ATLANTA – State lawmakers agreed to give electric cooperatives a shot at providing high-speed internet service in rural Georgia, signing off on a proposal Tuesday after three years of debate.
The state’s 41 electric membership corporations will be given the authority to provide broadband service, although it remains unclear how many of them will choose to do so. The bill now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp, who has said he backs the idea.
Lawmakers hope freeing the co-ops to sell broadband will increase the chances of connecting parts of rural Georgia, particularly in areas of south and middle Georgia where significant numbers of people lack access. About 1.6 million people across the state likely live without adequate broadband.
Other internet proposals, such as a call to tax video streaming and other digital services to help pay for broadband expansion, stalled earlier in the session.
“This authorizes one of the main players in rural Georgia to provide a service that they are not legally authorized to provide now,” said Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla.
Powell said there is “no silver bullet for rural broadband” but that the change is another step toward a solution.
Last year, lawmakers created a framework for a grant program that remains unfunded, and they also started a mapping project meant to pinpoint which parts of the state have the greatest need for the service.
Proponents were able to bat away attempts to limit the electric co-ops to serving the most underserved areas of the state. Powell said restricting the co-ops to areas with the weakest broadband coverage may sound good on the surface, but he said such limitations would ultimately be self-defeating.
“If you tell a business that the only place that you can serve and the only customers you can serve are the worst of the worst – as far as not having enough density, not being profitable, not being anything – and that you can’t serve in an area that’s profitable, you are basically saying, ‘You can’t get into the business,’” Powell said recently.
Rather, the measure imposes other restrictions meant to keep competition fair with other providers, including guidelines on what the co-ops can now charge other companies to set up equipment on their vast network of poles. This was a major source of contention for traditional providers.
The co-ops must also offer internet service through an affiliate, and the money coming from the service cannot mix with revenues from electricity or other services.
Still, some concerns remained as of last week, when the proposal cleared the House somewhat narrowly with a 107-to-62 vote that fell largely along party lines.
Establishing the state Public Service Commission, rather than the superior courts, as the venue for complaints against the co-ops helped push the measure through late Tuesday night on the last night of this year’s legislative session. It also easily cleared the Senate earlier in the day.
Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from a rural district on the coast, was among those who preferred to see the commission handle complaints because the superior court is not seen as approachable to everyone.
Williams also questioned why there was no requirement for the co-ops to cater to areas without broadband. Doing so, he said, would be in keeping with the cooperatives’ original purpose: Hooking up electricity in rural communities that companies ignored.
“EMCs were born out of that adversity,” said Williams, who voted against an earlier version of the measure but backed it Tuesday night. “Now, everybody wants to cherry pick the easy clusters, thousands of homes.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.