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Small cells hold promise for rural broadband

Small-cell technology and AT&T’s AirGig initiative could make it easier to expand high-speed internet service to rural areas, if the Georgia General Assembly tailors state law to allow it.

“Prior technologies didn’t do well because of the trees and other obstructions. This appears to work,” Rep. Eddie Lumsden told Rome and Floyd County commissioners last week.

The Armuchee Republican sits on the House Rural Development Council, tasked with finding ways to level the economic playing field for Georgia residents outside metropolitan areas.

AT&T has started field-testing its Project AirGig, which uses small antennas mounted on power poles to deliver multi-gigabit signals. Lumsden said BPL, broadband-over-power line, technology reaches a two- to three-mile circumference.

While the company is mostly targeting urban areas now, “I really think that’s the direction we’re going in,” he said.

Other small-cell technology uses short, six-foot towers placed in the public right-of-way to extend service into less-populated areas where there aren’t enough customers to justify the expense of fiber optics.

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said it’s imperative to get high-speed service — a 5G network — throughout the state.

“The jobs are going to go where the infrastructure is,” he said. “We want them to come to Rome.”

Tele-medicine, driverless cars and young students of today and the future all rely on fast connections, he noted. But current laws are creating roadblocks for telecommunications companies.

Hufstetler said that North Carolina started seeing a lot of small cells when it established statewide regulations. In Georgia, where cities control their rights of way, new restrictions in Atlanta slowed the expansion program.

“AT&T didn’t put any in there this year,” he noted.

Two bills aimed at establishing uniform right-of-way regulations, Senate Bill 232 and House Bill 533, remain alive from the 2017 session. However, local officials are concerned they give telecommunications companies too much power.

Rome City Commissioner Evie McNiece said Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, held up the legislation until the 2018 session to give local governments some input on the language.

She spoke for her fellow board-members in urging lawmakers to include some protections for small communities.

“We don’t want to see these small cells all over the place without any thought of planning,” McNiece said. “We want the technology, but we also want it to look like our city.”

County commissioners were on the same page when they met separately with the legislative delegation, saying provisions such as incentives to co-locate utilities in rights of way are a priority.

“We’re 100 percent behind rural broadband, but we’re concerned about unfettered access to our right-of-way,” County Manager Jamie McCord said.

Hufstetler said the legislation will have to be strong enough to prevent metropolitan areas such as Atlanta — which are attractive to the telecoms — from enacting restrictions that keep the companies out of the state market as a whole.

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