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HAMILTON, AL - Maybe it seems laughable, maybe certainly unthinkable.

A world without internet? That sounds as crazy as a home without electricity.

Which was exactly the point U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt made while speaking recently in Hamilton in rural northwest Alabama. And it's why Aderholt invited U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to visit his Alabama congressional district and bring a big check.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided a $3 million grant to partner with Tombigbee Communications to extend its broadband internet service to a sparsely populated area.

It was, Perdue said, not unlike bringing electricity to homes in the 20th century.
So Aderholt talked about his father, Bobby, growing up without electricity in the same rural northwest Alabama region.

"While so much of America was living in the 20th century back in the 1930s and 1940s, my dad and so many in his generation in rural Alabama and rural Georgia and rural America were still living in the 19th century," the congressman said. "It took the (USDA's) Rural Electrification Administration to change all that.

"We now need this kind of same push and this same kind of effort when it comes to broadband access to rural America."

Because without it, you're still stuck in the 20th century.

"This situation is exactly what we saw when we saw the need to expand electricity 100 years ago," Aderholt said.

Gov. Kay Ivey said that some 842,000 people living in rural Alabama do not have access to broadband internet. That's almost 20 percent of the state's population living without what Aderholt and Perdue would describe as 21st century electricity.

Project that percentage across the rest of rural America and that's why Aderholt led the push in Congress' recently-passed spending bill to include $625 million specifically to expand broadband access to the countryside.

Aderholt described it as a major statement on the importance of rural America.

"For too long, the people who have been making decisions who affect daily lives as rural America as some of that other part of the country," Aderholt said. "They recognize that rural America is out there. They know it's out there somewhere. And they know there are needs for rural America. But it always seems to be something we're going to do next year or next time."

The support for the funding was strong from the White House, Aderholt said.

"President Trump understands the importance of rural Alabama and rural America," Aderholt said. "Because he understands rural America, that's why he wanted to be a supporter of legislation like this."

The funds will be administered by the USDA and Perdue said the agency expects to begin receiving applications from state and local governments this summer. It will likely require matching funds in the manner of the grant provided to Tombigbee, which has already spent almost four times as much of its own money in the project as it received in federal funding.

Perdue, the former governor of Georgia before joining Trump's cabinet as agriculture secretary, lauded the work that Tombigbee is doing. The company has already established broadband connections in small towns such as Hamilton and Winfield and will use the USDA grant to expand it in area of Brilliant - population: 900 - in Marion County.

Ultimately, Tombigbee president and CEO Steve Foshee wants to carry broadband connectivity to every household in the company's four-county footprint of Marion, Winston, Fayette and Lamar - an objective, he acknowledged, as "an ambitious goal."

"Steve, what you and your board of directors and the team her at Tombigbee have done is exactly what I hope we can see all across of rural America," Perdue said during the ceremony inside a Tombigbee hangar in Hamilton.

"Today, the connectivity we're talking about is data connectivity. We need to be connected with one another from a data perspective and that's exactly what (Tombigbee's) 'freedom Fiber' does. You are the forerunners of what I hope to see all across the country. It is potentially one of the most transformative things I think of the 21st century we can see all across America to give all of rural America access to highest-speed broadband connectivity like Tombigbee has done. Thank you for leading the way."

The power of broadband access is not simply to download movies or music quicker or to browse the internet at a faster speed. It's about economic development and improving quality of life, Aderholt said.

"There's really been created two Americas," Aderholt said. "One America where people have access to the best tools, access to high-speed broadband internet where they can educate their children, they can run and expand their business and they can access the latest medical technology and the latest expertise.

"The other America has been cut off from some of these same opportunities. And we find ourselves waiting to get and wanting to get what those cities in suburban areas have had for many years."

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It's a massive project. Foshee said that for Tombigbee to reach every household in its four-county region will cost about $40 million. So even as Perdue praised the work done already by Tombigbee - which has invested more than $10 million itself in installing broadband to be coupled with the $3 million federal grant - the work is not even halfway to completion.

"This is for our people," Foshee said. "It's to change the narrative of northwest Alabama. We're saying we're open for business, we're open to having the best educational system in America. We're open to having great access to medicine.

"We hope this can be a model. We hope this can spread throughout Alabama. We'd like to see every household have a gigabyte connection. It would change Alabama."

Massive project and cost or not, Aderholt said, rural America can't continue to be an afterthought in Washington.

"From the perspective of all of us who are here today, it's hard to imagine anyone that could not see the importance of rural America and the role it plays in making our country great," Aderholt said. "We supply access to wholesome food that is among the lowest cost in the world. We provide cotton that and other crops that feed and clothe the world and we provide the hands of labor in manufacturing.

"But unfortunately, to some people - especially in Washington, I have found - have a true misunderstanding of people who makes their lives in places like rural Alabama and rural America."

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