More broadband connectivity coming to rural Georgia

ATLANTA – Ocmulgee Electric Membership Corp. (EMC) announced plans Tuesday to launch a fiber-optic network that will provide high-speed internet service to customers in five Middle Georgia counties.

The EMC, headquartered in Eastman, will partner with Kansas City-based Conexon Connect to deploy broadband across 2,100 miles to up to 8,000 customers in Laurens, Dodge, Bleckley, Pulaski and Telfair counties.

The project is being funded through a $19 million federal pandemic relief grant, with the ultimate goal of bringing broadband to all of Ocmulgee EMC’s customers.

“Ocmulgee EMC members deserve access to high-speed internet.,” said W. H. Peacock, Ocmulgee EMC’s general manager. “Our cooperative is pleased to partner with Conexon Connect to make it possible for our members to have broadband at last.”

Conexon launched its first broadband project in Georgia more than a year ago.

“With the addition of the Ocmulgee EMC fiber network, Conexon will be building 200 miles a week in the state, making service available to previously unserved rural Georgia at a pace of 1,000 to 2,000 homes a week,” said Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon.

“I know there are others building in Georgia, but these networks are owned by the people we serve. … I expect the Ocmulgee EMC network, like the other EMC projects, will become a model for the rest of the state and the nation.”

The new project will break ground in September. The first customers are expected to be connected early next year with project completion estimated in two to four years.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

New law set to bring delivery robots to Georgia

ATLANTA – Georgia is about to embark on a new form of transportation technology that fits the needs of the era of e-commerce.

Legislation the General Assembly passed this year that takes effect on Friday will authorize “personal delivery devices” better known as delivery robots to ply the state’s highways and sidewalks.

House Bill 1009, which cleared the Georgia House of Representatives and state Senate overwhelmingly, sets out regulations governing delivery robots, including where and when they can operate and at what speeds, weight limits, and penalties for violators.

“If we’re letting robots on the streets, we need to have requirements for them,” said state Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, the bill’s sponsor.

Without rules in place for delivery robots, the technology has seen limited use in Georgia. But that may be about to change.

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A announced plans late last month to test delivery robots at a limited number of restaurants in Florida, Texas, and California.

“Two-thirds of my business is delivery,” said Luke Steigmeyer, operator of a Chick-fil-A in Austin, Texas, that already is deploying delivery robots in partnership with an Austin-based autonomous delivery company.

“The autonomous vehicles have been instrumental in growing awareness of delivery at my restaurant, allowing us to reach even more customers in the area.”

Delivery robots are equipped with artificial intelligence systems and advanced depth-perception cameras that allow them to navigate traffic patterns, avoid pedestrians and maneuver through car and bicycle lanes as well as sidewalks.  

Insulated to keep food at the right temperature, the robots keep customers updated on their progress via text messages as they navigate to the designated drop-off spot.

Under the new Georgia law, delivery robots will be permitted to operate on non-limited access highways with speed limits of 45 miles an hour or less, and at no more than 20 miles an hour when on sidewalks with at least a four-foot path for persons with disabilities.

They can weigh no more than 500 pounds when empty and 600 pounds when carrying cargo and emit a sound when they come within six feet of another vehicle, a person on foot or someone in a wheelchair.

Local governments will be allowed to set hours of operation for delivery robots and prohibit them operating on the grounds of schools, hospitals, or sidewalks adjacent to stadiums, coliseums, or government buildings.

Cities and counties also will be permitted to restrict the robots to certain geographical areas of their communities.

While violations will not be treated as criminal offenses, they will be subject to a civil penalty of up to $500.

Jones said easing the way for businesses to use delivery robots in Georgia is one way state policymakers can show corporate prospects the Peach State is technology friendly.

“We continue to to flex the envelope so industry sees Georgia as a great place to ‘sandbox’ ideas,” he said.

