Big-Dollar Broadband Expansion Ahead for Georgia: Who’s Watching the Money?

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Key Points
  • Hundreds of thousands of families and businesses across the state lack reliable modern-day internet to tackle their jobs and attend school.,
  • Around $700 million could help bridge the digital divide between Georgia’s urban and rural counties.,
  • Costs of building broadband – at several thousand dollars per location – highlights the need for local governments to keep providers from duplicating service or cherry-picking easier-to-reach areas.

Nearly half a million homes and businesses in the Peach State – close to 1 in 10 – don't have access to high-speed internet. But now there's hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public contracts heading Georgia's way, creating a "wild West" of spending and bidding and raising serious questions for officials and policy experts about whether that money will be spent effectively.

“There’s a mad scramble right now because of all this money and all these companies trying to get in the business,” said Clint Mueller, the legislative director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG). “The state’s the only one that can make sure we’re spreading these dollars as far as possible.”

For the nearly one million Georgians without a reliable internet connection, mainly in the rural southern and mountainous northern regions, the need to be connected is vital. That's especially true for students, many of whom had difficulty pursuing their education virtually during the pandemic. Places like rural Crisp County, where nearly a third of the population is blacked out of the high-speed web, are especially affected.

“Outside the city it’s slow and you run out of data quickly,” said Jenna Rhodes, a technology specialist at the Crisp County School District. “What is available is super expensive, and people don’t have access here like they do in other areas.”

In this four-part story, State Affairs dug into the numbers on how many people lack high-speed internet access in Georgia, what it costs to build out coverage in hard-to-reach areas and how officials plan to monitor hundreds of millions in federal dollars for new broadband projects.

Georgia's rural counties face less access to high-speed internet than urban areas. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Georgia’s Digital Divide

More than half of Georgia counties lack high-speed internet for 20% or more of their homes and businesses, state data shows. Nearly all of them are in rural areas. A few small counties like Baker and Glascock – with nearly 4,000 homes and businesses total – have no broadband access at all.

Officials in the small city of Arabi, located in Crisp County, said recently in an application for federal funds that none of their residents have broadband internet access. Local school officials trucked out mobile hotspots to places like an old hardware store for students to take classes in a grassy parking lot during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the school district’s technology director, Barry Doyle. The large pot of federal dollars headed Georgia’s way should curb the need for many Georgia students and their families to rely on quality internet outside their homes, advocates say.

“The one missing piece for a long time was funding,” said Jessica Simmons, the deputy chief information officer for broadband at the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA). “Now we’re really in a position that the funding is going to be there to hopefully bridge this gap.”

So far, around $326 million in federal funds has gone directly to companies like Comcast, Windstream and SpaceX for building high-speed internet projects in Georgia over the next decade. Another roughly $300 million in federal dollars from COVID-19 pandemic relief will fund local broadband projects until 2026. The recently passed federal infrastructure bill also has Georgia slated for an additional $100 million for broadband projects in the coming years. 

“We never realized that this much money would get dropped in our lap this quickly,” Mueller said. “The challenge is just where [to build]. There’s always going to be a certain amount of people who will be left out” due to lack of funds.

Georgia's broadband availability map shows where residents do and don't have access to high-speed internet. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Steep Costs for Broadband

It can cost between $1,000 and $3,000 or more to string a fiber-optic cable out to a single home or business in Georgia, making it difficult to bring fast internet out to places like Crisp County. Costs for upcoming large-scale broadband expansion projects range depending on location and type of service, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data:

  • Roughly $3,000 per location for telecommunications company Windstream to build fiber-optic lines and wireless transmission towers for about 48,000 homes and businesses in largely rural parts of Georgia.
  • Roughly $1,200 per location for SpaceX to blanket nearly 23,000 homes and businesses with low-orbiting satellite connections across several counties, including the metro Atlanta area.

The dollar scarcity has left many rural areas without reliable internet access – such as the stretch of middle and southern Georgia covering the 2nd, 8th and 10th Congressional Districts, where a combined more than 247,000 homes and businesses miss out on high-speed service, according to state data.

