Coronavirus reveals critical gaps in Georgia internet service | News

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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) — The coronavirus is increasing the demands of wireless internet service across the nation. 

Rural Georgians struggling who for years have struggled to gain internet access could see new sympathy from internet users in Georgia towns and suburbs. Critical to supplying that service are the state’s 42 Electric Membership Cooperatives, EMC’s, which provide electricity to well over two thirds of Georgia’s real estate.

Selling internet along with electricity has not been easy, though. Sometimes indifferent customers have proved unwilling to pay the higher costs of installing and using internet along crooked mountain roads, where users could be measured by miles instead of blocks.But when coronavirus shut down schools and businesses it gave the Blue Ridge Mountain EMC headquartered in Young Harris an opportunity.

Last week, the EMC leadership agreed to open nine hot spots in parking lots of churches and campgrounds giving free, high-powered internet to Georgia and North Carolina counties. One measure of the importance of the action is the speed with which it began. It was working the very next day.

On Thursday, March 20, the Georgia Mountain Fairground in Hiawassee began filling with high school students, parents and business owners.

“They opened up the antennas here to full blast. Unlimited service,” marveled an admiring Hilda Thomason. She manages the Fairgrounds, taking time from hastily re-scheduling music concerts and motor events to enjoy the sight of the students.  

Campers here opened their RV doors to see the crowd of students and parents sucking up the free internet. Lawson Harkins came with his buddies from Union County High, hands full of assignments. 

“Biology, AP US History, American Lit,” he recalls.

Lawson says his home internet could handle some but not all the burden of the family’s sudden need for adequate high speed WiFI.

“We don’t have a lot of neighbors back up in the woods. The closest neighbor is a mile away. If everybody was on it at one time it would definitely blow it up.”

The scene in Hiawassee is a reminder of the havoc coronavirus is causing daily life and some urgencies for change. It is highlighting demand for rural internet at a moment when the Georgia legislature is arguing over who should fund it. Federal dollars will come for farmers from the US Department of Agriculture as low interest loans. More federal funds are expected from the Federal Communications Commission, in the form of competitive grants.

But state lawmakers so far are showing little interest in asking Georgia taxpayers to help their rural neighbors with the price of internet. Instead, the Chairman of the House Telecom Committee, Marietta Republican Don Parsons, thinks EMC members themselves may be persuaded by the coronavirus demands to pressure the leadership of their own organizations. He sees the potential as he acknowledges “there’s a risk, to do something you have not done before.” 

A critical question he’d like answered is whether EMCs will be willing to work with other partners to lessen the price and encourage more customers.The debate in the state legislature will wait until lawmakers decide the threat is lessened and the session can resume. In the meantime, however, the sight of students gathering at fairgrounds for internet access may push EMC members to new conversations.

Alex King, manager of Broadband Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, issued the following statement:

“Blue Ridge Mountain EMC began providing broadband service to its service area – very rural North Georgia and Western North Carolina – more than 17 years ago. We have been successful in getting approximately 9,000 customers fiber optics internet service and we continue to install around 150 new customers per month. Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic we temporarily deployed free Wi-Fi services at nine locations across our service territory. These sites will offer high-quality wireless signals utilizing our high speed fiber network that can be received by individuals simply by parking nearby and connecting to the service. A number of families and individuals in our communities are being forced to do their school work and even their jobs remotely or from home. We understand there is a great need for this service to be available to our communities during this unprecedented time.”

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