A couple of years ago I wrote a post on Georgia’s rural broadband efforts and swagged the likely cost of hardwiring the state’s unserved areas from the gnat line south at about a half-billion dollars.
In the interest of responsible journalism, I must now report that I was wrong.
Based on data now available from state and federal agencies, the cost of hardwiring unserved areas in the 100 Georgia counties that comprise Trouble in God’s Country’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia regions will probably be in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. Add the unserved areas in the northern half of the state and you’re looking at a total of about $2.3 billion.
In my defense, I was working with some fairly limited data when I took that first swing at ballparking the cost of wiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service. Basically, I combined some testimony to the House Rural Development Council — to the effect that it would cost about $40,000 a mile to wire rural Georgia — with county-level road-mile data from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), made some charitably conservative assumptions and came up with a figure in the neighborhood of $500 million.
Since then, a couple of things have happened that give us a stronger basis for estimating the real costs of hardwiring the state’s rural regions.
One was the creation of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), which was spawned by the work of the House Rural Development Council and is now part of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA). One of its major accomplishments so far has been the development of what’s been billed as a first-of-its-kind map identifying parts of the state that are unserved by terrestrial internet service capable of delivering download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of at least 3 Mbps.
Study the GBDI map at right and you could be forgiven for thinking that about half of Georgia doesn’t have access to that level of internet service.
But that’s land mass. Extract the county-level data from the map and you might be surprised to learn that, even in most rural areas, a large majority of the GBDI “locations” already have access to 25/3 service. Statewide, GBDI puts the number of “unserved” locations at nearly 507,000 out of a total of just under 5 million locationsd, a little over 10 percent.
The problem is worse, of course, in rural Georgia. Nearly 312,000 of the state’s unserved locations are in the 100 counties that comprise TIGC’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia counties — 17.4 percent of the total locations in those counties. In contrast, only about 1.5 percent of the locations in TIGC’s 12 Metro Atlanta counties are unserved.
So that gives us a sense of the magnitude of the task. Now to the question of cost.
Thanks to a new program funded by Congress in 2019 and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we’ve now got a pretty good baseline to use in projecting what this is going to cost. Dubbed ReConnect, the USDA program is now in its second year of operation and has funded 75 projects that are supposed to provide at least 25/3 Mbps service to more than 168,000 locations across the country at a total cost (including local matching funds) of more than $760 million.
Here in Georgia, there have been four awards so far. Independent telephone companies in Ellijay, Darien, Pembroke and, most recently, parts of three west Georgia counties (Carroll, Heard and Troup) are now plowing a combined total of $27.1 million into providing 25/3 service to a grand total of 6,159 locations.
That works out to $4,404 per location, which is actually a little better than the national ReConnect average of just over $4,500 per location.
The obvious follow-up question here is whether it’s worth that kind of cost to wire unserved areas of rural Georgia, especially those in serious, sustained decline.
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Access to broadband internet service is essential to modern life, no matter where you live. It is the latter-day equivalent of electricity and telephone service, and both were supported by an array of public policies and funding mechanisms designed to provide them to the broadest swath of the population possible. Somehow, the same principle should apply today.
But “somehow” is a big word, with a lot of wiggle room, and these are different times. Maybe private-sector players will eventually step into some rural areas that show signs of growth, but for the moment it seems they have decided it’s not worth their time or money to plow capital into rural areas that are poverty stricken and sparsely populated.
And while that puts the onus on the public sector, I would submit that, even there, it’s reasonable to have a discussion about what constitutes a prudent use of tax funds in areas that are losing population and suffering a long-running economic decline. At what point are we simply throwing good money after bad?
Take, for example, tiny Baker County, in deep southwest Georgia. Between 2013 and 2018, its population fell 7.7 percent, from 3,351 people to 3,092, according to the Census Bureau, and its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrunk 14.6 percent, from just under $108 million to less than $88 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
According to the GBDI map, there are a total of 1,799 locations in the county, and only eight of them have access to 25/3 broadband. Based on the ReConnect cost data, it would cost right at $8 million to wire those 1,791 unserved buildings and provide service to just under 3,100 Georgians living in a county with a shrinking economy. Is that a good expenditure of public funds that are, by definition, coming out of somebody else’s pocket?
Altogether there are 21 small rural counties (population 30,000 or less) that saw both their populations and their economies shrink in the five years from 2013 to 2018 — 20 from the gnat line south and one in northern Georgia. The GBDI map puts the number of unserved locations in those counties at 63,970; at the ReConnect average of $4,500 apiece, it would cost just under $288 million to wire all those locations.
I’m ordinarily pretty liberal when it comes to plowing public money into important infrastructure projects, but I’ll have to admit I’m struggling to see even a publc-sector business case for investing this kind of state or federal money in areas that are shedding population and economic activity.
This is not to write off Baker County or its similarly-distressed rural Georgia cousins, let alone the citizens who live there, but it is to suggest that their problems require a multi-faceted response. Spending millions on high-speed broadband won’t do any good if there’s nobody left to use it.
(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020