By Stephen V. Smith
Cullman Electric Cooperative in North Alabama launched its broadband program this week, and I couldn’t be more proud.
You see, Cullman Electric Cooperative holds a special place in my heart. This exceptional utility became a client in the early years of our business, when it was mostly me doing all the writing, photography and client service. As such, I spent countless hours in its service area and learned a great deal about the electric utility industry from its leaders.
One of the lessons I treasure most about those early years was getting to observe the progressive leadership of then-CEO Grady Smith. He built a top-tier executive team, surrounding himself with people who had the same passion for the cooperative mission that he held, matched by the energy and drive to pursue excellence at every level. They moved Cullman Electric Cooperative forward, serving its members well while becoming a model for others in the state and Tennessee Valley region.
That commitment to excellence has never waned. The cooperative’s CEO Tim Culpepper served the utility as general counsel many years and was ideally suited to keep Cullman Electric on the leading edge of member service. Nowhere is that more evident than in this week’s announcement of its broadband program.
WordSouth was honored to be chosen by Cullman Electric as its communications partner in the utility’s efforts to solve a problem found in thousands of rural American communities. With yesterday’s launch of its Sprout Fiber Internet program, Cullman Electric joins a growing number of electric cooperatives determined to bring broadband access to their members. Moving into a new line of business, especially one so complex, is not an easy choice, and they are to be commended for the effort.
Access to a robust broadband network is vital to modern life, impacting everything from the economy and education to health care and community development. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the detrimental impact of not having access to broadband, with children studying from home and parents working from home and businesses desperately trying to survive in a new normal.
As Cullman Electric Cooperative builds out the portion of Phase One of its broadband network that will support its distribution system, members will benefit from an even more reliable electric system. That’s a major benefit, and it shows the power of broadband to support communities in ways that are not immediately evident. As work continues and members are directly connected, they will begin to experience the difference a true high-speed, robust broadband connection can make to their lives.
It will not be easy. The cooperative will face challenges similar to what all rural broadband providers face, challenges we’ve seen throughout the dozens of fiber builds we’ve supported. Members will likely grow impatient as demand outpaces construction. (Building a fiber network takes time.) There will be challenges related to materials and labor and to sustaining momentum as the project stretches from months to years. And there’s the ever-present challenge of broadband adoption — once the service is available in an area, a percentage of the population needs to be educated on how to apply this marvelous technology to their own lives.
But I predict that Cullman Electric Cooperative’s fiber build will not only succeed, but also stand as a model project for others to follow. The company’s focus on its mission, driven by a team devoted to nothing short of excellence, will ensure that members reap the benefits of a world-class broadband network.