Last year there was a study committee on rural broadband issues and the growing digital divide facing our state. Residents of metro Atlanta and other densely populated parts of the state don’t witness this problem. Those living in rural Georgia too frequently deal with internet service that is slow, unreliable, or nonexistent.
The main work of the committee was to identify that there are really several major problems under the rural broadband umbrella. Access to service, speed of service, reliability of service, cost of service, and regulatory barriers impeding delivery of service are all subtopics worthy of understanding before any solution set is found.
There also remains a question of the proper government role in solving this problem. Purists would suggest that the market will eventually self-correct. The problem with that frame of mind is that an entire generation of Georgians may lose out on education, commerce, and employment opportunities before economies of scale allow for modern broadband service to be deployed throughout the state.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe the state should invest in a government run or subsidized solution similar to the TVA effort to electrify Appalachia, for much the same reasons. There are many problems with this approach. The cost would be enormous, and the ability to agree on a standard solution and deploy it would likely force an outdated standard of service by the time it could become operational. Technology in this area is changing too fast.
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There are some regulatory and taxation issues that the state can deploy relatively easily to incentivize rural broadband improvements without taking over a lead role in service rollouts. Currently investments of equipment used in broadband deployment are subject to state sales taxes. A majority of states exempt these taxes, and studies have shown that the states that do not tax equipment investment have a higher rate of deployment.
The state can also work with counties and cities to ensure a streamlined permitting system. Many rural communities have not adopted a system that would allow for a single master permit when deploying broadband, requiring many separate permits to be filed during a broadband deployment.
While Georgia continues to work on a solution, progress is still being made. Just last week, AT&T announced a new “fixed wireless” broadband service for Lee and Sumter counties. This product would dedicate a new LTE network similar to that used for cellular service, but on a network not used for cellular data. Subscribers would receive a fixed antenna to boost service, with speeds of 10 Mps or greater, which is competitive with current high-speed broadband standards.
Other customers on traditional fiber networks are also seeing improvements. Mediacom Communications announced a major service upgrade to customers in 53 communities and 30 southwest Georgia counties in April, representing a $1 billion capital investment. Over the next three years, 275,000 customers in communities as large as Columbus and Valdosta but as small as Hahira, Lenox, and Ty Ty will see service improve to speeds that will allow a 2-hour high-definition movie to be downloaded in as soon as 28 seconds.
Unique to those two announcements are the people in Americus. They will have the choice of Mediacom 1 Gig service or AT&T’s fixed wireless product. Yes, even deep in southwest Georgia, competition in broadband service is starting to emerge.
The problems of rural broadband deployment continue to be studied by legislators, this year under the much broader “Rural Development Council.” Broadband is being looked at as in context with economic development, education, rural healthcare, and other issues unique to the less developed parts of the state. The point is that all of these issues are interconnected, and solutions for one often depend on solutions for others.
Speeding deployment of reliable and cost-effective high-speed broadband to rural Georgia is essential to support progress in other policy areas. Thus far, the state has avoided heavy-handed, Atlanta-imposed solutions. While some are starting to see progress, a few more carrots such as tax and regulatory relief would allow more Georgians to see similar solutions even faster.
Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.