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Broadband expansion options discussed

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COVID-19 has shown a need for internet

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    Board of Education Chairman Ginger Bailey speaks at the Sept. 24 public hearing about the need for broadband in Jones County. DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/STAFF

A public hearing concerning the need for broadband in Jones County generated interest from lawmakers, community leaders and residents alike.

It is a topic that has been discussed for several years but has been brought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sept. 24 meeting was called to order by County Commission Chairman Chris Weidner. The hearing was the idea of Commissioner Jonathan Pitts and was also attended by Commissioner Sam Kitchens and County Administrator Jason Rizner.

After opening the meeting, Weidner commented that the broadband effort was started in Jones County in 2017.

Pitts explained that the board passed a connectivity enhancement pilot program July 21 that will place WiFi access points at four Jones County Fire Stations. He said work orders have been dropped, and WiFi access should be in place soon. Those access points are the fire stations on Upper River Road, Highway 49, Haddock and Greene Settlement Road.

The pilot program will remain in place for three months and then evaluated for usage.

The commissioner said board members took the first step Sept. 1 to start the process for Jones County’s designation as a Broadband Ready Community. He said that means Jones County would be first in line for grants or other programs.

Pitts serves as Chairman of the ACCG Economic Development and Transportation committee. He said the committee will ask the Georgia General Assembly to appropriate funds to the state grant program in order to help eligible local governments and their private sector partners provide broadband services to the unserved and underserved areas.

He read letters from U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Congressman Doug Collins, each of them pledging support for the county’s initiative to bring broadband connectivity to the community.

Loeffler said recent findings by the Georgia Department Community Affairs show broadband for a quarter of a million locations throughout the state were inaccurately classified by the FCC as having access. She said that was but one example of obstacles to expand broadband to areas that need it most.

Collins said he introduced the Gigabit Opportunity (GO) Act to incentivize firms to expand broadband infrastructure to communities that lack high-speed access. He said the legislation would encourage more companies to enter low-income, rural and urban communities and creat competition.

Pitts said he would like to put the steps in place in Jones County to improve connectivity.

“We know this is a marathon and not a sprint,” he said “This will take time.”

The commissioner said he would like to have a presentation from a representative from USDA Rural Development at a future meeting.

Community leaders

The floor was open to comments, and the first speaker was the Chairman of the Jones County Board of Education, Ginger Bailey. She said, out of this year’s 5,000 students, 950 of them opted for virtual learning.

“Internet is not available everywhere in Jones County, and that’s a problem. Bibb County went totally virtual; I don’t know how they are pulling that off,” she said.

Bailey said it is vital that all of Jones County have broadband.

“State Rep. Susan Holmes has been working on this and has helped. It’s for our children,” the chairman added. “Tri-County is willing, but they can only go so far.”

Bailey said, if the state does come up with funding, Jones County wants to be at the front of the line.

Pitts said that was the reason for Jones County’s Broadband Ready designation.

Bailey went on to say that there are schools in South Georgia that have no internet.

“We want people to understand the battle we have fought to educate our children,” she said.

Pitts said the commissioners are glad to be partners with the Board of Education.

John Wood said he attended a meeting about broadband in 2017 in the very same room with the same topic. He said the notes from that meeting would be helpful.

“Where internet is concerned, we all need it. The 2017 meeting was about a regional effort,” he said.

Wood said he met with a lady from Savannah recently who told him they have the same connectivity problem in their downtown.

“It’s a money thing,” he said.

Greg Mullis spoke as the chairman of the Development Authority of Jones County and Senior Vice President of Tri County EMC. He said when House Bill 2 was passed in 2019, it gave EMCs the authority to enter the broadband business.

“We started looking at our role in expanding partnerships, and in February, we hired a contractor to do a feasibility study,” he said.

Mullis said they are nearing the end of that process. He said they now know it would cost $60 million for 2,600 miles of fiber. He said it would take two years to build the backbone of the infrastructure.

“We have surveyed our members and are getting a lot of input. We may be ready to make a decision in 90 days,” he said.

Mullis said, if they decide to enter the business, it would be to serve EMC members. But he added they would be open to partners.

Bailey asked if the Board of Education could get a map of the county that shows the areas lacking internet service. Mullis said he could help with that.

Rizner said the Georgia Department of Community Affairs has a map on its website. He said that map is what all previous funding was based on, and it shows areas that are lacking.

Residents speak

Dr. James Smith is an assistant professor at Augusta University and a River North resident. He said he entered the IT field in 1998 and started teaching in 2009, after 18 years in business.

“A lot of people prefer a less dense community, but they want to live in a community that has the jobs they want. Broadband is a big part of that,” he said.

Smith said broadband access can make work available for people and it is a source of economic development.

“Communities that invest in that will benefit,” he said. “I would love to see every area of Jones County have at least one real broadband provider.”

James Scheff said he has lived in Jones County all of his life, and he remembered when Jones County got cable television. Scheff said he currently works for an IT company in Memphis.

“I work online, and internet is crucial to my job. That’s going to be the reality of the future, and I’m committed to help any way I can,” he said.

Scheff said competition is needed to make internet better.

“It’s one of the most important things we can do to keep us relevant and keep people coming to Jones County,” he said.

Kitchens agreed competition would be an incentive. He said, when he started looking at government infrastructure maps, Jones County is not as rural as some other counties and the regulatory side was starting to move.

“If there is one bright spot with COVID, it has shown up the need we have. Internet is necessary, and I’m proud this board is moving forward,” he said.

The commissioner said it boils down to money and how the county could recoup it.

“We need partners like Tri-County,” he said. “I hope the City of Gray, Jones County and the Board of Education will say they are all in.”