Last legislative session, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a bill that allows electric membership cooperatives to sell internet services along with power. Lawmakers hoped that the change would spark the spread of broadband throughout rural Georgia.
But results came up shorter than expected, legislators said, the state of rural broadband is now reaching “critical” levels.
“It’s not becoming less of a problem,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, said. “If you go out to Georgia where we don’t have broadband, you’ll see those folks are suffering even more as the economy in the world and in Georgia moves forward. If you don’t have that broadband service, you won’t be able to move with it.”
The utility pole rates for the state’s EMCs and companies like Georgia Power and AT&T are vastly different — cable companies paying single digits to attach to Georgia Power poles and double digits to attach to the state’s local cooperatives, he said.
The greatest barrier to entry for areas without rural broadband, Kennedy said, is the cost of the poll attachment.
Kennedy has introduced a fix — legislation called the Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act would curb “discriminatory rates and fee practices” by EMCs and provide a blanket rate for all pole attachments.
Kennedy said the legislation would boost incentives for internet companies to expand into rural areas.
“We had lots of areas around the state where nobody has gone and we don’t have broadband there,” he said. “That’s the problem we all committed last year to try to fix.”
According to statistics Kennedy presented to the Senate Regulated Industries committee, the national average cost of a pole attachment is around $9.30 to attach to poles. Georgia Power charges $6.50 while Georgia EMCs have some of the highest rates in the country at $19.80.
Comcast penned a letter in support of the bill, pledging to bring broadband to 20,000 homes and businesses in rural areas in the next three years if utility pole rates were made the same across the board.
Andy Macke, Vice President of external affairs for Comcast said that they have been able to make a “business case” to spread some investments in rural Georgia but with costs so high, there’s not much more they can do.
Comcast employs 4,000 workers across the state and spends around $300 million annually in broadband infrastructure in Georgia, he said.
“We’re here to advance rural broadband expansion in Georgia, simple enough,” Macke said. “If the pole attachment rates across the state were the same…then we can make significant investments in Georgia.”
But lawmakers on the committee were wary to take his word for it.
Sen. John Albers, chairman of the Public Safety committee, brought up the point that with no accountability provision in the bill as is, it would be hard to hold internet service providers to their promises.
“How can we truly put accountability on this,” Albers said “Because otherwise we might pass this and be back here again next year looking at it again.”
Jason Bragg, a lobbyist for Georgia EMCs, represents 41 electric cooperatives that serve 4.6 million Georgians.
Bragg disagreed with the notion that EMCs haven’t expanded into rural Georgia since Senate Bill 2 was passed last session.
Multiple EMCs have applied for federal reconnect grants but were unsuccessful, Bragg said, but no cable companies applied for that money.
Georgia EMCs predicted that a $7 pole attachment rate across the board would cause a $27.5 million annual rate increase across rural Georgia rate payers.
EMC pole rates are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission through a complicated formula.
A change in EMC pole attachment rates, Bragg said, would have a large financial impact on rate payers. Attaching to a preexisting EMC pole, he said, costs much less than cable providers budding their own infrastructure.
“We feel that we help defray their costs to reach the customers they seek to reach,” he said.
Bragg said they would support legislation to add new poles to underserved areas but not the current bill.
A similar bill curbing high utility poll rates was introduced in the House last session and favorably reported out of committee, then recommitted.
Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said it’s a shame that some youth in rural Georgia don’t have the ability to do their homework on a computer and are often forced to sit outside libraries or fast food businesses to access the internet.
“We have discussed this over and over,” he said. “We talked about broadband because we were trying to do something about health care….What we need to do is move forward to make sure Georgians are on the path the right way and it can be done because the poles are already there.”