Public Service Commission candidate wants to close the digital divide in Georgia

The lack of fast, affordable, reliable internet in rural Georgia has been laid bare during the pandemic. With teachers, students, and parents trying to work, teach, and learn from home, families and companies without adequate internet service have struggled. Some school systems  provided hotspots if they could afford them, but without cell signal, the hotspot is worthless. Other systems send school buses out to park in areas so parents and students can sit in their vehicle nearby and get  work done. This isn’t sustainable. Rural Georgias have lagged behind because elected state leaders, from Governor Kemp’s office to the state’s Public Service Commission, haven’t made rural internet access a priority.

This year there is a candidate who understands that the Public Service Commission (PSC) could help close the gap on internet access for Georgia’s families and businesses. Daniel Blackman and his family live in Columbus, where he plans to serve Georgians as the the PSC’s fourth district representative. (How the PSC is structured, and why all Georgians can elect them regardless of the geographic district is explained here.)

Blackman posted specifically about expanding internet access across rural Georgia in a Facebook thread that merits consideration if you want to elect someone who understands how important affordable, fast, internet access is to the success of all businesses, schools, and families. Someone asked Blackman, “What’s your plan to get internet to those places?” Blackman responded and numbered his ideas:

Daniel Blackman

(1) tap into the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund And encourage more women and minority owned businesses in these areas to subcontract the opportunity

(2) I want to work with the Georgia Legislature to consider legislation in the upcoming session to provide financial incentives to providers to bring broadband service to underserved areas statewide. This would allow broadband providers to apply for grants, and the Legislature could consider allowing the state’s investor-owned utilities to partner with a provider to use their existing infrastructure to provide broadband service as well.

(3) since it is a 6 year-term, I’d like to create a series of regional Utility Stakeholder Forums aimed at educating ratepayers, civic organizations, churches, and schools. This initiative would bring utility providers together with the community to inform citizens, add transparency to the rate-making process, and promote efficient governance of the providers of essential utility services – electricity, natural gas, water, and telecommunications. The goal would be to create a more effective utility policy community…

Blackman added, “to be fair, once elected, I will have a full staff to make recommendations so I would have to look at the industry and what is already being done in the areas that are regulated by the Public Service Commission. ”

The PSC could be more than a rubber stamp for Georgia Power rate increases passed on to its customers. Daniel Blackman is committed to making the commission better serve all Georgians. If you haven’t voted yet, look for Blackman’s name on the down ballot races to help balance the inequities of internet access, and other services, under the PSC’s jurisdiction.

Public schools are stonewalling their communities on Covid-19

Earlier this week the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s article Families press schools to show  virus data  proved me wrong in thinking that I am the only person bothered by the lack of information being provided to parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers from their local school boards. The lead feature coverage focused on a rural county not too far from Washington County, Georgia, where I am invested in the success of the public schools as a taxpayer and grandparent.

Last month I emailed the Washington County School Board members and Superintendent about where they are providing updates to the community on exposure to the Coronavirus and any confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the schools. To date, all the board office has said is that they have “fluid” benchmarks and are working with the state’s Department of Community Health.

Among their responses to my questions about informing the community about virus exposure, the Board Chair, Chris Hutchings, asked if I might be able to identify and help secure funding for internet connectivity in the rural areas of the county. Currently the system is sending out buses with internet connectivity to serve as hot spots in rural parts of the county lacking broadband service.

Hutchings wasn’t aware of the state’s assessment of internet access published in June of this year. Thirty-seven (37) percent of Washington County residents do not have broadband access to the internet. Many areas in the county lack decent cell phone service, making the use of hot spots for access also unreliable.

I told Hutchings that while I am not well-connected to groups focused on education, I would think about where funding might be available. Having been connected to foundations through nonprofit healthcare and environmental justice work, I do know some funders who might consider a well-crafted request.

The following day I sent these questions to the Board and the Superintendent, Dr. Rickey Edmond, so that I would know where to start and best help. Options B and C encompass online learning options for families.

In making an ask, I think you need to have at hand:

    • Number of students total, and per school
    • Number of students learning remotely- Option B and Option C
    • Number of students who chose option
    • Number of students in class because they don’t have internet access
    • Number of students without internet who are doing options B or C
    • Number of students with internet
    • Number of teachers without internet
    • Number of computers loaned to students
    • Number of computers loaned to teachers
    • Number of students who didn’t turn in final packets in the spring
    • Number of students who simply disappeared in the spring

I received this reply from Dr. Edmond:

Hi.

We have this data and monitor it yearly to assess functional levels, operations, and effectiveness. We are one-to-one with our devices for our students. We have a great IT Team and support staff to address parents’ needs when there is an issue with connectivity. I recommend you and your organization take on the task of helping the rural schools get state and federal funding for connectivity in rural America.

Thank you for sharing,

RE

So to recap, the Superintendent, whose Board chair asked for my help to  secure badly needed funding for internet access, gave me and my “organization” marching orders to secure what they said they need, but without any data. I belong to some environmental groups, and a homeowner’s association, but those aren’t the organizations that are going to pony up to help a rural school system provide web connectivity for the schools.

All of this data should be easily at hand if the system has such a solid grasp on all of its IT needs. I sent my questions to a journalist  beyond the confines of Washington County who has covered issues in the area, and access to school data in other Georgia school systems, to see if they had difficulty securing information. My hunch was right-this data should be easy to compile and readily available.

A few weeks ago I sent a Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) with the same questions I had raised when I was asked to help, with data points from August 7, 2020, the first day of in-class instruction, and September 8, 2020 for comparison. If they wouldn’t voluntarily provide the data Edmond has assured me they have at hand since the pandemic began, I could press the issue with a GORA request.

Edmond replied, “The cost will be an hourly rate of $46.33, minus the first quarter hour. It will take 16 hours to complete all the requested task and total cost will be $729.70. We are requesting the payment be made in advance before the retrieval process is activated because the total amount will exceed $500.”

Do the custodial staff, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, and teachers make anything close to $46.33 an hour, even with benefits? And why would it take 16 hours to put this information together if they are consistently monitoring these things?

I’m steadily losing confidence in what the Washington County School Board knows about how their students are learning, how teachers can support students and parents if/when the schools have to be closed this year, and how they are going to ensure that students receive the materials and instruction they need to stay or exceed their grade level.

My property tax bill is on my desk now, $737.34 of which goes directly to the school system’s maintenance and operations funds. The data I am requesting should guide the system’s budgeting and expectations of taxpayers’ dollar. The system should be making a case for their funding by sharing the data without reservation.

When TV is on the Internet

I posted this on my Facebook page and some interesting comments followed. I’m reposting my original post here:

In case you wonder why I keep posting about the importance of making high-speed internet access available in rural America, think about it this way: last night not one network (except for PBS) got an award for their programming. All the awards went to online formats like Amazon Prime and Netflix. And ESPN is adding some type of streaming option this year as well.

What this means is that rural folks can’t participate in things that begin to be a cultural/educational part of American life. I’d love to watch “Transparent,” and would pay for an Amazon Prime subscription to do it. Or “Orange is the New Black.” Or “House of Cards.”

Sure, its “only TV,” but when you can’t begin to be part of the conversation due to a lack of technology infrastructure, it is more than that.