In a year unlike any other, broadband has become widely appreciated as critical 21st century infrastructure … connecting students and teachers, patients and physicians, families, and communities. Too many Georgians, however, still lack access. Since 2018, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) have championed the state’s broadband efforts with a singular purpose: to bring high-speed internet access to unserved Georgians.
Recently, the National Governors Association (NGA) published a white paper on Governor Strategies to Expand Affordable Broadband Access. This report highlighted Georgia’s location-based broadband availability mapping as a best practice. Indeed, Georgia’s broadband map is regarded as the new gold standard. Georgia can be proud that its state broadband program had in place every element identified in the NGA best practices, including cross-cutting governance structures, strategic partnerships, and grant funding frameworks.
Collaboration is a hallmark of the Georgia broadband program. The involvement of private and public sector leaders, as well as numerous state agencies, is envied among other state broadband programs. Provider participation has enabled the program’s success to date. Similarly, community involvement – including public funding – is important. This is especially true when the conversation expands beyond profit-driven solutions (which have shaped the current landscape) to community-oriented solutions that ensure broadband service for those who remain unserved.
Over the past 18 months, public-private partnerships have yielded investment to serve thousands of new locations, both residential and business. In 2021, 9.1 percent of locations in Georgia remain unserved – improved from 10 percent the prior year. However, 482,374 locations still lack access to high-speed broadband, so there is much work yet to be done.
The state broadband program is focused on ensuring that entire communities are served. Accomplishing this community-driven approach is complex, and providers play an essential role. Private providers offer experience and knowledge of technology, network engineering and deployment, as well as operations and maintenance of the broadband network.
In 2018, an advisory committee was formed to aid Georgia’s broadband deployment efforts. A representative group of providers, local governments, electric cooperatives, and state agencies has worked collaboratively for three years. The sustained commitment of ACCG, AT&T, Comcast, Windstream, Georgia Cable Association, Georgia Economic Developers Association (GEDA), Georgia EMC, Georgia Cities (GMA), Georgia Telecom Association, as well as DCA, GTA, and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), is unique among state broadband programs. This collaboration has contributed to streamlining local ordinances, developing the broadband availability map, designing a state grant framework, as well as valuable insights on various state and federal policy matters.
Addressing the digital divide also involves coordination across numerous state agencies. The Georgia broadband program has regularly convened state agencies to share information, strategize, and develop deployment initiatives. Active participants include DCA, GTA, and GDOT, as well as the Departments of Education and Public Health, University System of Georgia, Technical College System of Georgia, Georgia Emergency Management Agency, State Properties Commission, and Department of Economic Development.
The broadband project activity across agencies is extensive. Ongoing projects include rethinking education models and extending the concept of “campus” to include entire communities. Issues such as NexGen 911 and broadband workforce development are on the collective radar. All of these remain focal points of the Georgia broadband program. The following examples highlight a few ways these relationships have proven instrumental, particularly during the pandemic.
Student Connectivity and Remote Learning
Department of Education
In March 2020, 1.8 million public school students, 120,000 teachers, and 50,000 school administrators were challenged to shift to digital learning overnight. To aid student connectivity, Governor Kemp allocated $30 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds to the Department of Education (DOE).
Immediately, DOE engaged the broadband team to determine how to best allocate funds. Leveraging broadband availability data to precisely identify who is and is not served, the broadband team identified 135,756 unserved student households.
The broadband team also assisted with expanding home access to broadband for students residing in multi-family housing and other low-to-moderate income areas. After identifying more than 49,000 students residing in low-income housing, the broadband team leveraged data from other DCA programs to assist DOE in targeting and engaging landlords to deploy solutions to serve these unserved students.
Georgia’s robust broadband data facilitated targeted assistance and deployment of connectivity solutions such as mobile wi-fi rangers, expansion of school bandwidth, placement of wi-fi antennas, and other at-home connectivity solutions.
Connecting County Health Departments
Department of Public Health
At the onset of the pandemic, many Georgians were unable to access hospitals and physician offices, and instead were driven to use telehealth resources. It was quickly apparent that those lacking broadband access suddenly lacked the ability to access routine and specialized healthcare. The Department of Public Health (DPH) engaged the broadband team to help equip all 159 county health departments with high-speed connectivity, in order to enable patient access. Leveraging relationships with internet service providers, Georgia Broadband quickly convened providers from each unique geography, and was ultimately able to bridge the digital divide among patients by enabling access to local health departments via telehealth resources.
