Rural broadband still faces challenges, but options exist

Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.

Anyone who has driven through Atlanta during rush hour recently has witnessed quite the spectacle: the city’s well-documented gridlock seems to have largely dissipated.

This is mostly because more students are learning virtually and adults are working from home—a perk that prior generations didn’t possess—but this benefit has special significance today. Because of broadband internet’s proliferation in metro Atlanta, many of us can isolate at home while the coronavirus pandemic simmers.

Despite enjoying this convenience, a host of metro Atlantans, including yours truly, takes high speed internet for granted. However, unlike large urban centers, much of rural Georgia doesn’t have adequate access, as is evident by Governor Brian Kemp’s broadband map. This lack of access is a larger problem in Georgia than in many other corners of the country, which makes virtual learning and teleworking far more difficult. While the legislature has taken note and some initial, smart steps, Georgia could do more to help broadband thrive throughout the state.

In 2019, lawmakers passed the “Streamlining Wireless Facilities and Antennas Act,” which reduced barriers and costs to the deployment of small-cell devices. These backpack-sized mechanisms are usually attached to poles and permit those within with the vicinity to enjoy more bandwidth on cellular devices.

Earlier this year, the Legislature continued their work to expand access to high speed internet, and approved HB 244. In order to deploy broadband internet into new areas, providers often need to attach their lines to already existing power poles. However, electric companies and co-ops are allowed to charge internet providers for this privilege.

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recommended using a formula that often will lead to charging internet companies around $6.50 per pole annually, but in Georgia, many poles are owned by electricity co-ops known as Electric Membership Cooperatives (EMCs). These EMCs are also allowed to provide broadband themselves. However, if other internet providers want to use their poles, then they sometimes charge relatively exorbitant amounts—as much as nearly $20 per year per pole. This makes expanding into rural areas cost prohibitive for providers and creates an unfair playing field.

Given this apparent conflict of interest, HB 244 empowered the Public Service Commission (PSC) to determine what rates EMCs can fairly charge. While most in the Gold Dome presumed that the PSC would adopt the FCC recommendation, rumors have it that the EMCs have recently hired a gaggle of Georgia lobbyists to influence the PSC.

It remains to be seen how the fight will play out, but if Georgia policymakers truly want rural broadband expansion, then they could go a step further and consider dig-once legislation. While dig-once measures vary from place to place, they usually mean one or two things. They can require government entities or utilities to alert interested parties, like broadband providers, if they plan to dig so that internet providers can install their infrastructure simultaneously. Alternatively, they can encourage utilities to install underground conduits that can later be used to run fiber lines when they are already digging. In this way, companies will not have to dig numerous times, disrupt traffic when lines run near or under roads, or require superfluous permits. This will lower costs for providers, which will make it easier to expand into rural areas.

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Broadband expansion faces numerous roadblocks. It’s expensive, and the government often gets in the way. In fact, according to a Benton Institute report when one provider attempted to enter Missouri and lay fiber, they determined that they would have had to submit “at least 37,000 construction permits, which would have cost approximately $2 million.” This bureaucracy and the varying costs are keeping Georgians in the dark.

Georgia has taken great strides to foster rural broadband deployment. In fact, it was recently given a B grade in the R Street Institute’s annual Broadband Report Scorecard. While this is an improvement from previous years, Georgia can and must do better. They should look at safely reducing permits and consider uniform, statewide dig-once legislation.

Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.





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