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Georgia County Works to Connect 100 Percent of Residents

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen recently said that no resident within the county should be "left behind" when it comes to broadband Internet access.

(TNS) — Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen said no resident within the county should be "left behind" concerning broadband internet access.

Speaking at a community listening session on broadband at Edwards Park on Thursday, Jensen and county consultant Jake Bearden heard from members of the public about internet access and broadband projects.

"(Broadband) drives innovation, job growth and income growth, and it helps citizens participate with their government as we've been investing and converting Whitfield County into a digital government," Jensen said. "And it gives them options for medical, health and well-being. It's really become required. Just like power, water, sewer or septic, you also need broadband. It's that critical."

Whitfield County was awarded $30,000 in grant funding in March from Connect Humanity's Appalachian Digital Accelerator initiative.

"These funds are essential to identifying areas of the community that need improved services and planning for how to address these needs," Jensen said then.

Thursday's meeting allowed local residents and leaders to lay the foundation for a "road map" to outline community needs, said Bearden, as the Chattanooga-based nonprofit Thrive Regional Partnership provides capacity support and project management.

"This plan is very much community based," Bearden said. "And that's to ensure digital equity ... that it should be equitable and available to everyone. We want the vision for this plan to be high-speed, affordable and resilient broadband internet service to every person in Whitfield County."

Bearden said most residents of the county have "some sort of connection," either through a digital subscriber line, very high-speed digital subscriber line, wireless, mobile hotspot or fiber connection through Dalton Utilities.

"But what we see is that not everyone can afford to connect to those services, not everyone has a device that connects to those services," he said. "So, that's what this grant is about. It's about finding what our community needs are so that we can put together a plan to go after these further grants that will help us."

He said a potential plan could include "putting more fiber underground, expanding our wireless services or looking at partnering with nonprofits."

"In Whitfield County, we have a very large aging population and it has nothing to do with affordability ... it's just they simply do not have the educational resources," Bearden said. "They don't trust the internet or they don't trust their devices. So, we could look into partnering with the (Whitfield County) Senior Center or our local library to provide these educational resources."

Bearden said there are still challenges in Whitfield County with connection and access.

"We still have a lot of people in the middle of the county, which we consider our metropolitan area, that either don't have a device, can't afford the services available to them or they just simply don't want it because they don't understand how to get it or there's a language barrier," he said. "All of these people are who we're trying to help because the (Federal Communications Commission) said we're 98% covered. That is simply not true."

He said that is being challenged due to its "inaccuracy."

"Our entire county is divided by census tracts," he said. "If a service provider provides one house in that entire census tract with service, they can say they've covered 100% of that census tract. But what about outside of the area they haven't reached yet?"

During the meeting members of the public answered six questions regarding internet access and broadband connectivity, including "What are the barriers you face for broadband connectivity?" and "What additional resources would you like to see in your community?"

Bearden and Jensen said county staff will look at the answers for themes and comprehensive ideas.

"Then, we can take that, put it into a plan and align those with state goals to figure out what funds or what grants that we should be pursuing next," Bearden said.

Bearden said two things stood out from the answers.

"And that's devices and having affordable options," he said. "Unfortunately, the Affordable Connectivity Program (which helped to ensure people were able to afford the broadband they needed) has not been renewed through the federal government. But there is a strong hope that it will continue next year. and all that did was provide a little bit of relief on your internet bill. We hope the federal government will put funds back into that and continue that program in 2025."

Bearden said the meeting was the "first step in making sure that all of Whitfield County has equal access to (broadband)."

"This will help shape what this plan looks like and then we'll revisit this at the end of August to kind of show the public the finished product," he said. "But we don't want this to be a plan that just sits on the shelf and collects dust. We want this to be a plan that involves action. We want to see this move forward in the next five years."

Jensen said Whitfield County has been taking large steps to move forward in today's digital age.

"The courthouse is now almost completely digital," he said. "Every record going back to the 1960s is online. The deeds, the warranty claims, the parcels, the subdivision plots, all of that is digital now. We stream all of our meetings. You can pay your car tags and property taxes and you can even appeal your property taxes online now. We need to make sure that everybody has access to that same capability so they don't get left behind. That's our goal."

Jensen said the listening session was the "first step in the journey" to help build on the broadband grant and win additional grants.

"The next step is for us to come back before the end of August with the actual plan and let the public... review that plan and give us feedback," he said. "Then, I believe we will submit it based on any changes after that in September."

Jensen said future grants would "expand the work with our partners in the community" to reach areas where broadband is not easily accessible.

"We want to bring that broadband to really every home," Jensen said. "Whether it's with new technology like wireless, expanding existing fiber infrastructure or something along those lines."

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