Closing the Digital Divide

Over the last year, the state has made great strides to expand broadband access, including obligating significant funding for broadband infrastructure deployment. This funding is designed to reduce the cost to deploy broadband networks into the remaining unserved areas (locations with no access to terrestrial broadband speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload) that are primarily in rural communities.

Program Objectives

The Georgia Broadband Program’s mission is to promote the expansion and buildout of high-speed broadband to all Georgians. With significant funding recently deployed and additional funds becoming available in the future, the roles of state agencies associated with the program are critically important to the successful administration of the funds. To accomplish this work, the program recently established an expanded set of strategic objectives as part of the state’s broadband strategy update:

  1. Bridge the broadband gap in the most cost-effective, timely way possible. Specifically, the state seeks to optimize the cost and time to implement a statewide broadband strategy to avail high-speed reliable internet service to Georgia’s households, businesses, and institutions.
  2. Enable sustainable, reliable, and affordable broadband service to end users.
  3. Increase the impact of capital investments by expanding internet usage for remote education, telehealth, small business operations, agriculture, and telework.
  4. Achieve government objectives for public safety, emergency response, and modern and efficient government administration and customer service with reliable broadband connectivity statewide.
  5. Ensure safe and effective end user experiences through digital literacy.
  6. Establish workforce development programs to support future broadband expansion efforts, maintenance, and technical support.

State of Broadband Service in Georgia

The 2022 Georgia Broadband Map documents 454,950 unserved addresses – about 90 percent of which are in rural areas. This is an improvement from the 482,274 unserved addresses that were identified in the 2021 broadband annual report released jointly by GTA and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA). When recent investments such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect, and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) State Fiscal Recovery Funds are considered, the number of unserved and unfunded locations in Georgia substantially diminishes to just over 200,000. The map, which is among the most extensive and sophisticated of its kind in the nation, continues to indicate that the state’s broadband gap is significantly larger than the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) data show. Although the state’s broadband gaps are concentrated heavily in rural areas, a significant number of locations in urban areas also lack coverage.

(Left) Broadband service availability map and (Right) Broadband service availability, including locations with funding agreements
(Left) Broadband service availability map and (Right) Broadband service availability, including locations with funding agreements

Of the approximately 5.3 million locations in the data (i.e., homes, businesses, and institutions in Georgia), 4.9 million locations, or 91.5 percent, are served at speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3) via terrestrial technologies. Of the 454,950 unserved locations, about 90 percent are outside of urban areas.

Recent Broadband Investments

American Rescue Plan Act

ARPA preliminary grant project areas (ARPA projects in red, RDOF projects in green)
ARPA preliminary grant project areas (ARPA projects in red, RDOF projects in green)

Governor Kemp announced in June 2021 that the state would use State Fiscal Recovery Funds under ARPA to address broadband service needs in Georgia. To assist in properly deploying these funds within the parameters of a competitive program, the Governor appointed an 18-member Broadband Infrastructure Committee composed of legislators and state agency leaders that would score eligible projects and make funding recommendations.

On February 1, 2022, the Governor announced almost $408 million in preliminary awards which will provide communities, households, and businesses in 70 Georgia counties access to faster and more reliable broadband. The projects targeted with the awards could serve 183,615 locations, of which 132,050 are currently unserved based on state data. These grant projects represent an investment of more than $738 million when matching funds are contributed. That makes this the largest public investment in broadband deployment infrastructure in the state’s history.

NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Program

Georgia was fortunate to receive funding in 2022 from the National Telecommunication and Infrastructure Agency’s (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP), in addition to the ARPA funding. An application submitted jointly by Windstream and Lumpkin County was approved for last-mile infrastructure investment. The project will serve 1,846 locations through a total budget of almost $5.2M. Of this, $3.2M will be covered by the BIP grant, with Windstream contributing a private match of nearly $2M.

Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program

The Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program created and funds a $1 billion initiative for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of middle-mile infrastructure. This can reduce the cost of connecting unserved and underserved areas to the internet. Eligible applicants included states’ political subdivisions; tribal governments; technology companies; electric utilities; utility cooperatives; public utility districts; telecommunications companies and cooperatives; nonprofit foundations, corporations, institutions, and associations; regional planning councils; native entities; or economic development authorities. This funding program is run entirely by the federal government and closed to applicants by the end of September 2022 with awards being announced in 2023. The state applied for the program with the Georgia Department of Transportation as the lead applicant. The proposed project would fund an open-access network along I-75 from the Georgia-Florida state line to north of Macon.

Current Funding Opportunities

American Rescue Plan Act Capital Projects Fund

ARPA includes the $10 billion Capital Projects Fund (CPF) for payments to states, territories, and tribal governments for critical capital projects that directly enable work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options. CPF allows for investment in high-quality broadband as well as other connectivity infrastructure, devices, and equipment. Georgia anticipates an allocation of approximately $260 million in CPF resources that will be used primarily for broadband infrastructure. Governor Kemp announced in August 2022 that the state would be running a CPF grant program for broadband infrastructure in Q3-Q4 2022, totaling $240-250 million in grant funds. The state expects CPF funding will be awarded to eligible recipients by the end of 2022.

Future Funding Opportunities

Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts (IIJA) Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program

Through the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, each state will receive at least $100 million. Georgia should receive additional funding based upon the new FCC national broadband map scheduled for release in late 2022 or early 2023. BEAD funds should be available for distribution by states in late 2023 or early 2024.

Upon approval by NTIA, Georgia will oversee the deployment of BEAD funding to reach three priority areas:

  • Unserved locations
    • No access to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds
  • Underserved locations
    • No access to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds
  • Community anchor institutions
    • Without gigabit connections

IIJA Digital Equity Act Program

The Digital Equity Act dedicates $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs. These programs promote digital inclusion and equity to ensure that all individuals and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of a digital economy.

  • The State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program is a $60 million formula grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans.
  • The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program consists of a $1.44 billion formula grant program for states and territories. Funds are distributed via annual grant programs over five years to implement digital equity projects and support the implementation of digital equity plans.
  • The Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program is a $1.25 billion discretionary grant program which will distribute funds via annual grant programs over five years to implement digital equity projects. Eligible applicants include specific types of political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities of states; tribal governments; nonprofit entities; community anchor institutions; local educational agencies; and entities that carry out workforce development programs.

Broadband Ready Program

Broadband Ready status is a designation awarded by DCA that recognizes a community that has taken action to reduce obstacles for broadband expansion by:

  1. Adopting an ordinance that streamlines permitting for broadband projects
  2. Including a “broadband element” in their local comprehensive plan that clearly states their goals and strategies for broadband expansion

In 2018, to underscore the importance of local planning for broadband expansion, Georgia began requiring that a broadband element be included in all communities’ comprehensive plans. Now, four years after that requirement’s issuance, nearly every community in Georgia has updated their plans to include local coverage data, as well as specific goals and strategies for broadband in their jurisdiction. Many communities that have not yet been designated as Broadband Ready stated that recognition is a goal, and DCA is providing outreach to directly assist those seeking the designation.

Currently, 52 communities have achieved Broadband Ready status across the state. Of those, 36 were designated in the past year, with 12 of those since January 1, 2022.

The graphic below identifies the communities that have received the Broadband Ready designation and those that have made progress on adding broadband elements to their comprehensive plans.

Communities that have received the Broadband Ready designation and those that have made progress on adding broadband elements to their comprehensive plans