Major influx of $408M awarded to get rural Georgia online

Gov.  Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference Tuesday to announce plans to spend millions of dollars on expanding internet throughout Georgia, especially in rural areas that lack access. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Gov.  Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference Tuesday to announce plans to spend millions of dollars on expanding internet throughout Georgia, especially in rural areas that lack access. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Coronavirus relief money will help close internet gaps

A giant investment in rural internet service announced Tuesday will wire over 132,000 homes and businesses across Georgia that currently lack access, connecting more than a quarter of the state’s locations that aren’t yet online.

Gov. Brian Kemp said the $408 million in COVID-19 relief money will fund internet expansion projects in 70 counties where residents have little or no options for internet service, a necessity for business, health and education.

The funding will target areas where locations are so spread out that it’s unprofitable for internet companies to provide connections. Grant money will be provided to 49 recipients, including local electric membership cooperatives and local governments that will partner with internet service providers.

“The projects chosen reflect the greatest needs and interests of hardworking Georgians,” Kemp said as he announced the funding at the Georgia Capitol.

Combined ShapeCaption
House Speaker David Ralston greets as he walks to the podium to speak during a press conference Tuesday to announce plans to spend millions of dollars on expanding internet throughout Georgia, especially in rural areas that lack access. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

House Speaker David Ralston greets as he walks to the podium to speak during a press conference Tuesday to announce plans to spend millions of dollars on expanding internet throughout Georgia, especially in rural areas that lack access. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
House Speaker David Ralston greets as he walks to the podium to speak during a press conference Tuesday to announce plans to spend millions of dollars on expanding internet throughout Georgia, especially in rural areas that lack access. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia government leaders have for years planned to expand internet access to more of the 482,000 locations without sufficient internet access, according to a map of the state. Some of those areas have no internet service; others have slow connections below 25 megabits per second for downloads.

Coronavirus relief funding approved by the Democratic majority in Congress last year finally gave Georgia’s government significant money to spend on local internet projects. Previously, the state had allocated $20 million for rural internet construction in last year’s budget.

“It’s a great number of unserved locations that are going to have access,” said Jen Wade, grants manager for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. “It’s huge for us.”

The federal internet funding from the American Rescue Plan represents about 10% of the total $4.8 billion in COVID-19 relief money allocated for Georgia. Coronavirus funding will also go toward health care, medical equipment, unemployment benefits, court system backlogs, bonuses for police, and water and sewer projects.

ExploreInternet far slower in Georgia than reported

The money was awarded to recipients through a competitive application process, with winners chosen by a committee Kemp formed in the summer. Besides the federal funding, grant recipients are contributing an additional $330 million in matching funds, bringing the total investment in rural internet to more than $738 million.

Internet lines will begin to be built in the coming months and must be completed by the end of 2026.

“This is the kind of day we dreamed about” when lawmakers began planning rural internet efforts in 2017, said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “We knew that expanding access to broadband internet was key to the ability of our rural areas to grow jobs.”

Internet service has become essential infrastructure, just as important as roads, bridges, water, sewer and electricity, said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, a Republican from Auburn.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said the investment in rural internet will move Georgia closer to becoming “the tech capital of the East Coast.”

“Every single Georgian now has broadband as a necessity, whether they’re trying to run their business, whether they’re trying to receive their health care, whether they’re trying to receive an extension of their educational process,” Duncan said.

In all, the money is expected to provide internet service to 183,600 locations, including the 132,000 that currently lack access.

The top grants include $25 million for Central Georgia EMC, $25 million for One Sumter Economic Development Foundation Inc., $19 million for Ocmulgee EMC and $15 million for Southern Rivers Energy.