Kemp signs rural broadband expansion measures

Gov also set to ink bill protecting Confederate monuments
Gov. Brian Kemp, center, is flanked by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, right, and House Speaker David Ralston during a press conference Monday, March 25, 2019. Bob Andres /

Gov. Brian Kemp, center, is flanked by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, right, and House Speaker David Ralston during a press conference Monday, March 25, 2019. Bob Andres /

Dahlonega - Gov. Brian Kemp signed several pieces of legislation Friday designed to expand internet access to rural areas that now lack fast online services.

He also signed a separate bill that will make it harder to relocate Confederate monuments.

The Republican inked the broadband measures at a ceremony in Dahlonega, part of a stretch of mountainous North Georgia territory where residents have long struggled with spotty connectivity.

Surrounded by dozens of college students and local officials, the governor said the changes will “make a lasting impact on countless Georgians” and bring more competition to residents with few options.

One proposal, Senate Bill 2, lets the state's 42 electric membership corporations sell internet service along with power. And Senate Bill 17 allows telephone cooperatives to offer internet services.

A third measure, 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.

While rural Georgia leaders welcomed the new broadband laws, the measures fell short of an initial goal of securing significant new state dollars to subsidize internet service in rural parts of the state without adequate technical infrastructure.

Lawmakers tucked about $2 million into this year’s budget proposal for rural internet funding; some estimates project it will cost well over $1 billion to rewire the entire state.

No ‘Netflix tax’

One idea to raise the money by imposing a sales tax on streaming services was blocked in the Legislature amid opposition from fiscal conservatives who saw it as an unnecessary hike. Others gained little traction, failing to win over Kemp and other GOP leaders.

The governor and other politicians have said that expanding online connectivity to rural areas is key to boosting economic development, increasing health care access and improving quality of life for the region.

About 16 percent of Georgians lack access to high-speed internet service, and stories have ping-ponged around the Capitol about ailing residents who can't access telemedicine services, while others tell of schoolchildren who have had to go to fast-food restaurants to go online and complete their homework.

In an interview, Kemp said he would press for a broader expansion next year, but he said he still hasn’t hashed out what it would look like. He did, however, rule out any proposal that would increase taxes.

“We’ve moved the needle on broadband access in rural Georgia,” he said. “We have more to do, but it’s a great step in the right direction.”

Confederate monuments

While the broadband measures enjoyed broad bipartisan support, the Confederate monument bill was a more divisive debate.

It was introduced partly as a reaction to a flurry of proposals that would give local governments the right to remove Rebel monuments that went nowhere in the General Assembly.

Instead, lawmakers narrowly passed a measure that would require local governments trying to relocate a monument to place it in a “site of similar prominence.”

Senate Bill 77 would also impose stiffer penalties on vandals of monuments, requiring those convicted to pay up to three times the cost of the damage, as well as legal fees and the expenses for the repair or replacement of a monument.

That part was a key focus of supporters of the Republican-backed measure.

State Rep. Alan Powell, the Hartwell Republican who sponsored the legislation, played a slideshow over emotional music that showed damaged monuments from past wars and other historic markers marred by graffiti.