ATLANTA – Two Middle Georgia utilities and a Kansas City-based fiber optic company announced a partnership Monday that will bring broadband service to homes and businesses in 18 mostly rural counties.

Central Georgia EMC, Southern Rivers Energy and Conexon will invest more than $210 million to design and build a 6,890-mile fiber network that will provide both improved electric service and high-speed internet access to all 80,000 of the two utilities’ customers.  Service is expected to begin as early as June 2021 and continue rolling out during the next four years.

State and local political and business leaders have long identified the lack of broadband connectivity in many parts of rural Georgia as instrumental in holding back rural communities.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many students out of their classrooms to rely on online instruction and hamstrung rural companies trying to conduct business, has given the need for high-speed internet even greater urgency.  

“Many economic, medical and other challenges facing rural Georgia can not be fixed by a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” Gov. Brian Kemp said during Monday’s announcement at the Georgia Capitol. “[It takes] EMCs, private partners and community leaders working together on creative solutions to close the gap between those with internet service and those without.”

Although a couple of Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives have been providing broadband service for years, the General Assembly first authorized the EMCs to enter the broadband business just two years ago. Since then, EMCs in the North Georgia mountains, West Georgia and South Georgia have launched broadband projects.

Under the deal announced Monday, Central Georgia EMC and Southern Rivers Energy will own the fiber and lease excess capacity to Conexon, which has agreed to serve every EMC customer with fiber-to-the-home internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.

The internet service will be powered by EMC fiber, but Conexon will provide the retail service to homes and businesses and manage account set-up, customer service and billing.

The 18 counties to be served through the partnership announced Monday are Bibb, Butts, Clayton, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Jones, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Pike, Putnam, Spalding, and Upson.

“We are marking today this investment not only in rural broadband but in the future of this state,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “This investment will bring the latest generation of fiber optic high-speed broadband to the doorstep of every resident of this region.”