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More cash coming for rural broadband
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Paladin Wireless is preparing to install internet access points on the utility pole shown behind the company’s van in The Heritage neighborhood in Jefferson. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Fortmann)

Rural broadband projects across the nation are getting another infusion of federal cash, this time through the United States Department of Agriculture.

With President Donald Trump’s focus on rural and blue-collar America, the federal government has made internet access outside of metropolitan areas a priority for the past year. The same issues have come into focus in Atlanta, where the Georgia General Assembly has approved two rural broadband bills that ease access to state rights of way for internet projects, set aside cash for technology grants and lay the groundwork for public-private partnerships to bring internet to small communities.

The state keeps an interactive map online that tracks a large amount of information about the state’s internet connectivity, from areas served by fiber optic cable, DSL, cable and areas that aren’t served at all.

In Hall County, almost the entire area is served by wireless internet — the networks accessed by mobile phones — but coverage quickly drops off in North Hall and East Hall when checking for DSL, cable and fiber optic service.

As a result, internet speeds are dramatically different in metro Atlanta and cities than in rural North Georgia. Near Gainesville, customers have access to maximum download speeds of more than 100 mbps — plenty fast enough to support educational, medical and commercial needs of a community as well as any at-home internet use.

That figure falls into a trough in the area between Gainesville, Athens and the South Carolina border, where speeds max out between 3-10 mbps. The same is true for much of rural North Georgia.

Sonny Perdue, current U.S. secretary of agriculture and a former governor of Georgia, opened his 44-page report on rural prosperity with a need for greater rural internet access.

“E-connectivity, or electronic connectivity, is more than just connecting households, schools and health care centers to each other as well as the rest of the world through high-speed internet,” Perdue wrote. “It is also a tool that enables increased productivity for farms, factories, forests, mining and small businesses.”

As a result, the federal grants keep flowing.

From Alaska to Tennessee, the USDA gave out more than $34 million to corporations, nonprofits, governments and tribes building out rural broadband networks in fiscal year 2017, and a similar amount of cash is likely coming this year, according to a Tuesday, March 20, announcement.

Exactly how much money will be delivered is difficult to predict because of gridlock in Congress, which is operating on a series of short-term continuing resolutions instead of annual budgets, making planning more difficult for relatively small programs like the USDA’s Community Connect grant program.

Should the next spending fight leave the grant program untouched, it would spend about the same amount of money through grants of $100,000 to $3 million for organizations building out broadband networks in the next year.

Based on the 2017 schedule, the USDA should announce grant winners in the fall of 2018. The grants require a 15 percent match.

The Federal Communications Commission rolled out its latest round of funding for rural broadband in February. The Connect America Fund will deliver almost $200 million each year for the next 10 years. AT&T and Windstream have gotten most of the FCC grant money in North Georgia.

Rural broadband expansion isn’t just a government priority. In Georgia, AT&T is testing a project called AirGig, which aims to send high-speed internet through power lines.

“We hope that one day there will be no need to build new towers or bury new cables in locations close to aerial power lines,” states the AT&T announcement of the project from late 2017. “Instead, using AirGig patented technology, we would install devices to provide high-speed broadband which can be clamped on by trained electrical workers in just a few minutes.”

On a smaller scale, Paladin Wireless in Royston is coming up with its own new methods for delivering high-speed internet to underserved cities — and even drilling down to specific neighborhoods.

This Thursday, March 22, the company will be in the Jefferson neighborhood The Heritage installing two poles to host radio-based wireless internet that will deliver high-speed internet to owners in the 153-home neighborhood.

Seth Odom, president of the neighborhood homeowners association, said on Thursday that the area was looking forward to the new option.

When not traveling for work, Odom works from home and home-schools his children — placing heavy demands on internet use at the home. With Windstream, he said he hasn’t gotten close to the necessary speed to meet the family’s demands.

While the project in Jefferson will have its own poles, sometimes the relatively new internet system doesn’t even need poles. It can instead be mounted onto existing structures — think grain silos, water towers and tall buildings, to serve the area around the equipment.

Paladin owner Stephen Fortmann said he’s trying to find ways to bring higher speeds to underserved areas to even the playing field between rural and metro areas.

“What we’re doing is we’re not allowing these entire communities to have equal access to the things the metro people get to have. My kids went to school up here, Franklin County High School, and they don’t offer AP classes,” Fortmann said on Tuesday. “I came from Dunwoody … everybody did that, right? This high school doesn’t do that, but if you want to do that you can take those courses online. Well that’s great — guess what you don’t have in Franklin County?”

Franklin County sits between Gainesville and Lake Hartwell and, before Fortmann opened up shop, had little in the way of high-speed internet.

The internet provider, who has been critical of the FCC grant program, said he’s excited about more tailored options for capital grants similar to those offered by the USDA. However, he said even the Community Connect program has a deeply complicated application process difficult for small operators.

As a result, he said he hopes more cities and counties get involved in improving internet connectivity.

“The federal government is too far away to know if the $120 million they spent in Georgia actually did anything, but cities like Royston or Canon or Jefferson — those people, they would know if that money was put to good use,” Fortmann said.

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