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Lawmakers look to ‘small cell’ tech for rural high-speed internet answers

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Getting high-speed internet service into less-populated areas of Georgia remains a top priority of the House Rural Development Council, although providers have yet to propose an overall fix.

Still, Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, — one of 16 active members on the panel — said he has hopes that new “small-cell” technologies can start filling in gaps.

“From a technology standpoint, we see the ability to greatly expand it throughout the state,” he said. “I don’t see that the more rural parts will be served in the near future, but you’ve got to build the network out. I believe the technology gets us moving in the direction we want to go in.”

Towers aren’t going away but small cells — “about the size of garbage cans,” Lumsden said — can be added to increase capacity and coverage in targeted areas. They’re mounted on poles in the public rights of way and can serve customers in a radius of 500 to 1,200 feet.

Lumsden said future advancements are expected to bring devices attached to power lines that will add even more capacity as the demand for service continues to increase.

“It will give providers the ability to build out their networks in a more cost-effective way than they’ve ever had before,” he said. “But they have to rely on rights of way and that’s where the rub seems to be.”

Local governments have control over their rights of way and are unwilling to give that up. Rome City Commissioners discussing the issue said they welcome the service but have concerns about the potential for unsightly transmitters every quarter-mile, especially in historic districts.

There’s also the issue of right-of-way fees, which are set locally in the absence of statewide legislation. Lumsden said 35 states have adopted regulations, “but Georgia’s not one of them.”

“The broadband companies want certainty and uniformity as they’re making their plans,” he pointed out. “The prices being charged by local governments are all over the page … and they don’t want to have to deal with numerous entities for access.”

Legislation that would have put control in the hands of the state stalled this year due to pushback from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association. Lumsden said the Rural Development Council is trying to get the two sides together.

“We want to find a balance that allows us to move forward with this and have local communities’ interests protected as well,” he said. “We’re having conversations at this time, but there’s no unanimity.”

The Council will be meeting several more times this year and expects to submit recommendations to the 2019 Georgia General Assembly.