ATLANTA — Electric cooperatives once turned on the lights in remote communities where power companies didn’t go because of the cost.
State legislators are now asking whether these co-ops can do the same for broadband internet service, which continues to lag in some rural and even mid-sized communities.
At least two of Georgia’s 41 not-for-profit electric membership corporations already offer fiber broadband service; at least one other, Central Georgia EMC in Jackson, is considering it.
“For us, broadband makes a lot of good sense,” said Erik Brinke, economic development director with Blue Ridge Mountain EMC.
The EMC independently launched its own network about a decade ago. It’s been part of the North Georgia Network for the last five years.
“It’s similar in a lot of ways to the electric service that we started out with in the late 1930s, and it’s just kind of an extension of that,” Brinke said. “We’re just building a different kind of utility infrastructure.”
Not everyone may see it that way, though. Some states have barred EMCs from offering broadband service, although Tennessee recently reversed course.
In Georgia, a bill that stalled this year but remains alive for next year would clarify in state law that the electric co-ops are authorized to provide broadband service.
A legislative study group that examined rural broadband issues last year concluded that a clarification was in order. A new rural development council is also likely to consider whether a legislative fix is warranted.
It’s unclear how necessary that change really is, since state law does not prohibit EMCs from providing broadband. But it is something that Georgia EMC, for one, has asked of lawmakers, since the law also does not say the electric cooperatives can do it.
The murkiness keeps many EMCs from even thinking about how they might help address the uneven broadband access in rural Georgia, the group’s president and CEO, Dennis Chastain, told legislators last November.
Spelling out their authority in state code, he said, would free the cooperatives to partner with providers, local governments and others to boost broadband where it is lacking. EMCs serve about 2 million customers.
But Chastain also cautioned lawmakers.
“While the EMCs can and will contribute to the solution to the problem, no one should be under the impression that the EMCs represent the silver bullet for rural broadband,” he said.
At least one quarter of those living in rural communities likely go without what the Federal Communications Commission considers broadband, or 25 megabits per second in download speed.
Chastain said that, unlike when cooperatives helped bring electricity to underserved areas many years ago, they would have no assigned customers for broadband service and they likely would not be the only game in town.
So providing broadband, he said, would put electric cooperatives in direct competition with commercial providers that receive federal aid to provide the same service. If they fail, the cost will fall on the EMC’s members, Chastain said.
Nationally, electric cooperatives are relatively new to fiber broadband, but their involvement is “growing enormously,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
And in some states, such as Missouri, electric cooperatives have become significant factors in improving broadband access in the rural communities where members have embraced the service. There are as many as 50 such broadband projects across the country.
“I think the number one barrier to EMCs is not the threat of failure,” Mitchell said. “It’s a kind of inertia to keep doing what they have been doing, and I think that’s changing more rapidly than I thought, candidly.
“But I think that’s the number one reason why we don’t see a hundred or 200 of the EMCs in this right now, although I think we’ll be there in another year or two from the rate of escalation we’re seeing,” he added.
Cost is major factor, too. Mitchell said EMCs would likely need financial assistance from state or federal governments to launch a network in a reasonable timeframe.
“EMCs could slowly expand over 10 or 20 years, but I think many of those houses will not be occupied over 10 or 20 years if they do not have a higher quality of service,” he said.
Brinke said his north Georgia EMC initially used member resources to develop the fiber network and then turned to numerous grants to expand it.
“If somebody’s out there waiting for somebody else to give them the green light to do something, then, I mean, come on man,” Brinke said. “Sometimes you have to venture out and do what’s right because your members need you to do it, because they’re demanding you to do it and because it’s the right things to do.
“That’s what we did. We ventured out. We didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said.
The EMC is now working on a marketing strategy — something it never had to do as an electricity provider.
Brinke’s EMC and Habersham EMC were key partners in the development of the North Georgia Network, which was initially funded in part through a large federal grant.
Charlie Auvermann, who is board chair for the Georgia Communications Cooperative, which serves the network’s customers who are not represented by an electric coop, said the two EMCs helped the network get off the ground quickly.
Auvermann described the network as the trunk of a tree. His organization and the EMCs, he said, are the branches that — continuing with the analogy — reach the leaves, or customers.
The average download speed is about 10 or 12 megabits per second, Auvermann said. Blue Ridge Mountain EMC’s packages start out at 10 megabits. Both offer one gigabit plans for those willing to pay for it.
Even with the network, a lingering digital divide leaves rural areas such as his at an economic and educational disadvantage to Atlanta and other urban areas, Auvermann said.
“The problem still exists,” he said. “We can’t get to everybody who wants to use our system because we only have so much money to grow.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.