It isn’t news that Lawrence County has struggled since International Paper shuttered its Courtland mill five years ago, taking 1,100 jobs with it and dealing a blow to the county’s tax base.

As a result, Lawrence County has lost not just funding for county and municipal governments, schools and other services, it has lost population.

There is no silver bullet to reverse this decline, but everyone agrees it starts with recruiting more jobs, and that means improving the county’s infrastructure.

Nowadays, even farming is a high-tech endeavor, so bringing high-speed internet to this rural county is a must if it is to recruit businesses and industries.

The member-customers of Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. gave that project a vote of confidence recently when they voted overwhelmingly to authorize JWEMC to begin rolling out a high-speed, fiber-optic network that will bring fast internet to a part of Alabama where most of life is still pretty slow.

Of the 7,210 JWEMC members who cast ballots in the monthlong vote, 6,750 voted yes and 460 voted no. Twenty-one percent of the members cast votes, the largest percentage of member participation in the utility’s 82-year history, according to board members.

Joe Wheeler Electric officials have high hopes for the project.

“This vote today can be as transformational and life-changing as getting electricity was out in the county in the 1930s and 1940s,” said JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens. “At our public hearings, I was hearing the need for this service. I thought the (yes) vote would be north of 90%. I’m loving it that it came in at 94%. It’s nice to see that level of support. Now we can’t let them down.”

The utility said it plans to offer unlimited, 200-megabyte-per-second download and upload speeds for between $40 and $60 monthly per household. Company officials are saying it’ll likely take 12 months before the first group of customers has internet service available. A five-year timeline will cover the entire utility area, they say.

JWEMC serves much of Lawrence County and parts of Morgan County.

With the results of the vote, Joe Wheeler can bring fast internet access to rural areas where it didn’t pay for private internet service providers to install infrastructure. JWEMC can piggyback on its existing infrastructure to reach even the most isolated areas.

“We’ll need about 10,000 subscribers to break even,” Kitchens said. “Our feasibility study suggests we’ll do better than that. If we don’t, we’re building this in annual budget phases. We can review where we need to as we go along.”

JWEMC is playing it smart, minimizing its risk and the risk to its customers, and it can do so because it has its customers’ backing. The rewards could be great. If so, JWEMC’s program could be a model for bringing fast internet to other rural areas in the state, which is an economic priority for state officials.

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