Georgia Governor to Sign Rural Internet Package

While rural Georgia leaders welcomed the new broadband laws, they fell short of an initial goal of securing significant new state dollars to subsidize internet service in rural parts of the state without adequate technical infrastructure.

by Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / April 26, 2019
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(TNS) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is set to sign a spate of measures on Friday designed to expand internet access to rural areas that now lack fast online services.

The Republican will ink the broadband measures at a signing ceremony in Dahlonega, part of a stretch of mountainous north Georgia territory where residents have long complained about spotty connectivity.

The measures aim to bring more competition to residents with few options. Windstream Holdings, which gets federal subsidies for providing online access to rural Georgians, recently filed for bankruptcy protections and has long been dogged by criticism.

One proposal, Senate Bill 2, will allow electric membership corporations to sell internet service along with power. And Senate Bill 17 lets telephone cooperatives to offer internet services.

A third measure, Senate Bill 66, allows telecom firms to set up 5G technology equipment on public land. That proposal, however, will primarily benefit large cities that are likely to receive faster cellphone internet service long before rural areas.

While rural Georgia leaders welcomed the new broadband laws, they fell short of an initial goal of securing significant new state dollars to subsidize internet service in rural parts of the state without adequate technical infrastructure.

Lawmakers tucked about $2 million into this year’s budget proposal for rural internet funding; some estimates project it will cost well over $1 billion to rewire the entire state.

One idea to raise the money by imposing a sales tax on streaming services was blocked in the Legislature amid opposition from fiscal conservatives who saw it as an unnecessary hike. Others gained little traction, failing to win over Kemp and other GOP leaders.

He and other politicians from both sides of the aisle have insisted that expanding online connectivity to rural areas is key to boosting economic development, increasing healthcare access and improving quality of life for the region.

About 16 percent of Georgians lack access to high-speed internet service, and stories of schoolchildren who have had to go to fast-food restaurants to go online and complete their homework, and ailing residents who can’t access tele-medicine services, have ping-ponged around the Capitol.

At a small-business event on Thursday, Kemp said he would press for a broader expansion next year, but didn’t say how he would do so.

“We’ve moved the needle on broadband access in rural Georgia,” he said. “We have more to do, but it’s a great step in the right direction.”

Monument measure

The governor is also likely to ink another bill that will make it harder to relocate Confederate monuments at a separate event Friday, though his office declined comment.

While the broadband measures enjoyed broad bipartisan support, the Confederate monument bill was a more divisive vote. It was introduced partly as a reaction to a flurry of proposals that would give local governments the right to remove Rebel monuments that went nowhere in the General Assembly.

Instead, lawmakers narrowly passed a measure that would require local governments trying to relocate a monument to place it in a “site of similar prominence.”

Senate Bill 77 would also impose stiffer penalties on vandals of monuments, requiring those convicted to pay up to three times the cost of the damage, legal fees and for the repair or replacement of a monument.

That part of the measure was a key focus of supporters of the Republican-backed measure. State Rep. Alan Powell, the Hartwell Republican who sponsored the legislation, played a slideshow over emotional music that showed damaged monuments from past wars and other historic markers marred by graffiti.

©2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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