By Elaine Owen, Editor.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed several pieces of legislation Friday designed to expand internet access to rural areas that now lack fast online services. One proposal, Senate Bill 2, lets the state’s 42 electric membership corporations (EMCs) sell internet service along with power.
And Senate Bill 17 allows telephone cooperatives to offer internet services. A third proposal, Senate Bill 66, clears the way for telecom firms to set up 5G technology equipment on public land.
That proposal will primarily benefit large cities that are likely to receive faster cellphone internet service long before rural areas. He also signed a separate bill that will make it harder to relocate Confederate monuments. (See separate story on page 4A) Senate Bill 2, championed by Sen. Steve Gooch (R – Dahlonega) and Rep. Jay Powell (R – Camilla), allows Georgia’s EMCs to consider how they can participate in efforts to improve broadband access in their respective communities.
At the bill signing April 26, Gov. Brian Kemp said the changes “will make a lasting impact on countless Georgians” and bring more competition to residents with few options. “We appreciate the leadership of Gov. Kemp, Sen. Gooch and Rep.
Powell on this important issue,” says Georgia EMC President/ CEO Dennis Chastain. “Access to broadband services can give rural Georgians a fair chance in our state’s evolving economy.” Removing barriers for the expansion of broadband to rural Georgia has become a top priority for state lawmakers, recognizing that a lack of high-speed internet is a barrier to quality education, economic development, telemedicine and improved quality of life for many Georgians.
Without access, new and growing businesses, entrepreneurs and others are likely to flee areas that lack broadband, putting rural Georgia at a tremendous disadvantage.
While lawmakers, business leaders and opinion makers agree broadband is one important element that could help put rural Georgia on the path to prosperity, the cost to build fiber networks combined with rapidly changing wireless technologies creates significant challenges for extending broadband service to the expansive and lesser populated areas of the state.
For that reason, each of the 41 EMCs in Georgia will need to work with their board and members to explore the potential challenges and opportunities in their respective communities.
“Some EMCs may find offering broadband directly to members is not feasible due to operational or budgetary challenges,” Chastain notes. “Others will likely rely on partnerships with established companies and existing providers rather than provide direct-to-consumer broadband services.
And in some cases, many of an EMC’s members may already have high-speed internet service. Regardless, the passage of Senate Bill 2 encourages continued dialogue among a variety of stakeholders to identify the best and most efficient way to expand broadband service.”
EMC representatives caution an undertaking of this magnitude will require support and involvement from a variety of participants throughout a long, deliberative process.
After the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was established in the mid-1930s, it took decades to fully plan, fund and build the state’s rural electric infrastructure. A similar comprehensive process—including gaining critical board and member input—will be required as any EMC considers the deployment of high speed internet service.
According to Chastain, “Georgia’s EMCs have a reputation for the careful planning of reliable, safe and affordable delivery of electricity.
The same due diligence will be essential when evaluating broadband services.”
Georgia joins several neighboring states such as Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi that have passed legislation aimed at expanding broadband access for customers in rural areas.
Georgia EMC is the statewide trade association representing the state’s 41 electric cooperatives, Oglethorpe Power Corp., Georgia Transmission Corp. and Georgia System Operations Corp.
Collectively, Georgia’s customer-owned co-ops provide electricity and related services to 4.4 million people, nearly half of Georgia’s population, across 73 percent of the state’s land area.
(Image courtesy Georgia EMC)