By Taylor Knopf
Lawmakers and rural advocates say that these days, broadband is as vital to a community as clean water and roads. But it’s been difficult to convince large companies to expand high-speed internet services to the most rural areas of North Carolina.
Now, Republican state lawmakers are backing up their words with some dough: a $10 million grant program in the state budget to extend broadband into rural areas.
The matching state grants are seen as a way to incentivize companies through public-private partnerships to install broadband fiber from the coast to the mountains and beyond.
There’s bipartisan agreement that broadband is essential to boosting the rural economy which has taken a hit as younger people have moved away and the population has aged. It’s also seen as a way to close the “homework gap” for the kids who remain. Every school in North Carolina has broadband, but students don’t always have the connectivity at home to complete school assignments.
North Carolina is among the first handful of states to establish a rural broadband grant program. Minnesota is seen as one of the leading states with a $20 million broadband grant program.
Gov. Roy Cooper also asked for $20 million in his budget for rural broadband saying North Carolina needs to invest even more than that.
“We talked about more money, but we felt that it was important to start out with maybe $10 million to make sure we get it right,” said Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville).
“We know it may have to be tweaked. This is good seed money to get the program started,” he continued. “We think we have a good model that will work. We should be able to put more money in the program and expand it as we move forward.”
To compare, the United States Agriculture Department only made $30 million available to all 50 states for broadband grants.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 640,000 people in rural North Carolina do not have access to broadband. The N.C. Office of Broadband Infrastructure (BIO) says the cost of construction and population density are two major barriers to installing broadband to those folks.
Broadband runs through cables either underground or by above-ground poles. The cost of burying the lines depends on the soil. Drilling through granite found in western North Carolina is more costly than digging in the Piedmont clay or sands in the eastern coastal plain.
Burying these lines is estimated to cost between $20,000 to $50,000 per mile or higher, according to BIO. Attaching lines to poles owned by telephone or electric companies costs between $1,500 to $10,000 per mile.
State Republican leaders touted their proposed GREAT (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technologies) grant program, which is included in the budget, as a win for rural North Carolina.
“When we extend broadband to rural North Carolina, it opens up opportunities for economic development growth and telemedicine,” Rep. Dean Arp (R-Monroe) said. “The point of the program is to help normalize the costs that are associated with deploying to rural areas that are hard to reach.
“Broadband is as crucial as roads, water and sewer, and low-cost electricity,” he said.
Eric Cramer, president and CEO of the telephone cooperative Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks, called the state’s grant program “very progressive.”
“I think it’s a game changer for the state. We are one of the first states to have a grant program,” he said.
“You have to be in it for the long haul,” he added. “It will take 20 to 30 years to completely form this digital highway. But it’s worth it.”
Cramer knows from experience. His company shifted its attention to rural broadband in Wilkes County over a decade ago. Now he says it’s one of the most connected counties in the state. And Wilkes Communications has expanded to at least 10 other North Carolina counties and parts of Virginia.
Private companies looking to take part in this grant program will submit proposals which will be scored based on a number of factors.
How many underserved customers will be connected? How many businesses and other entities, such as health clinics and medical centers, will the project reach? And how modern and fast will the connectivity be?
“We are not incentivizing specific technologies, although what we try to do instead is look at scalability and look to the future,” Arp said. “We are encouraging the higher speeds because we know the technologies are moving. What we are operating on today is not what we’re going to have next week, and so we don’t want to be caught with old technology.”
“Old technology won’t score well with our model,” Brown added. “I’m not sure anybody with that technology will get any grants.”
The N.C. League of Municipalities had been pushing for a similar broadband program last year with the Bright Futures Act, which would smooth the ability for rural towns and cities to partner with private internet and cable providers to get broadband into the far reaches of the state.
The Bright Futures Act would have allowed internet provider companies to partner more easily with town and municipalities. In contrast, the GREAT Act is a state grant program that incentivizes the internet companies and largely leaves municipalities out of the mix.
“The League appreciates legislative leaders’ efforts in this area and their recognition that funding is needed for this crucial infrastructure,” said Scott Mooneyham, N.C. League of Municipalities director of public affairs.
“At the same time, policymakers must recognize that a grant program alone is not enough to address the digital divide, that this divide is not only about rural homes without minimal connections but also about small and even mid-sized towns without the fiber infrastructure so that their businesses can have the internet speeds needed to compete in a global economy.”