Broadband Access For Rural Georgians In Spotlight

This week’s Courier Herald Column:

Broadband has become a tool that is part of everyday life. Well, for most of us.

The ability to access quality high speed internet connectivity is driving change in commerce, social interaction, medicine, and entertainment. Many Georgians are on the cutting edge of the latest technology with the highest speeds. Others, however, fear they are being left behind.

A joint study committee made up of members from the Georgia Senate and Georgia House have been conducting hearings across the state to hear from industry experts and average Georgians alike on the issue. At question is whether large swaths of rural Georgia are falling further behind their urban and suburban counterparts due to limited access to the internet.

The question of “access” is really four separate questions. Very few Georgians have no access to internet, presuming wireless and satellite are considered options. These options tend to be more expensive and less reliable than homes connected by fiber optic cable or traditional copper wire.

There is the question of cost, and whether some Georgians are priced out of the market. Earlier this year the FCC voted to open up the “Lifeline” program used to provide low income Americans with cell phones to internet access.

The areas that seem to vex those trying to solve the problem are for those who have wired internet access, but whose speed and data capacity are reminiscent of 90’s dial up service, incapable of handling today’s livestreaming video and real time communications. In addition to the question of how to improve service for these Georgians, there is the question if these customers are currently getting the services they are promised.

The committee, chaired by Senator Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega) and Representative Don Parsons (R-Marietta) have been tasked by the legislature to explore a state role in bridging the gap between the urban and suburban haves, and the rural have nots. Others on the committee include Representatives Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville), Susan Holmes (R-Monticello), Robert Dickey (R-Musella), Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), and Senators Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla), Rick Jaffares (R-Locust Grove), David Lucas (R-Macon), and John Wilkinson (R-Toccoa).

The committee will have one more meeting next month before preparing recommendations to be submitted for possible legislation. Ideas range from providing incentives to speed the expansion of broadband into less dense areas to additional regulation. Some are envisioning a TVA style broadband utility patterned after the federal administration that electrified much of Appalachia when the private sector found it unprofitable to do so.

The problem with a TVA style approach is that it would put the state in a business certain to lose money, and married to a technology that may be out of date long before it could be fully implemented. Companies such as Basecamp Networks and Mobilitie have presented next generation technology solutions to the committee. AT&T alone has announced two competing technologies for wire based broadband.

One uses a new wireless product built in parallel to the existing cellular network but exclusively for broadband use. The other is called AirGig, and envisions using existing electric power poles to beam broadband spectrum down power lines. The former is an existing proven technology ready for deployment. The latter will begin a field test soon.

Rather than the state choosing a technology and setting up a long term subsidized program, there are incentives that can be offered to speed broadband deployment. Georgia currently charges sales tax on equipment that providers purchase to install and operate their networks. 23 states exempt this equipment tax.

North Dakota recently removed their tax and have seen increased deployment of rural broadband. For companies trying to justify return on investment, an additional 6% to 9% savings in cost can make a significant difference.

As for additional regulation, the state should move cautiously. The FCC is given most regulatory authority over broadband, and broadband is a function of private enterprises in Georgia – not monopolies. That said, consumers do have the right to get the services they are advertised.

In 2014, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs fined Windstream $600,000 in connection with allegations of false advertising. Many Georgians attending these hearings have made similar complaints of services not being delivered as promised.

Rather than composing new regulations, committee members should first look to see if existing laws are being enforced, and look to the existing regulatory authority of the Office of Consumer Affairs before further tying the hands of potential broadband providers.

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