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Georgia Technology Authority Holds Rural Broadband Sessions

Oneisha Freeman, digital connectivity manager of GTA, said the meetings have the dual purpose of providing communities with resources they could utilize and gauging feedback that helps shape GTA programs.

rural broadband internet
(TNS) — Rural digital connectivity was the subject of a forum held by Georgia Technology Authority in partnership with Wiregrass Georgia Technical College last week.

Wiregrass President DeAnnia Clements said the conference provided rural residents a chance to explore the issues and possibilities related to broadband infrastructure in South Georgia.

Oneisha Freeman, digital connectivity manager of GTA, said the meetings have the dual purpose of providing communities with resources they could utilize and gauging feedback that helps shape GTA programs.

"So, when we talk about digital connectivity outside of infrastructure, we are talking about the five elements: broadband access, accessible and inclusive content, devices and tech support, privacy and security and digital literacy and skills. The funding for digital equity is one for infrastructure, one for connectivity or production. Access to affordability is a part of the digital connectivity conversation," she said.

"So for those folks, y'all that have access, but it might not be accessible to those who live in the housing authority. You live in that apartment complex, for whatever reason, it might not be affordable for you. So affordability is a part of this digital connectivity conversation. But beyond that, we actually need the physical hardware to connect to the internet connections that are in our communities. So what we found through the work from our previous job is that both did not come online or pay for internet service."

When asked about access to technical support, the audience, consisting of Lowndes County officials, Brooks County school officials, Wiregrass professors and others involved in the tech space in South Georgia, indicated the area had fair/average access.

When asked about individual access to a computer, the feedback was a bit more positive, indicating they felt most residents can at least obtain access to a computer either through private ownership or local libraries and schools.

"If we have a strong ecosystem, then we're addressing all elements of the digital divide, which we've all found ourselves in at one point or another over the past three years. It might be that we just did not have internet connectivity service when we needed it. It might have been that we had some service but then it cut off in the middle of our very important meeting. That's definitely happened to be more affordable, and subsidize broadband service options," Freeman said.

Joshua Hildbrandt, director of broadband initiatives, said the GTA's partnership with National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency that is governing the funding at the state level, pressed upon the organization to be intentional about partnering with local communities in coordinating for broadband strategy and funding.

"We have a broadband service that receives a subsidy through the federal government called the Affordable Connectivity Program. Lots of folks have heard of it but there was no real funding for outreach for that program. So the government is really dependent on us as individual citizens and leaders in our community to share about the Affordable Connectivity Program in Georgia, which provides a $30 discount for internet connectivity. We're doing OK but we want more people to know about it, so they can save some money. It could either make their service free, or depending on the package that they have, or you know, just bring their bill down," he said.

Lowndes County Commission Chairman Bill Slaughter announced last November plans for a $40 million multi-year project to bring high-speed fiber optic internet service to about 18,000 of the county's rural residents.

Of the $40 million price tag, Windstream, a company that offers internet service in rural locations in 18 states, is putting up $18 million while state grants will cover the remaining $22 million. Work on the fiber optic system is slated to start in 2023 with a deadline set by Gov. Brian Kemp of 2026. Freeman said awareness also requires the community to be proactive.

"But we're also saying to our community members, as we're going to do these listening sessions, we expect for you all to do the same thing. Like the schools can't just not talk with the local county governments. Because you serve the same people. You may be serving the children. But they're serving the adults in many of the same ways with different types of services. So we want everyone to be talking together to start solving these challenges," she said.

© 2023 The Valdosta Daily Times (Valdosta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.