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Thomasville’s Journey to Broadband for All

January 16, 2018  |  Tom Berry - Vice President, Underwood & Company
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Mark Parker moved back home from Atlanta to Thomasville in 1987 to work in his family’s business. While in Atlanta, he worked at a major Atlanta bank, where he had full use of the bank’s, then state-of-the art data services and communications technology. The bank’s computers were using T-1’s (1.5mbps bandwidth) to communicate data between locations. The bank paid $200 per month for a T-1 line in metro Atlanta. In Thomasville, as he talked to providers of the computer applications that he needed to grow his business, he discovered that the same T-1 line to access their preferred computer service was priced at $2,000 per month. Ironically, $2,000 per month was also his salary in 1987. Welcome home to rural South Georgia!
In the late 1980s, Mark became chairman of the Thomasville Chamber of Commerce Telecommunication Committee where he worked to find a way to solve the high cost and limited availability of telecom facilities in rural South Georgia. The city of Thomasville Utilities Department was on a parallel course due to its internal needs for data communication services between the Energy Control Center and their electric substations. The city utilities were also hearing complaints from other business leaders in the community regarding the high price of T-1 lines. Mark and I began working together and talking to the incumbent data communications provider, BellSouth, and the incumbent cable provider to see how they could work with Thomasville businesses and the city to resolve the price differences between Metro Atlanta and Thomasville.
These discussions continued for over a year with no resolution. It became clear to us that the incumbent providers had the ability to earn higher return on their invested capital in metro areas of the country and would not spend the capital necessary to provide services in Thomasville at a comparable price point to non-rural parts of the state.
We finally realized that if we wanted to improve the competitive position of our local businesses, save existing jobs and be attractive to new companies wanting to locate in Thomasville, the community had to provide this important service by constructing a fiber optic-based, municipal network. We met with heads of local industry, education and healthcare to further gauge local support.
The city began construction in the early 1990s and provided advanced telecom services to Thomasville Utilities, the Thomasville City Schools, the Thomas County Schools, local businesses and healthcare organizations. As the demand for broadband service progressed, we soon had requests from smaller businesses in the community and other citizens. This demand prompted the construction of a hybrid fiber/coax system called Community Network Services (CNS). This system, once complete, provided broadband internet access, video and telephone services to our local citizens.
As Thomasville began to successfully provide the local CNS services, the surrounding cities of Cairo, Camilla and Moultrie, expressed interest in municipal broadband services for their communities for the same reasons that Thomasville constructed its system. That interest spawned the formation of the South Georgia Governmental Services Authority, which now serves 38,075 revenue generating units over approximately 700 miles of fiber optic cable in four rural counties. This includes video, and advanced commercial and residential broadband services up to one gigabit per second.
We continue to believe that the municipal broadband system in Thomasville sets us apart for economic growth and continues to be a significant part of the local landscape in keeping us competitive with more densely populated metropolitan areas while also providing price and service stability to the community at large.
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