Commissioner Tim Echols: Fixing the Digital Divide

Tim Echols

Monday, January 11th, 2021

On Dec. 15, the Georgia Public Service Commission brought to an end a lengthy debate about the role rural electric cooperatives should have in expanding broadband service in unserved areas of Georgia.  Here’s how it will help get people connected. 

First, we were given this responsibility by the legislature via House Bill 244 that mandated that we set just and reasonable rates for attaching to poles in the hinterland of Georgia—much of which is unserved by any internet service.  As we do in most cases, we had extensive legal hearings from sworn witnesses and experts representing multiple sides of the issue.  The utility poles in these areas are mostly owned by an EMC (Electric Membership Cooperative) or Georgia Power.  The rental fee, paid by anyone who attaches to that pole, was the variable we were asked to set.  In the end, we set two rates: a promotional rate of $1 per year per pole in unserved areas, and then everywhere else.  That $1 rate, which is now in place for six years, hopefully will jumpstart service to these remote areas.

Second, we discovered throughout the process that our poles are a hot mess out there.   Wires are too low, poles are bent, safety violations run amuck—and the EMCs could do very little about it because the attachers simply were not prioritizing correcting these violations.  Our PSC, composed of five statewide elected regulators, fixed that issue with an entire manual of new terms and conditions that gives the rural cooperatives more autonomy over these important assets that their members own—which leads me to the final aspect of our decision, the not for profit faucet of EMCs. 

EMCs are non-profit member-owned cooperatives that are very different than traditional power companies.  They are engaged with most charities in their service territory, they have annual member meetings featuring music, food and fellowship.  And they generally have fewer financial resources than a large power company.  The communication and cable companies who came to us during these proceedings were asking us to drastically reduce the rental rate of not only the EMC poles in unserved areas, but every pole owned by an EMC in the state.  This would have in fact resulted in an $8.5 million annual reduction to EMCs creating a rate increase to make it up.  For me, it was a bridge too far as many of our rural communities are losing population and industry—and lag way behind on basic services.  We really do have two Georgias out there, and EMCs are important part of the fabric of rural Georgia. 

In the end, I think our vote struck the right balance.  We created a formula-based just and reasonable rate, but also put forward an incentive of just $1 per pole per year that should jumpstart new broadband in the most desperate areas.  No decision is perfect, but I think we got close this time.