Georgia’s woes with rural broadband don’t seem so rural when it turns out the shortages include portions of metro Atlanta’s urban core – in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. By Dec. 15, a plan to help alleviate the shortages is due from the state utilities regulator.

Thirty percent of Georgia is reported to be without broadband service because areas don’t have enough potential connections to warrant the investment of wires, including this region of Northwest Georgia. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Broadband isn’t available in a swath of south Fulton County, parts of the Roswell and Dunwoody areas, and in Census tracts in or near College Park, Lithonia and Marietta, to name a few, according to a pair of interactive maps released this summer by the state Department of Community Affairs.

The Georgia Public Service Commission is scheduled to release a decision on Dec. 15 that’s to help reduce, if not eliminate, the service shortages in metro Atlanta and statewide. An estimated 30 percent of Georgia is reported to be without access to broadband. Cable companies have determined the areas to be too sparsely populated to warrant the investment in wires and attachments to utility poles.

These shortages are always top of mind when companies look at potential sites in Georgia. Companies likely require broadband service, as do their executives who likely will be relocating with their families. Lack of broadband service leapt up as a national concern at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when school closures meant the end of school for students who don’t have access to broadband.

For example, Taliaferro County school Superintendent Allen Fort put a point on the issue in July. In the county located between Athens and Augusta, 54% of the county isn’t covered by broadband, according to DCA. Fort said the school’s system’s response to the lack of coverage was to load students into buses with hotspots. Cell service proved to be too weak to serve the hotspots.

Some areas of Northwest Georgia that are not served by broadband are not viable locations for respite from the pandemic. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The PSC was instructed this year by the state Legislature to set terms to govern the deals to provide broadband. Under the PSC’s governance, these deals are to be reached by cable companies, which would install the broadband wires, and electric membership corporations, which own power poles on which the broadband wires are attached. EMCs, including Cobb EMC and Walton EMC, serve areas not covered by Georgia Power.

Until now, the cable and EMC industries have brokered their own deals regarding pole attachments without state oversight.

However, the last deal expired about a decade ago. The two industries have not been able to reach a long-term agreement and the rate-setting battle arose in the Legislature in 2019, and was resolved this year.

Negotiations at the Capitol started with a bill that would have set rates for pole attachments at levels set by federal law and the Federal Communications Commission. The EMCs countered by saying the rates were set long ago and would not adequately compensate the EMCs’ for the costs of installing and maintaining poles.

A rustic home may be less than alluring if the modern amenity of broadband isn’t available to connect to the world beyond the treeline. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The matter was resolved when the House Rules Committee amended House Bill 244 so that the PSC was charged with determining the rates and terms for attachments of broadband wires to EMC poles. This version was approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

The PSC has been gathering information since September. From Nov. 17 through Nov. 20, the PSC conducted hearings to receive testimony from public witnesses. In weighing the determination to be released Dec. 15, the PSC was to consider issues that could factor into the cable companies’ decision to deliver broadband to unserved and underserved areas. The procedural ruling observes:

“In setting rates, fees, terms, conditions, and specifications, should the Commission consider whether they will promote the deployment of broadband services in unserved or underserved areas, such as the areas identified as unserved in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative Georgia Broadband Map? If so:

“How should such consideration be factored into the rates, fees, terms, conditions, and specifications?
“Should the Commission set different rates, fees, terms, conditions, or specifications for unserved or underserved areas in order to promote the deployment of broadband in such areas? If so, how should they be determined?
“Can the Georgia Broadband Map be incorporated into the cost model or methodology approved by the Commission and, if so, how?
“Can the rates and fees set for areas identified as served be used, indirectly or directly, to offset rates and fees for areas identified as unserved or underserved? If so, how should this be done?”