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18 | BROADBAND COMMUNITIES | www.broadbandcommunities.com | MARCH/APRIL 2017 RURAL BROADBAND Georgia Tackles the Digital Divide Rural Georgians were falling ever further behind their metropolitan neighbors in terms of broadband access. Now the state legislature is preparing a comprehensive initiative to address the problem. By Masha Zager and Hilda Legg / Broadband Communities S teve Gooch is a man with two jobs. In what he refers to as his "day job," he is the executive director of the Lumpkin County Development Authority in northern Georgia. He moonlights, if you can call it that, as the majority whip of the Georgia State Senate, where he represents a large swath of northern Georgia. Recently, the two jobs came together in an initiative that promises to benefit all of rural Georgia. At the development authority, where Gooch tries to create employment opportunities for Lumpkin County's 30,000 residents, he says, "We used to talk about water, sewer, interstates and airports as key components to recruit industry. Today, … well, [prospects] love the terrain, the quality of life and the workforce, but they want to know, 'Is there available broadband?'" e answer, too often, is "No," and Gooch finds it increasingly difficult to interest businesses in relocating to the county. In 2009, he helped obtain a stimulus grant for the North Georgia Network, a middle-mile network. But though the NGN benefited Lumpkin County schools, hospitals and other anchor institutions, most of the county's residents and businesses still suffer from low bandwidth. Over time, Gooch began to hear from his constituents in other counties – all rural – about their broadband problems. At present, he says, broadband is the single issue that generates the most complaints: "ey receive only a fraction of the service they pay for. Service is interrupted by frequent outages. ey can't function in business at the level they need to. Children come home with homework assignments that require internet access, and their parents have to take them to a restaurant, library or school to do their homework." Gooch suspected that the problem was specific to the major broadband provider in his district, and he decided to find out what was happening in the rest of the state. A LISTENING TOUR In summer 2016, Gooch and State Rep. Don Parsons formed a joint committee that included 10 members of both legislative houses and held a series of hearings all over Georgia. e committee heard testimony from local governments, state agencies, academic researchers, chambers of commerce, health care providers, incumbent telcos, trade associations and many other interested parties. In addition, it posted an online survey to ask residents about their broadband experiences. With very little promotion, the survey received 12,000 responses. Both the formal testimony and the survey responses confirmed that rural broadband was deficient all through rural Georgia – not just in the areas served by the provider in Gooch's district. "Everyplace outside a metropolitan area was experiencing the same issues," Gooch says. "ere was no incentive for the providers to upgrade their infrastructures. It was an eye-opening conversation – all these people were from different parts of the state and had different phone companies."