Opinion Forum

Expand rural broadband by lowering costs

A panel of state lawmakers studying rural broadband, pictured in this August 2016 file photo, voted Thursday on a list of recommendations to improve internet access in underserved areas.
A panel of state lawmakers studying rural broadband, pictured in this August 2016 file photo, voted Thursday on a list of recommendations to improve internet access in underserved areas. mlee@macon.com

Georgia’s leaders widely see broadband as key infrastructure for a 21st century economy. The members of the House Rural Development Council made it clear expanding high speed internet to more rural markets is a priority as they tackle the issues related to economic prosperity and growth in rural Georgia. Areas with access to broadband have one of the critical ingredients for growth – and those that don’t face the possibility of falling farther behind.

Cable operators throughout Georgia support the efforts of the General Assembly to expand high-speed broadband service to the reported 16 percent of Georgians who lack access – and they’re ready to do their part to make it happen. Cable operators already have invested $3 billion in infrastructure in Georgia over the past 10 years to provide their customers the highest speed Internet service available. For example, last year Mediacom announced it had upgraded service to the 250,000 homes it passes in southwest Georgia to gigabit-level speed.

But not every community has sufficient broadband, and the reasons for this reflect economic reality. There’s less broadband coverage in parts of the state that are sparsely populated, because the provider’s cost per customer is much higher.

Like with any budget challenge, we must find efficiencies and cut costs if we’re going to expand access. One way legislators can reduce the cost is to adopt federal guidelines for how much utility companies can charge broadband providers for attaching fiber optic cables to their poles.

The price charged per pole can amount to 20 percent of the cost of deployment, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s 2010 National Broadband Plan. Considering there can be more poles in a country mile than households, these costs can soar, throwing up a barrier to the deployment of more broadband.

Chief among the recommendations in the FCC report is the need to establish pole attachment rates that are as low and close to uniform as possible. Although the FCC regulates the pole rates that can be charged by the investor-owned utilities, such as Georgia Power Co., it does not oversee the rates and practices of the Electric Membership Cooperatives (EMCs) or the municipal utilities.

This has led to huge disparities in pole rental costs throughout the state. Whereas Georgia Power, following the federal guidelines, charges an annual rate of $6 per pole attachment, municipal utilities charge an average of $16 per pole and EMCs charge more than $19 – three times what the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled are just and reasonable.

Federal law allows states to oversee the rates of EMC and municipal utility pole providers. The Chairmen of the Rural Development Council of the Georgia House of Representatives have offered legislation that would close the federal loophole by tying the EMC and municipal pole rates to the FCC formula as part of a package of proposals for improving broadband connectivity in rural Georgia.

At a time when EMCs are seeking legislation which would allow them to offer broadband services, this reform would provide for fair competition in the marketplace, which would benefit consumers. Likewise, if these monopolies are allowed to continue to set their own prices, the potential for market abuse could dry up broadband investment, which would work against what the General Assembly is trying to accomplish.

Fair and reasonable pole rates will help attract more investment in high speed internet in difficult to serve areas. Our cable providers stand ready to help the General Assembly in their goal of expanding broadband, and economic prosperity, in rural Georgia.

Loftin is the executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. GCA, with its five members serving approximately 1.7 million households and businesses, is the voice of the cable industry in Georgia.

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