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Georgia Lawmakers Try to Puzzle Out Rural Broadband Solutions

In the state’s rural areas, roughly 28 percent of people don’t have Internet. By comparison, only 2 percent of people in urban areas are without access.

(TNS) — RISING FAWN, Ga. — In the valley, on the bank of Lookout Creek, Karen and Steve Persinger are ready to fortify your mind, your body and your soul.

They will host yoga retreats, wildflower hikes, acupuncture, visualization sessions and lessons for making herbal tonics this spring. Rising Fawn Gardens, the Persingers' company, sits on 300 secluded, spiritual acres. Last week, Karen Persinger looked out the window of the yoga studio, took in the trees, the mountain. She inhaled. She thought about the customers, entering for the first time. She exhaled.

They start to sense the calm," she said. "They start to feel themselves slow down."

Also, they start to pay money. Because this is a business — a self- betterment business but a business nonetheless. And to work, customers have to pay businesses money.

The Persingers have a problem, then. This place is perfect for getting away from the Monday- through-Friday stresses, for unplugging. But the Persingers, the people running the place, can't really do that.

They have to plug in.

They can't plug in.

Not well, at least. The Persingers are part of the 12 percent of Dade County without access to broadband internet, a rare-in-2018 group that can't watch Netflix or perhaps illegally stream an HBO show they don't want to pay for.

The Persingers have two choices here: a DSL connection or satellite internet. The DSL stream is numbingly slow, Karen said. So, they settle for a satellite connection, which is a bit faster but also unreliable. When it storms, the connection cuts out. And when you get closer to the limited monthly data you've paid for, Karen said, the connection slows down.

Teachers who host retreats there have to download any presentations before they arrive. Yogis awkwardly wait as their instructor tries to refresh the humming meditation music.

"You're trying to build a business and a reputation," Karen said, "and you have a quirk like that that isn't in your control? It's very frustrating."

The specific challenges of delivering fast internet to rural communities are complicated, but the gist is simple: Installing broadband is expensive. Company executives won't invest in infrastructure if they don't see enough customers who will quickly pay off the cost.

In Georgia, according to the FCC's Broadband Deployment Report released Feb. 2, 28 percent of people in rural communities don't have access to broadband internet. In Tennessee, that figure is 24 percent, and nationally it is 32 percent.

By comparison, only 2 percent of people in urban areas don't have access.

Georgia lawmakers are trying to solve that problem this year, just as Tennessee lawmakers took a stab at it in 2017. State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, and State Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, have written similar bills. Both would provide grant money to companies that install broadband in rural areas. Powell's bill — and a second bill by Gooch — also would allow electric membership corporations to sell internet to customers.

Under Gooch's bill, grant funding would go toward projects in counties where 60 percent or fewer people have access to broadband. Powell's bill does not have a specific territory requirement like that. Instead, a state agency would hold a "reverse auction," letting companies explain how much funding they would need to deliver a project in an underserved area. An agency representative could then choose the winners, based on need and how much money the company asks for.

In the past nine days, the state House and Senate have passed Gooch's and Powell's bills. They will now try to work through their differences.

Under his bill, Gooch said the grant program would be funded, in a roundabout way, by laying down fiber lines along the interstate. The Georgia Department of Transportation will let companies install the line in the right-of-way along the road.

Once installed, private internet providers could pay to hook into the fiber, building out their network from there. The companies that installed the line would get some money. So would the Department of Transportation. Gooch isn't sure exactly how the company and the government would split the profits, but he thinks the agency could eventually make $100 million. They would use this money to fund the grant program.

"We don't know any other state that has done anything [with broadband expansion] at this magnitude," he said.

Powell's bill does not have a funding source for its grant program. He scrapped a previous plan to add an extra tax on digital services, such as Netflix and e-books. He wants to revisit funding options next year, hoping that by then the federal government would have boosted infrastructure spending. Powell believes some of this money could go to broadband expansion.

"I think we could get it done in five years," he said, "with adequate funding."

Gooch's bill also would allow exempt providers from paying sales tax on broadband infrastructure in counties with fewer than 50,000 people. This could help in places such as Chattooga and Dade counties. More than 60 percent of people in those areas have access to broadband, meaning a company would not get a grant to bring internet there. However, the small counties have plenty of secluded spots, leaving some areas blacked out from fast internet.

