Electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) in Georgia have gained the legal authority to provide broadband services. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law Senate Bill 2 last week, which is intended to open the door for rural citizens in the state to receive high-speed internet services through their local electric co-op. Georgia follows Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi as Southern states that recently have empowered co-ops in this fashion.
However, state authorities don’t expect the co-ops to rush into the broadband business – and neither does Georgia EMC, a statewide EMC trade association. "Some EMCs may find offering broadband directly to members is not feasible due to operational or budgetary challenges," states Georgia EMC President and CEO Dennis Chastain. "Others will likely rely on partnerships with established companies and existing providers rather than provide direct-to-consumer broadband services. And in some cases, many of an EMC's members may already have high-speed internet service. Regardless, the passage of Senate Bill 2 encourages continued dialogue among a variety of stakeholders to identify the best and most efficient way to expand broadband service."
Several electric co-ops have decided in recent years to step up in rural areas where incumbent communications services providers have decided for business reasons against beefing up their broadband networks (see, for example, “Electric co-ops select PON FTTH systems from ADTRAN” and “Electric co-ops choose Calix for broadband service networks”). Georgia is the home state of Dalton Utilities, one of earliest utility companies to step into the broadband services business.
The willingness of some states to allow co-ops to provide broadband services contrasts with an unwillingness to allow municipalities the same discretion. Several states, including Tennessee, have erected barriers to municipal broadband, swayed by assertions from incumbents that public entities pose unfair competition. The Obama-era FCC, under the direction of Chairman Thomas Wheeler, sought to overturn such state laws; that effort was declared unlawful by a Federal Appeals Court (see “FCC makes first strikes against anti-muni broadband state laws” and “Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals slaps down FCC municipal networks ruling”).
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