Federal grant to power fiber, wireless upgrades on Stillman campus

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has awarded Stillman College a $2.7 million grant to upgrade its fiber optic infrastructure to improve internet access, capacity, and performance.

Stillman’s award is part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, a $268 million grant program to Historically Black Colleges and Minority Serving Institutions for the installation of broadband internet access service and eligible equipment, and training of IT personnel.  

Stillman will use its grant funding to overhaul its fiber network, which was installed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and its wireless network, said Abe Harper, chief information officer for Stillman College.

The upgrades will provide Stillman more robust infrastructure that will support both instructional uses and student activities, like streaming and e-sports for the entire campus and some the adjacent community. The new network infrastructure will also be more resilient to weather events and easier to repair.

“This project is transformational – it’s really going to move Stillman forward,” said Dy. Cynthia Warrick, president of Stillman College. “Additionally, these upgrades will provide the much-needed support for our new cybersecurity and IT training center, dual-enrollment programs, and online programs, as well as our library and student initiatives.”

Harper said the fiber optic upgrades will begin in the summer and will be finished by the fall. The wireless network overhaul should be finished by the end of the year. Harper said that, while the true impact of the upgrades won’t be realized until all upgrades are finished, the campus community will notice improvements in speed and connectivity over the next 60 days, as the college will increase its bandwidth through Comcast and AT&T.

“A gross improvement of our wireless network can be expected once we have the new fiber installed,” Harper said. “But we will have 10 gigs of internet on campus before we break in May.

The announcement of the NTIA award comes just four months after the United States Economic Development Administration awarded $2.7 million to Stillman to develop a cybersecurity and information technology training center in Geneva Hall. The center will support the college’s cybersecurity degree program and will serve as a community hub for IT certificate programs in cybersecurity, IT, cloud computing, and other areas.

The end-of-year timeframe for completion of fiber and wireless upgrades should align with the renovation schedule for the Geneva Hall center, which will require robust and reliable broadband internet to access high-capacity data and processes.

“Not only will our fiber and wireless upgrades fix issues of today, but it will change Stillman’s IT capacity for the future,” said Dr. Kevin Harris, chair of the Department of Computational & Informational Sciences in the Stillman College School of Business and principal investigator for the grant. “It’s exciting for Stillman to be able to grow and expand what our students, faculty and staff can do day to day.”

The grant will also fund the purchase of up to 150 laptop computers for campus and community use at Sheppard Library and the cyber security training center.

In addition to supporting infrastructure, the grant provides funding to increase faculty positions to expand technology offerings.

“Recognizing the need for strategic implementation of new technology initiatives across programs and departments, a Technology Strategist position was included, and I look forward to serving in this role as we increase our technical capacity,” Harris said.


Stillman’s current fiber and wireless network infrastructure cannot support the demands of a modern campus – web meetings, virtual instruction, research, streaming, and more – nor can it support the number of users or surges in usage.

The fiber network is fragile and can’t be upgraded due to changes in the standard of fiber optics since the early 1990s. Hence, the project to replace the older fiber system.

Harper likened the upgrade to modernizing city roadways to accommodate more traffic.

“Think about a city built in the 1970s with two-lane roads and 40-foot easements,” he explained. “Today, you’ll find more curb cuts and egress paths within 12 feet of each other rather than dead space that can’t be accessed. There’s [also] higher quality asphalt that’s more resilient and repairable than the legacy concrete, roundabouts for more consistent flow, and better street lighting for a more efficient city that can handle scalable, growing traffic. What we’re doing is changing our core and delivery infrastructure – the old archaic fiber we can’t upgrade within – and putting in new fiber, core assets, and delivery mechanisms to pass more data more consistently, and, ultimately, it will be more resilient against all technical and environmental adversaries, including extreme weather conditions.

“Stillman will become a ‘21st Century Smart Campus.’”