Rural communities have dealt with lack of broadband access for years, but 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the digital divide in our state’s urban and rural communities more so than ever before. Teachers and students in rural school districts have been hit by the digital divide especially hard as they now struggle with a new school year outside of the classroom. A recent Georgia Department of Community Affairs study found that more than 507,000 homes and businesses in Georgia lacked access to reliable broadband internet. Nearly 70% of these homes and businesses were in rural locations.
In school districts like Jefferson County, teaching from home wasn’t an option so the full staff at Jefferson County Middle School has been coming into the school, Monday to Thursday so they can teach their classes with reliable internet access. Some students as well, have had to go into school to do their online work due to the lack of broadband access in their homes. Other students have had to resort to using public Wifi available in churches, parks, and even restaurants.
On Sept. 21, Jefferson County Middle School (JCMS) began giving students the option of in-school or online classes. Ken Hildebrant, the principal of JCMS said, “it leaves a tough choice for those with poor internet access: risk their child’s ability to access online course materials because of bad internet access, or risk their child contracting COVID.”
The Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in August of 2020, directs the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to review and rule on a matter that has slowed broadband expansion in rural Georgia communities. The Georgia PSC will set the rate that broadband companies will be charged to attach to electric membership cooperative utility poles. This charge, if based on the true costs of pole ownership, will determine the rate at which broadband can be expanded into rural communities and will help close the digital divide.