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What’s The Best Way To Address The Rural Internet Divide?

August 8, 2016

City Street InfrastructureLike legislators in many states across the country, Georgia lawmakers are tackling how to bring high-speed internet to constituents in rural areas.

Some states have considered whether to solve this problem by allowing municipal governments to build and operate their own networks in competition with the private sector. Others have considered building statewide middle mile networks to which internet providers, public or private, can connect. Still others are trying to find ways to entice more private sector investment.

According to Watchdog. Org, Georgia now has the Joint High-Speed Broadband Communications Access for All Georgians Study Committee, made up of five state senators and five statehouse members, to determine what is the best solution for its rural residents, and state taxpayers. One of the committee’s co-chairs, Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta, called rural broadband a “tough issue.”

He’s right.

Watchdog talked to Brent Skorup, an expert in rural broadband. Skorup noted the federal government spent used about $7 billion from the 2009 federal stimulus package to fund rural broadband, “with mostly disappointing results.”

Skorup recommends a fourth option. He said, “My general recommendation to lawmakers is, as much as possible, do direct subsidies to consumers,” including “giving vouchers to residents to allow them to access devices to connect to wireless internet is a smarter use of public money.”

For Georgia’s part, Rep. Parsons said he and his colleagues plan “to look at all public and private solutions to the issue, including federal grants and tax abatements for private providers.” It also sounded like expanding municipal broadband networks could be an option on the table.

Rep. Parsons acknowledged to Watchdog.org that government-owned broadband networks often fail. He should, Watchdog noted, because one of the biggest failures, FiberNet, was in his hometown of Marietta. That city lost $20.33 million. The Pacific Research Institute has argued FiberNet “was sucking their city dry.”

Skorup’s option is an interesting idea to consider—and one that is probably better for taxpayers than the “solution” Marietta tried and quickly discarded.