Internet tower in a field with blue skys
(Steve Heap/Shutterstock)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday awarded $408 million from federal coronavirus relief funds to 49 entities to expand high-speed internet access in rural parts of the state.

The Republican governor said the electric cooperatives, local governments, cable companies and others who receive the funds will match the spending with $330 million of their own money.

Kemp decided to spend much of Georgia’s $4.8 billion in federal relief on broadband expansion, water and sewer improvements and offsetting the negative economic impact of the pandemic. Kemp appointed committees of lawmakers and others to recommend how he should spend the money. The broadband announcement is the first of that money to be spent.

“The projects chosen reflect the greatest needs and interests of hardworking Georgians,” Kemp said Tuesday.

Kemp’s office said projects awarded Tuesday could connect 132,000, or 27% of the remaining 482,000 homes and businesses that are unserved by high-speed internet in Georgia. His office said the state may redirect other federal funds to help areas that didn’t get some of this money, depending on federal guidance and how the current round of grant recipients perform.

The Federal Communications Commission has awarded another $326 million to areas that include nearly 180,000 locations using its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Kemp’s office said the two pots of money could be combined to speed up the rollout of high-speed internet in many areas.

Republican House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge hailed the move as an outcome of a multiyear focus on improving economic and other opportunities in rural parts of the state.

“This is the kind of day we dreamed about,” Ralston said. “We knew that expanding broadband access was key to the ability of our rural area to grow jobs.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, saluted the winners for painstaking work to maximize the reach of the money, saying they “earned these awards.”

“These are grants and we think grants mean gifts, but that is definitely not the case,” Tillery said.

Recipients include electric cooperatives, local governments, cable companies and small telephone companies. The largest grant, $25.4 million, will go to One Sumter Economic Development Foundation, which says it will be able to serve 5,726 locations in southwest Georgia’s Sumter County.

“These dollars will help us to leverage those holes where other dollars would not be available,” said Romanous Dotson, the general manager of Lyons-based Altamaha Electric Membership Corp., which serves parts of seven southeast Georgia counties. The cooperative is getting nearly $6 million to serve 2,171 locations.

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