(TNS) — A program is now in place to bring fast Internet to hard-to-reach rural communities in Georgia. Now, lawmakers just have to fight about the money.
Both chambers passed state Sen. Steve Gooch's Achieving Connectivity Everywhere Act last week, creating a grant program to fund broadband expansion. But the bill, which will go to Gov. Nathan Deal's desk, does not guarantee funding. Instead, it creates a source for added revenue — with a stated desire that lawmakers invest the money into rural counties.
The bill allows private companies to build fiber optic lines along Georgia's 1,247 miles of interstate. The Georgia Department of Transportation will award contracts for this work. The winning companies, in turn, will make money leasing fiber access to Internet providers.
The company will keep a cut of the revenue from the lease. The rest of the money will go to the Department of Transportation and the state's general fund. How, exactly, will this money get shared between all these parties? That has not been determined yet.
The Department of Transportation will issue a request for proposal in late May, spokeswoman Natalie Dale said Thursday. Bids from different companies will flesh out how much they're willing to share.
Gooch, R-Dahlonega, estimates the plan will generate $50-$100 million in revenue every year. He declined to provide a source for this figure, other than to say it came from "a very reputable accounting firm." The money given to the general fund should then go to the Department of Community Affairs, the agency that will oversee the broadband expansion effort.
Still, Gooch conceded, the bill does not guarantee this. Lawmakers in Atlanta will have to fight to push the money through.
"There will be enough rural legislators in the room watching, making sure there is enough money going into those funds," he said. "We won't have a problem with that."
Broadband expansion was a priority of the House Rural Development Council when it met for study committee meetings last year. According to the Federal Communications Commission, about 4.4 percent of people in Georgia do not have access to broadband Internet, which consists of download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, which is the speed Netflix recommends for "Ultra HD quality" video streaming. It is important for industries like telemedicine.
The percentage of people without access to broadband in Georgia is about on par with the country as a whole. But the bulk of the blacked-out areas reside in rural communities south of Atlanta. In 11 of those counties, no more than 60 percent of people have access to broadband.
Most people in northwest Georgia have access. But there are some exceptions: 17 percent of people in Gordon County and 12 percent of people in Dade County don't have access.
In addition to the state grant program, lawmakers hope federal money will help solve the problem. On March 23, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the federal government set aside $600 million to fund broadband expansion efforts as part of the Omnibus Spending Package.
"It is unacceptable that millions of people in rural America currently lack access to reliable broadband," USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. Perdue is also the former governor of Georgia.
State Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, originally proposed a 4 percent tax on video streaming subscriptions like Netflix and HBO Go to fund the broadband grant program. However, critics decried the idea as another way to get into taxpayers' pockets, and Powell nixed the proposal.
He said some lawmakers were going to propose any new tax, "no matter how worthwhile it might be. We didn't want to run the risk of saddling rural broadband with baggage."
There is another key element of the bill: specifically identifying areas in need. Powell and Gooch criticized the FCC's map for not being detailed enough. The map looks at every census block in the country, trying to show areas without access to broadband. But if one building has access, the whole census block appears to have access.
Both lawmakers said they know specific areas in the state where the FCC's map is flawed. The bill passed last week requires the Department of Community Affairs and the Georgia Technology Authority to build a new, state-wide map. Powell said the groups will get information from Internet providers, as well as from city and county officials.
One element of the Rural Development Council's aim to expand broadband Internet that did not pass? A bill that would codify that electric membership cooperations can provide broadband. Gooch said some EMCs already sell high-speed Internet to customers, but the law is murky. He wants to clear it up next year. Right now, lawmakers are not sure whether these EMCs can pursue broadband expansion grants.
"We're going to continue to work on this," he said. "I don't think there's a silver bullet."
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