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Big-Dollar Broadband Expansion Ahead for Georgia: Who’s Watching the Money?
- 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.
More than half of Georgia counties lack high-speed internet for 20% or more of their homes and businesses, state data shows.
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.
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.
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.
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