Viewpoint: Connectivity, A Plan for Economic Development in Rural Georgia
By Sam Olens, This column originally appeared in the Atlanta Business Chronicle
As chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission, I witnessed and promoted the rapid growth of metro Atlanta. Over the past two decades, our success, highlighted by the city’s selection as Super Bowl host, has created thousands of jobs, generated millions in government revenue and elevated not only our city but our state into the upper echelon of national and international influence. However, we must not confuse our capital city’s success and prosperity with equity.
Rural Georgia, hamstrung with a unique set of public policy issues, requires renewed attention from state and local lawmakers. We must use the economic engine that is Atlanta to assist our friends and fellow citizens. We have an obligation to empower growth throughout our state.
Like the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, and the financing of suburban water systems in the ‘70s, high-speed Internet is now an essential element to fostering quality education and economic development, not only in rural Georgia, but throughout rural America more broadly. Connectivity is essential to our schools, businesses and health care systems. Digital learning, teleworking, telemedicine and agriculture sustainability rely on access to connected technology.
Economic development aside, if we fail to close the digital divide between urban and rural communities, the pattern of mass urbanization will continue and metro Atlanta will sustain, among other things, greater traffic congestion and worsening air quality.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the households nationwide that lack reliable broadband Internet are in rural areas. Here in Georgia, approximately three out of four households have a broadband Internet connection, and yet only one out of four households in Wheeler County, for example, have such connection. Wheeler County is not alone; across rural Georgia, including just 30 miles south of downtown Atlanta in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, a significant portion of residents do not have reliable service. This is unacceptable.
The emergence of 5G and small cell technology threatens to put rural Georgia even further behind. Without appropriate policies and incentives, exurban parts of our state, home to the citizens that very literally put the food on our table, will remain disconnected from Atlanta’s economic success.
Fortunately, there are several common-sense public policy options on the table for state legislators. First and foremost, aggressively pursue loans and grants from the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Second, institute state programs, such as Iowa’s “Connect Every Acre,” that offer property tax reductions to ISPs investing in areas void of broadband service. Third, encourage collaborations by harnessing public-private partnerships, and finally, streamline and open up the permitting and installation process on public lands—utilities should be eligible to provide broadband service to rural Georgia.
Thankfully, Governor Kemp and the state legislature are considering measures this session to incentivize expanded rural Internet and facilitate the deployment of emerging technologies in our communities. Building out a “digital superhighway” that connects our entire state will provide an economic equalizer, enabling rural communities to compete in today’s economy.
Featured image: Rural North GA, by jwshaw