Federal coronavirus relief to provide $250 million to bridge Georgia’s digital divide

Dozens of Georgia counties with patchy access to high-speed internet are eligible for a $250 million grant made available as part of federal pandemic assistance last year.

Georgia’s US Senators sponsored the funding Thursday, saying the money could improve connections for tens of thousands of homes and businesses in rural areas of the state.

“This is critical for small businesses, for farmers, for schools and families, for kids doing afternoon schoolwork at home, for all of us, for our state’s prosperity, to drive universal access to high-speed internet,” he said Sen. Jon Ossoff said during a virtual news conference.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is locked in a tight race for a full six-year term, said in a statement that “broadband rollout is critical to moving Georgia’s economy 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 home learning early in the pandemic threw a harsh spotlight on unequal access to high-speed internet across the state. At the time, state officials identified nearly 136,000 underserved student households.

But world leaders have long wrestled with ways to improve broadband access in sparsely populated communities.

A state report released last year found that the number of people struggling to access reliable high-speed Internet has declined slightly, leaving about 9% of Georgia communities uncovered.

“However, there are still 482,374 locations without access to acceptable-quality broadband, so much work remains to be done,” said the 2021 report by the state Department of Community Affairs and the Georgia Technology Authority.

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

The federal grants will be distributed to service providers in mostly rural counties through a state-run Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund program. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget processes the applications. Gov. Brian Kemp announced the aid in the fall without tying the funding to the federal Coronavirus Relief Act.

“We will be closely monitoring to ensure that the state of Georgia implements this program in a manner that represents responsible taxpayer stewardship and is consistent with our legal intent to bring high-speed Internet access to those parts of our state where it is lacking.” said Ossoff.

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