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Alabama power co-op brings fiber to its rural customers

There are two questions that residents of Cullman County ask Cullman Electric's Bonnie Baty and Brian Lacy nearly every day: "Why don't I have Sprout Fiber?" and "When is Sprout Fiber coming to my house?"

Baty and Lacy, both employees of Cullman Electric, a rural Alabama electric cooperative, have played key roles in getting the co-op to upgrade its power operations by deploying fiber – and at the same time, providing high-speed Internet to its members, many of which have no other alternatives.

Cullman Electric launched its fiber business, called Sprout Fiber Internet, in November 2020 and connected its first paying customer in January 2021. Today, Sprout has just over 1,000 broadband customers and is handling about 12 activations per day. The company sells 300 Mbit/s for $59.99 per month and 1 Gbit/s for $79.99 per month.

Baty, who serves as Sprout Fiber Internet's marketing and services manager, estimates that there are about 4,500 homes in Cullman County that are currently eligible for the service. Sprout is about 50% complete with its Phase 1 deployment.

The company expects to have Phase 1 of its deployment finished in spring of 2022, with about 12,000 homes passed and about one-quarter of its membership eligible for service. Sprout has not yet determined its further buildout plans.

AT&T and Charter Communications provide broadband services to the city of Cullman, Alabama, which has a population of just over 15,000. In addition, some wireless Internet service providers and satellite providers also offer Internet connectivity in the area. However, there are still large swaths of the county with no broadband options. "We have Charter and AT&T in town, but they don't reach the rural markets," Baty said, adding that agriculture is a big part of Cullman's economy and it is home to a large number of poultry growers.

Connecting chicken houses

The poultry growers in Cullman are particularly interested in the co-op's fiber deployment because if controllers within their chicken houses are connected to the Internet, they can closely monitor the chicken houses and increase their production.

Lacy, who is the manager of communications and external affairs at Sprout, said that the name Sprout Fiber builds on the area's agriculture roots. "We thought the name and imagery would resonate with our members," Lacy said. "They know what it means to grow something from the ground up. It takes time and doesn't happen overnight."

Sprout is primarily deploying aerial fiber via its power lines and using it to connect its substations together with a fiber ring. Lacy said that the 12,000 potential fiber customers in Phase 1 are those that live on the path of that fiber ring.

However, Baty said that for homeowners that have all underground utilities, they will deploy fiber in the ground.

Sprout is working with Ciena on its fiber deployment. Mitch Simcoe, director of global consulting at the vendor, said that Ciena works with many utility companies but Sprout is its first customer that has decided to offer broadband to its members. "Cullman is ahead of the game," he said.

Simcoe added that offering broadband is a natural extension of the business for some utilities, because they can leverage their existing electrical infrastructure. "This is a huge savings," Simcoe said. "And many telecom providers can't justify running fiber in these smaller communities because of the cost of putting in a new broadband network from scratch."

Simcoe added that one of the challenges power companies have with deploying broadband is that they lack the expertise. "Their main business is power delivery," Simcoe said. "They don't know how to build a telecom network and market broadband. It's a totally new business for them."

But Simcoe adds that if more co-ops like Cullman decide to do this, they could become viable competitors to telcos. "This could be a better service than what the telcos offer," he said.

— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.

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