An iPad displays the pattern that a tractor will follow as it plows the field on a farm in Hollister, Calif., Aug. 30, 2019. From equipment automation to data collection and analysis, the digital evolution of agriculture is already a fact of life on farms across the United States. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Internet expansion in rural Georgia might be funded by state loans

An influential group of Georgia lawmakers is proposing a new way to pay for high-speed internet construction in rural Georgia since state funding hasn’t come through.

The House Rural Development Council this month recommended low-interest loans from the state government to local governments for broadband expansion. Then counties and cities could work with internet providers to build online connections to homes and businesses.

Fast internet service is essential for boosting the economies of ailing small towns that need online access for small businesses, farmers, schools and hospitals, according to the council. The state government estimates that 1.6 million Georgians lack access to high-speed internet.

An effort to fund rural internet by taxing video streaming services and digital downloads didn’t pass this year. While the online tax proposal could still be considered during next year’s legislative session, budget cuts will likely limit money available for a new internet program.

Instead, local officials could borrow relatively small amounts of money to fund internet lines. Broadband loans would be made by the Georgian Environmental Finance Authority, a government agency that lends money to local governments for water and sewer infrastructure.

If passed by the General Assembly, the proposal would then be put to voters as an amendment to the Georgia Constitution, probably in November.

“Expanding the number of providers in the state will help close the broadband technology gap,” according to the recommendations of the House Rural Development Council. “Some local governments have been providing broadband services for years, and additional local governments could begin or expand their services by financing their networks with local revenue bonds.”

The state government plans to complete a map of every location in the state without high-speed internet by mid-2020. Then state loans could be allocated to governments in those areas.

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