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Addressing Rural Broadband Will Require Patience

By Steve Chalker, Jefferson Energy Cooperative

For more than 80 years, EMCs have been trusted partners in powering Georgia’s communities. Accountable to our members and with the guidance of our locally elected board of directors, we value local control and recognize the importance of being responsible fiscal stewards. At Jefferson Energy, we continue to be focused on providing safe, affordable, reliable power to the homes, schools and businesses that make our communities great.

We, along with the 40 other EMCs across Georgia, have faced a lack of legal clarity when it comes to providing rural broadband services. Whether it was utilizing extra capacity in our existing communications infrastructure, partnering with third-party providers or providing high-speed broadband services directly to members, without specific legislative authority, most EMCs were understandably unwilling to even begin exploring options. Thankfully, progress was made this legislative session with SB 2, which was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on April 26, fulfilling one of his priorities for rural Georgians.

This new legislation empowers EMCs across Georgia to evaluate how they might contribute to the expansion of broadband services in their area. In the end, each of Georgia’s 41 EMCs will have to decide how – and if – it makes fiscal sense to offer these services. But make no mistake, Jefferson Energy is grateful for the leadership of Gov. Kemp, Sen. Steve Gooch (Dahlonega), Rep. Jay Powell (Camilla), and their colleagues in the General Assembly, as this legislation is one more important step toward bridging the digital divide in many parts of rural Georgia.

As exciting as this news is for many, we are asking for patience. While a decision to offer broadband to residents in our footprint may seem like an easy decision, nothing could be further from the truth. There are considerable financial, logistical, operational, technological and structural challenges to expanding broadband services to our communities.  Importantly, this new law prevents any EMC from subsidizing broadband services through the sale of electricity, which underscores the fact that any decision to move forward with broadband services must be supported by our members as well as by a strong business plan.

SB2 provides flexibility for EMCs to approach the challenge creatively, including utilizing excess capacity from our ongoing investment in communications infrastructure for critical energy services and reliability. Given the capital costs and financial challenges that come with broadband expansion, some EMCs may pursue partnerships with third-party providers rather than provide high-speed internet service directly to customers.

As for Jefferson Energy, we are evaluating the feasibility and economics for partnering with third-party providers to possibly offer broadband services in our rural areas which currently do not have sufficient service.  We have found that the financial feasibility is challenging because of the low household density of our rural areas and the significant cost of building the broadband infrastructure.  Jefferson Energy along with potential third party providers have been jointly evaluating the pursuing of broadband grants which are necessary to provide financial viability.  Jefferson Energy’s Management and Board of Directors are committed and obligated to our members to make decisions which are fiscally responsible that will result in the providing of reliable and affordably priced electrical service.

It also is important to remember that, just like current broadband providers, EMCs are not obligated to offer broadband service, especially if a business case for doing so cannot be made. What works for an EMC in North Georgia may not translate into success in South Georgia, and vice versa.

While plenty of variables remain and our research is just beginning, I can assure you that Jefferson Energy is committed to being part of the solution to address our community’s challenges. We will continue to be the first ones on the roads to get the lights on in the wake of a disaster. We will continue to support our community with our time. We will continue to support local schools and not-for-profits with our contributions and service. And we will continue to be a leader in planning for and delivering safe, affordable and reliable power.

Jefferson Energy stands ready to help our community achieve its goals. We appreciate our members’ patience as we assess the rural broadband challenges in our area.

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