Lawmakers target charges to string lines in broadband push

Georgia lawmakers have passed a measure that would allow the state’s Public Service Commission to regulate how much electric cooperatives charge to carry internet lines on their utility poles.

House Bill 244 passed the Senate by a 31-22 vote on Monday after an attempt to water it down failed. It now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

Supporters said cooperatives charge too much to attach lines from other service providers to their poles, making it too expensive for cable and telecommunication companies to extend broadband services into rural areas.

“We’ve got an absolutely pressing problem of not enough broadband out into the state,” Senate Majority Leader John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, said during debate.

The idea is that the five elected members of the Public Service Commission would study how much it actually costs cooperatives to erect and maintain power poles. The commission regulates Georgia Power Co.’s electrical rates, but not those of the state’s 41 cooperatives. Some cooperatives serve the state’s most rural areas, while others serve densely populated Atlanta suburbs. Overall, cooperatives say they serve more than 4.6 million Georgia residents.

Opponents said Monday that large private providers are using the popular issue of extending internet access to underserved areas to wrest money away from member-owned electric cooperatives. Lawmakers last year allowed cooperatives to begin offering internet service.

Cable giant Comcast Corp. has represented it would expand service to 20,000 new customers if fees fall, but Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican, said cooperatives would lose more money than cable companies would spend. Cooperatives have said they would lose $27.5 million if their pole fees fell to $7 a pole, just above the $6.50 charged by Georgia Power Co., warning they might seek to recover the lost revenue through higher charges on electrical customers.