The concerns about “two Georgias” – one in metro Atlanta and the other in rural Georgia – have been a recurring topic under the Gold Dome for the past two legislative sessions.
The findings of the rural study committees in both the House and Senate have repeatedly highlighted a lack of basic access to broadband services and new technologies in the most rural parts of the state.
Now that legislators have identified the main issue, why has it been so hard to address? Wireless telecommunication companies seeking to pass state laws in their favor argue the main impediment to broadband deployment is the local governments.
We’ve found this to be quite the contrary.
Cities across Georgia are approving small-cell permits at a high rate. In 2017, wireless telecom companies applied for 279 small-cell permits in the city of Atlanta – and 255 of those permits were approved. Savannah approved 98 percent of the small-cell permits it received in 2017.
Additionally, some local governments, including the city of Macon, are eliminating permit application fees, creating an even easier experience for these companies. The city of Macon also provides a 50 percent discount for the first year if the installation is after July 1. As an example of speedy approval, the city of Valdosta approved a permit request from Verizon in two weeks.
While local governments have been unfairly characterized as the obstacles between private companies and greater technology deployment, these companies aren’t addressing the actual barrier: their little return on investment in the areas of the state that need the service most – rural Georgia. As private companies do, they turn their sights to areas where the greatest profits are found – in the most densely populated metro and urban parts of the state – neglecting the most underserved parts of our state.
Legislative proposals like HB 533 and SB 426 would grant private wireless telecom companies nearly unfettered access to public rights-of-way, with limited ability on the part of the local government to negotiate on size, location or compensation for new infrastructure entering public spaces.
Local governments have historically been the stewards over public assets throughout the deployment of utilities and other technologies. Cities and counties must be able to manage the various encroachments into taxpayers’ rights-of-way, keep them safe and have them available for public purposes.
Elected officials have a legal responsibility to treat all companies that use the public property, such as rights-of-way, in a non-discriminatory manner.
Local governments gain nothing from being a regulatory obstacle. City officials have supported streamlined applications and timely responses, but not unreasonable time frames that don’t provide adequate time to review applications and allow the taxpayers to have a voice in how public property is used.
Georgia Municipal Association and its member cities support fair-market compensation for use of the public right-of-way, but we oppose artificially low fees that are discriminatory against current users of the right-of-way and inconsistent with existing state law.
Cities recognize that broadband is important to local economies, schools and healthcare facilities. But local leaders also recognize the business model of private companies is to make a profit.
There is nothing wrong with that; elected officials want businesses in Georgia to succeed. However, local governments should not be providing subsidies from taxpayers’ pockets to help them do so.
The writer is executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association.
This article originally ran on chronicle.augusta.com.