Technology

Proposed Ga. Bill Would Help Expand Rural Broadband, Lawmakers Say

"AT&T is testing out a new high-speed Internet device in an undisclosed location in rural Georgia and it would be one pilot that could benefit from House Bill 533."
"AT&T is testing out a new high-speed Internet device in an undisclosed location in rural Georgia and it would be one pilot that could benefit from House Bill 533."
Credit Courtesy of AT&T

AT&T is testing out a new high-speed Internet device in an undisclosed location in rural Georgia.

It’s called Project AirGig and rural Georgia is the first test site in the U.S.

It’s a wireless alternative to fiber cables and transmits high speeds – in the gigabit range – from small plastic antennas placed on top of Georgia Power’s utility poles. It uses extremely high-frequency waves called millimeter waves and doesn’t need to send signals through the power lines themselves.

AT&T said it is “seeing positive results” of Project AirGig in both rural Georgia and an undisclosed suburban location outside the U.S.

It’s expected to be a much cheaper way to provide internet than laying down cable. But negotiating a deal with each city and county can drive that cost up.

Related: Ga. Will Need To Ease Regulations, Provide Cash To Expand Rural Broadband

While rural Georgia needs better internet access quickly, state lawmakers said internet companies won’t expand to rural areas if they have to spend too much time negotiating with cities and counties.

It’s why some state lawmakers are pushing for a bill that would limit the power of local governments and help with initiatives like Project AirGig that build out 5G broadband infrastructure statewide.

HB 533 

Georgia House Bill 533 would cap the fees cities and counties can charge internet companies and allow companies to place small wireless devices on, above or below public rights of way.

State Rep. Don Parsons is chairman of the Energy, Utilities, and Telecommunications committee and co-sponsored the bill. He said the need for internet in rural areas is urgent, which is why there need to be fewer barriers for companies.

“A lot of these [rural] places are strapped for funds, and when they see something like this come in, it’s an opportunity to make money,” Parsons said. “A lot of times they’re asking too much and what happens then is that the services just isn’t provided.”

Parsons sponsored legislation in 2013 that streamlined the process for cellphone tower lease agreements and said it makes sense to have standard rules statewide.

Rural Counties

“We may charge a fee, but it’s not going to be high,” said Stewart County manager Mac Moye. “We don’t have high fees for anything here.”

Moye said fewer than half of people in his small county in southwest Georgia have Internet or even cellphone access, and the county would do just about anything to get broadband.

“Local people overwhelmingly would be in favor of improved access to the internet,” Moye said. “From my own perspective as someone who lives in the county but outside of a city, I can tell you that it’s been a serious struggle. I’ve had a hot-spot for perhaps two years, but it is very expensive for the sketchy value. I have been at small businesses and government offices recently where the service is still intolerable.”

The bill would make it easier for something like Project AirGig to set up statewide, but Moye said he’s not convinced there’s a need to give up so much of the county government’s authority.

“I don’t see anywhere in my cursory read of the bill that it says, ‘This bill is intended to provide better internet access,’ Moye said. “Thus, it has the appearance of requiring counties to give up rights for no clear reason.”

Statewide Impact

Amy Henderson with the Georgia Municipal Association said cities welcome internet providers.

“Internet access is economic development, it’s education, it’s rural healthcare,” Henderson said. “It’s not just technology. It’s these bigger things.”

However, the bill as written doesn’t address the Rural Development Council’s top concern for deployment of broadband in rural areas.

“The legislation is statewide so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rural areas are going to get access any faster than they already are getting access,” Henderson said.

Todd Edwards with the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia said rural counties have already shown they would give up access to their rights of way to expand broadband.

The legislation would reduce municipal control over zoning, permitting and public rights of way.

“That legislation would preempt that management authority and give it to the wireless companies,” Edwards said. “And this is the public access for which the public has paid dearly.”

Edwards said it would even impact urban areas like Atlanta. Under the current bill, the city of Atlanta would also give up local control of public rights of way.