Georgia Lawmakers Grapple with Rural Broadband, Right-of-Way Rules

To expand Internet service into underserved areas, service providers often need to use public property but the rules can vary from one region to the next.

by Megan Reed, The Times / November 12, 2018
David Kidd/Government Technology

(TNS) — State lawmakers want to expand broadband access throughout Georgia, particularly in rural areas.

But to deploy that technology, utility companies often have to use space in public rights of way, which could be owned by a municipality or the state. A state Senate committee, which met in Gainesville Friday, is looking at ways to expand those utilities while working with utility companies, as well as local and state governments.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the state needs a more consistent system to address how utility companies use rights of way.

“We have 159 counties and 600 cities, and everybody’s doing something different. First we need to address the immediate concerns, then address the long-term concerns with a standardized system that benefits municipalities, the counties, the vendors, and most importantly benefits the citizen,” Miller said in an interview.

Not having broadband access in an area can deter businesses from moving there and can make it more difficult for existing businesses to operate, Miller said.

The committee’s third meeting was Friday, and the group, which has state senators, communications industry professionals and local government officials, will report its findings on or before Dec. 1.

Utility companies including AT&T, Charter Communications and North Georgia Network were represented at Friday’s meeting. Representatives said they sometimes hit obstacles when working with municipalities to install utilities in the rights of way.

The committee came up with a few recommendations that they will discuss further before sending them to the state legislature.

One recommendation was statewide legislation to streamline the process and make it more consistent between municipalities.

Utility companies should also be encouraged to work together to co-locate their utilities, with power companies allowing small cell technology to be attached to their poles if feasible, the committee decided Friday.

“The message needs to be sent to everyone that we intend to embrace this technology in the right of way, and we expect all these partners to work together,” state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said.

The committee also said that the Georgia Department of Transportation should review its right-of-way fee schedule and structure.

“When I look at the DOT and the fees that they charge, they date back to 1985. … In an urban area, you’re going straight down a highway right of way. There’s a fee of $5,000 per mile. If you’re going down a rural roadway. … it’s $1,000 a mile,” said state Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, who is chairing the committee.

Another recommendation, suggested by AT&T, asks the General Assembly to set a fee of no more than $100 per linear mile per year to use the right of way. Under current state law, companies that only provide broadband services or telephone companies without local telephone revenue — for example, if no one in the area has a landline — are subjected to GDOT, rather than local, fees.

©2018 The Times, Gainesville, Ga. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.