Federal grant should spur new investments and create jobs in the region

Story: Phillip Tutor

The University of West Alabama’s latest effort to improve lives and economic opportunities in Sumter County is rooted in a single word: infrastructure.

In December, UWA received a $1.65 million federal grant over two years from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That money will fund internet-related additions both on and off campus, most notably providing broadband technology, digital equipment, computers and wifi hotspots to community locations in Sumter and Greene counties.

“We know that is a great need, and a lot of what we do is industrial work infrastructure,” said Allison Brantley, director of economic development for UWA’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development. “Broadband is infrastructure.”

The NTIA grants are a small component of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which President Biden signed in November 2021, and its $65 billion promise to expand Americans’ access to high-speed internet service. As part of its Internet for All initiative, the NTIA developed a pilot program, called Connecting Minority Communities (CMC), whose grants are designed to improve technology assets in local communities and schools and increase residents’ digital literacy skills.

NTIA guidelines allow grants from the $268 million CMC program to be awarded to historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions such as UWA. UWA was one of five institutions that received NTIA grants in December, joining California State University campuses in Dominguez Hills and Fresno; Lincoln University of Missouri in Jefferson City, Mo; and Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La. Collectively, the five schools received more than $18.5 million.

“As a regional institution of higher learning, we believe a significant part of our mission is to serve the needs of our rural region, and this NTIA grant clearly does that,” said UWA President Ken Tucker. “It will provide much-needed forward momentum for communities immediately surrounding UWA, and also enhance the University’s ability to recruit and retain students and employees. We are working proactively to strengthen our larger community’s economic foundation and thus improve the overall quality of life for both current and future generations of students, faculty, and staff, as well as the general population. As the only university in Alabama included in these grant awards, we believe that the regional component of our mission that this funding supports is validated at the federal level, and we are very grateful for this support.”

“When we go out in the communities and work with businesses and individuals in our region, everything always comes back to broadband and broadband access,” said Dr. Tina Jones, vice president of the university’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development and assistant provost at UWA. “We can put infrastructure in place, but we know that digital literacy is a big piece of this. Infrastructure may be there, but if individuals can’t access it or if they don’t know how to use it, then it’s not helpful. This is the other side of that broadband piece that we hear the communities asking for.”

UWA administrators plan a host of internet-related improvements that will include expanding network capabilities at the university’s Development Center and the West Alabama Center for Conservation and Agriculture on campus and adding additional laptops, hotspots and video conferencing rooms for UWA students. The grant also will fund another mobile lab unit for the university’s fleet of Skills on Wheels trailers and a truck to pull them. The new mobile unit will allow university personnel to teach digital literacy skills throughout the region. 

“We are in a global and virtual world. If you’re going to stay competitive, you’ve got to compete with everyone who already has the technology we need. And we know there’s a good bit of Alabama who doesn’t have it.”

— Allison Brantley, UWA’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development

Off campus, UWA will provide Sumter County communities with computers, digital equipment and internet access for public use. Along with improving residents’ internet and computer skills, Brantley said, the ultimate goal is to provide high-speed internet access so they can participate in activities such as telehealth appointments, online training sessions, remote education classes or virtual meetings.

UWA will install the equipment in eight cities, towns and unincorporated communities in Sumter County — Livingston, Epes, Emelle, York, Cuba, Gainesville, Geiger and Panola — and Boligee in neighboring Greene County. The university is working with local authorities to determine the best locations in city halls, public libraries and community centers. 

“We are in a global and virtual world,” Brantley said. “If you’re going to stay competitive, you’ve got to compete with everyone who already has the technology we need. And we know there’s a good bit of Alabama who doesn’t have it.”

UWA’s grant proposal outlines administrators’ expectations that the CMC money “will spark new investment, create and cultivate jobs, support existing industry, and promote positive economic development in a rural region.” Considering broadband internet access a modern necessity is undeniable, Brantley said, which makes UWA’s role in the region all the more important.

“You have to have broadband now. If we want to recruit more industry here, we have to have broadband because that’s how they operate,” she said. “We can’t function without water, sewer and gas and cell phones, and broadband is becoming the same way. Our businesses, schools, the university — we can’t exist without broadband.”