Ferguson addresses broadband

Published 6:59 pm Wednesday, December 12, 2018

By Alicia B. Hill
The Daily News

For residents living inside city limits, fast, reliable internet can often be taken for granted. However, in rural parts of the county and Georgia, that same internet access and speed can prove inaccessible, which is why local, state and federal lawmakers have been searching for ways to work with providers to improve that access.

“One of the things that I have spoken about so many times, and I’m very passionate about is how do we deploy broadband into our rural communities so that the men and women and children in our rural communities have a fighting chance in this 21st century economy,” Congressman Drew Ferguson said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Those are areas where I think we [Republicans and Democrats] can find common ground, and we need to focus on doing just that.”

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Estimates on the exact economic impact of broadband internet access vary, but experts agree that better access to high speed broadband internet has an overwhelmingly positive impact on regions where it is available.

“From all the conversations that I’ve had, it is going to have a huge impact,” County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews said.

“As our model of businesses change, and people can do business from home rather than having to come into more urban areas, having access to this high-speed internet for their business, applying for jobs, accepting applications for people that might want to work for your business or company, ordering products that you personally can use — all of those are very, very important.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 23.55 percent of rural residents of Troup County had no options for cable, fiber or fixed wireless as of June 2017, which was the most recent set of data. For 20.93 percent of Troup County residents, the only internet option available was satellite as of June 2017, which tends to be both slower and less reliable then other internet options, and in an increasingly fast paced world, that lack of access could prove to be a problem.

“I think high speed internet is essential to modern life,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said. “It is the electricity of the 21st century. You simply have to have it in order to engage in modern communication. … I am glad that we have it in most areas of the City of LaGrange, but I also know that there are lots of areas outside the city limits that lack high speed internet service. In fact, there are some large residential subdivisions out in the county that have struggled over the years to get high-speed internet service from providers, and I think that is something that we all should be concerned about.”

Thornton and Crews compared internet access now to access to electricity in the 1930s in its ease or difficulty to obtain service depending on location, while Ferguson noted its potential to hold back regions both economically and educationally.

“We’ve got a lot of kids right now that are very talented in our rural communities,” Ferguson said. “We should be working to connect them with the jobs that are being created in our urban centers around Columbus, Atlanta, Macon, Savannah and Augusta. There is no reason that a kid in Meriwether County or Upson County or anywhere else in this district that is in a rural area can’t get a job working for one of these major companies and work remotely if they have access to broadband. That is the kind of thing we need to be focusing on because we need to make sure that our people are staying at home in these rural communities and contributing to the greater good of those communities instead of leaving and having this brain-drain and this loss of human capital that ultimately hurts the rural part of our state.”

He also highlighted the internet’s use for school and said that equal access educational information is important.

“I think it creates a lot more quality within the school system when everyone has access to the same information,” Ferguson said. “That is really important. Students learn in a lot of different paces and a lot of different ways, but the one thing that we can do is we can offer more opportunities, and we can make sure that they are getting the basics when they have access to the internet because where teaching is going. That is where information can be garnered, and — quite candidly — it is where innovation occurs.”

Ferguson said that he hopes to continue to pursue projects that would increase internet access in rural areas. It has been noted on multiple occasions that the process of making broadband internet available in rural areas will require national, state and local governments to work with private companies.

“One of the things that we have to do is we have to have a new approach to looking at it,” Ferguson said. “There has always been this idea that you have to incentivize it either for the provider or incentivize the end user of the internet. I view the internet — in particular the fiber backbone that the whole thing runs on — that is key public infrastructure. I think that we have to look at it in that way, and figure out where we can make strategic public investments, where we bring the private sector into this so that it can thrive in a free market environment.”

However, the question remains, how to make this infrastructure investment appealing to providers in remote regions.

“It comes down to density,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said. “Private internet providers can afford to run the infrastructure to provide internet service in LaGrange, in Newnan and in Carrollton, but they don’t have the density per mile that they need to make it economically feasible in Heard and Meriwether Counties. So, there is lots of those customers that lack high speed internet service.”

According to Thornton, most of the City of LaGrange has high speed internet, and the city does provide internet to some commercial and industrial customers. However, he said that the city was unlikely to expand that service to residential customers due to the cost to both the city and those receiving service. Thornton also noted that the city’s prices weren’t truly competitive.

At the national level, Ferguson said that government regulated internet is not a path that he hopes to go down.

“By no means do I want the government regulating the internet, but by the same token, we want to make sure that fiber backbone is deployed,” Ferguson said.

“So, it is going to take a combination of state, federal and local government and private sector all working together to make this happen. We’ve done it before with key industries. We’ve done it with telephones in the past. We have certainly done it with electricity in the past, and now it is time to do it with key structure to make sure our rural communities have access to the internet.”