Joe Wheeler EMC gearing up for high-speed internet customers

Jul. 4—TRINITY — Lawrence County resident David Terry is one of a few dozen people using Joe Wheeler EMC's developing high-speed internet system, and he expects the initial offering of the service to paying customers in a couple of weeks and the widespread rollout over the next five years to have a dramatic impact in a coverage area that is largely rural.

Terry, a manager at GE in Decatur who lives in the Caddo area, compares the expansion of broadband internet to governmental programs that brought electricity to the rural South a century ago, helping the region to grow, connect to the national economy and improve standards of living.

"High-speed internet is in many ways as important now to the region as those first power poles and wires that were installed 100 years ago," Terry said. "... In order to continue to be relevant now, competitive, and have a continued improvement in education and standard of living in what is now a world economy, the needs have changed."

Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. announced two years ago plans to bring the availability of high-speed internet to its 43,000 customers in Lawrence and Morgan counties.

The price tag for design, installation and maintenance of its 3,400-mile Flash-Fiber system is expected to be $95 million to $100 million, the utility said. It will take about five years for the entire coverage area to have access, but the first paying customers should be able to hook up in about two weeks.

Company spokesperson Michael Cornelison said the fiber optic system will provide customers with speed options of 300 megabytes per second, 1 gigabyte per second and 2 gigabytes per second. He said the 2 gigabyte plan is among the fastest in the state. Monthly costs are $59.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively, plus tax, he said.

The utility also is offering internet phone service, known as VOiP, which will be offered for $29.95 per month with internet or $54.75 without.

Lawrence County Commission Chairman Norman Pool said affordable, high-speed internet is "long overdue" in the county and that residents should strap themselves in because changes will be immediate in residential and business growth as broadband allows the county to participate in a booming north Alabama economy.

"If you don't have high-speed internet, you don't know what's going on," said Pool, the owner of Pool Farm Equipment Inc. in the Hatton community. "This will bring more residents and should attract more business into Lawrence and Morgan counties. It's been long-needed."

Terry is one of the "friendlies" the utility is using as test customers to help work out initial problems with the system.

"We have 45 people connected but are not charging them right now," Cornelison said. "We're in test mode. We are working through some bugs that arise in the system."

He said those bugs have included some firewall issues and equipment issues causing erratic speeds.

"There's been times we haven't gotten consistent speeds for whatever reason," he said. "We want to fix these problems before we take on paying customers. ... We want to be better than the other guys — have better speed and better service."

Cornelison said as of Friday, 5,885 customers had signed up for the internet service. "We're aiming for a 50% to 60% take rate when all is said and done. That'll be about 20,000 to 25,000 customers," he said.

Early orders are seeing more customers than expected requesting the higher speeds, he said.

"We were expecting 80% to sign up for 300 mbps and about 12% for 1 gbps and the remainder for 2 gbps," he said "But those numbers are shaping up like 60%, 25% and 15% respectively."

Terry said the 300 mbps is adequate for his family's needs.

The utility has divided the service area into 12 zones, and contractors are now installing fiber in Zone 1 in the Caddo-Trinity area. Cornelison said he expects it to be five years before the utility's entire coverage area has service available.

"We're on track to meet that timeline," Cornelison said. "We've had some delays in 2020 because of COVID, with fiber and some equipment not being available."

He added Zone 12, along Alabama 101 to East Lawrence, likely won't be the last to receive service. He was hesitant to say which geographic zone might be last, but said Zone 4, between Moulton and Hartselle in the Danville area, needs "a lot of construction to be done." Priceville and Somerville areas should see the internet service by late 2022 or early 2023, Lacey's Spring by early 2023 and Eva by late 2023, Cornelison said.

As an early tester, Terry said he's impressed with the planning Joe Wheeler EMC has done on the system.

"It appears Joe Wheeler has done their homework and thought through and planned for all the various facets of taking on the installation of a new data highway along their existing power delivery routes," he said.

Terry said he hopes the customer service he has received continues once the service area is in full operation.

"Over the long haul how the addition of thousands of new customers on the system might impact the existing excellent service" is an open question, he said. "How responsive will customer technical support be as the network equipment ages, etc.? But Joe Wheeler is no stranger to these challenges — they do it every day with electricity — so I expect they will put that knowledge to good use in maintaining their new network."

Cornelison said internet customers will receive an Amazon Firestick, which will enable their regular high-definition TVs to become smart TVs allowing them to receive live streaming of network programs. Joe Wheeler will conduct quarterly training sessions for customers unfamiliar with the process.

"We want people to get the most out of their internet," he said. or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.