This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) and telecom providers remain far apart on how to expand  broadband connectivity in rural Georgia with time growing short for the state to decide a key component of the issue.

The EMCs want the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to nearly double what they can charge providers to attach broadband technology to their utility poles, from the current $20 per pole per year on average to $37.95, while the providers are calling for rates to be lowered to $7 per pole, the rate set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Under legislation the General Assembly passed this year, the PSC will decide how much the EMCs can charge for pole attachments.

As the commission opened what is expected to be several days of hearings on Tuesday, representatives of the two sides defended the pole rate they are seeking as critical to the successful deployment of broadband across wide swaths of rural Georgia lacking high-speed internet connectivity.

The rate the EMCs are seeking is fair based on the cost to the utilities of the additional investment they will have to make, Chris Stevens, president and CEO of Coweta-Fayette EMC, told commissioners. Requiring EMCs to charge a lower rate would force them to choose between raising customer rates or reducing their budgets at the risk of service and safety, he said.

“If EMCs aren’t permitted to recover a fair rate for our pole attachments, these [broadband] deployments may not exist,” he said.

Stevens presented an offer the EMCs are proposing to incentivize providers by charging just $1 per pole per year for pole attachments in areas where EMC customers currently lack broadband service.  

“We want our member-owners to have access to broadband,” he said.

But lawyers for telecom providers who cross-examined Stevens Tuesday argued that nearly doubling the pole attachment rate in areas that don’t qualify for the $1 discount would give the EMCs a revenue windfall.

Mari Browne, representing the Georgia Cable Association, disputed the EMCs’ assertion that lowering pole attachment rates would force the utilities to raise customers’ monthly bills. She pointed to past instances where the EMCs increased pole attachment rates without lowering customers’ bills accordingly.

“Changes in pole rents … don’t impact service rates,” Browne said.

Browne went on to assert that a federal law adopted in 1978 requires the FCC to set pole attachment rates, and many states have adopted the FCC formula.

But Stevens said the lower pole attachment rates set by the FCC are no guarantee that utilities will aggressively expand broadband service. Even though Georgia Power, for example, charges the FCC rate, 43% of its rural service area is without broadband connectivity, he said.

“Our revenue stream would go up,” said Stevens, referring to the proposed $37.95 rate for pole attachments. “But it would be a true, fair return on the investment our members have made.”

The PSC will hear additional witnesses representing the EMCs and the telecoms during the coming days. The commission is due to vote on the pole attachment rates in mid-December.

This story comes through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.

Dave Williams/Capitol Beat

Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.