Is Bad FCC Data Holding Back Georgia’s Rural Internet Push?

As state lawmakers try to focus on extending rural broadband into “at-need” communities, some are pointing to “woefully” lacking Federal Communications Commission data as the biggest challenge.

by Tyler Jett, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / March 2, 2018

(TNS) — ATLANTA — As lawmakers try to push fast internet into Georgia's smallest communities, some state officials wish they had more specific information about what areas are most in need.

In the past week, three rural broadband expansion bills have passed the state Senate or House. Two of them would offer grants to providers who will deliver infrastructure to at-need areas.

But what qualifies as "at-need"? In a bill by state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, companies could get grant money if they delivered broadband to counties where more than 40 percent of people do not have access to high-speed internet. That applies to 11 counties in southern Georgia.

Another bill, by state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, would let the director of Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security decide the areas with the greatest need for broadband expansion.

On Thursday, members of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission discussed the bills with Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Christopher Nunn. The counties in their part of the state do not meet Gooch's threshold of need for grant funding. Still, they said, some pockets of their county need faster internet.

Nunn said a problem for state officials is that they have to rely on a map from the Federal Communications Commission that shows areas where nobody has access to broadband internet. There is a flaw with this information: The FCC's map does not get narrower than individual census blocks, which can be several acres lage and contain many homes.

If a provider tells the FCC that it delivers broadband to one person in that block, the whole area appears to be covered.

"The FCC data woefully underreports [an area's need]," he said.

Nunn said getting accurate information is "one of our biggest challenges," which he has discussed with U.S. Department of Agriculture representatives. He said they see broadband expansion in rural areas as one of their department's most important priorities.

Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters said he wished the state could rely more on a broadband survey of citizens done last year. The Carl Vinson Institute of Government asked residents to fill out a survey about how they felt about their internet speed, access and whether their internet providers met their needs.

"There is very valuable information within that survey," Winters said.

But the survey was voluntary, with local politicians and organizations asking people to participate. Overall, about 12,400 people filled it out — about one-tenth of 1 percent of the population. In Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties, 269 people filled it out. That's seven- hundredths of 1 percent of the area's population.

Last year, the Tennessee Legislature passed a rural broadband expansion bill, setting aside $30 million over three years for expansion projects. The state is doling out $10 million a year to electric co-ops that make pitches on projects in areas that need high-speed internet.

The regional commission hoped to meet with Gooch and state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, on Thursday morning. But the lawmakers had a scheduling conflict and could not attend.

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