Achieving Connectivity Everywhere, One Step at a Time

By: Sen. Steve Gooch (R – Dahlonega)

As of Thursday, we completed 18 of our 40 legislative days for the 2018 session.  We are drawing closer to Crossover Day and the workload for committees is in full swing. We are now passing legislation in both chambers daily.

Numerous bills are being drafted and amended to address the issue of inadequate internet service in rural Georgia.  This has been a very time consuming challenge to work on for the past 18 months.  Both the House and Senate are studying different ways to increase competition, streamline the permitting process of government red-tape and remove barriers that discourage internet providers from upgrading their infrastructure in a rapidly changing technological environment.

I have three separate bills that will be considered this session.  Senate Bill 402, appropriately named the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act, was introduced this week. This legislation will layout the framework for creating a statewide broadband plan. Additionally, it addresses the conducting of research and data collection that is needed to steer any federal or state funds that will be provided in the future in terms of grants, loans or investments for broadband infrastructure.  Fully utilizing existing fiber-optics owned by both the public and private sectors will ensure efficiencies are in place before we spend tax dollars to get the most bang for the buck.  Further, opening up the use of our interstate highway system rights of way for the first time ever for the installation and deployment of fiber-optic infrastructure will reduce costs, streamline the permitting process and expedite the expansion of access to the internet in rural Georgia.

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is exploring ways through a public, private partnership to create a state of the art fiber network that can assist them in their traffic control and safety needs while also adapting to new emerging transportation technologies such as autonomous vehicles.  This fiber network can also be utilized for connection to the far reaches of our state by providing access to the super highway of the internet.  SB 402 encourages GDOT and other state and local agencies to coordinate their efforts through the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) to create the state’s first broadband strategy.   President Trump has recently announced that his infrastructure plan of approximately $1.5 trillion should include funding for broadband investments in rural America.  This plan will put Georgia at the front of the line to be prepared to receive those funds when available.

The biggest challenge to better internet access is the ability to reach the customer (known as the last mile of service).  Senate Bill 232, a bill I introduced last session, will be amended in committee next week to enable any of our 42 Electric Membership Cooperatives to provide internet services and broadband to their customers.  Our EMC’s represent approximately 4 million Georgians, most of which reside in rural parts of the state.  I feel more competition in a free market system will bring better and faster results to the challenge of broadband needs in our state and throughout the country.  Other states have already made this change and the results are showing to be positive so far.

And finally, a new bill will be introduced next week that will be known as the BILD ACT.  It simply adopts new laws pertaining to the use of pubic rights of ways.  The rapid changing technology of cell phones and hand held devices is causing local and state governments across the country to reconsider how to regulate the utility companies’ use of the right of way for locating wireless antennas and structures.  Small Cell technologies are being deployed in higher populated areas that allow increased wireless connectivity.  This technology however requires poles and antennas to be located closer together but at much lower heights than the current cell tower structures we see today.  Placing these antennas on street lights, existing utility poles, bridges and buildings will lower the cost of deployment and also help camouflage their appearances.  This evolving technology will also be deployed in rural areas as saturation in the higher populated areas occurs.

As always, legislation never seems to stay unchanged from start to finish.  I anticipate vigorous debate will ensue while we work with many stakeholders and interest groups at the capitol.  Lobbyists from practically every utility company, cell phone provider, internet service provider, local and state agencies, and many other organizations will weigh in to protect their interests.  My intent is to pass legislation that will help promote better job opportunities, economic development, access to better healthcare, education and a higher quality of life in rural Georgia.  I welcome your thoughts and comments as we move through this process.

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