“This is the type of legislation that says, ‘This isn’t just a great place to do business. We’re going to work with you to get to the outer limits of innovation.’ ”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Federal court requests new briefs in Georgia abortion law case

Georgia’s “heartbeat law” banning abortions after the first six weeks won’t take effect until at least mid-July despite last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure. 
  
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is asking both sides in a lawsuit over Georgia’s law to file legal briefs within the next three weeks.   
  
The heartbeat law prohibits most abortions in Georgia after the detection of a fetal heartbeat.  Passed in 2019, the law never took effect due to a lawsuit filed by reproductive rights organizations.  
  
Most recently, the appellate court put a decision on the Georgia law on hold until the Supreme Court ruled on abortion – as it did on Friday.   

Hours after the court announced its decision, Georgia attorney general Chris Carr filed a notice asking the appellate court to rule on Georgia’s law.   
 
State Sen. Jen Jordan Monday signaled what could be Georgia Democrats’ legal strategy in the case. Jordan, D-Atlanta, who is challenging Republican Carr’s reelection bid, told reporters at a news conference the heartbeat law is unconstitutional both under Georgia and federal law. 
 
Jordan said Georgia’s constitution provides a very strong right to privacy, which the heartbeat law violates. 
 
“A right of privacy has been recognized in Georgia since approximately 1903,” she said.   
 
“Georgia’s [right] has been reaffirmed over and over and over, and it is considered to be one of the strongest in the nation in terms of the case law interpreting it. There is absolutely a viable path in terms of challenging the law under the Georgia constitution.” 
 
Designating a fertilized egg a legal person, as the law does, would open a “Pandora’s box” of litigation, Jordan said.    

Women who miscarry a pregnancy could face investigation or prosecution under the heartbeat law, Jordan said.   
 
“We are facing basically a situation where women are going to be asked incredibly private questions about their lives,” she said. 

Jordan said that if elected attorney general, she would not enforce the law. 
 
“I would not defend it because I don’t believe it is lawful,” she said.   
 
At least eight Georgia district attorneys (DAs) have said they will not prosecute people seeking or providing abortion in their jurisdictions.  
 
“We stand together in our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions,” said a letter sponsored by Fair and Just Prosecutors, a national network of elected prosecutors working for criminal justice reforms.  
 
That letter was signed by the DAs for Gwinnett, DeKalb, Douglas, Chatham, Athens, Macon and Augusta as well as DAs in other states.    
 
Fulton County DA Fani Willis also said on Friday that she would not prosecute abortion seekers or providers.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

University system economic impact grows to $19.3 billion

The Arch at the University of Georgia

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia (USG) generated an economic impact of $19.3 billion across the state during the last fiscal year, up $700 million – or 3.8% – over fiscal 2020.

That economic impact translated into 152,629 full- and part-time jobs, about a third of which were on campus and two-thirds off campus.

“USG institutions and the system as a whole are key contributors to our state and an economic engine for communities in every region of Georgia,” system Chancellor Sonny Perdue said Monday. “That economic impact continues to climb.”

The $19.3 billion in economic impact in fiscal 2021 includes $13.1 billion in spending by students and the 26 institutions in the university system, a portion of which came in the form of federal pandemic relief. The remaining $6.2 billion was the multiplier effect those funds had in communities across Georgia.

The annual economic impact report was produced by Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Award-winning data center sheds light on Georgia government

Georgia population projections (courtesy: Georgia Data Analytics Center)

ATLANTA – Georgians now have easier access to information about their government, thanks to a small-but-mighty team working behind the scenes to present data to the public.

The Georgia Data Analytics Center (GDAC) was founded in 2019 under the auspices of the Office of Planning and Budget.  

“We’re currently able to capture and analyze amounts of data that were unthinkable just a decade ago,” Kanti Chalasani, the director of the center, said.  

The GDAC website features “data dashboards” that take complex data from state agencies and put it into simple charts, graphs, and maps.  

