Commissioners support expansion as start toward further expansion of high speed internet to rural customers
In a 4-1 vote on two measures this past Tuesday evening, Polk County Commissioners approved an amended application process for broadband grants for a Carroll EMC broadband project that would include a small number of customers served in Polk County having availability and giving the Development Authority the go-ahead to deal with the project if the money is approved on either the state or federal level.
The grants – one from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and another from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget – would allow SyncGlobal, a broadband provider in Northwest Georgia, to complete the work.
The counties involved in the project being sought by Carroll EMC and SyncGlobal have to apply for the grants themselves and can use a public-private partnership to give the companies the money they need in order to complete the installation work for cabling to be installed toward customer’s homes.
Currently, broadband is available through a few options in Polk County.
Customers within the city limits of Cedartown and Rockmart have Comcast and Charter as options for cable internet access. Rural areas further away from the cities or main thoroughfares like Highway 27 and Highway 278 have fewer options available to them, either having to rely on hotspots from mobile networks or satellite-based options like HughesNet or SpaceX’s Starlink system.
The expansion to give Carroll EMC customers an option for better internet connectivity will only impact customers in the Vinson Mountain area of southern Polk County, part of a project ongoing by Carroll EMC in partnership with SnycGlobal to expand fiber connections in eastern Haralson County.
One Commissioner not on board with funding the grants was Gary Martin.
Martin said multiple times during the vote and after in Commissioner’s Comments on Tuesday evening that he wasn’t against Broadband expansion in rural areas, but wanted “more bang for the buck” for the amount of money that is proposed to be spent as a match for either grant.
“This is going to cost us a lot of money, but I think it needs to be widespread somewhat more,” he said. “I know the situation about Carroll EMC, I know that. But I still feel like we should be getting a little more out of it for what we’re putting in.”
Commission Chair Hal Floyd said he understood and noted Commissioner Martin’s comment, but “I think the board wanted to move forward anyway to make it available to that “small number of citizens” that reside in Polk County.”
In response to Commissioner Martin’s want of additional customers served in the deal, Commissioner Ray Carter said the 10% match that is required of the grant funding was well worth it since today’s expansion of broadband into rural areas matches the same efforts put in a century ago to bring electricity to the furthest corners of the county and state. He understands and agrees with Commissioner Martin about the need for more people to be served for the amount of money being sought for the project from the county’s matching funds, but looked at it differently at the problem of bringing high-speed internet to rural customers.
“Where would we be in our households today had the government not invested in that (rural electrification),” Carter said. “While it has taken a large investment from us locally, which we’ve got to do… I don’t like the size of it, but it is the method they have chosen through the EMCs. Unfortunately, Georgia Power is not an EMC and they don’t qualify for this, and most of our county customers by Georgia Power. So we can hope that bandwagon will come to the forefront soon.”
Martin did add that no matter how the votes went, he would support the board’s decision as the grant applications move forward.
Polk County can either receive the federal or state grant, and both are worth just over $3 million. The county would have to kick in an additional not-to-exceed $303,000 in funding to get the money for the project, which would then be turned over to the Carroll EMC-SyncGlobal partnership to complete the installation of fiber optic cabling.
With the rest of the Commission giving their go-ahead for seeking the grants and for approving a Memorandum of Understanding allowing the Development Authority of Polk County to handle the grant application process.
Commissioner Scotty Tillery was among those celebrating the news of grant money coming available for broadband expansion into parts of Polk County drastically underserved, but he wants to do more.
During Commissioner’s comments on Tuesday evening, he called upon the county to step up in an effort to help with connectivity issues by starting with a simple project: connect the volunteer fire stations with broadband, and then provide WiFi access for people without high-speed access to connect when needed by pulling into the fire stations and parking for a brief time. He added that providing free WiFi access to public buildings is also needed.
His goal is to ensure that students have access to broadband connectivity where it might not be available in the “weaker parts of the county.”
The broadband expansion project is the first in Polk County being sought since state law was changed to allow Electric Membership Cooperatives to get into the broadband internet business.
Per the Memorandum of Understanding document approved by the Commission, SyncGlobal’s fiber will be required to deliver a minimum speed of 100 megabits per second for downloads, and 100 megabits per second for uploads. Officials expect those speeds to be faster once the installation is complete for customers who will have fiber made available to them in the project.
A requirement for the number of people served is also in the MOU, with a minimum of 312 customers of Caroll EMC customers in Polk County to get access.