LIBERTY COUNTY, Ga. (WSAV) – A new initiative to help bridge the digital divide in southeast Georgia was announced on Tuesday.

Coastal Fiber, Inc. announced plans to bring broadband service to nearly 16,000 households and businesses in Liberty, Bryan and Long counties. The $40 million project is a joint effort between Coastal Electric Cooperative and Darien Communications.

Leaders from the two companies joined state officials for the announcement at the Bluff Creek Clubhouse on Colonels Island.

“High-speed internet is now a requirement for creating new entertainment, educational and business opportunities,” said Chris Fettes, CEO of Coastal Electric Cooperative.

“Both of these companies were built off of customer service,” said David Stevens, Director of Operations for Darien Communications. “We deliver a top-notch quality service to our customers, both of us do. When we combine those efforts, I truly believe at the end of the day that the real winner is going to be these customers that we serve.”

Senate Bill 2, which Governor Kemp signed into law in 2019, allows for electric co-ops to offer retail broadband service. The bill also gave the Public Service Commission compliance authority over EMC’s broadband service.

“We are taking a tiny sliver of underserved people who don’t have any internet — I’m not talking about having a choice between cable and this and that, we’re talking nothing,” Commissioner Tim Echols told News 3. “We’re going to be giving them not just some splotchy DSL connection, we’re going to give them high-speed, fiber connections. They’re not going to know what hit them.”

Leaders said the COVID-19 pandemic proved reliable internet is a necessity, especially for businesses and students.

“It should not be determined what kind of service you get by where you happen to live,” State Representative Al Williams said. “Our students should not be deprived of the best education has to offer via the internet because they happen to live in a broadband desert.”

Commissioner Echols said expanding broadband access is the last frontier in bridging the digital divide and the new project is just the beginning.

“There’s so much more to be done, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” Commissioner Echols said. “This is one of many joint ventures going on between electric membership cooperatives and private companies that are helping to spread connectivity all over our state.”

Coastal Fiber, Inc. plans to begin construction on the fiber network in the fall and will prioritize communities based on need, Fettes said. The company plans to begin service in eastern Liberty County and hopes to have those customers connected by the end of this year.

The project is still pending regulatory approval. If approved, leaders expect phase one of the project to take up to four years.