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Georgia House backs bill to let local power companies sell internet

The Georgia House voted unanimously Monday to expand internet access in rural areas by allowing local electricity cooperatives to sell online service.

The legislation, House Bill 23, would permit Georgia’s 41 electric membership corporations to offer high-speed internet service as well as power. EMCs often serve sparsely populated areas where major providers such as AT&T and Comcast haven’t necessarily built internet lines.

EMCs could help meet a need for internet service, which state representatives said is essential for business growth, student homework and online health care. It’s unclear how many EMCs would start offering internet if the proposal passes. The bill now advances to the state Senate.

“Families and children are being left behind because they don’t have access to internet in our community,” said state Rep. Winfred Dukes, a Democrat from Albany. “You have to have the ability to just Google.”

Though everyone in the House backed the bill, some representatives said they’re concerned that the legislation doesn’t mandate minimum speeds, and that EMCs could charge high rates for traditional internet companies to run wires on power poles.

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State Rep. Don Parsons, a Republican from Marietta and an AT&T consultant, said rural residents would be disappointed if their EMCs provided dial-up speeds instead of broadband. He said the legislation should require minimum speeds.

“It’s an any-band bill, not a broadband bill,” Parsons said. “They can provide bad broadband service. They do not have to provide any level of broadband that customers would find acceptable.”

A similar proposal failed last year because of disagreements over fair competition between EMCs and internet companies.

The bill the House passed Monday would allow EMCs to provide internet without any caveats, said House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla. Separate legislation could limit the rates that EMCs could charge internet providers to use their power poles.

“With more providers we have out there, we can increase the likelihood that they will provide service in rural Georgia,” Powell said. “We need as many providers as possible in rural areas.”

Two EMCs — Blue Ridge Mountain EMC and Habersham EMC — already offer internet service to their customers, even though state law doesn’t currently either prohibit or allow them to do so. More electricity cooperatives could start providing internet service if they have clarity in state law that it’s permitted, said state Rep. Penny Houston, a Republican from Nashville and the bill’s sponsor.

Cable companies — who could face more competition from EMCs — are concerned about the legislation, said Stephen Loftin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Cable Association.

“The ability to harm a competitor is enormous when your competitor owns the essential facilities to get to the customer,” Loftin said. “We really need to put some provisions in place to prevent that harm from occurring.”

The Georgia Cable Association’s members include Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox Communications, the cable and broadband internet subsidiary of Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cox provides cable, internet and phone services in Middle Georgia, primarily in the Macon and Warner Robins area.

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