To build rural internet lines, Georgia is set to spend millions

Daniel Frizzell, the director of engineering at Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, left, explains the way in which Blue Ridge Mountain EMC provides internet services to rural areas with Jeremy Nelms, manager of Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, listening. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com
Caption
Daniel Frizzell, the director of engineering at Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, left, explains the way in which Blue Ridge Mountain EMC provides internet services to rural areas with Jeremy Nelms, manager of Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, listening. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

Attempts to bring rural Georgia online haven’t gone far without money to build internet lines.

Now, after years of talk, lawmakers are planning to spend.

The Georgia House approved a midyear budget Thursday that includes $20 million for rural internet construction, with an additional $10 million proposed next year and every year afterward.

The funding would be Georgia’s first investment in internet service that’s necessary for businesses, students and health care, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Many rural communities have withered in recent years, losing people and industry to more connected areas.

Problems with unreliable or nonexistent internet are concentrated in the country, accounting for 70% of unserved locations in Georgia, according to state maps. They struggle to participate in Zoom meetings, go online for virtual classes and work from home.

“Internet service is paramount to power, water, electricity and sewer — it’s as essential as anything else,” said Steve Ledbetter, mayor of the small city of Woodbury, where internet covers the town but not its outlying areas.

Gov. Brian Kemp proposed the spending this month in his State of the State address, garnering broad support among state legislators eager to wire over 507,000 Georgia homes and businesses that lack internet options.

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“This pandemic highlighted many challenges for communities outside metro Atlanta, but none more so than the critical need for high-speed internet access for better health care and educational outcomes, for job opportunities, and something as simple as keeping in touch with loved ones,” Kemp said, drawing a standing ovation.

The millions of dollars for internet falls far short of the long-term price of wiring the entire state, but it would be a start. It could cost an estimated $3 billion in public and private investment to bring all of Georgia online.

Before this year, the only state money appropriated was $2 million to create a plan and a map that showed which areas lacked access to sufficient internet speeds.

“We all know we’ve got to do something, and COVID has been a prime example of kids trying to do schoolwork and people trying to do business,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, a Republican from Auburn. “Internet truly opens a world of possibilities in rural Georgia because you can be anywhere and do any kind of commerce.”

If approved, state money for internet construction will be awarded in the form of grants to local governments or development authorities that submit proposals to the state. Money would be distributed through the OneGeorgia Authority, a rural development fund that hands out millions of dollars annually.

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The spending appears to have a clear path to final approval, with support from Kemp and legislative leaders. England said he hasn’t heard any objections.

“It’s a significant step for rural Georgia,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, a Republican from Vidalia. “I don’t think anyone expects this will magically solve our problems overnight, but we’re grateful for the investment.”

State funding for internet expansion is the next logical step after the state completed its mapping effort last summer, said Deana Perry, the state’s broadband director. The maps showed that 10% of the state lacks access to sufficient internet speeds.

Previous efforts to expand internet access — through federal funding and a state law allowing local electric companies to provide online service — helped a few areas. Four companies received a total of $22 million in federal ReConnect grants, and some electric membership corporations are beginning to offer internet.

“Broadband is a universal issue not only in Georgia but across the U.S.,” Perry said. “COVID highlighted the critical need for internet access for education, telehealth, economic development and overall quality of life.”

The money would come from general funds in the state’s $26.6 billion annual budget. Previous attempts to raise money specifically for rural internet by taxing Netflix and digital downloads failed to pass.

Rural areas such as Oglethorpe County will be aggressive in pursuing state internet money, said Amy Stone, the county’s economic development director.

The agriculture industry, the largest part of Georgia’s economy, is damaged when businesses can’t get online for commerce, Stone said.

“It just puts them at such a disadvantage, not just in sales but in the ability to recruit talent when you have a professional organization that’s constantly slowed down,” Stone said. “I’ve been really hoping they would take the next step to actually fund the program. To see it happen is encouraging.”

BY THE NUMBERS

$20 million

Amount in midyear budget for rural internet construction

$10 million

Additional money for internet construction proposed next year and every year afterward

$2 million

State money previously appropriated for a plan and map showing areas with poor internet service.