Affordable Housing Development
Department of Community Affairs
The Georgia Broadband team works with other divisions of DCA, including the Housing Finance Division. In 2020, the broadband team facilitated the inclusion of a broadband element in Georgia’s Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP). The QAP dictates the allocation of low-income housing tax credits for developers to construct affordable, multi-family housing. This change helps to ensure that new affordable housing developments or renovations are equipped with fast and robust broadband capability.
Disaster Recovery and Mitigation
Community Development Block Grant
Department of Community Affairs, Georgia Technology Authority, and Georgia Emergency Management Agency
In 2017 and 2018, Georgia was impacted by a series of natural disasters that were particularly devastating to southern parts of the state. In 2020, HUD provided Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) disaster recovery funds to address unmet needs that were a result of these disasters, as well as to mitigate future losses. These funds are competitively awarded to address local priorities.
To analyze communications infrastructure across all 15 eligible counties, the Georgia Broadband Program successfully competed for and received $750,000. A partnership with GTA and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), this project will result in a guide to inform local and state officials and help drive investment decisions to address infrastructure gaps and to leverage existing assets to improve network resiliency, particularly as it relates to public safety and disaster response.
Georgia Broadband Availability Map
In June 2020, Governor Kemp released the inaugural Georgia Broadband Availability Map. It set a new gold standard in broadband mapping. Georgia became the first state to map broadband availability at the street-address level.
The Broadband Availability Map uses a location-level methodology that precisely maps access to broadband at every home and business in Georgia. The map is created by overlaying the location of every home and business in the state with provider service availability records. In total, more than 5 million locations are mapped, including data contributed and verified by 44 retail broadband service providers.
This map is updated annually, with the full participation of Georgia’s 44 retail internet service providers. The Georgia broadband team, including an exceptional team at UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, is in regular contact with all providers, including multiple touch points throughout the year to ensure data accuracy. This initiative truly would not be possible without the strong collaboration of the provider community.
Improved mapping and data more accurately demonstrate the need and urgency to solve the digital divide. Our state’s work in this arena has earned broad recognition. National outlets have commended Georgia’s effort to create an accurate, granular depiction of who does and does not have service.
The 2021 Broadband Availability Map depicts large areas of the state that remain unserved. Of Georgia’s 482,374 unserved locations, nearly 75 percent are in rural Georgia. This fact is clearly apparent on a statewide map.
It is noteworthy that public attention and public-private investment does have an impact. Since last year, the number of unserved locations has declined by roughly 25,000. Considering a significant number of new locations in a growing state, this yields a full percentage point (1.0%) improvement year over year. However, a significant number of Georgians still lack quality broadband access.
The benefits of Georgia’s enhanced methodology, especially over preexisting federal maps that consider a census block served if only a single location can receive service, have been touted by many. The National Governors Association now cites accurate broadband mapping as a recognized best practice. “The Georgia initiative’s 2020 map showed significantly more areas of the state lacked broadband coverage than had been identified by the 2019 FCC Form 477 map.”
In August 2020 – just months after the launch of the Georgia Broadband Map – the President signed the Broadband DATA Act directing the FCC to collect more granular, precise coverage data. Congress allocated $65 million in December for the FCC to develop an enhanced mapping methodology. It is too early to determine the timeline for rolling out new federal coverage maps; therefore, the state will maintain its mapping initiative to equip state and local officials, providers, and community leaders to make effective, need-based decisions about broadband investment.
Visualizing Broadband Availability and Other Data Sources
The Georgia Broadband Availability Map empowers state, local, and departmental leaders with granular, accurate broadband availability data that has proven paramount in quickly and effectively deploying connectivity solutions to populations that need broadband the most.
The Carl Vinson Institute of Government (CVIOG) is an important partner to the Georgia Broadband program. In addition to producing the annual Georgia Broadband Map, CVIOG helps the broadband team provide specialized support to local communities.
Cost Analysis and Mapping
The Georgia Broadband team has conducted cost analysis for the entire state and has determined the average capital cost for each of the 291,086 census blocks based on fiber to the home and fixed wireless technologies. Typically, the more locations in a census block the lower the average cost. Larger census blocks with fewer locations that are more dispersed generate the highest cost blocks. Census blocks can be grouped into low, medium, and high cost for further analysis when considering changes to government funding contribution for broadband projects to reach the higher cost locations.
Uses of Georgia Broadband Availability Map
- Accurately identify unserved areas
- Stimulate private investment and prioritize limited public funding
- Assist communities, providers, and funders who seek to address the issue of broadband connectivity
- Improve public policy and funding decisions
- Support cost analysis, deployment, and other initiatives aimed at bridging the digital divide
- Prevent use of public funds to overbuild, or duplicate service
- Provide a baseline for evaluating progress of broadband deployment to serve the unserved