While a lack of broadband internet access isn’t unusual for Cowetans who live in the more rural parts of the county, some Cowetans can’t even obtain reliable phone service.
Two Cowetans spoke recently to the Coweta County Board of Commissioners about their issues being unable to obtain not only internet service but landline phone service. The residents on Martin Girls Road and Hewlett South Road said they wouldn’t even be able to call 911 in an emergency.
Coweta County has been urged to use some of its funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for “last mile” broadband service, which would help customers in the rural areas or those with long driveways who would otherwise have to pay several thousand dollars to get service.
The county has also entered into a tentative agreement with an internet service provider who will seek ARPA funds through the state for “last mile and long driveway connections” for a specific number of customers.
The lack of broadband in rural areas is a wide-ranging problem. Hall County recently announced it would be partnering with AT&T to apply for a $21.3 million grant to provide fiber optic broadband service to 13,000 people in the county, according to The Gainesville Times.
The proposed Hall County project would include a $12.76 million contribution from AT&T and $6.62 million from the county.
As for the Coweta proposal, Coweta County Administrator Michael Fouts said he received a draft agreement with an ISP this week.
“This is a priority for the board and staff,” he said. “We will be working to get the agreement finalized for the board’s consideration within the next few weeks.”
No phone or way to call for help
D’Antoinette Atkinson lives in a new home on Martin Girl Road. She said she has spoken to Charter which said she can get service for $8,000.
She said her cell phone service is spotty and she wanted to get a landline. There is an AT&T box nearby, but all the ports are in use and the company doesn’t want to upgrade.
“This leaves me without access to the public utility. That is a safety issue,” she said. A few weeks ago, she said her father tried to call her several times to let her know there was a manhunt in the area, but could not get through. “That is dangerous,” she said.
Atkinson said she is an essential worker and works from home, but her job doesn’t allow her to use satellite internet for security reasons.
“I’m basically asking the county to help me do this, because it is hindering my right to work,” she said.
ARPA funds can be used for several different purposes, including to expand infrastructure and for essential workers, and Atkinson said she is an essential worker.
She said she has been trying to get the service since before she moved in.
“I am here tonight asking you to help us. I don’t want to wait until my daughter, myself or any of my elderly neighbors are found dead because we can’t get the help that we need because we can’t call anybody.”
A broad need in the community
Commissioner Al Smith asked at the meeting if the county had any funds to help residents with the issue.
Fouts said the county doesn’t have a program set up to assist individual property owners but said the county gets similar requests once or twice a month. “We try to help,” he said.
“There is a much broader need in the community,” Fouts said. He said he has spoken with Atkinson.
“We spend an awful lot of time on land and property, but our ultimate goal here is to help people, not necessarily things,” said Smith. “We are to make ways, we are supposed to find a way to help somebody.”
Commissioner Tim Lassetter said that Fouts has been diligent in contacting Charter. He had one constituent who was told it would cost $20,000.
“Unfortunately there is a limited number of providers,” Lassetter said. And after a law change a few years ago, “we have less leverage, I guess you could say, with these providers.”
One Cowetan reported that Charter has told them they won’t be able to provide service even if they do pay thousands to have the lines run to their home.
Lassetter said there are so many areas with the same problem in the county, and it’s frustrating to not be able to help. With the ARPA request, “maybe then we can have the flexibility to be able to help individuals,” Lassetter said.
Smith said that the staff has the ability to put a plan in place. “If there is a pathway … then that is what the taxpayers put us in office for.”
“I want us to use all the power at our discretion to try to talk to Charter, find a way,” Smith said. “This is something that is needed, and I dare say it is deserved.
“If we can’t do it, we can’t. But we should give it our best effort.”
Commissioner Paul Poole said he was surprised that Atkinson couldn’t even get a landline phone.
What can be done?
Jeaneane Camp, who lives on Hewlett South Road, also spoke and said it is a much bigger issue than individual houses. She and her husband remodeled an older house that had a landline phone, but when they tried to have the phone service turned on, they were told no.
“We had a line, we had a hookup and AT&T said, ‘We won’t work on that, but we are happy to provide you internet,” Camp said. “I said, ‘Perfect, we’ll take internet.’”
But then the agent realized they couldn’t provide internet either and said she could refer her to a satellite company.
Camp said she knows that AT&T ran a fiber line that went through their property, several years ago. “They said, ‘No, I’m sorry we can’t do that,” she said.
“We are looking at no phone service,” Camp said.
The AT&T box is at a nearby intersection and there seems to be a service tech there several hours a week, she said.
“I believe this is a bigger issue,” she said. “I think what we are asking for today is to commission a study” to look at who does and doesn’t have service and what it might look like to get service to everyone.
“We do believe there is some room in some COVID relief money for this type of issue — connectivity. COVID has proven to us that connectivity is no longer a necessity we like for city people or rich people. It is an issue of safety, it is an issue of people being able to work, it is an issue of children being able to go to school when we have to stay home.
“I don’t think this is any longer a ‘nice to have.’ I think it has become a requirement,” she said. “We have internet connectivity in this county; this is about making sure everyone has internet connectivity in this county, not just certain areas,” she said.
She’d like to see a study to “really get to the bottom of what can be done here.”