ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp says he remains open to ideas on how to push high-speed internet into areas of the state that lack it.
But he said he’s not ready to back any specific ideas for funding rural broadband. State lawmakers created a grant program last year but didn’t fund it, and ideas for putting money toward it this year have struggled to gain momentum.
“If we can create an environment where the private sector does it and we don’t have to fund it, that’s the best way,” Kemp said in an interview with CNHI. “But it is the interstate of today’s world and we’re holding our state back if our kids and our entrepreneurs and our medical providers don’t have access to internet.”
About 1.6 million Georgians do not have access to adequate broadband, according to the state Department of Community Affairs. It’s an issue state lawmakers have wrestled with for the last three sessions.
Kemp, who was sworn in less than two months ago, campaigned heavily on boosting the economy in rural Georgia. Expanding access to high-speed internet was a key part of his pitch.
On Tuesday, the governor sounded keen on some measures that are moving through the General Assembly this year, including a plan to exempt the sales tax on the equipment that providers use to build out their networks. He also called a proposal to authorize electric cooperatives to sell broadband service a “good first step.”
“There’s also a lot of private sector companies out there that are creating some incredible things that may end up solving this before the government does, if we have the right environment for it,” Kemp said.
But he hasn’t backed any ideas on how to fund the state grant program. Proposals that have been floated unsuccessfully so far range from taxing streaming services, such as Netflix, and other digital goods to collecting a pole-attachment fee for equipment set up in the public right-of-way.
“We’ve got a lot of things to think through on rural broadband and how we get it done, but there’s also people in local communities that are taking that themselves and doing it,” Kemp said, referring specifically to a start-up in Cordele.
A key deadline is approaching for any plan to be approved this year, though. A bill must be voted out of one chamber by Thursday, known as Crossover Day, to have the clearest path to becoming law.
As for existing state dollars, the first-term governor’s focus is elsewhere.
“My number one priority was the teacher pay raise because it’s a tough issue in rural Georgia, getting people to teach,” Kemp said.
“People are moving away and it’s a problem all over our state, and school safety affects every community in this state, and that’s where I’ve put the bulk of my money this year,” he added, referring to money he budgeted for educator pay hikes and school safety measures.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.