Savannah Business Journal Staff Report

March 21, 2020 - State Representative Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), chairman of the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee, announces that the Georgia House of Representatives recently passed House Bill 244, or the Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act, by a vote of 116-44 on Thursday, March 12, 2020. HB 244 seeks to support rural quality-of-life improvements regarding online education, economic development and health care access for those in unserved or rural areas of the state and would require Georgia’s Electric Membership Corporations (EMCs) to charge fair and reasonable pole attachment rates as determined by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).

“With so many people quarantined at home due to COVID-19, it is vital that all Georgians are able to connect to the internet,” said Rep. Stephens. “Unfortunately, the high cost of access to EMC utility poles across the state limits the ability of broadband service providers to invest in rural Georgia. These poles were subsidized by federal tax dollars to facilitate electricity and communications services. Communications providers want to pay their fair share of pole rent and make-ready costs, but EMCs are charging millions of dollars more than what many believe to be fair costs. This bill would benefit all Georgians, not just those in our state’s rural areas.”

HB 244 would establish a process for the PSC to set standards for communications providers’ attachments to EMC poles. By ensuring fair access, the Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act would incentivize private broadband investment, bringing internet to thousands of homes and businesses at no taxpayer expense. HB 244 is currently under consideration by the Georgia Senate.

If the Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act is enacted into law, communications providers in Georgia have committed to expand their networks and accelerate broadband investments in rural Georgia, once reasonable standards are established for attaching to EMC poles.

“Pole attachment rates in Georgia are much higher than in other states, some of the highest in the nation—mostly driven by EMCs charging three-to-four times more than Georgia Power and AT&T for similar wooden poles,” added Rep. Stephens. “EMC’s rates are double the national average.”

“Broadband internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” said State Senator John F. Kennedy (R-Macon), who is carrying the legislation in the Senate. “Especially for rural Georgians, it makes a tremendous difference with respect to education and employment opportunities. As we have seen during the COVID-19 outbreak, online health care can be provided in the most remote areas where residents would otherwise have to travel, putting their health at further risk. We need to remove obstacles that keep consumers from having broadband in their communities.”

“It is just good policy to encourage private investment for rural broadband in Georgia,” continued Sen. Kennedy. “The Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act will help ensure that critical infrastructure is built as quickly as possible. We want private investment to stay in our state, helping keep us the number one place in the nation to do business.”

“There is no good reason our state should allow higher variable costs and burdensome conditions that inhibit rural residents from having a better chance to access the internet,” said Michael Power, executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. “It is unthinkable that such practices would be continued in this modern digital age. Georgia’s future especially that of rural Georgia, could depend on the passage of the Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act.”

The General Assembly’s regular legislative session is suspended and will resume at a future date to be determined. Should the bill be enacted into law, several rural broadband projects would begin immediately.

For more information on House Bill 244, please click here.

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