Getting broadband access in rural areas of Georgia could become easier, after Gov. Brian Kemp signed several bills to address the issue on Friday.
Three bills introduced by state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, address rural internet access, which he said is the top concern he hears from his constituents, who live in Fannin, Union, Gilmer, Lumpkin, White, Dawson and parts of Pickens and Forsyth counties.
“They’re paying for a service they’re not getting,” he said. “Kids would come home from school and have assignments for class projects and homework and it would require them to get on the internet to do work. … The parents would have to drive to town to go to the library or go to the Chick-fil-A and get on public Wi-Fi.”
A study committee on internet access traveled the state and found that people in rural areas all over Georgia had the same problem. Reliable internet is needed to support industry and other quality-of-life factors like health care and education, Gooch said.
“With the economy growing like it was, rural Georgia was still not growing like the rest of the more populated areas of the state were,” he said.
One of the bills Gooch introduced and Kemp signed Friday allows Georgia’s 41 electric membership corporations to enter the broadband business.
Some broadband companies do not want to invest in providing services in rural areas because the population is sparse, so they will probably see less of a return on that investment, Gooch said. But he said EMCs are locally managed and already have infrastructure and connections in rural areas.
“The EMCs are, I think, a logical solution to part of the broadband problem,” he said. “They’re not the silver bullet. … Every EMC in Georgia is not going to jump in to the broadband business next week.”
Jackson EMC does not have plans to offer broadband services.
“While some of our service area is rural, the majority of our members already have access to broadband service,” spokeswoman April Sorrow said in an email Friday.
Habersham EMC has deployed broadband services since 2011 through the Trailwave system. EMCs were not prohibited from operating the service before, but the bill signed Friday “specifically authorizes” the practice to provide clarity for EMCs, Habersham EMC spokesman Chris Rimel said.
“The decision of the board to allow HEMC to continue full-bore into the fiber-optic Internet business shows our commitment to the community,” Habersham EMC CEO Bradley Hicks said in a statement. “This project was under way even before the recent rural broadband state legislation enabled cooperatives to expand broadband service to underserved areas in rural Georgia. It was good timing.”
Another bill authorizes telephone cooperatives to provide the services, although Gooch said the majority of those cooperatives are in South Georgia.
To prepare for 5G technology, another bill signed Friday creates regulations for small cell technology and encourages companies to put that technology on existing poles.
“Instead of having cell towers that are 200 feet in the air and have lights that blink and you have them all over the landscape. … you’re going to see them camouflaged on street lights, light poles and utility poles and buildings around your city or town,” Gooch said.
The issue has been widely discussed on both the state and federal level, including at a May 2018 forum with Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.
Also, legislation introduced by Collins in January, the Connect America Fund Accountability Act of 2019, includes guidelines for the Connect America Fund, an FCC program that incentivizes broadband companies to provide service to rural areas.
The bill, which is currently in a House committee, would require companies that receive fund dollars to provide more information about how they test their services.
“For years, Northeast Georgians have consistently struggled to gain access to reliable broadband speeds. Congress has taken significant steps toward expanding rural broadband infrastructure in recent years, including securing federal funding to providers in rural areas,” Collins said in a statement in January. “However, some carriers – particularly in Northeast Georgia – have failed to provide adequate broadband speeds to consumers despite collecting taxpayer dollars.”
Gooch said Friday morning that internet access is an infrastructure challenge but will also be one of the biggest developments.
“I believe that internet service and broadband connectivity is going to be just as important in this century as the interstate system was in the 1950s,” Gooch said.