By Liora Engel-Smith

Affirming their commitment to address the rural broadband gap, North Carolina lawmakers added $5 million to a state grant program supporting rural broadband access. 

The GREAT (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology) grant program began in 2018 and awarded roughly $10 million in grants to broadband and other companies for projects connecting rural communities to the internet.

Thus far, projects in 18 rural counties were awarded grants. Collectively, these projects are expected to serve 467 businesses and 9,035 households, according to the program webpage. 

“We know that we want to improve,” said Rep. Dean Arp (R-Monroe), one of the bill’s sponsors. “The key is to try to define what you want and so we think this is a significant investment in rural broadband.”

A map of GREAT grants awarded in NC for rural broadband access
Thus far, GREAT awarded grants to several companies for projects that improve rural broadband access. Photo courtesy of NC BIO.

Everyone, including lawmakers and rural advocates, agrees that rural communities across the state lag behind their urban counterparts when it comes to broadband infrastructure, but the extent of the need is hard to quantify. Rural broadband advocates applaud the GREAT program, but say it doesn’t go far enough to address the need.

The most comprehensive and most cited data for broadband access comes from the Federal Communications Commission, which says that more than 90 percent of households in North Carolina have an internet connection. But Scott Mooneyham from the North Carolina League of Municipalities explained that data is inaccurate, though, because it lists entire census areas as having broadband if even one household there has an internet connection.

The broadband gap isn’t just an economic or quality of life issue in rural communities, Mooneyham argued, it has health implications too. Without reliable broadband infrastructure, rural communities can’t take full advantage of health innovations, such as telemedicine and teledentistry, which could help fill the health care workforce shortage in rural communities.

A map of the number of physicians per county in NC in 2018. The map is here to make the point that the very counties that struggle with healthcare workforce shorage may also be areas where the rural broadband infrastructure is lacking.
Many of North Carolina’s rural counties don’t have enough physicians. Thought telehealth has been touted as a solution for workforce shortage in more remote parts of the state, rural broadband infrastructure in rural areas can be a barrier. Map courtesy: UNC Sheps Center for Health Policy Research

Positive step, substantial need

Arp said that even if an exact dollar figure to the rural broadband gap needs isn’t available, the GREAT grant program can make an impact because it leverages matching funds from companies that apply for grants. Though these matching funds aren’t required, some companies still provide them. In 2018, that meant roughly $7 million in matching funds, according to program data.

Mooneyham said that even though the extra $5 million is a positive step, it may not be enough to address rural broadband needs.

”The need out there is substantial in our rural communities,” he said. “We feel like an approach that would help more people involves public-private partnerships in which municipalities could work with providers.”

The league has pushed for legislation to create these partnerships in the past, such as the FIBER NC Act. It would allow cities and counties to build their own broadband infrastructure and lease it to private internet providers and also allow municipalities to apply for grants to build and expand the necessary infrastructure. That bill was referred to the house finance committee in August, so the bill is likely dead for this year.

Putting the money in perspective

The N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO) says the cost of construction and population density are two major barriers to installing broadband in rural communities across the state.

Broadband runs through cables either underground or by above-ground poles. The cost of burying the lines depends on the soil. Drilling through the granite found in western North Carolina is more costly than digging in Piedmont clay or the eastern coastal plain’s sandy soil.

Burying these lines is estimated to cost between $20,000 to $50,000 per mile or higher, according to NC BIO. Attaching lines to poles owned by telephone or electric companies costs between $1,500 to $10,000 per mile.

The need for broadband in rural communities is substantial and pervasive, Mooneyham said.

“You have school kids that are going to McDonald’s parking lot where they’re doing their homework,” he said.

Municipalities aren’t included 

For Mooneyham, the issue is far more complex, because even communities with internet connections may not have access to high-speed internet. The services that do exist in rural communities can be spotty and unreliable.

“Mountain communities … don’t have services for days and days at a time and that’s just not acceptable,” he said.

As the program stands, municipalities are not eligible for GREAT grant program funds. But Mooneyham said local governments have considerable resources and could be an important ally in connecting rural communities to adequate broadband. For instance, many municipalities have fiber systems for their 911 systems. He said that so-called “dark fiber” could be a way to connect some households and businesses to the internet.

Arp countered that municipalities aren’t barred from taking on their own broadband infrastructure projects, just not with GREAT funds. He said he was not aware of any plans to change that anytime soon.

“Municipalities can do their own thing now,” he said.

N.C. Health News reporter Taylor Knopf contributed to this report. 

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Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...