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State committee says tax incentives, funds could boost broadband internet in rural areas
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A committee headed up by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, that is focused on obtaining high-speed broadband internet access for all Georgians held its final meeting on Thursday at the Georgia State Capitol.

This was the eighth and final meeting of the committee, which was tasked with examining the conditions, needs, issues and problems of high-speed broadband internet access in rural Georgia.

The committee voted on its final 26 recommendations during the meeting, which included considering establishing a dedicated broadband fund within the Department of Community Affairs, bringing current departments up to speed and amending their duties to include expansion of broadband, encouraging SPLOST funding initiatives to include broadband deployment and addressing local government issues that inhibit future broadband expansion, among others.

The recommendations from the study committee, among other factors, could be used in drafting legislation over the next few years.

On Oct. 4, Gooch and Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, asked residents of Georgia to participate in a web-based survey about their experiences with existing broadband access.

Residents were encouraged to complete the survey before Dec.1, but Gooch said the significant response the survey has received has induced the committee to keep it open for a few more months.

"We've had over 10,000 responses to our survey, so we want to continue that and get as much feedback as possible," Gooch said. "The survey doesn't only collect responses but also measures the speed of that person's internet connection."

Gooch said the survey results and committee recommendations will be used to create a comprehensive bill that will be put before the General Assembly this year.

Gooch said that he is most interested in recommendations which speak to the potential for creating tax incentives to spur new investments in broadband infrastructure and amending laws so that Georgia's Electric Membership Corporations can provide broadband services.

Gooch said that there is no incentive for service providers to build expensive infrastructure for broadband in rural areas, and that with little competition, places like Dawsonville are left without options for internet.

Tax incentives and state funds could be the push some service providers need to come into a market where they are so desperately needed.

The Joint High-Speed Broadband Communications Access for All Georgians Study Committee was created by the passage of Senate Resolution 876, which Gooch drafted in February 2016.

Five members of the Senate and five members of the House serve on the committee, which is co-chaired by Gooch and Parsons. Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, was House Speaker David Ralston's pick to sit on the committee.

Gooch has made finding a solution to internet speed and connectivity issues a priority after experiencing it firsthand in the Dahlonega and Dawsonville areas, though the problem touches all of rural Georgia.

"Increasingly every year, I get more and more complaints about the speed of the internet service being inadequate and the fact that people are paying for a level of service that they claim they don't get," Gooch said. "Their internet service, broadband in north Georgia, primarily the Windstream network, that's probably the biggest complaint I get about any one particular, specific topic."

The committee spoke with citizens, government officials, business owners and internet providers during their meetings, which began in August. Four of the meetings were held outside of the capitol, in the cities of Dahlonega, Toccoa, Glennville and Macon.

The full final report of the Joint Study Committee on High Speed Broadband can be found at http://www.senate.ga.gov/sro/en-US/CommitteeReports.aspx.