“We see it on a very drastic scale in counties with schools where, literally, kids don’t have internet at home,” said Keith Quarles Jr., the president and chief financial officer for the Atlanta-based network provider A2D Inc. “They have to go to a library or they have to do their work at school, and it’s an issue.”

State law also limits what type of internet connections qualify as “broadband” to underground and aerial lines, currently excluding satellite-delivered wireless providers from being considered a source of reliable high-speed internet in Georgia, said the GTA’s Simmons. Despite possible lower costs to expand wireless internet in hard-to-reach areas, Georgia will likely stick with building out hard fiber-optic lines into the future due to better reliability and more capacity for data transmission, advocates say.

“It’s definitely something that is an emerging technology that a lot of people are researching,” Simmons said. “But there’s still a very heavy preference for fiber.”

New Ballgame for Broadband

The big-money projects headed Georgia’s way pose a new challenge for a state that has only budgeted a small fraction of its homegrown taxpayer dollars for broadband expansion, compared to the federal trove available now. Advocates say state and local officials need to watch where the new federal-funded internet lines roll out so that provider companies don’t double up service, leaving residents in some areas with fast internet while their neighbors go without.

Doubling-up service has happened in many places where federal funds have gone toward broadband construction, including among some Georgia companies that nabbed part of roughly $326 million from the FCC in recent years. The FCC sent letters to dozens of fund recipients across the U.S. this past summer notifying that their projects may overlap with already-served areas, raising “significant concerns about wasteful spending, such as parking lots and international airports.”

How closely Georgia officials keep track of several new broadband projects poised for federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding could depend on contracts that state, city and county governments hammer out with local partner providers like AT&T and electrical cooperatives, said the ACCG’s Mueller. Federal guidelines don’t spell out any rules on doubling up service or selecting easier-to-build locations that might cover fewer people overall. That will fall to local governments and their partner providers to decide.

“It’s the contracts that the local governments and the state enter into with private companies,” Mueller said. “If it’s not in the contract, then they’ll do it.”

The buck also doesn’t stop with construction costs to lay fiber-optic lines underground or on telephone poles. Cities, counties and their local providers that win the upcoming federal dollars need the operational know-how and repair expertise to maintain high-speed internet long into the future, said A2D’s Quarles.

“The challenge is how these [cities and counties] think beyond a construction contract,” Quarles said. “This is a true utility operation. It can’t just be about a construction project.”

A committee of state lawmakers and agency heads will decide who receives roughly $300 million in federal funds for broadband projects. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Broadband by Committee

A committee of state lawmakers and agency heads is now weeding through 169 applications from city and county governments, electrical co-ops and nonprofits vying for a slice of the $300 million in federal ARPA funds. They’re using a scorecard to rank applicants based on how many people a broadband project will cover and whether they have the operational and financial chops to maintain fast internet over the long term. Ultimately, it’s up to the committee which cities, counties and providers receive funding, said Jennifer Wade, the grants manager for the state Office of Planning and Budget that’s overseeing the ARPA-funded projects.

“It will be really the committee’s discretion as far as how much over-build [on top of existing high-speed internet service] will be allowed,” Wade said. “They are working through that.”

Wade said her office plans to bring on outside auditors to check whether local governments and companies stick to their designs and stay within budget. Committee members can also use Georgia’s detailed broadband availability map to identify spots where projects may overlap new broadband service with existing coverage, said the GTA’s Simmons.

“Ultimately, the goal is to get service to the unserved,” Simmons said. “Some applications might have a slight amount of over-build, but we’re using our data to make sure that information is communicated to the committee.”

State lawmakers on the ARPA committee for broadband include Reps. Terry England (R-Auburn), Clay Pirkle (R-Ashburn), Jodi Lott (R-Evans) and Patty Bentley (D-Butler), and Sens. Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia), Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), Bo Hatchett (R-Cornelia) and Harold Jones II (D-Augusta). Top officials from 10 state agencies including for transportation, housing and public schools also sit on the committee.

What else do you want to know about high-speed internet access in Georgia? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing [email protected].