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By Liora Engel-Smith
Update: On Dec. 10, lawmakers announced that $30 million toward GREAT would come from the general fund. The state will use the CARES Act funds for other qualifying expenses.
When Karen Hammett wants to use her internet connection for a doctor’s appointment, a meeting or to check her blood test results, she thinks about her neighbors. Hammett, a retired educator who lives in the mountainous western North Carolina township of Fines Creek, knows she is competing with children engaged in virtual learning and parents working from home for limited broadband capacity.
During those times, refreshing a sluggish internet page dozens of times is not unusual, she said.
Video conferencing of any kind — the type that has become popular for primary care physician visits, school classes and a host of other business meetings can be just as frustrating, said fellow resident Larry Reeves.
“We’ve learned to adapt,” he added.
The Haywood County township of roughly 1,000 gets its name from a nearby creek. Situated on the last major I-40 exit before the Tennessee border, the village has a library that has now become an internet hot spot epicenter for locals. Hammett said it is not unusual to see several people sitting in the parking lot, working in their cars even late at night.
Internet dead zones are a reality of life for thousands of rural residents across the state, but when the pandemic moved much of life online, it erected barriers for residents who already had limited access to health care amid a pandemic that’s hitting rural areas harder.
Recognizing these difficulties, state lawmakers last spring earmarked $30 million of North Carolina’s federal coronavirus money for rural broadband infrastructure grants, also known as GREAT. The program gives matching grants to internet service providers for projects that bolster high-speed internet access in rural North Carolina.
More than 70 projects spanning roughly 50 rural communities in the state were going to benefit from that pot of money. But last month, the North Carolina Office of Broadband Infrastructure said the state determined that U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines prohibit CARES Act funds from being used for rural broadband projects.
The state is exploring options to fund these projects, North Carolina Department of Information Technology spokeswoman Mary-Alice Warren said in an email, but in the meantime, no money had materialized.
“The applications will remain active and will be considered—with top priority– if and when funding becomes available,” she wrote.
The mountains of western North Carolina draw thousands of tourists from far and wide. But Deborah Porto, who lives on the outskirts of Waynesville, a town of 10,000 roughly 30 miles west of Asheville, knows there’s hardship tucked into the picturesque mountain vistas.
Porto, who serves on the Haywood County Broadband Committee, understands that the mountains she calls home are part of the reason it’s so difficult to improve upon the county’s infrastructure.
Drilling through the granite of the Appalachians is far more expensive than burying internet lines in the sandy coastal plains, or even the rocky soil of the Piedmont.
A Haywood County project that would have connected just under 300 homes and businesses sought $2 million in matching funds from the state’s federal coronavirus money. A project of roughly the same size in Lenoir County to the east got Just over $135,000 in last year’s grant cycle. The project cost roughly $200,000 with matching funds, data from the state shows.
In the meantime, Porto said, private businesses, schools and the county’s libraries have set up wireless hot spots across the county. That, she said, is no long-term solution. Internet service through cellular hot spots is costly and doesn’t always work in the mountains, where poor reception is common.
“It’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “If you don’t have internet at all and you get access through a hot spot, that’s definitely a positive thing, but it would just literally be a Band-Aid toward wired connection.”
‘We need to fill the gap’
Similar broadband projects were slated to be funded all across the state. At least seven such projects would have benefited counties near the western tip of North Carolina. Collectively, those projects would have wired 4,600 homes and roughly 150 businesses in some of the most remote parts of the region. In all these projects would have cost roughly $11.5 million — $8 million of which would have come from GREAT, according to data from the Southwestern Commission Council of Governments , a Sylva-based organization that helped several internet service providers apply for the grants.
None of it can happen without government assistance, said Jason Maples, vice president of sales and marketing at BalsamWest, an internet service provider that operates in and around the Great Balsam Mountains, an area in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina.
BalsamWest serves around 2,000 homes and businesses. Maples estimates that at least 50,000 residents in the area lack internet access at home.
The Sylva-based company applied for the state’s coronavirus GREAT grant cycle, proposing a project that could have potentially doubled its rural customer base. BalsamWest could have provided internet access to roughly 2,700 new customers, for a total cost of $2 million, he added.
Building and providing internet in small towns and scattered homes in the more rural parts of western North Carolina isn’t financially feasible because of the cost of laying fiber, he added.
Even if he had the necessary money for the project, Maples said it would take roughly six months before any customers on the list can connect to the internet and two to three years to finish the project.
Sarah Thompson, executive director of the Southwestern Commission, said broadband projects such as the one BalsamWest proposed are on hold in the meantime until the state finds money to fund them.
The needs of residents, however, are urgent.
“You cannot exist in this pandemic without internet access,” she said. “ … We need to fill the gap.”
This story has been updated to correct the location of Waynesville