First BTOP Project Connects Rural North Georgia Communities

Back in December, 2009, Vice President Biden travelled to Dawsonville, Georgia, to officially kick off the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program. The first award, a grant of $33.5 million, went to the North Georgia Network Cooperative. The group combined that grant with local and state funding and in May, 2012, lit the North Georgia Network (NGN).

We spoke with Paul Belk, CEO of NGN, who shared the network's story and described how it is improving economic development while serving schools and government across the region. We also recently published a podcast interview with Paul Belk.

In 2007, Bruce Abraham was the Lumpkin County Development Authority President and could not recruit new business to the region. Atlanta is only 60 miles away but companies and entrepeneurs were not willing to branch out toward north Georgia. Business leaders repeatedly told Abraham they were not interested because of the lack of broadband. DSL was available from Windstream, but businesses kept telling Abraham, "That's not broadband." North Georgia was losing jobs and there was no strategy to replace them.

Abraham found economic development representatives from Forsyth, White, Union, and Dawson counties shared the same problem. With North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, the group decided to address the problem together.

In 2008, they received a OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. They used the $100,000 award to commission a feasibility study that suggested the area had potential as a new tech hub. The study also indicated that the region's traditional manufacturing and agricultural industries would continue to dwindle. The group, determined to pursue the establishment of a new tech economy, knew the first step would be next-generation infrastructure.

In 2009, two local electric cooperatives joined the group and it incorporated to become the nonprofit North Georgia Network Cooperative. With the addition of the Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Coops, the organization had access to technical expertise, equipment, and staff that could facilitate construction and operation of the future network.

Recovery Seal

Belk notes that the pieces fell into place for NGN throughout the process. The group applied for a grant during the first round of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The NGN Cooperative received a $33.5 million BTOP grant and an additional $2.5 million OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain also invested, bringing the final cost to $42 million.

Mostly aerial, the 1,100 mile network went up quickly (PDF of the network map). Construction began in March 2011 and was finished that same fall. On May 2, 2012, the network was officially lit in Lumpkin County where construction had started, completing the ring.

Unlike most other BTOP projects, NGN provides some last mile connectivity for small and medium sized business. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain work directly with customers, who can purchase connections between 1-10 gig. The backbone allows 100 gig transport.

Belk notes that NGN changed economic development in several ways. Before the network, local businesses learned to get by with little or no reliance on local connectivity. Tax professionals used to store files and transactions on a laptop and then drive to another community with better connectivity because DSL was not reliable or fast enough to transfer files. He describes their method as a "courier service." The NGN Cooperative continues to reach out to small and medium sized businesses to encourage adoption and show them how the network can expand their reach.

Belk told us about JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters. In the past, this small business relied exclusively on sales through its physical storefront and most sales were during the tourist season. Now the company sells gourmet coffee all over the country all year long beause it has reliable and robust connectivity. JumpinGoat is only one example of how NGN brings more money into the community.

Recently, NGN announced it will provide connectivity to a new data center built by Boston-based Standard Colo, in Lumpkin County. The initial investment in the community will be $10 million and community leaders expect the total investment to be $70-83 million in five years. 

Georgia seal

The investment will create 10-12 high paying positions in a community where average wage is $10 per hour. In addition to increasing the tax base, Belk sees this as a first step in transforming the area into the tech hub envisioned in 2008.

NGN also contributes to the community's efforts to prepare students to fill future tech jobs. Before NGN, Lumpkin County Schools had 3 bonded DSL connections and less than 20 Mbps to the Internet - now the District has 1 gig and access to the 10 gig cloud at no extra charge. Eight school districts and three colleges connect with NGN. The cloud allows schools to scale back on expenses for equipment, such as servers and video encoders, because each district can share across the cloud rather than purchase equipment for each location.

Eventually, the schools hope to eliminate textbooks and use the cloud as depositories for learning materials. Belk sees the schools breaking out of the "island" approach to pool their buying power for better prices on virtual learning material licenses.

Kids are entering college better prepared, says Belk, in part because the University of North Georgia and other local colleges provide credit to high school students via distane learning. The community wants to create an environment where, throughout their school careers, kids learn with technology and acquire skils to take advantage of the booming tech hub. Parents in north Georgia want to keep their kids close to home.

In addition to schools and businesses, seven local governments and five major medical centers use the network for connectivity. Belk notes that most financial institutions in the region also connect to the NGN. Users work directly through the electric coops to connect.

NGN's serves as a backbone for multiple carriers, reducing rates, encouraging choice, and prompting better service in a region that was left behind by large incumbents. The price of DSL has dropped $10 since the network launched. Belk says Windstream, who would not invest in the region in 2007, is "building fiber like crazy."

Belk feels his region is in a good position now, thanks to the network. While he can point to value in enhanced educational opportunities, healthcare advances, and business development, he believes the community gained most by avoiding loss. Belk notes that, like the interstate highway build out that determined what small towns would survive, broadband infrastructure establishes winners and losers. If you don't offer it, some other community will.