Governor Brian Kemp signed six bills into law last Friday during a signing event held in the library of the University of North Georgia.
The main focus of the event was on SB 2, a bill that allows regional Electric Membership Cooperatives to provide internet services.
State Sen. Steve Gooch, who was the driving force behind SB 2 and two other bills that help expand broadband internet into rural Georgia, spoke about the importance of fiber optic cables, a technology with the potential to vastly increase internet speeds.
“Everything in your house is becoming electronic, but none of that’s going to work without some way to carry that message,” explained Gooch. “This [fiber optic cable] is as important in the next 100 years, and in my opinion, will do more for our economy and the county than the Interstate system did when Eisenhower built it.”
The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and is seen as being a critical first step in getting the parts of rural Georgia that do not have access to high-speed internet on par with the rest of the country.
EMCs, which already provide electricity to millions of rural Georgians, are now allowed to legally sell internet service, which would put them in direct competition with cable providers such as Windstream.
Critics of the bill have pointed out that while it is billed as an effort to expand broadband into rural Georgia, the bill only sets a minimum speed of 200 kilobits per second, roughly equivalent to the DSL internet of the late-1990s. Meanwhile, the current FCC definition of broadband is internet with a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second, or 125 times the speed set by SB 2.
These speeds are just minimums, however, and if EMCs want to compete with cable providers, they will have to offer internet that far exceeds those base numbers.
“We’re grateful for the leadership of Gov. Kemp, Sen. Gooch and Rep. Powell on this critical issue and their dedication to rural Georgia,” says Michael A. Goodroe, President and CEO of Sawnee EMC. “The legislation is a good first step to meeting this un‐met need and allows those EMCs in the state that can create a business case in support of this effort to begin discussions with their boards as to “how” to explore possible challenges and opportunities in their respective communities,” he adds.
Broadband is crucial for sustained economic development and community building, but that doesn’t mean the implementation will be easy or even viable in many parts of rural Georgia. The cost of building these fiber networks will be high, even though the EMCs already own much of the necessary infrastructure.
Kemp also signed two more bills written by Sen. Gooch that deal with rural internet. SB 17 allows telephone companies to offer internet as well as EMCs and cable companies. SB 66 allows 5G internet companies to place their antennae on existing power poles or build their own.
SB 66 was years in the making, as it required in-depth negotiations with major telecommunication companies and asked local governments to grant access to their right of way.
The three bills together form a robust boost to rural Georgia.