HAMILTON - As a new year rolls around lots of people take stock of the past and look ahead to the future.
For Tombigbee Electric Cooperative President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Foshee, the past has been a success and the future is looking bright, particularly in regard to the freedomFIBER project—the multi-million project to bring ultra high-speed internet to the residents of Marion, Lamar and Fayette counties and the City of Haleyville.
Foshee draws a comparison to a football game when reviewing the current state of freedomFIBER.
“I remind people all the time, we’re in the second quarter of a football game and we might be up by two touchdowns, but there is a lot of football left to play and you can still lose the game in the fourth quarter,” Foshee said.
After a year and a half of construction, Foshee said that 3,100 customers across the three counties are currently on line and another 4,000 have pre-signed for the service that brings electronic data into a home at up to 1 gigabyte per second or to a business at up to 10 gigabytes per second.
“We’ve got about 600 miles of fiber up and that ain’t bad. We’re on budget; the revenues are where we projected. There are no surprises. We are pleased with where we are, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re keeping our eye on the ball and we’re working every day,” Foshee said.
Both hospitals in Marion County—North Mississippi Medical Center in Hamilton and Northwest Medical Center in Winfield— are connected to freedomFIBER, along with a great number of banks, Foshee said. “There are a number of schools that want the service, but they have two-year contracts with their existing provider and they are waiting for those to expire.”
Foshee said many local industries including Tiffin Motorhomes, Kamatsu, and Hamilton Homebuilders have connected to freedomFIBER. “All of those are significant users of freedomFIBER and it’s very important to their businesses. Our client list is growing every day.”
Foshee said the five-phase project is expected to last another two and half years. Currently, Tombigbee Electric is ready to begin phase three, which will allow rural residents of the counties to access the fiber-optic cable.
“Phase three is more of Marion County, around Winfield, and areas northwest of Hamilton up around Hackleburg. We’ve still got some areas in Bear Creek to get to in phase three and we’re picking up about three-fourths of Lamar County.”
Phase three involves establishing a cable that runs from Lamar County up through Fayette County all the way up to Winfield, Foshee said.
“Phase three is by far the biggest phase up to this point. It’s going to take about 14 months for us to complete, so it’s not going to be overnight, but it is being engineered as we speak,” Foshee said.
When complete, the project is expected cover 1,400 miles across the four counties at a projected cost of $40 million dollars. To cover the costs, Tombigbee Electric is taking advantage of hard-to-win federal grants, one of which was recently awarded through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal agency whose mission is to increase the quality of life in 13 Appalachian states, including the northern portion of Alabama.
The $1.5 million grant through the ARC was awarded to specifically help cover the costs of expanding FreedomFIBER in Haleyville, but will help with the project overall, Foshee said.
“This means we’re not having to use so much of our capitol in one area and we can start working on other areas, so everybody benefits no matter where the grant is applied. The whole area will eventually benefit from this.”
Foshee said perhaps the greatest challenge since beginning the project has been the paperwork required to win the grants.
“It takes an amazing amount of work to qualify for one of these grants. It’s not easy,” Foshee said. “It’s not like putting your name in a hat and drawing it out.
“We have enough literal paperwork, and these days ‘paperwork’ can mean electronic paperwork, but in our case, we are talking about a year’s worth of paper that could be stacked to a 10-foot ceiling multiple times. We are greatly helping the paper industry because we have a used a mountain of paper documents. It’s absolutely mind-blowing.
“Jumping through the hoops to comply with federal regulations is extreme and just because you are in compliance doesn’t guarantee the grant,” Foshee said.
Foshee said he is thankful to Alabama Department of Economic Affairs (ADECA) Director Kenneth Boswell for assisting with the ARC grant
“It took a lot of effort on Kenneth Boswell’s part at ADECA, so we are grateful to him. He has been a huge champion of this effort and we’re very appreciative of Gov. Kay Ivey and of course the continued support of Congressman Robert Aderholt is fantastic,” Foshee said.
Foshee said that Tombigbee Electric is applying for other grants to cover the future phases of the FreedomFIBER project.
“We’re very hopeful to continue this project like we are. It will be transformative to this community, to help our people grow and prosper. That’s what the project was all about to start with. It’s not about money, it’s about human life. We’ve got to learn how to take advantage of this great opportunity that I think is going to be given to us in so many sectors of our lives.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How are we going to use it to our benefit—to create more jobs, to give people a way to work from home, to help in medical care to help in schools?’” Foshee concluded, “There is just so much work ahead of us, but it’s a great thing in my mind that we can do this to create better opportunities and I think that’s a good thing.”
See complete story in the Journal Record.