Broadband tower

Broadband tower

Credit: Capitol Beat News Service

Telecom providers are complaining that financial incentives the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) offered them a year and a half ago to expand broadband service into rural Georgia aren’t working.

But representatives of the state’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) say the fact that 20 EMCs serving mostly rural areas have entered the broadband business proves there’s no need for changes.

The PSC voted in December 2020 to allow the EMCs to charge telecom providers just $1 per year to attach broadband technology to utility poles in areas without broadband service. The deal was to be offered for the next six years.

The EMCs had proposed the so-called “One-Buck Deal” to the commission, which approved it unanimously over the objections of telecom providers represented by the Georgia Cable Association (GCA), whose five member companies serve about 2 million Georgians.

The order the PSC adopted included a provision requiring the commission to review the One-Buck Deal every two years to determine whether the steep discount on pole attachments was working to expand broadband into unserved rural communities.

The answer the cable association gave in comments filed with the PSC late last week was a resounding “no.”

“As of this filing date, GCA members are unaware of a single pole permit that has been issued under the One-Buck Deal,” wrote Hunter Hopkins, the cable association’s executive director.

Shawn Davis, a lobbyist for the association, blamed the providers’ lack of interest in the One-Buck Deal on another provision in the PSC’s order that increased the rate for pole attachments in parts of Georgia already served by broadband by 36%.

“Any savings we get from the handful of one-dollar poles is offset by the 36% increase,” Davis said.

Hopkins wrote that the EMCs that have deployed broadband service represent fewer than half of Georgia’s 41 EMCs, leaving large swaths of the state still unserved that providers would be willing to serve given the right incentives.

But Dennis Chastain, president and CEO of Georgia EMC, said the cost of pole attachments is not a significant barrier to expanding broadband deployment. The real obstacle is the huge expense of running broadband into sparsely populated areas, he said.

“When you get out into rural areas, there are not enough customers per mile,” he said.

Chastain said the 20 EMCs that have entered the broadband business since the General Assembly passed legislation allowing the utilities to do so are significant and show the current system is working. Those 20 utilities are investing $770 million to extend broadband service into 89 counties, according to Georgia EMC.

“I get it that it doesn’t fit the business model of AT&T and Comcast,” Chastain said. “[But] somebody’s got to step up to the plate and supply these people. … If broadband isn’t eventually brought to these [rural] areas, they’re going to dry up and die.”

While the EMCs are asking the PSC not to make any changes to the December 2020 order this year, the telecoms want the commission to set what they consider to be more reasonable pole attachment rates that will give them an incentive to extend broadband into more unserved areas.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.