In June of 2020, Cullman Electric Cooperative launched Sprout Fiber Internet, a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network to bring broadband access to its members in rural Alabama. Sprout Fiber has taken significant strides since then, connecting its 1,300th subscriber in October of 2021.
By July of 2020, Sprout Fiber had started the first phase of network construction, with plans to connect 25 percent of Cullman’s membership – or 12,000 households – by spring of 2022. Sprout’s first customer was connected in January 2021. By the following September, Sprout was serving “over 1,000 broadband customers and handling about 12 activations per day,” with a little under half of its Phase I deployment finished. This puts its take rate around 20 percent in less than a year. By November, Sprout Fiber had completed a fiber ring backbone to connect its offices and substations.
Expanding Access and Choices
Local competition includes AT&T and Charter Spectrum, which offer service to the town of Cullman itself but not to its surrounding areas. Several wireless and satellite providers also offer service locally. There is significant demand for Sprout Fiber’s service, however, including from members in gap areas that don’t have other options for high-speed Internet access. According to Sprout Fiber, “twenty-five percent of [its] service territory still does not have any access to [the] Internet, and other areas do not have access to a quality Internet connection.”
Guided by member demand and targeting areas without existing robust broadband infrastructure, Sprout Fiber plans to expand broadband service into ten new areas and to 9,000 additional members in 2022 (see map below, with green areas live right now, with pink scheduled to go live early in 2022 and purple to follow thereafter. For a high-resolution version of the map, click here). Cullman Electric CEO Tim Culpepper told members:
“Our ultimate goal is to make Sprout available to every co-op member. This project is a massive undertaking, and we understand everybody needs this service now. In order to reach our ultimate goal, our 2022 expansion will focus on bringing service to areas with a combination of the fewest options for reliable Internet service and the highest demand expressed among co-op members.”
Cullman Electric acknowledges complete buildout will take longer than just another year of construction, but if it stays on pace will likely connect all 44,000 of its members in the next few years.
Because Alabama places a number of restrictions on municipal broadband, the cooperative model is likely the most straightforward. Though municipalities are permitted to operate telecommunications services, they must conduct a referendum prior to offering cable service and are barred from using local tax-dollars to fund start-up costs. Finally, contrary to common industry practice, state law requires each telecommunications service (voice, video, and data) to be self-sustaining, thus preventing bundling. Notwithholding a removal of those barriers by the state legislature, the path taken by Cullman Electric remains the most likely route for residents get get a community-driven solution to improve local Internet access.
Sprout Fiber Internet offers a 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) option for $80/month and a 300 Mbps option for $60/month, with no data caps, contracts, or additional fees for equipment or installation.