Bills Aimed At Georgia’s Digital Divide

By Charlie Harper, Executive Director, PolicyBEST

If you’re reading this column in metro Atlanta, there’s a high likelihood that you’re reading it online. If you’re reading it in South Georgia, there’s a much greater chance that you’re reading it in a print newspaper. That’s partly because the newspapers that syndicate this column are closer to I-16 than they are to I-285, but it’s still emblematic of how those of us in the Metro Atlanta area now get our news.

I subscribe to several newspapers and magazines. I read them almost exclusively online, whether I’m sent a print edition or not. I also have super-fast, reliable broadband that can download not only periodicals, but video at nearly instant speeds. Many of my fellow Georgians in rural areas would consider this an elusive luxury.

This digital divide between urban/suburban areas and rural parts of the state is no longer about luxury however. As the internet has become a backbone of how news, commerce, education, and even medicine is conducted, the lack of readily available, reliable high speed broadband service is all about economic development.

Much of rural Georgia is already at a stagnant or declining stage of population growth. The lack of broadband is now one of the greatest factors in the ability for these areas to achieve any form of economic growth. It’s a real problem, that must have a real solution.

This summer a joint committee of legislators from the State House and State Senate studied the problem from multiple angles to try and determine where the state can be helpful, and where government “help” may further exacerbate the problem.

Last week, House Chairman Don Parsons (R-Marietta) dropped a couple of bills that would begin to address the issue. His proposals focus on three relatively easy common sense solutions that stop well short of an attempt to impose a costly and possibly innovation-limiting state monopoly. Instead, the preferred route is to add incentives to companies currently in the broadband space to expand in rural areas, and for the government to get out of their way as much as possible when they do so.

The focus of HB 336 is to create a “Broadband Ready Community” program that would certify a municipality or county has streamlined its permitting functions to make the regulatory hurdle of pulling permits for digging and installing broadband a one-stop shop.

When Google Fiber recently deployed its wares in metro Atlanta communities, they would only agree to install in cities that had a master permitting process. These are communities with a relatively large staff of building and code enforcement officials that understand their permitting processes and can adapt quickly if pushed by a major opportunity.

In Georgia’s much smaller and less densely populated areas, growth isn’t the same problem. Building is much rarer, and so are the folks that deal with the same issues. As such, the process for permitting anything new may not be readily transparent, and some communities may even have a “make it up as we go along” approach to utilities when deploying new technology. Some may want a permit for every location where work is to be done, necessitating needless time and cost to someone who is already struggling to make broadband a profitable proposition in these towns.

HB 336’s main aim is to get communities to take a proactive look at their regulations and processes. Making the deployment of broadband more efficient helps both the municipality, as well as the company looking to serve a particular area.

A secondary goal of the bill is to have the Georgia Technology Authority to gather and report data on broadband in the state going forward. This is still a rapidly changing technology, and the state needs accurate real-time data on where we are succeeding, and where we are not. This is also a stated indication that the process of solving this issue will be an ongoing concern.

HB 372 eliminates the sales tax on equipment used in broadband deployment in select underserved counties in rural Georgia. This is a bit of a compromise to lower the cost of delivering broadband in high cost areas, without extending the tax break to the already existing broadband hubs in densely populated areas that already enjoy superior service. While the state will be foregoing some revenue, it’s a much cheaper solution for taxpayers than the state setting up a broadband monopoly to directly serve rural customers.

Georgia has 159 counties, with one third of Georgians living in just five of them. It appears that as many as 130 counties may qualify for this broadband incentive.

None of these proposals are a silver bullet. The legislators that studied this issue are well aware that they have a role to solve the problem. They are equally wary of compounding the problem by picking a state imposed solution at a high cost and possibly slow delivery that may be outdated by the time it could be imposed. Instead, this is the cautious first of many steps.