The issues plaguing rural Georgia’s broadband connectivity have simmered with increasing intensity over the last several years. However, that simmer has come to a rolling boil in the wake of the global pandemic, which has forced schools and some businesses to temporarily abandon their physical settings as they observe social distancing. After all, drastically limiting human contact is one of the only ways to curb the tide of the outbreak.
Indeed, with K-12 schools closed for the remainder of the school year, online-based learning has become the best option to keep students on track with their schoolwork. Most offices have turned to teleworking to continue operations. And telemedicine is becoming increasingly more available and most regulatory burdens have effectively been removed to encourage its usage.
Unfortunately, internet-based solutions cannot be fully utilized by consumers in rural areas where accessible, dependable broadband has yet to become commonplace. According to the FCC, 14.5 million rural households nationwide have no access to high-speed internet. More often though, as is the case with most of rural Georgia, users have limited internet access in the form of hard data limits and slow speeds, which is hardly a viable option for those whose work and school needs are the same as those in metro areas.
Consider this: in Buckhead users have several broadband providers available, including Google Fiber. Fiber advertises base plans starting at $55 a month and with that, users will get unlimited data with upload and download speeds of 500 megabytes per second (MBPS). In Crawford County, though, users have far fewer options. One of the most commonly used providers in Crawford is the satellite-based company, Hughes Net. Hughes’ most popular option costs $69.99 a month. With it, you can get 20 GB of data, which roughly translates to 30 hours of video streaming a month, with download speeds of 25 MBPS and upload speeds of 3 MBPS.
The absence of high-speed internet and its providers remains one of the most harmful blights on rural Georgia’s economy. In fact, each newly connected rural household could enjoy an estimated annual average of $2,000 in economic benefits in the form of healthcare, online shopping, local business opportunities, and digital learning.
Fortunately, the legislature has been debating rural broadband expansion solutions over the last several years. Their solutions have largely sought to expand free market options by allowing more competition in the marketplace, which is a laudable, free market step that will have potentially vast long-term benefits. However, the solution lacks immediacy. In fact, after the passage of SB 2 last year, which granted EMCs the statutory authority to provide broadband, the Georgia EMC Association explicitly cautioned that “a long, deliberative process” is required before they can engage in comprehensive broadband deployment. The association even likened their own broadband expansion efforts to the decades-long process of rural electrification that began in the 1930s.
Eliminating, or at the very least mitigating, prohibitive barriers to expansion will be the most effective and expedient solution for rural broadband issues. As such, Representative Ron Stephens’ HB 244 follows the legislature’s tradition of breaking down barriers to broadband deployment that began with SB 2. The bill attempts to alleviate costly pole attachment rates for cable and telecom provider infrastructure on EMC utility poles.
Cable and telecom providers have pushed for pole attachment reform for the last few years, advocating for reasonable rates, like the ones they pay to Georgia Power, and other investor-owned utilities. Those power companies, like Georgia Power, who utilize the FCC formula to determine pole attachment rates, charge roughly $6.50 per pole, per year to cable broadband providers. Alternatively, Georgia EMCs charge as much as $19.80 a pole to cable broadband providers, some of the highest rates in the country, and don’t utilize the national standard. In rural areas, where there are more poles and fewer consumers, the price tag severely prohibits meaningful internet access expansion.
The original provisions of HB 244, which included the FCC standards that Georgia Power uses, have been removed after stakeholders compromised during the last few days of legislative action. The revised measure passed the Georgia House of Representatives 116-44 and gives the Public Service Commission (PSC) the authority to determine fair and reasonable rates and conditions on pole attachment rates for broadband providers who attach infrastructure onto an EMC utility pole.
There’s no silver bullet to solve the issues of rural broadband. The solution is likely more of a compilation of legislation that breaks down barriers and incentivizes broadband companies to expand into rural markets. Though HB 244 won’t alleviate the issues facing rural Georgians during this current pandemic, the measure is best solution to spur investment and expedite broadband expansion in 2020 from companies with existing infrastructure, access to capital, and the know-how to make it happen that the legislature could pass this year.
Christy Tarallo is an Associate at Impact Public Affairs.