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World-class scientists, feeble broadband: Georgia’s digital divide

Hog Hammock store and U.S. Post Office, Sapelo Island. 2015. (Photo by Judson McCranie via wikimedia.org.)

By David Pendered

Sapelo Island and its state-owned facilities are stark examples of the extent of Georgia’s digital divide. The community’s broadband connection is tenuous at best and threatened by equipment tumbling into a tidal creek that’s eroding along the edge.

A grant application to help fix the problems on Sapelo Island is one of 170 applications submitted to Georgia for federal pandemic relief funding. Nov. 12 was the application deadline. The status of many is “pending committee evaluation.”

The Island’s situation is similar to others that are described in applications. Common themes are aged broadband facilities, or no facilities at all, and too few individuals residing in the areas to make service delivery viable for commercial providers. In metro Atlanta, Clayton County’s application states 20 percent of its residents have no access to broadband service.

Sapelo Island stands out in part because it is home to state facilities that seemingly would have been kept up to date.

The island is home to the University of Georgia Marine Institute, a renowned facility that attracts a host of researchers studying coastal ecosystems. A handful of current projects focus on the effects of sea-level rise, including one funded by the National Science Foundation to evaluate shell rings for evidence of how Late Archaic peoples adapted to “fluctuating sea levels” from 5,000 years to 3,500 years before present time.

Tourists visit Sapelo Island to take in sights promoted by the state Department of Natural Resources. DNR’s tours of Sapelo Island visit Hog Hammock, a legacy Black settlement comprised of about 100 residents; Reynolds Mansion; the pristine Nanny Goat Beach; a restored lighthouse dating to 1820, and the gardens of native species at Long Tabby.

Despite this concentration of academic and tourism activity, the grant application for broadband funding could be filed from the most remote sections of rural Georgia.

“The sole connection for broadband on Sapelo Island is via a microwave link located at UGAMI, with data then routed through a fiber-optic network. Services are provided to multiple state institutions, including UGAMI, the Reynolds Mansion, the DNR complex at Long Tabby, as well as all residents and visitors. This includes residents of the historic Hog Hammock community,” the funding request for Sapelo Island states. “The 300 Mbps bandwidth of the microwave system is at capacity and cannot keep up with that required for video conferencing, remote learning, and processing scientific data. Moreover, it is located near an eroding tidal creek, the edge of which is protected by a bulkhead that is in danger of catastrophic failure. We seek funds to increase the bandwidth to 2,400 Mbps and to reinforce the bulkhead ($2,600,000).”

The grant request for Sapelo Island upgrades is part of a request for a total of $5.9 million. The University of Georgia Research Foundation, Inc. submitted the joint request on behalf of Sapelo Island and its facilities on Skidaway Island, which hosts researchers and attractions that bring in 39,000 visitors a year. A decision on the proposal is pending.

The federal funding is to be provided through the American Rescue Plan. The Treasury Department has released guidance to states observing that broadband is the focus of about $10 billion of funding, with additional money for broadband provided elsewhere in the ARP legislation.

Note to readers: This story is part of an occasional series on transportation and broadband in rural Georgia.

David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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