Rural Cities ‘Get Real’ About Broadband

During the 2015-2016 school year, a class in the Seminole County School System visited the computer lab. Eager for a change from their normal classroom time, the 25 students ran to their designated computers. But within seconds, this excitement was met with disappointment. “My computer is taking so long to load,” one student yelled.

After a few minutes, more students reported the same Internet speed issue. The instructor then checked the loading speed for the entire computer lab and saw that all computers were running on less than 100 megabytes per second (Mbps), combined (According to AT&T Business, each student should be receiving a minimum of 4.3 Mbps to work efficiently, and these students individually were only receiving 2.5 Mbps [at best]—a combined 62.5 Mbps.)

After identifying this and several other connectivity problems, leaders with the Seminole County School system and officials in the city of Donalsonville stepped up to the plate to create a wireless broadband solution, called “eDonalsonville.” This broadband service has two cell sites that allow for students to take their mobile routers home each day to access Wi-Fi and complete assignments.

Through eDonalsonville, residents have affordable access to three different plans starting at the Basic 10/2 Plan, which the city markets as “great for Facebook and email” at $39 a month with unlimited data. The highest plan is the “Power Plan” for $99 per month and is “great for people who want all the Internet they can get at a price they can afford.” Residents also have access to PC support and repair services, new phone service, security cameras for home and office and free Wi-Fi downtown. The LTE service of eDonalsonville will also soon be available to the faculty and staff, the public and local businesses.

In addition to educational enhancements, eDonalsonville is improving other areas of the community, according to Communications Director Jeff Hatcher.

“eDonalsonville provides the opportunity to compete in economic development projects, as Internet access is an essential requirement for any business in today’s economy,” he said. “Public safety operations are enhanced as police and firefighters have access to real-time information in emergency situations.”

Donalsonville Mayor Dan Ponder shared one of the most significant impacts made possible by eDonalsonville since the program’s launch.

“During the Hurricane Michael disaster in October 2018, eDonalsonville was able to provide connectivity to residents and businesses within our city while traditional providers using copper lines to provide DSL and other Internet services were down,” he recalled. “Without access to Internet service, residents were unable to access funds on debit and credit cards to purchase food or gas. Pharmacies were unable to fill prescriptions. Insurance adjusters were unable to file paperwork for claims, and residents were unable to complete FEMA applications for assistance.

The ability to rapidly [within one day] provide service to residents highlighted the versatility of a wireless broadband system over more traditional cable providers. “Some of those providers required three months to reconnect service to customers,” he said.

According to Hatcher, as contracts with current telecommunication providers expire, the city can reduce its costs by $30,000-$40,000 per year by implementing the eDonalsonville network. In the next five years, city leaders believe this system will be completely self-sufficient. Access to expanded license coverage will increase the profitability of the service, and project leaders are researching licensing alternatives to expand into locations outside of the immediate coverage area.

“One of the biggest hurdles has been access to spectrum outside of Donalsonville,” Hatcher said. “With recent changes at the Federal Communications Commission, we will soon have access to the spectrum we need. This will allow us to increase the speed of service that we can provide as well as allow us to expand the footprint of eDonalsonville outside of our city.”

Woodbury Recognized as ‘Broadband Ready’  

Securing broadband service in rural Georgia was a main priority for state leaders during the 2018 legislative session. The State House Rural Development Council considered a new tax structure and incentive policy to pave the way for expanded rural broadband service across the state of Georgia, which led to the 2018 passage of Senate Bill 402, the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act. This law provides planning, deployment and incentives for broadband services across the state.

To operationalize this act, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) created the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative, which encourages the promotion and deployment of broadband services to currently unserved areas with a minimum of 25 Mbps download and three Mbps upload speeds.

Through this initiative, Georgia communities can become “Broadband Ready.” According to the DCA website, any political subdivision in Georgia pursuing improved broadband access is eligible for the Broadband Ready Community Certification. This community must demonstrate compliance with the adoption of a Comprehensive Plan inclusive of the deployment of broadband services and demonstrate compliance with the adoption of a Broadband Model Ordinance.

As the second city recognized as a Broadband Ready Community (The city of Claxton was the first.), Woodberry officials, residents and business owners credit this designation and the support of DCA leaders for legitimizing the need for broadband network projects and encouraging the city to install a test phase of their Wireless Internet Service.

“The test phase consisted of installing a unit at our newly opened Rural Health Clinic, one downtown business and one downtown resident. After two months of testing, we saw extremely positive results with our utility. In the months that followed, we have installed the antenna on the first of two water towers to offer the service to our community.” explained Mayor Steve Ledbetter.

While these results were positive, Ledbetter knows there is still work to be done.

“Our community is more than ready for the benefits offered from basic high-speed internet access. The opportunity for the city to receive the designation of a Broadband Ready Community with the possibility of asking for state assistance to help us grow our utility is the catalyst that drove us to seek this recognition,” he said.

This article appears in the March/April 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

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