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New broadband bill draws opposition in Georgia Senate committee

Legislation that would tap into a new source of funding to expand broadband service in Georgia got some pushback this week from the telecom industry.

Senate Bill 65 would convert a portion of a state fund that now subsidizes land-line service provided by rural telephone companies into a pot of money to be used for broadband projects. That portion of the Universal Access Fund (UAF) is due to expire later this year, a decade after the fund was created. Funds from the UAF would supplement the $20 million Gov. Brian Kemp set aside for broadband in the $26.5 billion mid-year budget the General Assembly passed on Thursday, said Sen. Steve Gooch, RDahlonega, the bill’s chief sponsor. “Twenty million dollars … is a good start,” Gooch told members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee Thursday. “But we need to put more money into this year after year until the problem is fixed.” Lobbyists representing telecom giants including AT& T and small rural telephone companies agreed that expanding broadband into the many unserved areas of rural Georgia is critical to the state’s economy. But they said raiding the UAF is unnecessary.

“There are many federal government programs doling out substantial amounts of funding to spread broadband,” said Kevin Curtin, assistant vice president of legislative affairs for AT& T Georgia.

One such federal program was launched by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is allocating $9.2 billion during the next 10 years to broadband deployment in 49 states, including $326.5 million headed to Georgia.

Others argued lawmakers should look to the state’s general fund budget to support broadband projects, as Kemp just did with the $20 million allocation.

“We want to continue to try to bring broadband to every Georgia citizen,” said Hunter Hopkins, interim executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. “Let’s just put more money in the general fund versus tinkering with the UAF.”

Some members of the committee also were skeptical of the bill.

Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, wondered whether the rural phone companies would raise their rates after the UAF expires and they’re no longer receiving subsidies from it.

“[Are] poor people in rural areas who already don’t have broadband going to get their phone rates jacked up?” Cowsert asked.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, said converting a portion of the UAF to a broadband fund might not raise much money because many Georgians are getting rid of their land-lines telephones in favor of cellphones.

“You’re talking about a decreasing pool of revenue,” Tippins said.

Gooch’s bill has 20 Republican cosponsors, including Cowsert, Tippins and Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, RGainesville.

But since Thursday’s debate was limited to a hearing on the measure, its fate remains uncertain.

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