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Addressing rural broadband a priority, but patience required
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Opinion by F. Whit Hollowell, Jr., Coastal Electric Cooperative

For more than 80 years, electric cooperatives have been trusted partners in powering Georgia’s communities. Accountable to our members and with the guidance of our locally elected board of directors, we value local control and recognize the importance of being responsible fiscal stewards. At Coastal Electric Cooperative, we continue to focus on exceeding our members’ expectations by being an outstanding provider of energy services.

We, along with the 40 other electric cooperatives across Georgia, have faced a lack of legal clarity when it comes to providing rural broadband services. Whether it was utilizing extra capacity in our existing communications infrastructure, partnering with third-party providers or providing high-speed broadband services directly to members, without specific legislative authority, most utilities were understandably unwilling to even begin exploring options. Thankfully, progress was made this legislative session with Senate Bill 2, which was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on April 26, fulfilling one of his priorities for rural Georgians.

This new legislation empowers cooperatives across Georgia to evaluate how they might contribute to the expansion of broadband services in their area. In the end, each of Georgia’s 41 electric cooperatives will have to decide how – and if – it makes fiscal sense to offer these services. But make no mistake, Coastal Electric Cooperative is grateful for the leadership of Gov. Kemp, Sen. Steve Gooch (Dahlonega), Rep. Jay Powell (Camilla), and their colleagues in the General Assembly, as this legislation is one more important step toward bridging the digital divide in many parts of rural Georgia.

As exciting as this news is for many, we ask for patience. While a decision to offer broadband to residents in our footprint may seem like an easy decision, nothing could be further from the truth. Considerable financial, logistical, operational, technological and structural challenges exist to expanding broadband services to our communities. This new law prevents any co-op from subsidizing broadband services through the sale of electricity, which underscores the fact that any decision to move forward with broadband services must be supported by our members as well as by a strong business plan.

SB2 provides flexibility for co-ops to approach the challenge creatively, including utilizing excess capacity from our ongoing investment in communications infrastructure for critical energy services and reliability. Given the capital costs and financial challenges that come with broadband expansion, some utilities may pursue partnerships with third-party providers rather than provide high-speed internet service directly to customers.

As for Coastal Electric Cooperative, we see this legislation as a good first step that allows us to begin discussions with our board and members to explore possible challenges and opportunities in our community.

It also is important to remember that, just like current broadband providers, electric co-ops are not obligated to offer broadband service, especially if a business case for doing so cannot be made. What works for a utility in North Georgia may not translate into success in South Georgia, and vice versa.

While plenty of variables remain and our research is just beginning, I can assure you that Coastal Electric Cooperative is committed to being part of the solution to address our community’s challenges. We will continue to be the first ones on the roads to get the lights on in the wake of a disaster. We will continue to support our community with our time. We will continue to support local schools and organizations with our contributions and service. And we will continue to be a leader in planning for and delivering power safely, reliably and at a great value.

Coastal stands ready to help our community achieve its goals. We appreciate our members’ patience as we assess the rural broadband challenges in our area. And if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to us! We’re happy to hear from you and to provide the information you need to stay informed about your community-owned electric utility.

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