A small internet service provider in North Alabama gives a good insight into how the virus crisis is affecting internet usage in more rural fringe areas of the state.
Based in Oneonta, in Blount County, Otelco Inc. is a legacy of the old local telephone exchange carriers that served rural areas bypassed by the big telephone companies.
Otelco’s main line of business is now focused on data services for the internet, but it still serves more rural areas, which are no different in relying on the internet in this time of home sheltering.
“Internet usage has been up by 25 percent since March 16,” says Trevor Jones, Otelco’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer service. “That was the day we, ourselves, started moving our staff home, and after that date traffic has been up 25 percent.”
“The virus has absolutely highlighted the need for additional broadband growth in rural markets and, in particular, people working from home who have not had to do so in the past,” Jones says. “It has really made this a watershed moment, really emphasized the need for additional funding and work in these rural areas where people may not have that access available to them at the speed they need.”
Underserved needs in rural areas are just a subset of underserved low-income areas across the state, noted Jones.
“The other need highlighted is an income need. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, for example, has spoken a lot about the ‘homework gap,’ areas where they don’t have internet at home because they can’t afford it.”
To temporarily address those, Otelco offered two months of free service to customers who are qualified for free and subsidized school lunches, which has prompted 200 inquiries, says Jones. For college students, a similar offer has been made for students participating in the federal Lifeline program.
In the markets where Otelco operates, demand, although up sharply, has not outstripped capacity. The company serves relatively rural areas compared to the big telecoms, but it too spends its money only in areas where there is enough density to support investment.
When the virus crisis hit, Otelco was in the second year of a two-year, $5 million infrastructure expansion in its Alabama markets. Part of that was for 113 miles of fiber cable to 4,100 locations in the city of Arab. A second segment went to upgrade Otelco’s cable network, reaching another 6,000 locations. A third segment was invested in deployment of VDSL (very high-speed digital subscriber line) to nearly double the speed of traditional DSL in the little cities of Blountsville, Nectar, Susan Moore, Snead and Walnut Grove.
Alabama is Otelco’s largest service region, but it also serves rural markets in Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia. The company has 210 employees and estimates 80 to 90 of those are in Alabama. The company was started in 1998 when Seaport Capital bought Oneonta Telephone Co., which had provided service in Blount County since the early 1900s. The company went public in 2004 and its name changed to Otelco. More mergers and acquisitions followed, creating its seven-state footprint.