Powell's bill, meanwhile, slows down the definition of broadband. The FCC defines it as having download speeds of 25 Megabits per second. But for the purposes of getting state funding under his bill, Powell tells providers they only need internet speeds of 10 megabits per second.

What's the difference? According to Netflix, your computer or phone needs to download at 5 megabits per second for HD-quality videos. But if you have a download speed of 25 megabits per second, the company says, you can watch videos in "Ultra HD-quality."

In rural Georgia, Powell said the FCC's threshold is "like having champagne taste on a beer budget." His only concern right now is bringing decent streaming video to rural communities. That would allow people to use telemedicine, chatting over the internet with doctors.

Lawmakers still aren't sure of all the places where people need broadband. The FCC keeps a map that is supposed to help, but Gooch and Powell said the data isn't entirely reliable. The federal agency relies on information from internet providers, and it does not look more specifically than census blocks, which are at least seven-tenths of an acre large. If a provider says one person or business in a block gets broadband, the FCC's map makes the whole area appear as if it has access.

This isn't always the case. The Persingers' home, for example, lights up as if it has broadband on the FCC's map. Gooch said he wants members of the Georgia Technology Authority to create a more accurate report of the areas that don't have access.

Stephen Loftin, the executive director of the Georgia Cable Association, could not tell the Times Free Press how many more people would get broadband under the proposed changes. He wants to see how much money the state will provide for grant funding.

In Tennessee, where lawmakers set aside $30 mil- lion over three years, the state awarded $10 million to nine applicants in January. The money will cover about 5,000 people in 13 counties.

Loftin, who lobbies for cable companies such as Comcast, Charter and Cox, also could not say how much the sales tax exemptions in Gooch's bill will help. The money will go further in one place than another. For example, it might not make a big enough difference in the mountains, where there are so many obstacles. But it could make the difference in flat farm land.

Said Gooch: "They claim this will help. We'll see."

Next door to the Persingers, where the taste is champagne and the budget is whatever's cheaper than beer, Dr. Mary Hammock hates her internet. She's had DSL through the Trenton Telephone Company for the past two years. She says it's slow and shuts down frequently.

She used to have satellite, but it was too unpredictable.

"It changed if the wind blew," she said.

Then she tried a Verizon hotspot, the little black boxes that shoot Wi-Fi to your devices. But that was too expensive, about $120 a month. She then moved on to the DSL.

Hammock, who practices internal medicine with Beacon Health Alliance, said she should be able to access patient information on her computer using a secure, internal system. Sometimes patients call, asking for advice, and she needs to pull up their ER records or lab results.

But her internet is slow. And once she accesses the database, she said it often crashes, forcing her to restart. Instead, she calls the office, looking for someone with access to medical records. The process can take 10 or 15 minutes, if people in the office are busy.

It doesn't affect patient care, she said. But the problem is annoying. She moved here 12 years ago from Vine Street next to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, enjoying the natural beauty and the space for horses. A reporter pointed out to her that she had chosen this life, with its benefits and downfalls, over the city.

"I figure if we make enough noise," she said, "we can get both: seclusion and good internet."

On the other side of the county, in the New Home community on Sand Mountain, Mike Scott said his 7-year-old granddaughter needs consistent internet access to do her homework. He tried DSL, but it was too slow.

"You could turn it on, go fix breakfast, come back," he said. "And it will still be loading."

He has since moved on to satellite internet, provided through DISH. It's a bit faster, in his experience, but his granddaughter gets kicked offline once the wind picks up. Scott doesn't understand why EPB can't come down to him, or why Trenton Telephone Company can't bring its fiber up.

A spokeswoman could not answer questions about either Hammocks' or Scott's communities. John Pless, a spokesman for EPB, said expansion is hindered by "a range of deployment barriers." More on the nose, he said it's expensive.

Of course, there may be another answer for people in rural communities. In Rising Fawn, about a mile from Hammock and the Persingers, Dade County Executive Ted Rumley has nice, fast internet. He did the work himself.

In the early 1980s, he said, he dug 3 feet deep in his yard and formed a path to the power pole. He bought his cable, hooked it up to the house and ran it through the path. He got a permit to go over a railroad track. Then he had cable TV. Then, later, he got broadband.

But, he added, "I don't even know today if they'll let you run your own line. I kind of doubt it."

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