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.

Legislators step up for EMC customers

Remember in the not so distant past when Cobb EMC customers had to take their co-op to court over lots of really dirty deals and violations of the bylaws? It wasn’t pretty, having to hire lawyers out of their own pockets while the co-op, which actually belongs to the customers, was ringing up some pretty big attorneys’ bills at the co-op’s expense to  defending their actions that were in violation of the bylaws. And then there was that whole Cobb Energy “for-profit” spin-off that was a for-Sleeping with the Enemy wins a national awardprofit for a very few people, but a big money loser for the co-op owner/members.

There’s nothing quite like opening the Atlanta Journal Constitution and  seeing the GBI carrying boxes of records and documents out of the house of the CEO who is running the co-op you own.

It took years, but the customers won, and they, together with a fresh Board of Directors and a new CEO, are rebuilding their co-op to truly serve the interests of the members.

Some people would have put money on the other co-ops closely aligned with Cobb EMC to learn a lesson the easy way, and maybe try playing nice. It would have been easy too.

EMCs have nice community rooms where they could conduct their board meetings with the owner/members attending if they wanted too (Some co-ops in the Southwest even stream their meetings online to allow members hundreds of miles away to stay engaged).

They could post monthly financials on their web sites so members could stay current on the dollars and cents side of their co-op.

Georgia EMCs could choose to discuss and approve contracts in front of owner/members, just to keep everything above board (no pun intended) and transparent.

But Georgia’s EMCs didn’t choose to do that. In fact, some co-ops dug in their heels on closed-door operations.

At my co-op, Washington EMC, owner/members still have to fill out a form asking permission to attend a board meeting of the company we own. IF we are even allowed to attend, we are told when the Board should reach the very specific issue we would like to discuss. We have to wait outside in the lobby until we are ushered in, allowed to share our concern, and then ushered out of the meeting.

You may own us, but we won't let you in.
You may own us, but we won’t let you in.

I guess, when you run a co-op behind closed doors, and make commitments on multi-billion dollar power plant contracts that didn’t involve competitive bids, or a pro forma review, or any independent market analysis that would make the project a good invest of the co-op owner/members dollars, you might not want the members to see how decisions actually get made.

That could change now. Representative Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, has introduced H.B. 500, which would require power purchase agreements of five years or longer, to be reviewed by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).

Georgia Power customers know that rate increases and many other decisions impacting their power bills, must be reviewed by the PSC in an open meeting. If EMCs chose to play nice and open their meetings to the owner/members, just as many other co-ops have across the country, H.B. 500 might not be necessary.

H.B. 500 will provide consumer protection and public review of contracts to A LOT of Georgians. EMCs serve 73 percent of the land area in our state, and provide electricity to 50 percent of the people living in Georgia.

We deserve electric rate protection too.

But the time is very short to make this happen. Thursday, March 7, is Crossover Day in the General Assembly, and the bill must be voted on and passed in the House in order to move to the Senate.

You don’t have to be an EMC customer to call the person who represents you in the Georgia House. If you believe that all electric customers in Georgia deserve a fair chance at the lowest electric bills possible, call your House member today and ask them to vote YES on H.B. 500. 

Rural and Progressive

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