The lack of broadband in our rural communities has been placed front and center due to the pandemic as the world has been forced to move online for work, school and even healthcare. The digital divide, or lack of broadband access in rural communities in Georgia and across the country, has caused thousands who are unable to access broadband to be cut off from online life.
Online classes have been a savior for many schools, but thousands are unable to login to their “classrooms” or turn in their assignments from their homes, leading many students to spend hours in public parking lots or public spaces where Wi-Fi is provided.
The pandemic has indeed spurred a race to broadband expansion and closing the digital divide, but it is imperative that the infrastructure is set up properly during the expansion, or all of this hard work will be for nothing in the long run. Many cities turned to “government-owned networks” after the 2009 federal stimulus program provided funds to jump-start projects, but for the large majority these projects have not panned out as planned. A University of Pennsylvania study examined all public networks with available data and found that 11 of the 20 projects had a negative cash flow. The study labeled it’s findings a “red flag” for communities considering the investment of “government-owned networks”.
Before the pandemic even hit the country, the Georgia General Assembly was working to expand broadband to areas of the state where it is desperately needed. The House of Representatives passed a bill in March that could reduce the fee Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) charge Internet providers to use their utility poles to deploy broadband services to consumers at a reasonable rate. These companies have already pledged to expand broadband to thousands of unserved Georgians, if passed. The Senate is expected to review and consider the bill when lawmakers return to the Capitol.