After debate over how tough to be on electric membership corporations, committee passes Georgia rural broadband Internet bill

After debate over how tough to be on electric membership corporations, committee passes Georgia rural broadband Internet bill

February 19th, 2019 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News
Steve Gooch

Steve Gooch

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Despite multiple efforts by the chairman, the Georgia Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee on Tuesday passed a bill with few burdens on electric membership corporations that want to sell high-speed internet.

Before approving the legislation, the committee struck down a previous amendment that would have forced EMCs to provide broadband to every resident in their districts — no matter how expensive that expansion would be. The amendment's sponsor, committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, argued the lawmakers needed to be tough on the EMCs to put the internet in the hard-to-reach places.

That, he said, was the whole purpose of the bill. He added that EMCs have benefited for decades from the Legislature's decision to give them a monopoly in selling electricity to customers. (The state did this to incentive putting electricity in rural areas, where the return on investment was nonexistent.)

But with resistance from the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the committee rejected Cowsert's demand.

"It goes too far," Gooch said. " We don't require that of any other providers that's in the room. Now if [every provider] would agree to do that, then I would say, 'Game on. You just solved the problem.' But if that were true, you wouldn't need this bill to begin with."

After rejecting Cowsert's amendment, the committee passed the bill. Next, the legislation will go to the Senate floor for a vote. If passed, it heads to the House.

Gooch's bill is one of several pieces of legislation over the last two years aimed at expanding broadband to Georgia's rural communities. While the bill in its current form does not require EMCs to plant infrastructure in the hard-to-reach areas, Gooch hopes nonprofit organizations will take on the burden. (The Tennessee Legislature passed a similar law in 2017 and created a $30 million fund for EMCs.)

The legislation also makes the EMCs eligible for federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which lawmakers hope will provide several million dollars to the effort.

Cowsert first offered his amendment last week. But at Tuesday's meeting, he knew his effort was dead. He said he now agreed with Gooch's point of view.

He had another solution, though. Cowsert, R-Athens, offered an amendment that would force EMCs to rent out access to their utility poles at a lower rate. He said this would give private companies more money and ability to expand their broadband footprints.

"This is not extremely profitable, or we'd have [broadband] all over the state already," he said. "We're going to lower the costs."

But Gooch pushed back on that amendment, too. He said Georgia Power already charges the lowest possible pole rate, as approved by the Federal Communications Commission. But even in those areas, Gooch said, private companies have not put broadband in all rural communities.

"This would be a terrible amendment," Gooch said.

Cowsert's amendment overwhelmingly failed. The committee then voted to approve the bill, with only one "no" vote: state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the Rules Committee chairman. Cowsert pointed out that Gooch's bill still needs to go through Mullis' committee before it gets on the Senate schedule.

"There may be some more discussion before this hits the Senate floor," he said.

After the meeting, Mullis told the Times Free Press he was disappointed with the legislation's end result

"The bill continues not to serve the areas of the state that are either underserved or unserved," he said. "And our purpose is to find a way to serve the state completely."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.