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How to get 21st-century backbone to rural Georgia?

Urban and suburban Georgians may take high-speed internet for granted. Not so in rural Georgia. When you can count the number of utility poles between homes, not the other way around, you’re in a part of the state where deploying broadband infrastructure can be cost-prohibitive.

That’s why members of the House Rural Development Council spent half of their first meeting, last month in Tifton, discussing the obstacles to universal broadband access. The risk is a government “solution” turns out to be worse than the problem. Let’s walk through it.

There’s a line of thought that, because broadband is vital to 21st-century commerce, government should provide it where the private sector can’t or won’t — much as government has promoted traditional commerce via roads, canals, ports, railroads and airports.

But there’s a big difference: rapid technological change. Buy and clear land for a road, and it’s not just that the asphalt may last for decades; resurfacing it is much like the original construction.

That’s not true for broadband. What once required stringing fiber-optic cable over long distances — at the cost of as much as $18,000 per mile (done aerially on utility poles) or even $40,000 per mile (if buried underground) — could soon be done otherwise, including wirelessly, to a greater extent. Government might get into this business just in time to fall badly behind.

Might a better comparison be rural electrification? While some materials would need to be upgraded one day, they might be used for a generation before then. Much of the cost concerns right-of-way, so publicly subsidizing the initial deployment could make it economical for the private sector to assume later expenses.

But this analogy is also flawed. When FDR launched rural electrification in 1935, just 10 percent of rural Americans had electricity — and in Georgia then, 70 percent of the population lived in rural areas. Something like two-thirds of Georgians (if we include city residents without electricity) lacked a utility that made possible the 20th century as we knew it. But estimates are that only 9 percent of Georgia households lack access to high-speed internet, albeit 25 percent in rural areas (the various definitions of “broadband,” and issues with measuring access that are too complicated to recount here, make the exact number elusive). That’s significant, but much smaller. The private sector has been much more effective this time around.

No, the most likely solution for the state is to get government out of the way.

Industry representatives who addressed the lawmakers in Tifton, though competitors in many parts of the state, largely agree on some answers. One is cutting taxes on materials and equipment used to deploy broadband, as other states (with which we compete for these private investments) have done. Another is more controversial: Lowering fees for stringing fiber on poles owned by municipal utilities and EMCs, which charge two to three times as much as Georgia Power.

A third concerns the low adoption rate where broadband is available. Just four of every 10 rural households with broadband access subscribes to the service, so encouraging a higher uptake rate would make it more economically practical to provide the service.

Here, given the way broadband access touches on other topics the council will mull, let’s ask a question: Might it make financial sense to subsidize service for lower-income Georgians, rural or urban? Consider two hypotheticals. Telemedicine is increasingly sophisticated and, conceivably, could cut the state’s Medicaid costs enough to offset any broadband subsidies needed to make it possible. Likewise, wider use of online instruction at Georgia’s already-wired public schools might generate enough savings to subsidize service in students’ homes.

Those latter possibilities are far from proven. But Rural Georgia’s problems are interconnected, and odds are good the solutions will be, too.

Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.

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