BRUNSWICK, GA. | The Georgia General Assembly planned to renew its search this year for money to extend broadband capability to help business, industry and individuals in rural parts of the state.
State Sen. William Ligon, R-Waverly, said the state needed to make a good start of providing the same broadband access to thinly populated areas that larger counties and municipalities enjoy.
“It’s like bricks in a wall. It’s just one of the components we need to help rural Georgia,” Ligon said of broadband access.
But Monday, Donald Trump landed in Atlanta to watch Georgia and Alabama play for a national championship in football and he brought a load of bricks.
While he was in Atlanta, Trump signed an executive order to streamline and expedite requests for local broadband facilities to, among other things, “accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable, reliable, modern high-speed broadband connectivity in rural America.”
That connectivity would extend to homes, farms, small businesses, manufacturing and production sites, tribal communities, transportation systems and health care and education facilities, the executive order says.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., said he is glad to see Trump make the investment and that he already had been working with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Rural Broadband Working Group to increase access.
“We have been working to increase access to telemedicine, make sure families have the internet access they need and ensure small businesses are connected so they are able to thrive and grow,” Carter told the Times-Union.
Funding measures in both Washington and Atlanta start with House delegates.
Ligon said he hopes the result of Trump’s executive order will be block grants that typically require some matching money from states. “The idea is to be able to take advantage of whatever is available to help our our state,” he said. “We believe we’ve got money to get off to a modest but good start.”
The need is not as great for education as many would expect, at least not in the classroom, a couple of superintendents of rural districts said.
“As far as a community goes, we’re in good shape,” said John Barge, superintendent of McIntoch County schools.
Darien Telephone Company has run enough fiber optic lines to the schools that the system enjoys some excess capacity, he said.
Most school systems across Georgia have good access because of PeachNet, an initiative that connects all the institutions in the University System of Georgia, a number of cities and schools.
The issue is whether schools around the country have the internal capacity to receive that internet capacity and disperse it, and that can be addressed with upgrading wireless capacity, Barge said.
Charlton County School Superintendent John Lairsey said access is good at the schools, but that’s not the case once the students get home.
“If you get a couple of miles out of the city [of Folkston], you have issues,” with only one provider over a large geographical area, he said.
“We have a lot of kids who don’t have access,” at home, he said.
Long-time educator and County Commissioner Jesse Crews lives near the Florida line in St. George, where service is spotty. “We do have internet service here in St. George. Sometimes it’s slow,” he said.
It’s probably worse to the west in the community of Moniac where, he estimates, there are about 800 residents in dwellings scattered in the heavily forested area that borders the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
With the sometimes spotty service, things that people take for granted, such as using a credit or debit card to make a purchase at a convenience store, can be difficult, Crews said. “Those people are like anyplace else. They want access,” he said.
Although most people don’t even think about broadband in such cases, if service is lost so is the ability to use financial transaction cards.
There was a time when access was good in St. George, but it was otherwise a bad time as a wildfire threatened the community in the spring. Firefighters had to erect a tower to communicate and Crews said he enjoyed at least having better cellphone service.
“Access came with the firefighters, and it left with them,” he said.
Echols County Administrator Latrice Bennett said even the phone service is bad in the community of 4,020 residents. “Most of the time, it’s up and down,” she said.
Echols County doesn’t have the wherewithal to begin making improvements on its own.The county seat is in Statenville, an unincorporated town with one red light.
“Less that half of residents pay taxes. It’s all we can do to keep our county office doors open,” she said. “Little counties just have so many issues every day, we can’t tackle the big ones.”
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405