Electric Cooperatives Power Broadband Charge Across Rural Georgia

Fiber-to-the-home service is on its way to three counties in Southeast Georgia. In July, the Midway-based Coastal Electric Cooperative and Darien Communications – a family owned telephone, cable TV, and Internet Service Provider – announced they were teaming up to build a $40 million fiber network. Once the initial network is up and running, 16,000 homes and businesses in the counties of Bryan, Liberty, and Long will have access to high-speed Internet service.

The partnership has given birth to a new co-op entity with Coastal Electric known as Coastal Fiber Inc., which will lease the infrastructure and begin offering retail broadband service as early as January 2022. Construction began this summer with phase one of the project slated to be rolled out over the next four years.

The new partnership will first target 9,800 homes in Bryan County, 6,200 in Liberty County, and 500 in Long County.

Phase 1 Focuses on Underserved County Residents

“The first phase goal is for customers in Liberty County to begin seeing availability in January 2022. The system will be built out in phases from that point with the total buildout by 2030. The service to Bryan and Long counties will be as we build out in phases. No dates for Bryan and Long have been determined yet,” Coastal Electric Communication Coordinator Bethany Akridge told the Savannah Morning News.

“The service in Bryan County, for example, depends on where you live. There is broadband available in the more populated areas because it is more profitable for companies,” Akridge said. “The reason the cooperative is involved is because there is a need, so we are stepping in to fill that need where those areas are not served or underserved.

Akridge went on to explain that service will first be targeted inside Liberty County because that county is the most underserved portion of Coastal Electric’s 573 square-mile service territory, adding that access to the service will not be limited to current co-op members but will also be offered to subscribers who do not get electric service from Coastal Electric.

Where Darien Communications currently offers service today, subscribers can choose from a range of service tiers – from 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $70/month up to a 1 Gigabit per second/250 Mbps connection for $132/month. However, the pricing and service tiers that will be offered by Coastal Fiber have yet to be determined.

Senate Bill Opens the Floodgates

When the announcement was made Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp hailed the project as “yet another great result” of a state Senate bill (SB 2) passed in 2019 that clarified whether electric cooperatives could get into the broadband business.

The “broadband project by Coastal Electric Cooperative will have a significant impact on hard-working Georgians by providing new job opportunities, improved education tools, access to telemedicine, and more,” Gov. Kemp said. “I know this project will have a direct impact on the lives of Southeast Georgians by ensuring they have access to reliable, high-speed internet. This is yet another great result of Senate Bill 2, which I signed into law in 2019, which authorized EMCs to provide broadband service. SB 2 is doing exactly what it was intended to do: encourage EMCs and community leaders to work together to close the gap on the digital divide in our state.”

Akridge also pointed to the passage of SB 2 as the greenlight Coastal Electric needed to move forward with its project plans:

“The main reason we are starting now to get involved with broadband is in 2019, Georgia Senate Bill 2 clarified what was legal for cooperatives as to what we could and couldn't do and still be considered a cooperative. There were already cooperatives involved in broadband before that but most cooperatives held back until that passed, just to clarify things because we wanted to make sure the things we wanted to do were legal. That's why the timing is now. Once that passed we began investing some time in feasibility studies as to what would be the best route.”

As reported by The Current, the Coastal Electric project is one of a series of broadband expansion projects launched by the state’s electric member cooperatives (EMCs) in the wake of SB 2.

In fact, since the bill’s passage, over a dozen Georgia EMCs have decided to build broadband networks. Blue Ridge Mountain EMC and Habersham EMC have both created affiliates offering high-speed Internet service to its members, while many others have formed partnerships with private ISPs, including Amicalola EMC, Carroll EMC, Central Georgia EMC, Colquitt EMC, Diverse Power, Irwin EMC, Middle Georgia EMC, Satilla REMC, Southern Rivers Energy, Tri-County EMC, and Washington EMC. All told, these projects are expected to bring high-speed connectivity to approximately 200,000 homes and businesses in rural Georgia.

Header image: courtesy of Coastal Electric Cooperative

Inline image of Pembroke Historical District courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)