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$10 Million North Carolina Pilot Project Spreads Broadband

The Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant Program was funded as a $10 million state pilot program in 2019, with the North Carolina Broadband Office handling applications.

by Todd Wetherington, Sun Journal / January 31, 2020
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(TNS) — Jones County, N.C., is bringing its broadband internet service into the 21st Century thanks to a grant program aimed at rural counties across the state.

During a launching ceremony held on the lawn of the Jones County Courthouse Thursday, representatives from Eastern Carolina Broadband joined members of the state and county government to announce a plan to bring high-speed Internet service to approximately 700 locations, including homes and businesses, across Jones County.

Wes King, director of the Communications Broadband Infrastructure Office, said Jones County would be receiving $270,000 in grant funds plus additional matching dollars for a total of $430,000 for the broadband project.

According to Jeff Sural, director of the North Carolina Broadband Office (NCBO), the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant Program was funded as a $10 million state pilot program in 2019. The NCBO took applications from Internet service providers in Tier I, economically disadvantaged counties across the state and then awarded grants based on the applications.

Thus far, said Sural, the GREAT Grant Program has distributed $9.95 million to 20 different projects in 19 counties.

"The idea is to serve and support those areas that are either unserved or maybe underserved, that don't have great Internet connectivity," he commented.

One of the applicants chosen for the grant funds was Eastern Carolina Broadband (ECB), a company started in 2017 by social entrepreneurs concerned with access to high-speed internet service in Lenoir, Jones, and Duplin counties. ECB uses fixed wireless technology to beam fiber off of water towers, grain elevators and utility poles to local homes and businesses.

Susan Myers, co-founder and a managing partner of ECB, said the GREAT Grant Program will allow her company to serve areas that have either poor signal service or none at all. .

"In a bi-partisan effort, the state legislature approved for the first time a grant program to help companies provide Internet to rural areas in Tier I counties," she said. "Eastern Carolina Broadband applied for and won grants for both Jones and Lenoir Counties. The state asked local governments to partner by providing affordable access to their vertical assets such as water towers and EMS towers."

Sural said he believes small companies like ECB will be the ones to "bridge the digital divide in rural North Carolina."

"We like all our Internet service providers, but right now what we're seeing from my office is that the small businesses and the cooperatives are really stepping up and filling in that void where others don't want to go and serve folks," said Sural. .

N.C. Senator Sen. Harry Brown, who sponsored the GREAT Grant Program bill, said he began talking to Internet providers five years ago in an effort to bring broadband to rural North Carolinians.

"We had meeting after meeting and finally came up with a plan that would force the existing providers to partner with other entities such as co-ops and smaller broadband companies to find ways to get broadband to rural parts of the state," said Brown.

Brown said GREAT grant funds distributed across the state have helped bring broadband service to 10,000 households and businesses thus far.

According to Brown, the current state budget provides $150 million in rural broadband investment over the next 10 years.

"It's going to be a game changer in rural parts of the state. As we know, it's a challenge already. As I've stated publicly I think there's two North Carolinas, and hope this is one of the things we can do to close that gap," said Brown. "This will be important for education and help expand our businesses and draw new businesses to our counties."

Jones County Manager Franky Howard said broadband Internet has been one of his top priorities for the last 13 years. He thanked the citizens of Jones Country for making their voices heard through a local broadband committee and a subsequent survey.

"We had great participation in that with over 700 repsonses, which for us was huge. We were able to take that data and use it to go after grants," said Howard.

Walter Robinson, a Jones County native, said he was glad to see a provider bringing updated Internet service to Jones County.

"We need something, so I think it's a good thing. I'm glad of it, I really am," said Robinson. "We're like lost around here with our Internet stuff. I'm just interested to see how it works, because my Internet falls off all the time."

Jones County Sheriff Danny Heath said the news was "outstanding" for local schools.

"Everybody has laptops and this will help them out quite a bit. The education side of it is the biggest thing for me," said Heath. "We like the slower pace of life here but there's certain things we need to move along and stay apace with everyone else."

©2020 the Sun Journal (New Bern, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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