The committee room is full as Rep. Jay Powell presents a bill to increase rural internet access to a subcommittee at the Georgia Capitol on Feb. 21, 2018. PHOTO / JASON GETZ Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Will Georgia’s plan for rural internet make a difference?

Georgia lawmakers are finalizing a plan to help bring fast internet service to rural parts of the state despite doubts that it will show significant results.

The legislation doesn’t include any state funding, but it empowers local electric companies to begin offering internet subscriptions and sets up a system for future government subsidies for internet construction.

The Georgia General Assembly is poised to take final votes on the legislation, Senate Bill 402, in the next few days after months of debate over how to expand internet to sparsely populated areas that need it for business growth, health care services and education.

About 16 percent of Georgians — 638,000 households — live in rural areas that lacks access to high-speed internet, according to statistics from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute.

The bill is a starting point that lays the foundation for covering the entire state with internet access, said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Powell. The legislation calls for the state to identify areas eligible for future grant money.

Rep. Jay Powell presents a rural broadband bill to the House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Public Finance and Policy on Feb. 20, 2018. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

“It does everything but the funding,” said Powell, R-Camilla. “If you’ve got the framework in place, you can fund it anytime.”

State legislators initially sought to find money to pay for rural internet expansion this year, in part by imposing taxes on digital products like Netflix, e-books and music downloads. They abandoned that idea amid disagreements over how to tax communication businesses and hopes that Congress will provide rural internet funding.

A representative for AT&T said the bill doesn’t go far enough, in part because it doesn’t provide for 5G wireless internet service through boxes on poles in public rights of way. Regulation of that kind of small cell technology is still being considered in separate legislation, Senate Bill 426, but its prospects of winning lawmakers’ approval this year are uncertain.

“Without important modifications, including language to streamline and standardize the deployment of wireless broadband infrastructure, we are concerned SB 402 will not significantly enhance broadband access in our state,” said AT&T spokeswoman Catherine Stengel.

The cable industry is also concerned that the legislation might not be effective.

The system it sets up for future government funding calls for the state to map all of its 220,000 Census blocks and determine eligibility for subsidies. Areas with more than 20 percent of locations without broadband access would qualify.

Stephen Loftin, executive director for the Georgia Cable Association, comments to a committee about expanding internet access in Georgia on Feb. 20, 2018. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

“That process itself is going to be unwieldy, which is going to drive providers away,” said Stephen Loftin, a lobbyist and executive director for the Georgia Cable Association. “If it’s hard to do, you’re going to get less participation. Let’s make it easy to do.”

The Georgia Cable Association’s members include Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox Communications, the cable and broadband internet subsidiary of Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State money for internet expansion could eventually come from a variety of potential sources: online services taxes, economic development programs, federal infrastructure funding or general state appropriations, Powell said. The state’s budget includes more than $40 million to help the economy of small towns in Georgia, but it doesn’t dedicate money for internet access.

The bill authorizes the Georgia Department of Transportation to lay internet lines in public rights of way and then lease them to internet companies, which could generate revenue for the state, he said.

More immediately, local electric membership cooperatives could begin offering internet service along with electricity, according to the bill.

The legislation is “an important first step,” said Georgia EMC spokeswoman Terri Statham.

“This is a great challenge that won’t be solved overnight,” Statham said. “Rural Georgians should be encouraged that there is such a high level of attention being paid this issue.”

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