Internet is a bread and butter necessity these days. But for many rural Georgia communities, lack of broadband infrastructure means that they are struggling to keep up.
If you are reading this blog, there is a good chance you live somewhere with decent, reliable broadband coverage. However, 16 percent of Georgia households — that’s 638,000 households — don’t have access to broadband of 25 Mbps or more. And 6 percent of households — over a quarter of million — do not have access to even 3 Mbps speeds.
Practically, that means that multi-person households cannot all get online at once and expect a smooth experience, particularly if multiple people are streaming video or using other kinds of high bandwidth media.
“High-speed Internet access has become fundamental to modern life, whether we’re on the job, at home, or going to school,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post. “But the hard truth is there is a digital divide that particularly impacts rural America.”
Internet access plays a key role for schools, businesses and healthcare providers in rural Georgia.
Students access their study materials through school-issued iPads; employees work from home; businesses use cloud technologies for improved efficiency; rural hospitals and clinics benefit from telemedicine, providing remote consultations with specialists; and, of course, many families enjoy streaming movies and video games for fun.
Rural communities are especially challenging to serve, as there is a low return for telecommunications companies that lay cables in sparsely populated areas.
“Fiber connection costs are much higher for rural schools and libraries. As a result, either there is no fiber, or that level of connectivity is only available at an unreasonably high price. It may not be unusual, but it is unacceptable that these realities are allowed to hurt students,” Wheeler said.
High-speed internet is unobtainable for 41 percent of the nation’s rural schools. Georgia’s rural small businesses also feel the pinch. There are nearly 75,000 rural small businesses in Georgia without access to 25 Mbps speeds.
The implications of this are straightforward: students don’t gain the digital literacy skills they need to thrive in a 21st century economy, while businesses can’t provide best-in-class service and reach bigger customer bases if they can’t get online.
There are a few federally funded programs to address the digital divide.
Windstream, AT&T, Frontier and CenturyLink have received over $305 million from the FCC’s Connect America Funds over the past six years to invest in broadband infrastructure in rural Georgia communities. Georgia’s schools and libraries received about $512 million over the same period as part of the E-Rate program, another FCC program that subsidizes internet access for schools and libraries.
Knowing how important internet access is for schools, healthcare facilities and businesses, some counties are working on homegrown solutions, rather than waiting for Connect America Funds to reach their communities.
The South Georgia Regional Information Technology Authority includes seven counties, just southwest of Albany. Together, they have been able to build 22 wireless 4G LTE towers and put 160 miles of fiber optic cable in the ground, providing 2, 5 and 10 Mbps service at $40-85 per month. They currently provide internet access to over 500 residents of their seven county coverage area, since launching last October.
This year, the Georgia legislature is launching the Joint High-Speed Broadband Communications Access for all Georgians Study Committee to investigate high-speed broadband coverage issues in rural communities. Perhaps as an issue that isn’t currently politicized, we can see some common-sense policy solutions next legislative session, to make sure all of Georgia’s students, families and businesses can access this critical infrastructure.