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Georgia EMCs, telecom providers far apart on new rural broadband plan

Both of the main parties disputing the rollout of legislation aimed at expanding broadband service in rural Georgia criticized a new proposal brought to the state Public Service Commission (PSC) Thursday.

The PSC’s advisory staff is recommending that electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) in parts of Georgia lacking broadband significantly lower the fees they charge telecom providers to attach broadband technology to utility poles.

At the same time, EMCs in areas already served with broadband would be allowed to charge similar rates to what they are now collecting or even higher fees. Such a bifurcated system would disproportionately harm EMCs and their customers in rural communities most in need of broadband, Robert Remar, a lawyer representing 38 Georgia EMCs, told members of the commission’s Telecommunications Committee Thursday. For example, Cobb EMC, with a primarily urban and suburban customer base, would be able to charge telecom providers $25.42 per pole for attachments in the parts of its service area that already have broadband, under the staff proposal.

However, Moultriebased Colquitt EMC, which serves a large number of rural customers without broadband, would be able to charge telecom providers only $3.86 per pole in unserved portions of its service area, the lowest pole-attachment rate in the staff plan.

“The poorest, most rural EMCs, will be subsidizing telecommunications companies,” Remar said. “That’s just not fair.”

But one of the main players on the telecom side isn’t happy with the PSC staff proposal, either.

Robert Highsmith, a lawyer representing the Georgia Cable Association, said failing to set a single statewide rate for pole attachments would result in such high rates that telecom providers wouldn’t be able to afford to live up to commitments they’ve made for significant investments in broadband projects in rural Georgia.

“Under this recommendation, those commitments are in jeopardy,” Highsmith said. “The eight-figure sums … programmed for Georgia will be deployed elsewhere.”

The General Assembly passed legislation last June aimed at expanding broadband in rural Georgia. House Bill 244 gave the PSC the task of setting pole attachment rates by the end of this year.

Highsmith suggested Thursday that, with the disputing parties so far apart, the commission put off a decision on rates until early next year. He noted the legislation isn’t due to take effect until July 1.

But having sat through four days of hearings on the issue last month, commissioners seemed anxious to move forward.

“Punting at this point is not the way to go,” Commissioner Tricia Pridemore said.

The PSC is scheduled to vote on the staff plan next week.

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