North Carolina Commits $16 Million to Connect Rural Households

North Carolina’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) broadband grant program announced two new rounds of winners recently that will bring Internet access to more than 11,000 households, businesses, farms, and community anchor institutions across the state. The roughly $16 million in projects represents a significant bump in the state’s commitment to its least-connected people, though there remains significant work to be done.

Counties in Need

The winners span projects in 11 rural counties: Bertie, Columbus, Duplin, Edgecombe, Graham, Greene, Martin, Nash, Robeson, Rockingham, and Swain. The first round, announced in July, includes $10 million in GREAT funds joined by $2 million in CARES Act money to bring access to 8,017 households and 254 businesses, farms, and community institutions. The governor announced a second round at the end of last week that leverages an additional $4 million in CARES Act funds to connect 3074 households and 191 businesses.

Duplin County (pop. 59,000), in the southeast part of the state, won particularly big this time around, with four providers (CenturyLink, Cloudwyze, Eastern Carolina Broadband, and Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC)) pursuing projects totaling more than $3 million. See the full list of winners here.

Among them are a handful of community networks (like ATMC) and local ISPs (like Eastern Carolina Broadband). Last year ATMC won $7.9 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, which it paired with matching funds to deliver Fiber-to-the-Home to more than 2,700 homes, businesses, and farms.

A Great Program, With Caveats

The GREAT Program was initiated in 2018, and aims to bring Internet access to a host of counties that the state has defined as the most economically distressed. Nearly half of the 100 counties in the state are designated as Tier 1 [pdf], or the most in need. The system has been in place since 2007, and determinations are based on median household income, unemployment rates, demographic changes, and property taxes. A number of counties — including Duplin, Rockingham, and Nash — were moved from the Tier 2 to the Tier 1 designation in the last year.

Grants are administered by the Broadband Information Office (BIO). The first awards in 2018 saw $10 million given for 20 projects in 18 counties to connect 10k households. Since its inception, $26 million has been doled out to projects in 26 counties to connect 21,000 households, with matches of $20 million in private investment. Applicants are scored by a set of criteria that includes the number of households to which they will bring service, the average cost per household to deliver the infrastructure, and the speed of the connection. 

The BIO, disappointingly, is forced to exclude municipal network's like Wilson's Greenlight from the program. It also only requires projects to commit to baseline speeds of 10/1 Megabits per second (Mbps), though it “encourages” delivered speeds of 25/ 3Mbps. We recently covered a report that highlighted how universal broadband and a coherent statewide telehealth framework could help some of the hardest-hit regions in North Carolina. 10/1 Mbps connections can theoretically handle simultaneous standard definition teleconferencing, so long as no one else in the household is accessing the Internet.

North Carolina has more than half a million unconnected families across the state, and for students trying to operate in the midst of a pandemic it has been especially hard. Acting North Carolina Department of Information Technology Secretary and State Chief Information Officer Thomas Parrish commented on the second round of GREAT grants:

As more and more of our day-to-day life, business and services have moved online to adapt to the pandemic, many North Carolinians are faced with the added challenge of not having access to affordable, reliable high-speed Internet. These grants will help lessen that disparity and bring the necessary infrastructure and connectivity to our communities and to thousands of residents who desperately need it.

The next GREAT application window opens in December. Interested parties should spend some time looking at how rankings are calculated and with the state's broadband data resources.

Image of counties without 10/1 Mbps access and 25/3 Mbps access from the state's OneMap Project.

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