and a more valuable community.”

For many residents, business owners and corporations, high-speed connectivity isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity, says William Hanes, director of corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Light, a broadband provider based in Mobile. “School systems, hospitals, government entities, wireless carriers and businesses all rely on high-bandwidth connections to survive and grow, ” he says. 

High-speed connectivity is crucial for economic development, education, telecommuting and healthcare. According to a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Council study, communities with widely available gigabit broadband access experience a 1.1 percent higher per capita GDP than areas without gigabit. In the education sector, broadband provides school districts with the bandwidth to enable online education, creating more personalized learning experiences and maximizing the benefit of E-rate funding projects, says Kurt Raaflaub, global product marketing at Adtran.

At hospitals and health care facilities, gigabit broadband can help boost the quality of patient care. Super-fast broadband speeds allow doctors and nurses to collaborate with colleagues on-site and remotely, sending large files such as MRIs. “Hospitals and doctors depend on the efficient, safe exchange of information more than ever before, ” Hanes says. “Patients’ lives literally depend on this very important infrastructure.”

In addition, gigabit access opens doors for increased work flexibility by allowing employees to work remotely. As the nature of work continues to change, “people want to be able to work from home, ” says Harrison Diamond, business relations officer for the city of Huntsville. “That [desire for] work-life balance is something that will not change.” 

For all these reasons, “broadband is the infrastructure of the future, ” Diamond says. “We know that if we are to remain competitive, we have to have fast and affordable connections. Our citizens and businesses have both identified access to broadband as an important issue. Companies need to be able to connect to the world and move large amounts of data.” 

How It Works

To provide gigabit access to businesses, a high-strand fiber optic ring must first be deployed around a city, says Southern Light’s Hanes. Next, lateral routes are built between the ring and each location that needs access. 

Those access connections to residential and business locations may be via phone lines, fiber or coax, or a combination of the three, explains Adtran’s Raaflaub. Providers then place next generation electronics on either end of the access connection. At the customer location, that is usually in the form of a customer gateway or modem. On the provider’s side, it’s usually at a service access aggregation location owned or leased by the provider. “The next generation electronics at these two locations typically support a gigabit broadband technology family known as Passive Optical Networking (PON), used in what is more commonly known as Fiber to the Home (FTTH), ” Raaflaub says.

After that work is complete, a tremendous amount of work goes into engineering future networks, protecting the existing network and planning for natural disasters, Hanes adds.  

While “gigabit” is the current buzzword, “the more important issue is increasing the availability of fiber optic infrastructure, ” Hanes says. “Southern Light currently provides 100 gigabyte per second (gbps) connections as needed, and we continue to see an increase in bandwidth demand. That rapid scaling of bandwidth is only possible if you have access to fiber optic networks, as copper networks cannot efficiently handle high bandwidth connections.” 

ABOVE Mayor Tommy Battle greets Jill Szuchmacher, director of expansion for Google Fiber, as city and company celebrate the advent of superfast internet accessibility.

Photo courtesy of City of Huntsville

Making Strides

In Huntsville, several local technology companies helped the city craft a request for proposal to attract broadband providers, says Adtran’s Raaflaub. That document eventually led to decisions by both Google Fiber and AT&T GigaPower to add Huntsville to their upcoming gigabit internet expansion plans. In addition to those companies, Wow Media (formerly known as Knology), Comcast and Southern Light have announced their intentions to bring more services to the market, Diamond says. “We want competition in the market, because the customer ultimately wins, ” he adds. “The first customers served for Google Fiber will be summer 2017. AT&T and other incumbents are in the process of bringing on customers as we speak.”

As a result of these new services, Huntsville expects to see “more startups and more digital inclusion” in the metropolitan area, Diamond says. Ultra high-speed internet will attract more high-tech companies and entrepreneurs who want to be able to conduct important work from home, offices or anywhere in the area. 

In Tuscaloosa, the city’s fiber optic master plan “is in its infancy, ” Maddox says. While there’s no concrete timeline, the city recently granted franchise agreements to Southern Light and is “very willing” to do the same for other interested providers, he says. 

Currently, there are two projects in the pipeline in Tuscaloosa, West Tuscaloosa Connect and Digital Districts. First, West Tuscaloosa Connect will provide high-speed internet access to the western area of the city. “One of my guiding beliefs is that western Tuscaloosa and other parts of our city that have not benefited from the economic prosperity of Tuscaloosa will again thrive both residentially and commercially, ” Maddox says. “By providing high-speed wi-fi in western Tuscaloosa, individuals and businesses can connect to people and opportunities globally.” 

Also, by creating Digital Districts within the city, starting in disadvantaged areas, the city hopes to connect people and attract businesses to those high-speed digital districts. 

As other cities try to get in on the action, they are taking steps to attract broadband providers to their areas — and one important step is to create a business-friendly environment for those providers. “This includes efficiently granting fair franchise agreements, providing information about and allowing access to existing infrastructure and implementing efficient permitting processes, ” says Southern Light’s Hanes. “Cities that want companies to invest millions of private dollars in the deployment of fiber optic infrastructure need to eliminate barriers to entry and make the process as inviting and efficient as possible. Municipalities are competing for fiber optic providers, and we are definitely swayed by the path of least resistance.”

In Troy, the local cable provider partnered with Adtran to provide gigabit service to its customers. And some municipalities have taken strides without the assistance of outside providers. For instance, when Opelika was unable to attract new broadband providers, the city-owned Opelika Power Service opted to build its own fiber network, which offers high-speed access to 100 percent of the city’s residents. 

As demand grows, more cities look to become locations where residents and businesses can expect gigabit internet service — and local governments and providers must find ways to work together to provide that. 

“High-speed internet is required to do almost everything in our society today, ” says Tuscaloosa’s Maddox. “It’s the way the world does business. If we don’t plan and expand, or at the very least make it easy for providers to come to our city, we will be left behind. Tuscaloosa has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years. This is our next step to continue growing.”

Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

Text By NANCY MANN JACKSON // photo by dennis keim

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