By Nikki Perry
While many city employees are still enduring glitchy video calls and frozen faces, Covington is sitting pretty with a lightning-fast network built over the past two decades.
An extensive fiber network connects Covington’s 24 municipal facilities, bringing speed, stability, security and cost-savings to the city. Covington has reportedly saved at least $2 million by eliminating landline phone service and costly connections from the private sector. Now, the city is generating revenue by leasing connections to other government entities, such as Newton County.
In the 21 years since the city of Covington began installing its fiber optics network, IT Manager Bobby Johnson said, “I’ve never talked to another person in the IT business about our setup that hasn’t said, ‘Man, I wish I had that.’”
Covington spread its fiber investment over many years, but many Georgia cities and counties face quickly increasing demands brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative, led by the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and Georgia Technology Authority, was already in the works to establish a framework to encourage rural broadband investment.
According to a 2020 initiative report, nearly one-third of rural areas—507,000 homes and businesses— do not have high-speed internet access. This was revealed by a new mapping tool available at broadband.georgia.gov.
“Not only should the new mapping tool help stimulate private investment, but it also enables us to support local communities and track progress toward serving the unserved,” said Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Christopher Nunn in a release.
Cost is the main obstacle to private investment in sparsely populated or low-income areas. Broadband connectivity is a daunting investment for most local governments. The statewide initiative has identified federal, state and local funding programs for wireless and wireline infrastructure.
Covington does offer free public Wi-Fi on the downtown square. However, Johnson recommends the reliability of wired connectivity.
“There are two main differences between wireless mesh and fiber: One is security, and second is speed of connection. You’re going to get a lot better connection with fiber,” Johnson said. As far as security goes, “We have one firewall we have to worry about rather than 24 firewalls at different facilities.”
Covington’s fiber allows the city to access data securely from a disaster recovery site, so that billing systems and city operations can be recovered in as little as four hours.
Cybersecurity should be a top concern for every city in Georgia, according to Kevin Howarth of VC3, an IT service provider.
“Municipalities are one of the highest targets for cyberattackers, because they are such easy targets and their data is so great,” Howarth said.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.