Published by The Daily Yonder on December 5, 2018
by Janet Fix and Letty Shapiro
EDITOR’S NOTE: A new report from Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (a federal regulatory agency) encourages banks to invest and participate in projects that improve broadband for underserved communities. Besides meeting community needs and improving their own internet access, banks may be eligible to count broadband projects toward federal requirements to support local development, the report says. The following excerpt describes how United Bank in Monroe County, Alabama, teamed up with three other businesses to attract an internet service provider who agreed to extend its fiber-optic network to the county.
In 1992, when Robert Jones became president and chief executive of United Bank, his slide rule was nearby and, like other executives, he had no idea how his business would be transformed by the newly launched world wide web. Today, the slide rule is in a display case, and United Bank and three of its business customers enjoy high-speed internet thanks to a deal that extended an existing fiber-optic network into their low-income rural area.
The digital transformation of United Bank, operating since 1904 in Atmore, Alabama (population 10,194), began after too few customers used its new website and after one too many video conferences were interrupted between the bank’s 17 branches located in southwest Alabama and northwest Florida.
“It dawned on us that nobody uses our website because all they had was poor, unreliable internet access,” Mr. Jones recalled. “In our rural area, the reliability and availability of broadband — or even reasonably acceptable high-speed internet — simply did not exist.”
He wanted United Bank to have reliable, high-speed internet to deliver online banking services — bill pay, money transfers, and loan applications — to customers in Monroeville (population 6,000) and Frisco City (population 1,212).
No internet provider, however, had been willing to build a fiberoptic network for the economically depressed towns in Monroe County, Alabama. The county— best known as home to Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and journalist Truman Capote—had struggled economically for years. For many years, Monroe County struggled economically as residents moved elsewhere for jobs because businesses such as Vanity Fair Brands, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, closed down, Mr. Jones said. The businesses that remained struggled to compete because of unreliable internet.
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