ATLANTA — Lawmakers passed a bill that would take steps to regulate electric membership cooperative utility pole attachment rates.
As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought lack of access to broadband across rural Georgia to the forefront, lawmakers continue hashing out how to push cable companies into areas without internet.
Last legislative session, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a bill allowing electric membership cooperatives to sell internet services along with power. But the results came up shorter than legislators expected.
In a 31-22 vote Monday, the state Senate OK’d a bill that would mandate the Public Service Commission make the decision on the rate EMCs (Electric Management Corporations) can charge for pole attachments beginning July 1.
The utility pole rates for the state’s EMCs and companies such as Georgia Power and AT&T are much different. Cable companies pay single digits to attach to Georgia Power poles and double digits to attach to the state’s local cooperatives.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, said because of the costly prices, cable companies cannot afford to expand internet to rural areas that host EMC poles. The infrastructure to expand broadband, he said, “is just sitting there” and the issue has become exacerbated by the pandemic.
“If it wasn’t clear that so much of our state needs broadband before COVID-19, I hope it’s clear to you now,” Kennedy said. “Did anybody envision before January of this year the value of telemedicine to our citizens, of what it can do when the only access some of our folks have to a physician is to get online? But if you can’t get online, you don’t have it.”
But not everyone agrees EMCs should be subject to the same rules as private power companies.
Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said a change in rates would decrease EMC revenues drastically, and since EMCs are nonprofit cooperatives owned by residents, they should not be treated the same as private companies that make a much larger profit.
“We’ve never regulated the internet in the United States and we’re moving in that direction,” he said.
The bill passed after hours of debate, but lawmakers on both sides conceded the issue will likely be dealt with again next year.
“This bill is not a silver bullet to take care of and solve all of broadband problems in Georgia,” Kennedy said. “It is not the panacea to make sure that rural Georgia gets fiber.”
The legislation now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.