More Ga. Electric Co-Ops May Begin To Offer Internet Service

State lawmakers adopted a final report last month with recommendations for expanding 5G and rural broadband access in Georgia.

Tasnim Shamma / WABE

State lawmakers continue their push to expand broadband in rural Georgia this year.

One way is by explicitly allowing electric membership co-ops (EMCs) the ability to provide not just electricity but also internet service.

In the North Georgia region state Sen. Steve Gooch is from, the first question real estate agents hear these days is often not about where the best school districts are.

“I’m looking for a home in Lumpkin County or Pickens or Dawson County, but I want to make sure wherever we go, we have good internet service,” Gooch said.

He said areas that don’t offer reliable internet access are being left behind and it’s why he wants to authorize Georgia’s 41 EMCs to begin offering broadband. He prefiled Senate Bill 2, ahead of the official start of the 2019 Georgia legislative session.

Jeremy Nelms is general manager of the Blue Ridge EMC.

“I’m not going to say that this is a silver bullet to fix the rural broadband issue,” Nelms said. “But EMCs can certainly be a facilitator to address this issue, just as we did in the 1930s and ’40s with rural electrification.”

If passed, SB2 would also make it easier for EMCs to partner with internet companies to provide broadband service to members.

Bill Verner is president of Georgia EMC, the group that represents the state’s electric co-ops.

“There’s a reason why rural Georgia has a digital divide,” Verner said. “And that’s because the numbers aren’t there for for-profit companies to make a profit.”

Verner said that’s where nonprofit EMCs can step in to fill the gap.

Gooch said he also plans to introduce a bill allowing for small telephone companies to offer broadband services.