Georgia Elects for Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Digital Beat

Georgia Elects for Broadband

In the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R-GA) highlighted, "With 25 percent of rural residents without access to high-speed internet, bringing this access to all of Georgia is a fundamental component of our plan to strengthen rural Georgia." In a plan he called A New Day for Rural Georgia, Kemp committed to improving healthcare, education, and economic growth facilitated by access to broadband.

Also in 2018, the Georgia state legislature enacted the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act promoting broadband deployment in areas not currently served at a minimum broadband speed of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3). The Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI) was launched as a result. GBDI coordinates activities with five state agencies—Department of Community Affairs, Department of Transportation, Department of Economic Development, Georgia Technology Authority, and State Properties Commission—as well as a Stakeholder Advisory Council consisting of representation from private telecommunications and cable providers, local government, and electricity cooperatives. Additional legislation authorized electric membership cooperatives and telephone cooperatives to provide broadband services, and streamlined broadband deployment in the public right-of-way. The state also required communities to submit comprehensive plans, including broadband, to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs every five years 

Georgia's Digital Divide

Of Georgia's 159 counties, 108 are considered rural. These rural counties are home to 20 percent of the state's population.

In 2017, the Georgia House Budget and Research Office testified before the state legislature estimating that 932,484 individuals statewide (9 percent) could not access the internet at 25/3 Mbps speeds. In rural areas of the state, 626,070 individuals (25 percent) did not have broadband access. David Cohen, then the senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer for Comcast, said 55 percent of all Georgia households with incomes below $35,000 are online. That’s compared to 92 percent of households with incomes above $75,000. By 2019, the state estimated 1.6 million Georgians and just over 9 percent of locations in Georgia lacked access to high-speed internet service. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic,  Atlanta Public Schools decided to rely on remote learning, but some parents expressed concerns. They called for a comprehensive action plan to improve remote learning, close the digital divide, and develop an individualized plan for each student’s academic growth.

According to its latest research, BroadbandNow ranks Georgia 21st in the nation for internet coverage, speed, and availability. BroadbandNow estimates over 95 percent of Georgians have access to 25/3 broadband and over 55 percent have access to a fiber-based broadband network. But less than 30 percent of Georgians have access to a broadband plan priced at $60/month or less. 

Georgia's Broadband Plan

“The solution to broadband in the state of Georgia is not a rifle-shot, one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a patchwork that involves many different providers working in partnership to address the needs in various parts of the state,” said Georgia Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Christopher Nunn. 

In 2019, the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative released a state broadband plan which highlighted its mandate to create a map of every location in the state without high-speed internet by 2020. The plan noted the state legislature's framework for future government funding for broadband deployment and state assistance for internet providers and local governments. At the time, it was estimated that it would cost more than $3 billion in public and private investment to wire the state, but only $2 million had been appropriated by the legislature for the state broadband plan and mapping effort.

Any political subdivision in Georgia pursuing improved broadband access is eligible for the Broadband Ready Community Certification. A unit may be certified as a Broadband Ready Community by:

  1. Completing the online application form,
  2. Demonstrating compliance with the adoption of a Comprehensive Plan inclusive of deployment of broadband services, and
  3. Demonstrating compliance with the adoption of a Broadband Model Ordinance.

The model ordinance identifies a local point of contact, allows a community just 10 days to review and approve applications to broadband network work, and promises "reasonable, cost based, and nondiscriminatory" permit fees. 

Georgia's Electric Coops

In the late 1990s, 32 public power communities in Georgia launched an extensive broadband network across the state to ensure their communities’ digital connectivity. A key focus of this broadband network was to provide for modern connectivity and jobs and to spark economic prosperity. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act (of Georgia—not the Telecommunications Act you're thinking of) allowed municipalities to enter the broadband business and provide critical services for their communities.

Georgia’s Electric Membership Cooperatives (EMCs) serve more than 4 million residents with reliable power. More and more EMCs are getting into the broadband business. In June 2021, Gov. Kemp touted the six EMC partnerships expanding broadband access to over 178,000 homes and businesses in rural Georgia.

