Georgia’s Approach to Rural Broadband
The Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI) is a collaborative effort led by the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and Georgia Technology Authority (GTA). Recognizing the importance of broadband availability to all Georgians, the General Assembly passed the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act (SB 402) in 2018. The legislation calls for promoting and deploying broadband services to unserved areas throughout the state.
Broadband is critical infrastructure in the 21st century. Now, more than ever, Georgians are keenly aware of the importance of high-speed broadband and the fact that connectivity is vital to everyday life. Fast, reliable internet is needed for education, healthcare, economic vitality, and basic quality of life.
The mission of GBDI is to promote the expansion and deployment of high-speed broadband to all Georgians. With 10.1% of all locations in the state currently unserved, GBDI is focused on issues of connectivity and accessibility, as well as broadband adoption and digital literacy. Ongoing efforts include a unique, location-level mapping initiative – a first in the nation – along with extensive efforts to provide coordination and technical assistance for communities and private providers.
Public-private partnership will be key to accomplishing the goal of serving unserved Georgians. It is not the role of government to build or compete with the private sector. However, in rural, less populated parts of the state, the cost to deploy broadband presents a barrier for many providers. The broadband program continues to develop tools and capabilities to support public-private partnerships and address this critical need.
A significant new tool in the state’s broadband arsenal is the Georgia Broadband Map. To date, users have relied upon Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps; however, Georgia’s location-level mapping program is unique and identifies 12,316 unserved census blocks that were previously deemed “served” by the FCC. More importantly, there are 507,341 homes and businesses in the state that currently lack access to high speed broadband.
The 2020 Georgia Broadband Map highlights a significant digital divide between rural Georgia and metropolitan regions. In total, 70% of Georgia’s unserved locations are in rural areas, and 31% of rural Georgia is unserved. This data represents a stark comparison to FCC maps and should be useful in targeting broadband investment. The map is also beneficial to pursuit of federal and other public funding, as well as tracking progress of broadband deployment.
Technical Assistance and Available Funding
Eliminating barriers to deployment is critical to broadband investment. At the community level, it is important to streamline processes and be prepared to partner with providers. GBDI – with active support from an advisory committee of providers and community representatives – has developed model ordinances and other resources that can be implemented to demonstrate that a community meets Broadband Ready requirements. Six Georgia communities have been designated Broadband Ready Communities in 2020.
Cost is a significant barrier to rural broadband deployment. While private investment is certainly key, total costs are prohibitive in less densely populated areas that have fewer potential subscribers. Given the public interest, federal, state, and local funding programs have been developed to incentivize broadband investment, particularly in rural areas. GBDI supports these funding initiatives by providing technical grant assistance and coordinating with various funding partners.
Emergency Internet and COVID-19 Response
The global COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the demand for broadband, which is vital to virtual learning, telecommuting, telehealth, and other aspects of economic activity and social interaction. Immediately, GBDI published a statewide map of Wi-Fi hotspot locations available for public use to support education and telehealth. Subsequently, the broadband team has continued to work with the Georgia Department of Education and participate in the Governor’s K-12 Restart Working Group on Connectivity and Devices to support local school districts.
Plans and Next Steps
GBDI continues to target ways to reduce deployment barriers at the state and local level. Nearly a dozen state agencies are working together to address various aspects of broadband deployment. Meanwhile, the broadband team continues to focus on priorities related to education, healthcare, small business, and quality of life.
GBDI is supported by an active Broadband Advisory Council, made up of provider representatives from AT&T, Comcast, Georgia EMC, the Georgia Cable Association, the Georgia Telecom Association, and Windstream, as well as representatives from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), the Georgia Economic Developers Association (GEDA), and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). The support of these partners continues to be, vital to delivering broadband solutions to serve all Georgians.