ATLANTA — Georgia is making progress toward improving internet access across rural areas with 32 communities that are now “broadband ready,” and 280 communities adding the initiative to their plans.
Members of the Georgia House Rural Development Council were updated on the state’s broadband expansion project during a daylong meeting Wednesday.
Community Affairs Commissioner Christopher Nunn, whose department is overseeing increased internet connectivity throughout the state, said, “As we were going into this pandemic we were polishing up the first of its kind broadband map, and we really pivoted most all of our efforts to supporting a response to COVID.”
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as an internet connection with speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloading files and 3 megabits per second to upload. Broadband represents the government’s standard for acceptable internet speeds to support Americans’ work and education.
Broadband is offered through a wireless connection, DSL, cable/satellite, and fiber cables. Fiber cables allow for the fastest internet speeds.
With most school systems going virtual as the coronavirus pandemic worsened last year, the state’s effort to bring high-speed interconnectivity to rural Georgia took on added urgency.
Nunn told the lawmakers that currently 23 counties and nine cities are up next to receive fast internet.
The counties are Banks, Bartow, Carroll, Chattooga, Colquitt, Dade, Dawson, Elbert, Emanuel, Evans, Fannin, Haralson, Harris, Jefferson, Lee, Lumpkin, Marion, McDuffie, Oglethorpe, Paulding, Peach, Turner, and Warren.
The cities are Byron, Claxton, Fitzgerald, Fort Valley, Hagan, Hiawassee, Ocilla, Summerville, and Woodbury.
Millions of dollars have been flowing into this huge initiative from the state budget, as well as federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FCC, and the American Rescue Plan.
Nunn reported that in the fiscal year that ended last July, the USDA ReConnect gave $23 million to serve 6,500 locations in Georgia, and the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunities Fund awarded $326 million to 15 service providers in over 179,000 locations in the state.
While 280 communities are in line for the next expansion push, Nunn said 9.1% of the state’s population does not have access to acceptable internet, and 75% of that is in rural Georgia.
“The time is now to invest even more significantly in addressing the need,” said Nunn. “We still have significant work to be done.”
To be considered broadband-ready, community leaders first have to submit an application to the Georgia Broadband Program to access federal funding. Once they have been approved, they will receive investment funds and partnerships with local electric membership cooperatives to begin updating internet infrastructure in their communities.
Jessica Simmons, the deputy chief information officer for Broadband and Special Projects at the Georgia Technology Authority, told the Georgia House committee that rural communities that apply to become broadband ready will receive equipment allowing speeds that are 100 megabits per second for downloading and uploading, which is above the national requirement.
Fast internet and connectivity are the backbones of modern society and, according to Nunn’s 2021 Broadband Report, that ability affects student remote learning, connects county health departments, improves affordable housing development, and facilitates disaster recovery.
The Georgia Department of Education and the Department of Community Affairs have found that there are 135,750 unserved student households. Also, the state Department of Public Health found that 159 health care departments need high-speed internet as well.
Since 2019, Georgia has put a focus on improving internet connectivity into rural areas. The Legislature passed a law that allowed for electric membership cooperatives to form partnerships with local leaders and communities to provide broadband speeds to counties across Georgia.
The broadband expansion has been a priority of House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp has been reporting on its progress regularly since the initiative began.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the necessity of high-speed broadband access was driven home to all of us,” said Kemp in a newspaper column this summer. “This is no longer an optional service for many families – it is an essential need that impacts kitchen tables from Hahira to Hiawassee.”