"Over the past year, we’ve worked together to provide reliable internet to 44 counties, totaling over $491 million of investment by local governments, state partners, and 16 Georgia EMCs. I’m thankful to everyone who has been involved throughout the process," Gov. Kemp said, adding, "In the months to come, my office will be exploring every opportunity to utilize federal coronavirus relief funds to continue our momentum on expanding access to high-speed internet—no matter your zip code."

Georgia's Broadband Availability Map

In July 2020, Georgia published its Broadband Availability Map to clarify which households in the state do not have access to high-speed internet. The effort was the first to utilize an enhanced location-level methodology to map broadband access with a high degree of precision. This “first in the nation” approach was a collaborative effort between private providers and the Georgia Broadband Office within the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). Based on data from the Georgia Broadband Availability Map, 482,374 locations in Georgia were unserved as of July 2021.

Broadband Infrastructure Committee

On June 29, 2021, Gov. Kemp announced members of the Georgia Jobs and Infrastructure Committees. The bipartisan committees were responsible for receiving applications and making recommendations to the Governor regarding federal coronavirus relief funds allocated to Georgia through the American Rescue Plan's State Fiscal Recovery Fund. State government entities, units of local government, industries, and nonprofits were eligible to apply. Specifically, the Broadband Infrastructure Committee was responsible for making necessary investment recommendations to provide unserved or underserved locations with faster, more reliable broadband access.

On February 1, 2022, Gov. Kemp and members of the  Broadband Infrastructure Committee announced almost $408 million in preliminary awards to provide communities, households, and businesses in 70 Georgia counties access to faster and more reliable broadband. These 49 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant projects represent an investment of more than $738 million in Georgia when matching funds are contributed.

The projects targeted with these awards could serve 183,615 locations; 132,050 of these locations are currently unserved based on the Georgia Broadband Availability Map.

At the time, Gov. Kemp noted that the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund had also awarded $326 million in funding that will also bring service to almost 180,000 unserved locations over the next several years. "Due to proximity and connection to the Broadband Infrastructure Committee awards," Kemp said, "many of those project timelines are expected to accelerate."

Georgia Capital Projects Fund

With its $250 million allocation from the U.S. Treasury's Capital Projects Fund, the Georgia Office of Planning and Budget is creating the Georgia Capital Projects Fund Grant Program, a competitive grant program designed to fund broadband infrastructure projects that provide service to areas identified by the state that currently lack access to reliable broadband that can meet or exceed 25/3 Mbps, and that adopt practices that support both efficient broadband expansion and community engagement. The program is designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses upon project completion.

Using data from the Georgia Broadband Availability Map, the state has identified 44 preliminary eligible project areas for this funding. Internet service providers (ISPs) including co-operatives, electric utilities, and other entities that build or operate broadband networks are eligible for grants as are partnerships and consortiums. Networks built with this support must participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program and are strongly encouraged to provide at least one low-cost, affordable option offered at speeds that are sufficient for a household with multiple users to simultaneously telework and engage in remote learning which the State deems as a minimum of 100/20 Mbps. Significant investment from providers and public community partners is expected of applicants. 

Georgia estimates show that investments made using the Capital Projects Fund will serve 15% of locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state. The state is using 96 percent of its Capital Projects Fund allocation for broadband deployment. 

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Funding for Planning

On November 21, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration awarded Georgia nearly $6.5 million in funding to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet throughout the state. Georgia received $4,999,994.65 to fund:  

  • Identification of unserved and underserved locations; 
  • Efforts to support local coordination including outreach to diverse stakeholders across the state; 
  • Planning and capacity-building of the state's broadband office; and
  • Local engagement with unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to adoption. 

In addition, Georgia received $1,429,212.96 to fund:  

  • Creation of a Digital Equity plan; 
  • Engagement with the Georgia Digital Equity Taskforce;  
  • Creation of an asset inventory of digital equity programs across the state; and 
  • Local engagement with unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to adoption. 

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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