Possibilities for Modernizing Internet in Georgia (Opinion)

There’s a line of thought that, because broadband is vital 21st-century infrastructure for commerce, government should provide it where the private sector can’t or won’t.

by Kyle Wingfield, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / June 1, 2017

(TNS) -- If you live 100 miles from Atlanta, odds are you won’t read this column in print. If you live much farther than that, there’s a decent chance you literally don’t have the bandwidth for it.

As our lives and economy become inexorably more digital, urban and suburban Georgians may take ubiquitous high-speed internet for granted. Not so in rural Georgia. Wide swaths of the state might as well be extraterrestrials when it comes to the (ahem) World Wide Web. They may have dial-up internet, but imagine comforting yourself with that consolation the next time you roll your eyes at a web page taking 10 whole seconds to load.

That’s why members of the House Rural Development Council spent half of their first meeting, last week in Tifton, discussing the obstacles to full deployment of broadband statewide.

There’s a line of thought that, because broadband is vital 21st-century infrastructure for commerce, government should provide it where the private sector can’t or won’t. Government has promoted traditional commerce via roads, canals, ports, railroad tracks and airports, the thinking goes, so it ought to do the same for e-commerce.

There is, however, a qualitative difference due to rapid technological change. Buy and clear land to lay asphalt, and it’s not just that the asphalt will last in some cases for decades; resurfacing the road is a lot like the original construction.

That’s not necessarily true for broadband. What once required stringing fiber-optic cable over long distances — at the cost of as much as $18,000 per mile (done aerially on utility poles) or even $40,000 per mile (if buried underground) — could soon be accomplished wirelessly to a far greater extent. Wiring every residence with miles of fiber may become as obsolete as an 8-track player.

Might a more logical comparison be rural electrification? While some materials might need to be upgraded one day, they could be used for a generation before then. Much of the cost concerns right-of-way, so publicly subsidizing the initial deployment could make it economical for the private sector to assume later expenses.

But here, too, the analogy breaks down. When FDR launched rural electrification in 1935, just 10 percent of rural Americans had electricity — and in Georgia then, 70 percent of the population lived in rural areas. Something like two-thirds of Georgians (if we include city residents without electricity) lacked a utility that made possible the 20th century as we knew it.

The broadband situation is different. An estimated 9 percent of Georgia households lack access to high-speed internet (the various definitions of “broadband,” and issues with measuring access that are too complicated to recount here, make the exact number elusive). That’s a significant, but much smaller, proportion. The private sector has been much more effective this time around.

No, the most likely solution is to get government out of the way.

Industry representatives who addressed the lawmakers in Tifton, though competitors in many parts of the state, largely agree about what would help. One is cutting taxes on materials and equipment used to deploy broadband, as most other states (with which we compete for these private investments) have done. Another is more controversial: Lowering fees for stringing fiber on poles owned by municipal utilities and EMCs, which charge two to three times as much as Georgia Power.

The third is where this topic touches other subjects the council will mull, if lawmakers allow themselves some creativity.

In rural areas, just four of every 10 households with access to broadband actually subscribes to the service. A higher uptake rate would make the economics of rural broadband more practical for service providers. And it just might be worthwhile to subsidize service for lower-income Georgians, rural or urban.

Consider two examples. Telemedicine is increasingly sophisticated and, conceivably, could cut the state’s Medicaid costs enough to offset any broadband subsidies needed to make it possible. And while Georgia’s public schools are already wired for high-speed internet, it may be that wider use of online instruction would generate enough savings to subsidize broadband in students’ homes.

Those latter possibilities are far from proven. But they represent the kind of holistic thinking that could yield a true 21st-century solution to this 21st-century problem.

©2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.