“We want to give this data to people, to public entities who are wanting to serve their constituents,” Chalasani explained during a recent presentation to the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission.

The interactive dashboards help Georgians get a big-picture look at a topic or zero in on specific aspects of the data they find most interesting.

The state employee salary dashboard has been the most popular feature so far, Chalasani said.  

Georgians might also be interested in how the state allocates its budget or how their county’s population might change in the future.

Right now, GDAC is focusing on health-care data, Chalasani said. It has posted data about Medicaid health care quality outcomes and pharmaceutical drug costs for state health plan and Medicaid enrollees.   

The center anonymizes all the data and has a strong security structure in place to protect the data, Chalasani said.

Chalasani has been a Georgia employee for 25 years; this is her fifth big data project for the state.  

“I live and breathe data,” she told the behavioral health reform commission.

Her five-person team has collected and published a wide variety of state data in a short timeframe.

Once the team receives a dataset from a state agency, it only takes between three weeks and three months to process the data into the interactive dashboards, Chalasani said.  

The center was named “State IT Innovation of the Year” for 2022 by StateScoop, a news outlet that reports on technology in state government.  

“We built a tiger team, with an assembly line of activities and an efficient data pipeline,” Chalasani said of her approach. “Our team is sincere and driven.”  

“[The] biggest challenge is to convince our state agencies to share their data with GDAC and to establish a data sharing agreement with them,” Chalasani said.  

Chalasani and her team are eager to continue serving up information about state government to Georgians.

“Our cooking station is ready: just give us the data,” she emphasized.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Power looking to raise rates next year

Chris Womack

ATLANTA – Georgia Power is asking the state Public Service Commission (PSC) for a rate hike of nearly 12% during the next three years, with the vast majority of the increase front-loaded into 2023.

The proposed increase, which the Atlanta-based utility filed Friday with the PSC, would raise the average residential customer’s bill by $16.29 per month. Of that amount, $14.32 would take effect next Jan. 1. Another $1.35 would be tacked onto monthly bills in 2024, followed by an increase of 62 cents in 2025.

The increase is needed to strengthen Georgia Power’s electric grid, add more renewable energy to its power-generation portfolio and improve customer service, said Chris Womack, the company’s chairman, president and CEO.

“It’s a real significant commitment to our infrastructure to make sure we are responding to our customers … as we move from coal to more gas and solar,” he said.

Georgia Power also is seeking a return on equity (ROE) of 11%, up from the 10.5% ROE the commission approved in the utility’s last rate case three years ago.

“We’re requesting to maintain the financial integrity of the company,” Womack said of the ROE proposal. “That actually puts downward pressure on rates.”

Environmental and consumer advocates criticized the proposed rate hike as excessive.

“Georgia Power’s customers already pay some of the highest electric bills in the country,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch. “If the Public Service Commission approves this steep rate hike, it will add a significant burden to already stretched household budgets.”

“Sierra Club is carefully reviewing Georgia Power’s proposal, and we’ll be looking for any unreasonable investments in existing, uneconomic fossil fuel plants as well as how the company plans to deal with the cost of coal ash clean up,” added Charline Whyte, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Georgia.

“Throughout this rate case proceeding, Sierra Club will fight to make sure customers aren’t stuck paying the bill for coal plants that Georgia Power doesn’t even need.”

Georgia Power has been reducing its reliance on fossil fuels in recent years. In the rate-case filing, the utility is proposing to retire 3,600 megawatts of generating capacity from coal- and oil-burning power plants by 2028.

The company is pledging to add 6,000 megawatts of power from renewable energy by 2035, doubling its generating capacity from renewable sources.

Georgia Power also plans to increase its commitment to electric vehicles. A shortage of EV charging stations across Georgia has been identified as a barrier to developing the technology.

“We want to be a good partner in supporting the buildout of that infrastructure,” Womack said.

The PSC will hold hearings on the rate hike request later this year and vote on the proposal in December.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation