TRINITY — Installation of Joe Wheeler EMC's fiber-optic high-speed internet network has been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic curtailing production at manufacturing plants, but the utility's officials say its first customers will be connected by early January.
Officials had said during public hearings in September 2019 they hoped to have some customers connected as early as this month. However, there has been a shortage of the needed fiber with companies having their employees work from home because of the pandemic, according to George Kitchens, CEO and general manager of Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp.
Michael Cornelison, JWEMC spokesman, said it will take about 3,300 miles of fiber to complete the service area.
"Customers should start seeing our contractors hanging the cables in a few weeks,” he said. “We should have around 1,100 miles of fiber delivered to us by the end of the year.”
He said JWEMC has about 36,000 household and business members in parts of Lawrence and Morgan counties.
“It should take between three and five years to cover the entire utility area,” Cornelison said. “We’ll need about 10,000 customers to subscribe to the service to make it financially feasible."
He said JWEMC will have a major announcement on the project in December.
The project was approved on Nov. 1 when 94% of the 7,210 members who cast ballots in a monthlong vote supported having the electric utility provide high-speed internet and telephone service.
The utility said it plans to offer unlimited, 200-megabyte-per-second download and upload speeds for about $60 monthly per household. It appears the Trinity area served by JWEMC will be the first to receive the service, officials said.
It is expected to cost between $95 million and $100 million to install and maintain the service.
At Tuesday morning's Morgan County Commission meeting, the commission voted 4-0 to approve the Industrial Development Board's request to consent to abate non-educational property taxes for projects in Morgan County. Ray Long, commission chairman and JWEMC board member, said that includes the utility's materials during the installation of the fiber network.
Kitchens said JWEMC members are showing patience with the internet installation.
"While the coronavirus threw us a curve this year, we are still really excited about delivering true, world-class internet services to our members soon," he said. "I sincerely believe this will be as impactful to our members as getting electricity was for previous generations.”
Cornelison said a building called the Headend has been erected in Trinity to house the servers and switching equipment for the high-speed internet service.
“On Sept. 22, a delivery was made that moved us closer to our high-speed internet service launch,” he said. “The Headend will be one of the locations the internet comes in from the rest of the world. The 75,000-pound, concrete structure was built to take just about anything that comes its way.”
Morgan and Lawrence school superintendents said the JWEMC internet service will enhance the learning experience for area students.
“Reliable internet service is very important for our students and teachers right now, with so much of our instruction taking place online,” Morgan Superintendent Robert Elliott Jr. said. “And affordable high-speed internet would be a real benefit for all of us.”
Jon Bret Smith, Lawrence County superintendent, most parts of the county have lacked quality high-speed internet service.
“A year ago, we knew Joe Wheeler’s plan for high-speed internet service was important,” he said. “Now with this pandemic, it’s even more important. We will continue transition to more remote learning (over time), and the high-speed service will be for the betterment of all students.”
Some students are receiving vouchers from the state to pay for internet service, but the vouchers are for temporary service during the pandemic. The Lawrence County school system plans to have 42 Wi-Fi equipped buses parked throughout the county as early as this week.
Morgan County commissioners Greg Abercrombie and Don Stisher said they regularly hear residents complain of unreliable internet service in rural areas of the county.
"It doesn't matter who the provider is, it's spotty at best in some areas," said Abercrombie, who represents District 4, which includes Lacey's Spring and Valhermoso Springs. "Service might be good in certain areas but not others."
Stisher, who represents the southeast portion of the county including Falkville and Eva, said the JWEMC project "is an investment vs. a lost cause."
"It's an incentive to want to move to Morgan County and open a business," he said.
Cornelison said contractors will handle the installation of the fiber optics and Joe Wheeler will be adding staff to maintain the service. He said it is too early in the process to know how many jobs will be created or what the pay will be.
"Now, we've been busy in the business of building a business," he said.