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Newton-based EMC among co-ops seeking favorable ruling on power pole access fees for broadband
Storm damage2
Senior Equipment Operator Jeff Hopkins of Snapping Shoals EMC works to help install a new power pole to replace one high winds broke and downed power lines in Newton County Oct. 29. — Special Photo | Scott Fuss

COVINGTON, Ga. — Covington-based Snapping Shoals is among the electric cooperatives hoping a state regulatory agency does not rule they must charge telecom companies an average of 65% less for power pole usage to expand high-speed internet into rural areas.

The Georgia Public Service Commission, also known as the PSC, is expected to rule Dec. 15 on what rate the cooperatives can charge providers for attaching broadband technology to their poles.

Telecom providers want the rate set at $7 per pole while the cooperatives say they need a rate of almost $38 per pole to cover their costs of maintaining the poles.

The state of Georgia defines high-speed internet service as a minimum of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. Any home with no internet service or with internet service below this speed is considered unserved.

According to a state government-produced map released earlier this year, an area of eastern Newton County equal to about one-third of the county’s total area is considered unserved. 

Snapping Shoals Electric Membership Corp.’s service area includes most of the area defined as unserved by high-speed internet in Newton County.

Shaun Mock, who will become Snapping Shoals’ CEO in January, said the co-op wants its customers served. He said it has made numerous offers to telecom providers to lease pole space for extending broadband to the thousands of customers in its service area in rural parts of Newton County considered unserved.

However, the companies have found it to be cost-prohibitive because not enough customers would consider taking the service in sparsely populated areas to justify the cost, Mock said.

Dennis Chastain, CEO of Georgia EMC that represents co-ops statewide, said the co-ops and telecom providers formerly had privately negotiated joint use agreements which set the connection cost at an average of about $20 per pole.

That price was less than what it was costing the co-ops to install and maintain the poles — which they maintain is $37.95, Chastain said.

Telecom providers then sought rates of $7 per pole set by the Federal Communication Commission — which went against the private agreements, Chastain said.

The Georgia General Assembly approved legislation earlier this year that gave the PSC the responsibility for settling the rate dispute — despite the fact the PSC does not regulate electric co-ops in Georgia. 

The PSC heard testimony in mid-November from both sides of the issue and was set to give its ruling on the dispute Dec. 15.  

Telecom providers have said they plan to make significant broadband investments in Georgia but need the PSC to approve the $7 rate to do so.

Officials with the EMCs have said its customers would have to make up the estimated $8.3 million revenue loss from charging that price.

They also maintain the $7 price would not guarantee telecom companies use the savings to extend broadband service. 

However, they also have offered telecom providers a price of $1 per pole in areas defined as unserved areas, Chastain said.

Jason Gumbs, senior vice president for Comcast in a 10-state region that includes Georgia, said building broadband networks in rural areas “is an expensive proposition in areas where there may be more poles than people.

He told the PSC the company “will have to look at other opportunities in front of us” if the rates in the cooperatives’ service areas are not lowered.

Gumbs also said he believed the connection fees and increased electricity usage from broadband availability would provide co-ops extra revenue they could use to forestall rate increases to electric customers.

Dave Williams of Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.