Rural broadband bill clears Georgia House committee

A committee in the Georgia House of Representatives approved a rural broadband bill Monday but removed a new tax on communications services opposed by the state Senate.

The legislation is aimed at expanding broadband connectivity into rural communities that either lack coverage altogether or have inadequate service to meet the needs of would-be business tenants.

It would create a state grant program to help local governments pay to deploy broadband in their areas, establish a certification program for small towns to qualify as “broadband-ready communities” for marketing purposes and provide a mechanism for a “reverse auction” letting telecom providers submit bids to serve specific communities in exchange for exclusive jurisdiction.

But the House Ways and Means Committee removed a key provision from the original version of the bill proposing a “communications services” tax replacing franchise fees and sales taxes on older technology such as landline telephones and cable TV with a broader tax that would cover newer digital technology such as video streaming services the state is not taxing today.

“[The Senate] had made it clear they were not interested in a tax,” said committee Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, the House bill’s chief sponsor. “I’d rather come back later with a funding source than risk the whole bill.”

The committee also yanked a provision from the House bill offering a sales tax exemption on purchases of broadband equipment, an incentive to telecom providers that is included in a broadband bill the Senate passed late last week.

Powell’s House bill heads next to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

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