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A standing room only crowd listens as commission chairman Greg Tapley dicsusses internet expansion in Monroe County at a forum last Tuesday. (Photo/Richard Dumas)

About 100 Monroe County residents interested in better internet service learned at a public forum last Tuesday, July 2 that “nothing is gonna happen overnight.”

Todd Edwards, Deputy Legislative Director of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), told audience members that two key Georgia Senate bills will affect internet expansion. Georgia Senate Bill 402, approved during the 2018 legislative session, allows the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to lease right-of-ways for deployment of communications technologies with a minimum download speed of 25 megabytes-per-second as well as enables the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to create a map of “unserved areas” in order to identify areas eligible for broadband expansion grants. Also, Georgia Senate Bill 2, approved during the 2019 legislative session, authorizes Electric Membership Corporations (EMCs) to provide broadband services, including in electrical easements. Edwards, who encouraged audience members to Google search “Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative” to see the work the DCA has done on the mapping project, said $2 million in government funding has already been dedicated to broadband expansion. But Edwards cautioned: “Nothing is gonna happen overnight.”

Herschel Arant, Senior Vice President of Engineering and Energy Supply for Central Georgia EMC, said Central Georgia EMC is still fact-finding in terms of someday providing internet services, having just gotten government approval to join the broadband business.

“We want to make sure we’re delivering a quality product,” Arant said.

Arant encouraged citizens to provide the DCA with accurate information about broadband service in the area because it will enable Central Georgia EMC to pursue grant assistance that could make internet expansion possible.

Commission chairman Greg Tapley urged citizens to test their internet speeds through a new iOS/Android mobile app called TestIT provided in part by the National Association of Counties (NACo). Tapley also asked Arant if Central Georgia EMC has a timeline for broadband expansion, and Arant replied that enhancements will depend upon infrastructure funding availability.

Erin Cook, Director of Marketing/Member Services for Southern Rivers Energy, said that each power company has to look at what works best for it in terms of providing internet and said what a competitor finds successful might not be what’s best for Southern Rivers. Cook said of internet expansion: “There are a lot of challenges, but there’s opportunity there.”

Paul Chambers, Regional Director for AT&T, said it’s evident the Georgia legislature is making broadband expansion a priority. Chambers, who said AT&T has invested $5 billion in Georgia in the past three years, said one of the biggest challenges in broadband speed is the number of devices being hooked up to internet, saying the average home has 13 devices connected to internet.

Chambers told the audience that internet options are expanding regularly, citing the availability of hot spots or fixed 5G wireless through AT&T’s AirGig initiative that would run wireless internet through an above ground antenna system.

Jim Bond, Vice President of Public Service Communications, said Public Service Communications, which bought the former City of Forsyth cable system in 2014, now offers internet speeds up to 100 megabytes-per-second. Bond said Forsyth CableNet is looking to expand further out into Monroe County.

“We’re just making every effort we can to serve you the best we can,” Bond said.

Tapley then asked the cost of bringing broadband to all currently unserved or underserved county residents. Bond estimated the price tag on such a venture at over $40 million.

David Reynolds, formerly of Reynolds Cable and currently of Zito Media, added that pole attachment fees are costly for internet providers and said it costs about $46,000 per mile to run fiberoptic cable.

All five Monroe County Commissioners, state Sen. John Kennedy and state House Reps. Susan Holmes and Dale Washburn were among the contingent who filled the lobby of the county administration building.

Following an hour of listening to the panelists, audience members spent another hour asking questions. Commissioner George Emami stayed downstairs to moderate the Q & A time while the other four commissioners conducted their regular meeting in the commissioner chamber upstairs.

Commissioners have allocated $700,000 in the upcoming 2020 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) for internet expansion.