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Economic Development

There's a Long Road Ahead on action to enhance Broadband in Georgia, based on Joint Committee's report

Category: Economic Development

By Lou Phelps, Coastal Empire News

February 24, 2017 – The Joint House/Senate Study Committee on Broadband Access in Georgia has completed its work, and released its report for the 2017/2018 legislative session now underway. 

Broadband services in Georgia are not defined as a utility, and therefore, not regulated by the Georgia Public Utilities Commission.

But, anyone who has driven I-16 and can’t maintain a cell phone call, or waited at their office for standard software to download, understands that there is a need for massive investment in improved high-speed connectivity in multiple areas across the State.  The problems are particularly acute in Georgia’s rural counties, which make up a large portion of the geography of Georgia.

In general, the report concluded that the lack of high-speed broadband hinders economic development, affects the use of technology by hospitals, businesses, schools and educational institutions, and is also affecting the law enforcement community.

While the Committee found that subscribership rates at the national level continue to grow each year while connecting millions of more Americans to digital information networks, targeted income assistance programs for low-income areas are a substantial priority in the U.S., and in Georgia.

“Some of these policies will be set at the federal level, including efforts already underway. A reformed Lifeline program and the newly-announced "ConnectHome" will both improve broadband availability and affordability for low-income households. Also, the need exists for enhanced cooperation and communication across all levels of government alongside private Internet service providers, some of whom have demonstrated a commitment  to  community  investment already,” according to the Committee. 

The report reviews the history of broadband in Georgia, but makes clear that its work was hampered by the lack of basic information on where service issues exist.  And, the Committee concluded that strategies to encourage capital investment in Georgia must be pursued. Key to the report appears to be the group's recommendation to hire a consultant to facilitate a statewide feasibility study on a number of issues.

The Committee recommended a long list of what they termed “Solutions,” which includes:

•  Codify definition of broadband to track the Federal Communications Commission   definition

• Strengthen  broadband project priority with OneGeorgia  funding

•  Consider the establishment of a dedicated broadband fund within the Department of Community Affairs

•  Permit the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to offer funding programs for broadband projects

•  Develop "Gigabit Ready" community designation by providing a list of goals that  could  be attained at the local level to create a more attractive business environment for companies to deploy and enhance broadband access

  • Encourage SPLOST funding initiatives to include broadband deployment

•  Amend the purpose of the Georgia Technology Authority to include the responsibility of monitoring broadband deployment and adoption in tandem with other  state  partners,  such as  the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the  University of Georgia; to  provide information to the legislature and other government stakeholders regarding policy changes from the federal government and how it affects Georgia; and to serve as the state partner to the Federal Communications Commission

•  Explore how the Georgia Department of Transportation and other state agencies can lease excess fiber to providers for better broadband services

•  Catalogue available resources-e.g., excess conduit, fiber optic routes, potential antenna sites­ and market these assets at fair market price

•  Require the Georgia Department of Transportation to open the right-of-way for conduits and fiber on rural roads

•  Repurpose Georgia Universal Access Fund eligibility to include broadband expansion

•  Expand Georgia Universal Access Fund fees from landlines to all telephone numbers

•  Convene with experts within the Department of Education and Georgia Technology Authority, local boards of education, and stakeholders of the Georgia Public Web Service to determine whether and how the state could broadcast unused bandwidth (e.g., after school  hours)  to citizens or  anchor institutions within a local community in need of  broadband

•  Explore how public-private partnerships could be better facilitated between  local government, real estate professionals, local development authorities, and  others

•  Encourage the Department of Community Affairs or Georgia Technology Authority, in concert  with Regional Development Centers, to educate citizens on the benefits of broadband in local communities, field questions, and compile data on the costs of deploying broadband to areas without service or enhancing existing service

•  Collect information  from Regional Commissions, the  Georgia Farm Bureau, the  Georgia Chamber   of  Commerce,  and others, to  assess what geographies  seem to  be underserved

•  Hire a consulting firm to  conduct  a  statewide  feasibility  study  to  understand  current  conditions and  formulate  a statewide broadband plan          '

•  Amend existing law to provide Georgia's Electric Membership Corporations statutory clarity to provide telecommunication and broadband services

•  Eliminate taxes or fees on telecommunications equipment that is purchased with the goal of deploying to or enhancing a rural area

•  Provide tax credits for individuals or businesses that invest in broadband infrastructure in rural areas

•  Create tax incentives for individuals or businesses deploying broadband in rural areas to recruit and hire local labor force

•  Address local government issues that inhibit future broadband  expansion

•  Develop a uniform, streamlined permitting process at the  local level

•  Craft incentives to encourage partnerships between large and small telecommunications providers, thereby eliminating duplicative efforts and leveraging combined resources to assess and address broadband disparities

•  Reaffirm the state's approval of competitive telecommunication markets by continuing to permit locally-owned and operated government broadband services

•  Request information from state agencies on how adequate broadband service affects their regulated parties and how it fuels economic  development

Expanding digital and technological education courses are equally important to  all  metro  and  rural areas, the Committee members agreed.

Digital literacy training classes and programs can help prepare young students for their digital future and offer opportunities for adults to improve their skills for today's working environment, it states, adding that “Community assets like libraries are especially important by providing public Internet access and representing centers for training. The recently-expanded federal E-rate program will help communities build capacity at their schools and libraries.”

Finally, continuing growth of the federal and local policy strategies will also involve continued research into broadband adoption. Public and private sector employers should also continue to incentivize telecommuting for broadband benefits, the report states. “Many of the largest metro areas have the highest broadband adoption rates and telecommuting could help get more households online and better  maximize  the internet capacity being built. As demonstrated by the wide range in metropolitan adoption rates, it's especially important to understand the local and rural areas that drive high or low  economic performance, and how other factors may impact neighborhood-scale adoption.”

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