In 2017, fewer than 15 percent of Alabamians had access to fiber technology, and the state ranked in the bottom 10 for access to broadband internet – and in the rural parts of the state, that broadband gap was even wider. Recognizing that fiber internet is critical to meeting the ever-evolving needs of local schools, hospitals and businesses, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative (Tombigbee) was determined to provide rural northwest Alabama with access to reliable and affordable ultra-high-speed internet. Markstein’s challenge was three-fold: raise awareness and interest that would result in a positive public perception shift of rural Alabama, legislative action to advance the region, and incentivize consumers to sign up for the service once it became available.
Developing strong messaging was critical, as Tombigbee needed to educate residents, legislators and fellow electric cooperatives about their vision to launch Freedom FIBER, ultra-high-speed broadband internet and Voice over IP (VoIP) services. Markstein also developed the branding and audience-tailored supporting collateral for Freedom FIBER, drove awareness through earned and paid media, launched and developed content for social media channels, and planned and managed a well-attended ribbon-cutting event.
Six months after launch, more than 3,000 individuals in the sparsely populated region signed up for the service, and businesses and schools testified to the positive benefits the services provided. Following the successful launch of Freedom FIBER, the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act passed, legislation that encourages accelerated private investment in broadband infrastructure in rural areas. Tombigbee was also awarded a nearly $3 million grant administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, which Markstein helped publicize with a press conference alongside U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and state and local officials including Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt. The press event generated more than 90 media hits, reaching an estimated 49.5 million people.