Changes Promised to Georgia Rural Internet Bills

Multiple bills related to expanding broadband access are with state legislators, but there are compromises to reach before they can move ahead.

by Tyler Jett, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / March 12, 2018

(TNS) — A bill to bring faster internet to rural areas in Georgia will limit how far electric membership corporations can spread their service. At the same time, the bill's sponsor said Thursday, those corporations will be able to partner with other internet providers.

State Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, told the Senate Regulated Industries & Utilities Committee that he is working to compromise with state Sen. Steve Gooch. Both lawmakers sponsored bills to expand broadband internet in the state. Both bills passed their chambers in the last two weeks, and the two sides want to come up with one solution.

Powell said Gooch's bill limits how far an electric membership corporation can expand broadband. Gooch, R-Dahlonega, would restrict the EMCs' service to within a 5-mile radius of their designated service areas. Powell told the committee that he will add the same limit to his own bill.

In exchange, he said, Gooch has agreed to let EMCs partner with other providers as part of their broadband expansion plans. Gooch's bill now does not allow that.

"We want to try to get these bills as much in harmony as possible," Powell said, "so that neither one of us has heartburn."

Gooch and Powell also are discussing how to create an accurate map that shows where in the state people don't have access to high-speed internet. The FCC published such a map last month, but both state lawmakers question its reliability. The agency builds its map based on information from internet providers.

The FCC's map breaks down each census block in the country, showing where people do and don't have access to broadband. But dozens of homes and businesses can sit in a single census block. And even if just one of those buildings gets broadband, the provider treats the whole area as if it has access to high-speed internet. In rural areas, where homes are stretched out, Gooch and Powell say, the FCC's map is misleading.

Both lawmakers offer solutions. In Gooch's bill, the Georgia Technology Authority will create a policy to build a map. This policy will tell the authority to partner with the FCC, internet providers and local governments to figure out how to create a reliable map.

Powell's bill, meanwhile, instructs the state's director of emergency management and homeland security to build a new map by June 30, 2019. Local governments will tell the director specific areas in their counties where people don't have high-speed internet. Internet providers also will tell the director what percentage of people in certain areas don't have access.

On Thursday, Powell said the language in his bill is a bit more forceful.

"A carrot and stick might be a little bit better," he said. "Cooperation works better when there's an incentive to cooperate."

Powell said he will make other changes to his bill, including a provision that allows a provider to challenge the state's map of areas not covered by broadband. After lowering the threshold for what qualifies as broadband internet, Powell will move his benchmark up, back in line with the FCC's: a download speed of 25 Megabits per second. (This is the speed Netflix says you need for "Ultra HD" video streaming.)

He will also allow telephone co-ops to get into the broadband business. The bill already allows local governments to get in. State Sen. Bill Cowsert wondered about that Thursday.

"If a city decides to go into the business of providing broadband, will they have an exclusive ability to go in there?" he asked.

"There are non-discriminatory provisions all throughout this, applying to EMCs, applying to cities," Powell said. "They cannot prohibit someone else from serving that area."

©2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.