While you might surf the web on your smartphone or download your favorite television shows on your laptop without a second thought, hundreds of thousands of rural Georgians are still lacking adequate access to broadband that has become as common as electricity or water to others.

A recently published broadband availability map by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs shows that of the more than 507,000 homes and businesses lacking access to reliable broadband, nearly 70% of these locations are in rural parts of Georgia where residents and businesses owners must either travel to gain access to the high speed internet they need or use other sometimes slower and more unreliable service such as satellite internet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines reliable broadband as 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload.

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), who also serves as chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, has tried for years to lower the number of those affected by slow or no service.

“I worked on this thing for about three years,” Stephens said of House Bill 244, better known as the Broadband Opportunity Act.

Signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in early August, the bill will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, and requires Georgia’s Electric Membership Corporations (EMCs) to charge fair and reasonable pole attachment rates to broadband competitors, such as Comcast, AT&T and others, as determined by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).

Before House Bill 244, cable companies had been reluctant to attach their equipment to the EMCs poles due to the rental cost. That left thousands of rural customers without service. But that is expected to change once rates become more predictable.

Chris Clark, CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said in a recent opinion column that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed systemic rural issues as well as raised new concerns.

“Rural students are often considered disadvantaged because they are not properly connected, and the lockdown illustrated that a lack of 5G and broadband only furthers the issues of disparity and economic immobility in these areas,” Clark wrote. “We appreciate Comcast, Google, Verizon, Georgia’s EMCs, Windstream, and AT&T who have all invested in rural Georgia connectivity in recent months.”

More broadband relief came in the previous legislative session from Senate Bill 2, which granted EMCs the opportunity to get into the broadband business. Still, the issue came back to the cost of pole attachments.

“The problem is, and this was for the past three, four or even five years that we’ve worked on this broadband bill, is pole attachments, because once we gave them essentially a monopoly to get into the business of broadband they were charging in some cases the highest rates to attach their competitors to the poles in the country,” Stephens said.

According to Stephens, the FCC rate that companies such as Georgia Power and others charge for pole attachments is less than $10, but some EMCs were charging three times as much and with more than 30 different EMCs, he said it was difficult to craft a bill that everyone agreed on.

Lawmakers and EMCs finally struck a deal that allows the current contracts held by the EMCs to remain in place, but once they expire, instead of the legislature setting the pole attachment rates, that responsibility will go to the PSC.

“So all these individual EMCs, the co-ops, can continue their contracts until they expire; some of those are 10 years. But at least it gives some competition, if you will, and the opportunity for other companies to get out and provide broadband into rural Georgia,” Stephens said.

For companies like Comcast the passage of the Broadband Opportunity Act was an exciting advancement. The act is now with the PSC where it will undergo a proceeding to establish what are just and reasonable rates for infrastructure attachments to utility poles, said Comcast Vice President of Public Relations Alex Horwitz.

“The PSC has the opportunity to establish reasonable rates so we can further deploy broadband services. In fact, we are committed to reaching 20,000 new unserved residential and business customers in Georgia if the PSC can establish fair pole attachment rates,” he said.

While Comcast doesn’t release exact customer numbers, they’re the largest provider in the three-county area of Bryan, Chatham and Effingham counties, according to Horwitz.

According to the state-created map, there are 148,279 locations served in Chatham County and 1,375 (or 1% underserved). In Bryan County there are 16,996 locations served and 560 (or 3% underserved). In Effingham County there are 24,956 locations with 1,650 (or 6% underserved).

The company has recently announced efforts to expand its network in the rural west Georgia communities of Tallapoosa, Mount Zion, Waco and Whitesburg. The $9 million investment will provide 1-Gigabit speed broadband service to almost 8,000 previously unserved homes and businesses in the region.

“Many factors are taken into consideration, including the number of residential and business customers we can potentially serve, cost of construction, as well as proximity to our network and technical operations teams,” Horwitz said.

“However, there are some low-density areas where it is not feasible for Comcast to pursue.”

There are not currently any plans for such an expansion in Bryan, Chatham or Effingham counties, but Horwitz said the company continues to review opportunities for network expansion, especially in rural areas where there can be significant infrastructure challenges, we are partnering with municipalities to apply for grants.

“This helps change the economics so private providers, like Comcast, can expand networks in the most cost-efficient manner,” he said.

Senate Bill 2

While the Broadband Opportunity Act may pave the way for more options, local EMCs said everything they’re doing to provide high speed internet access to their customers is a result of Senate Bill 2, which was passed during the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly and allows EMCs to provide broadband services.

So far, Midway-based Coastal Electric Cooperative (CE) has made fiber optic cable a part of the construction of a 115,000-volt transmission line built across the salt marsh along I-95 between Midway and Richmond Hill. The 12-mile project was the installation of the first fiber optic cable on their system and is the backbone fiber that already connects their electric substations to their broadband network.

Soon many of those fiber strands will connect the unserved and underserved homes and businesses throughout the CE service territory.

“Senate Bill 2 is really the legislation that enabled the EMCs to become part of the broadband solution,” said Coastal Electric Cooperative CEO Chris Fettes. “Until then, we really needed some statutory clarification on, were we even enabled under our statutes to provide a broadband service and telecom service as an electrical membership corporation.”

Although rural EMCs have been enabled to provide the service, they face the same economic hurdles as the major broadband providers. Steve Chalker, a spokesman for the Jefferson Energy Cooperative, said the nonprofit that serves 11 rural counties around Augusta lacks the funds to add fiber to its network.

“Right now we can’t justify the costs to our members,” he said. “We would need a third-party partner to help provide the service.”

Jim Stritzinger, CEO of Revolution D, a Columbia, South Carolina-based consulting firm that works with cities on broadband access issues, believes federal intervention is required to narrow the digital divide in rural communities.

He cited the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided federal loans to build electricity service to rural areas, as an example of a potential solution. Although subsidies have been available for years through the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC’s new $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, ups the ante. He also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new ReConnect program has set aside $600 million for loans and grants to rural providers and Indian tribal governments.

“Those are two big pots of cash,” Stritzinger said. “And a lot of people don’t know about that.”

Fettes said CE, which serves just over 20,000 customers in parts of Bryan, Liberty, Long and McIntosh counties, hopes to provide a plan to address issues including increased bandwidth and reliable connectivity. The pandemic has also helped to shine a light on where the service is needed the most, he said.

“We’re trying to provide a robust solution that gives people more choices for work from home or educate from home opportunities,” Fettes said.

“Obviously the pandemic has really heightened that need and almost simultaneously indicated where those unserved areas are. What we thought was adequately served once everyone was working from home, and once everyone was schooling from home, it was apparent that those areas may be served, but they were underserved.”

“Senate Bill 2 gave us mechanisms in which the EMCs could actually own the fiber, extend the fiber, either partner with an affiliate or create an affiliate. It gave us really five or six different business models in order to be part of the solution of getting reliable broadband to all of our members, customers in the area,” Fettes said.

“And then House Bill 244 does something else. House Bill 244 addresses some other opportunities that will help maybe incentivize those big cable companies that are attached to our poles to extend in some of those areas where maybe EMCs don’t have territory.”

Stephens said HB 244 was a landmark piece. In his 24 years as a lawmaker the bill was the hardest one to get over the finish line, he said. But it also one of the proudest.

“Nobody knew how important it was going to be for rural Georgia with this pandemic,” he said.

″…(Broadband) is as important as electricity was back whenever the EMCs were created to get power out to rural Georgia. If you don’t have broadband now it is as important to business and even more so to education.”