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Senate unanimously passes bill encouraging broadband internet expansion
state capitol
Georgia state capitol. - photo by For the Dawson County News

After months talking up the importance of rural broadband infrastructure, the Georgia Senate has passed a bill that aims to bring high-speed internet to the entire state.

Senate Bill 402 was unanimously passed on Friday, Feb. 23. Called the Achieving Community Everywhere Act and sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the bill creates a statewide broadband deployment plan that will be coordinated by the Georgia Technology Authority.

The bill would make a slew of changes to state law and regulations dealing with local broadband.

It would open more state rights of way along highways and interstates for broadband infrastructure, free up public money for technology grants and sets the groundwork for public-private partnerships in small communities around the state, according to an announcement from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s office on Friday.

“Thanks to this forward-looking broadband infrastructure plan, our rural families, small businesses, students, and health care providers will compete for and win the most rewarding and advanced opportunities in the world,” Cagle said in the announcement.

The bill defines high-speed internet as a connection with a 25 mbps download speed and a 3 mbps upload speed — about the connection a home would need for online streaming for multiple devices. It also allows municipalities to apply to be “broadband-ready communities” to be eligible for greater state support.

It also requires all state governments to include broadband infrastructure expansion routes in their comprehensive plans and creates a tax break for broadband infrastructure equipment in certain counties.

The Georgia Technology Authority would also be required to publish an annual report on the state of rural broadband growth in Georgia.

Rural broadband has been an issue in Gooch’s district in Lumpkin County for years. The county has received more than $280,000 from the Federal Communications Commission through its Connect America Fund — a nationwide program intended to help finance rural broadband infrastructure expansion in targeted areas.

In Lumpkin County, there were 1,184 locations eligible for CAF-financed development. Each location represents an individual home or business.

“As someone who lives in a rural area, I was proud to partner with Lt. Governor Cagle to deliver this much needed broadband infrastructure package,”Gooch said in the Friday announcement. “Hospitals, schools, and local businesses anchor our rural communities, and the ACE Act will ensure our institutions and citizens have a sustainable future filled with opportunity and a higher quality of life.”

This month, the FCC announced another round for cash available through the Connect America Fund that launches in late July. Nationwide, about $2 billion will be available for bids from interested companies.

Almost 18,000 properties are eligible for financial support from the fund. Most of the cash awarded through the program in Northeast Georgia goes to Windstream, though AT&T and other large internet providers also receive funding in other areas of the state.

“Connecting the unconnected in rural America is my top priority,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a news release. “I’m excited that our CAF auction will provide opportunities for innovative companies and cooperatives to bridge the digital divide for the Georgia consumers and small businesses that lack high-speed access today.”

The fund has handed out more than $9 billion since 2011.