Broadband internet expansion no silver bullet for rural Georgia

Guest columnist Charles Hayslett opines that expanding broadband internet service to rural Georgia is not as helpful to communities losing population as improving health care and education. Pixabay

Four years ago, I spoke to the opening day session of the House Rural Development Council about my research into the alarming decline of rural Georgia. Once I finished my presentation, the first question I got was about a subject I hadn’t even mentioned: rural broadband.

Since that meeting, it’s become clear that the deployment of broadband technology is widely regarded as central to any rural revitalization strategy in the state. The Georgia General Assembly has created the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative, passed legislation to help local governments prepare for broadband projects, and, most recently, appropriated funds to support broadband deployment in rural Georgia.

Now the Biden administration is proposing to spend $100 billion on rural broadband as part of its $2 trillion national infrastructure plan. On Tuesday, Georgia Recorder guest columnist Jay Bailey ballyhooed that proposal as one that could fuel the momentum of the work-at-home movement that took root during the pandemic and help revitalize rural Georgia.

“This trend could remake Georgia’s economic geography over the next decade,” Bailey wrote. “As an investor, I’m betting heavily on a revival in rural economies across our state. But in order for rural communities to fully benefit from this trend, they’ll need to have the broadband infrastructure to fully support remote work.”

I’d like to offer a couple of cautionary notes.

First, broadband is no silver bullet for rural Georgia. It won’t replace shuttered hospitals, failing school systems, or boarded-up businesses. Running fiber-optic cable to rural Georgia communities already in the throes of population loss and economic decline would be like serving filet mignon to a dying man who just lost his last tooth.

Second, all that filet mignon is really expensive. Based on research I conducted and wrote about last fall, we’re looking at a price tag of about $2.3 billion to hardwire all the currently unserved areas of rural Georgia; an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article cited a $3 billion price tag.

One local example: It would cost an estimated $8 million to wire just under 1,800 homes and businesses in tiny Baker County, located in deep southwest Georgia. Between 2013 and 2018, according to government estimates, Baker County lost 7.7% of its population and saw its gross domestic product fall 14.6%.

With all due deference to the good folks of Baker County, I’m skeptical that $8 million worth of government-funded, high-speed fiber will reverse their current fortunes. And I think it’s fair to ask: is it worth it? Does it make sense to spend that kind of money running fiber into communities that people are leaving?

I should add that I write this as a big-spending liberal who has no problem plowing major public investments into important projects. But they ought to make at least some economic sense, and the government should resist involvement if there are viable market solutions.

In this situation, there are viable market solutions, and here I can write from personal experience. We moved a year ago from Decatur, where we had AT&T’s 1-gigabit internet service, to rural Oconee County, where the best service I could find was a 50 Mbps-plan from Viasat. It’s not optimal, but it is adequate – especially for the explosion of remote workers Bailey envisions.

What’s more, satellite-based internet service appears to be on the threshold of a big improvement. My Viasat service is delivered by a geostationary satellite situated about 23,000 miles above the planet, and slow ping rates – the time it takes to, say, load a web page – can be frustrating.

As I write this, though, constellations of a new generation of satellites are being assembled a few hundred miles above the earth’s surface.  Known as LEOs, these low-earth orbit satellites are expected to slash ping rates dramatically. In his column, Bailey acknowledged the potential of technologies other than high-speed fiber, including, as he put it, “even low-earth orbit satellites in some cases.”

I’m more optimistic. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp. has already launched more than 1,500 refrigerator-sized LEOs and has begun a beta program that it says will deliver download speeds of between 50-and-150 Mbps with unlimited data and latency of 20-to-40 milliseconds. (It’s coming to Oconee County; we’ve signed up and are expecting our ground equipment in a few weeks.)

My purpose here is not to promote the satellite industry; it could still crash and burn (literally). But satellite internet service is available to much of rural Georgia now, and without the massive capital investment and years of construction time that broadband will require.

My larger point, however, is that the effort to revitalize Georgia’s rural communities needs to begin not with headline-grabbing plans to run fiber to sparsely-populated, poverty-stricken rural counties, but with a focus on more fundamental building blocks.

Bailey envisions a migration of highly-educated knowledge workers from the big city to rural communities that can provide them with high-speed internet. But without access to quality health care, decent schools for their kids, and other quality of life amenities, that won’t happen. High-speed internet may be necessary to build a vibrant 21st-century economy, but it’s far from sufficient – and it’s not the right first step.