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Congress should act to remove barriers to broadband access

Congressional action could expand broadband access, according to the author. (Image by shutterstock.com)

By Guest Columnist STACEY EVANS, Democratic state representative for portions of Atlanta

COVID-19 has intensified countless challenges that Georgians have faced both before and during the pandemic. Among those challenges is the critical lack of broadband access for hundreds of thousands of state residents.

Stacey Evans

This was already a growing concern prior to March 2020, but became particularly alarming as millions of us dealt with online learning, remote working, serious health issues, separation from loved ones, heartbreaking loss of life, and the isolation that comes with quarantine and months of social distancing. The pandemic was particularly difficult on parents, teachers, and students who saw education shift from the classroom to the living room and those with health concerns who found that all of a sudden visiting a hospital or doctor’s office could put them at risk of infection.

Today, after nearly two years of weathering a dangerous outbreak, it is more clear than ever that broadband access is as vital to our daily lives as electricity and running water. Unfortunately, more than 650,000 Georgians lack adequate high speed internet access. Throughout the course of the pandemic these residents continue to bear the brunt of this crisis every time they fall behind their fellow students during an online class or have to embark on a costly road trip to see a doctor instead of scheduling a simple telehealth visit.

I grew up in an impoverished rural area and have lived and worked throughout our state. Make no mistake: While these issues have become chronic in rural Georgia, the lack of broadband access is a concern for all communities. Every student in Atlanta who can’t complete an assignment or teacher who has difficulty hosting a virtual learning session has a ripple effect that impacts families throughout the state. And think about the hospitals jam-packed to capacity at the most concerning heights of the pandemic. How many people are forced to increase the strain on the facility and put themselves at risk because they were unable to consult a provider virtually?

Vast swaths of Georgia have no broadband access, including portions of metro Atlanta. (Image by broadband.georgia.gov, as of June 15, 2021, David Pendered)

The good news is that hope is finally on the horizon. Thanks in no small part to Georgia’s U.S. senators and representatives, President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill was recently signed into law and includes $65 billion for expanding broadband access nationwide. Additionally, the recent announcement by Gov. Brian Kemp that $408 million of COVID relief funds will be allocated to broadband infrastructure makes it feel like, at least, there’s good reason to have hope.

However, several barriers remain to this critical expansion. The most effective way to expand access is to use existing infrastructure. In many communities, utility poles that are used for other services such as phone and electricity can be updated to include broadband. Internet service providers are ready to get started, but don’t typically own the poles in question. The providers say they are more than willing to cover costs associated with updating the poles, but the current process for obtaining permits and permission from the owners can seriously slow down implementation. We must work through the hard work to bring all players to the table and work out a solution that gets everyone online.

Congress can act right away to simplify this process, and our leaders representing us in Washington can pass common sense solutions to do just that. These solutions include instituting new rules to make sure that utility pole permitting is consistent and transparent. Additionally, federal legislation can be passed to ensure that disputes between pole owners and internet service providers are resolved quickly and fairly. And we should make these rules so that they are consistent across the country, in all communities, urban and rural.

Broadband access should not be a luxury. It is a necessity for the millions of working families who live in our state, and it is past time that this service is made readily available to all. We as a society have known this truth for years, but the struggles many Georgians have gone through during the pandemic have reinforced it, and we as a society need to accept the reality that broadband not only has to be expanded: it has to be expanded as quickly as possible. Congress must finish what it started and act now to provide broadband access to the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who need it.

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Stacey Evans

Originally from Ringgold, Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans serves House District 57, which includes portion of Atlanta. The $408 million program Evans cited is to provide broadband service to about 183,615 locations, according to a statement from the Gov. Brian Kemp’s office.

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