Dozens of Georgia counties with spotty access to high-speed internet will be eligible for a $250 million pot of grant funding available through last year’s federal pandemic relief aid.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s U.S. senators promoted the funding Thursday, saying the money could boost connections for tens of thousands of homes and businesses in rural areas of the state.

“This is vital for small businesses, for farmers, for schools and families, for kids doing schoolwork in the afternoons at home, for all of us, for our state’s prosperity, to move toward universal access to high-speed internet,” Sen. Jon Ossoff said during a virtual press conference.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is locked in a tight race for a full six-year term, said in a statement that “broadband expansion is crucial to keeping Georgia’s economy moving forward.” 

The grant funding was included in the American Rescue Plan Act, which was last spring’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

A sudden shift to digital learning at home early in the pandemic cast a glaring light on the uneven access to high-speed internet across the state. At the time, state officials identified nearly 136,000 unserved student households.

But state leaders have long wrangled with ways to improve broadband access in more sparsely populated communities.

A state report released last year found a slight decline in the number of people struggling with access to reliable high-speed internet, leaving about 9% of communities in Georgia unserved. 

“However, there are still 482,374 locations that lack access to acceptable quality broadband, so there is much work yet to be done,” according to the 2021 report from the state Department of Community Affairs and the Georgia Technology Authority. 

And for about 13% of Georgia households, download speeds of about 100 megabits per second remain elusive, according to mapping through the Federal Communications Commission. 

The federal grant funding will be awarded to service providers in mostly rural counties through a state-run Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund program. The governor’s Office of Planning and Budget is handling the applications. Gov. Brian Kemp announced the aid in the fall without tying the funding to the federal coronavirus relief bill.

“We will be watching carefully to ensure that the state of Georgia implements this program in a way that is a responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars and that is consistent with our intent in law to bring high-speed internet access to the parts of our state where it’s lacking,” Ossoff said. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...