By Tia Lynn Ivey
After earning unanimous support in the Georgia House of Representatives Monday, Feb. 11, a new rural broadband bill was passed by the house. Details surrounding the vote are still emerging as of press time on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
According to State Representative Dave Belton, the bill is part of Georgia’s goal to “making access to Internet a top priority.”
“The People’s House of Georgia just passed a huge Rural Broadband Bill today!” said Belton.
According to the Associated Press, the bill would “authorize Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives, called EMCs, to offer broadband to their customers. Many supporters believe that allowing EMCs to provide internet is important because they already serve many rural communities where broadband access is needed.”
Proponents argue that allowing local utility cooperatives to provide broadband service would boost Internet in rural areas. Critics warn that the bill raises problems concerning competition among providers, believing the bill could result in “unfair advantages over traditional cable providers.”
According to the Associated Press, “Republican Rep. Penny Houston of Nashville said Monday that her proposal would remove any legal question about whether Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives, called EMCs, could offer broadband to their customers. That authorization, she said, would increase economic development and improve education in rural parts of the state where internet access can be slow, spotty or non-existent… Georgia’s EMCs say they currently provide power to 4.4 million residents and operate across 73 percent of the state’s land area, including many rural places. But current Georgia law does not address whether they can or cannot legally provide internet access.”
“Broadband has become as important to infrastructure as roads,” Houston said.
“If you look at a map of rural Georgia, there is already infrastructure in place. That is infrastructure of the EMCs that is available to serve the actual communities that are unserved now,” said Rep. Jay Powell, a Camilla Republican, adding that the EMCs had “poles in place.”
However, while the bill earned unanimous support for the vote, some representatives expressed concerns.
According to the Associated Press, “Republican Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta said on the House floor that, while he would support the bill, he thought it still had problems. Parsons said it does nothing to require EMCs to provide quality broadband or expand into unserved areas. He said the bill could allow EMCs to use their infrastructure, gained through the government’s help with eminent domain, to offer internet at a lower cost in areas that already have good broadband. That, critics argue, could give the EMCs an unfair advantage over traditional cable providers.”
“Literally, the EMCs have the capacity to provide service, cherry-picked service, to those people that already receive the service and not to the people who really don’t have the service and need it,” Parsons said.
At Associated Press also reported that Rep. Billy Mitchell, a Democrat, said “the yes vote was one step in the right direction, but that more work is needed.”
“The legislative process is such that when you try to go too fast, too far, at once, it brings detractors and questions,” Mitchell said. “Often times, you have to make these little steps to get progress made.”