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EDITORIAL: It’s Time for Georgia to Study Defining Broadband as a Utility, and Under the Control of Public Service Commission

Editorial Opinion of Coastal Empire News

January 23, 2018 – As the Georgia General Assembly starts to get into gear, we encourage members of our local delegations to write legislation to begin the study of defining broadband and cell phone service – the communication and internet services that we all depend on to run our companies and our lives – as utilities and therefore, put them under the control of our state’s Public Service Commission.

The issue is timely as the ‘net neutrality’ is debated and tossed around at the Federal level, and as Georgia works to improve its economic development strategy statewide, beyond just the six principle counties of the Atlanta metro area.

If you live and work outside that blessed circle, such as traveling up and down I-16 between Macon and Savannah, you know that you can’t even maintain a cell phone call. 

And, even in downtown Savannah, once the tourists arrive on a Thursday afternoon, internet connections slow down, and cell phone calls are dropped due to lack of bandwidth provided by Comcast, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, et al. 

The Public Service Commission also serves the critical role of overseeing rates that consumers can be charged - very important if net neutrality is lost at the Federal level; guarantees that services contracted for are delivered - such as upload and download speeds; and has a role in emergency services planning.

The PCC also manages the capital infrastructure investment required of utility companies that want to be licensed to sell services in Georgia, particularly critical at this juncture as the General Assembly is studying how to develop  Georgia's rural counties.  If all 154 counties in Georgia don't have adequate broadband, they can't attract jobs; schools can not offer equal educational opportunities; and small businesses can not compete. 

You can not develop Georgia without high speed internet, and we cannot communicate effectively without cell phone service at reasonable rates.   

We were reminded in December of the important role the Georgia Public Service Commission plays in protecting consumers, during their recent hearings on Plant Vogtle and the charges to customers by Georgia Power for construction overruns.

State, county and municipal leaders are also tackling the problem of the lack of 911 integration, with most systems losing money currently due to inadequate funding.  In Chatham County, for example, consumers pay $1.50 a month on their cell phone bills to support the 911 system, but that's $2 million a year short of the total costs.  And, only cell phone customers are being charged.  

All of this ties back to the work of the House Study Committee during 2017 on issues impeding economic development in the rural counties of Georgia. The lack of many elements of infrastructure was highlighted. 

And, anyone in Georgia with a cell phone is being plagued daily by unwanted robocalls, where cell phone companies are now selling telemarketing companies a local phone exchange, versus such calls coming in with an ‘800’ number … so the inbound call looks like it’s local … it might be someone you know.  It’s just one of the issues that every consumer with a cell phone faces. 'Do Not Call' lists are not working, and are not being enforced. 

Cell phones are no longer a ‘telephone’ device; they are almost a computer in your hand, with new apps advancing daily.  But, oversight on we’re paying for those services, and the lack of control over the investment by cell phone companies in adequate towers to provide the service we’re paying for, is sorely lacking. 

.We encourage members of our delegations to join together, across the aisles, and at least get a study committee approved in this session to address how to insure:  high speed broadband, capital investment by those licensed in Georgia, and improved consumer protections.

High-speed internet service can be defined as a utility, according to 2015 ruling by the federal court in the District of Columbia, which at the time was defined as a ‘sweeping decision clearing the way for more rigorous policing of broadband providers and greater protections for web users,’ according to the New York Times, reporting on the decision.  “The decision affirmed the government’s view that broadband is as essential as the phone and power and should be available to all Americans, rather than a luxury that does not need close government supervision.”

That definition was part of a case about rules applying to the doctrine known as ‘net neutrality’, which prohibited broadband companies from blocking or slowing the delivery of internet content to consumers, enforced during the Obama Administration. 

“Those rules, created by the Federal Communications Commission in early 2015, started a huge legal battle as cable, telecom and wireless internet providers sued to overturn regulations that they said went far beyond the F.C.C.’s authority and would hurt their businesses. On the other side, millions of consumers and giant tech firms rallied in favor of the regulations. President Obama also called for the strictest possible mandates on broadband providers.  The court’s decision upheld the F.C.C. on the declaration of broadband as a utility, which was the most significant aspect of the rules. That has broad-reaching implications for web and telecommunications companies that have battled for nearly a decade over the need for regulation to ensure web users get full and equal access to all content online,” the Times wrote.

As a state that continues to seek to brand itself as progressive, and one working hard to go after the Amazon’s of this world, Georgia has an opportunity to lead in this critical area by beginning the process of defining these critical services as 'utilities,' and putting their control under our Public Service Commission.

© Copyright 2018  Coastal Empire News, publisher of SavannahBusinessJournal.com, DublinBusinessJournal.com and BrunswickBusinessJournal.net. All Rights Reserved. www.CoastalEmpireNews.com

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