Rural Counties Get $10M for Broadband from N.C. Legislature

The state annually ranks counties by greatest need. This year, it is giving out $10 million to 19 rural counties to help them boost their efforts to bring high-speed Internet to their residents.

by Charlotte Wray, Henderson Daily Dispatch / May 10, 2019

(TNS) — On Wednesday, North Carolina state legislators awarded nearly $10 million in grants to 19 rural counties across the state in hopes that it would accelerate broadband Internet-access projects.

Vance County was one of potential beneficiaries of the first round of grants through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology program.

Launched by the N.C. General Assembly in 2018, this program subsidizes Internet providers and electric cooperatives who are working with un- and underserved rural communities across the state.

Broadband initiatives bring faster Internet services to rural areas where standard cable-supplied service isn’t available. High-speed Internet is as basic and vital a need as “access to a phone, electricity or water,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, the Senate’s majority leader.

Internet service allows access for economic opportunities, basic and higher education, business growth, and healthcare via telemedicine.

“These grants … will ensure that North Carolinians in rural areas receive the same opportunities as those in our cities,” Brown said.

Open Broadband, a service provider and contender for a forthcoming high-speed Internet contract in Vance County, was awarded a $344,000 share of the total $9.9 million. The company applied earlier this year, as the state reserved the funds for Internet providers instead of governments.

Open Broadband and the N.C. Broadband Partnership are the two companies left vying for the broadband project in this region.

In February, after receiving 18 bids for the project in late 2018, the Vance County Commissioners technology committee pared the list down to these two companies.

Over the past two years, Vance, Granville, and Franklin county officials have worked together on a regional broadband effort, led by the Kerr-Tar Council of Governments.

If Open Broadband gets the contract, only Vance County would see the grant money.

Funds are only available to Tier 1 counties, regions the N.C. Department of Commerce has deemed to be among the 40 most economically distressed counties in the state.

Vance County is a Tier 1 county, while Granville and Franklin counties are Tier 2 counties, being the next 40 counties in the mid-range of need. Tier 3 includes the 20 least distressed counties.

The department ranks counties annually, allowing the less prosperous communities access to state programs that encourage economic activity.

Vance falls into this category, but an even smaller portion of Vance County would receive the funds, primarily the western and northwestern areas of the county, as the money is allocated for specific census tracts, according to County Manager Jordan McMillen.

Though the money has been awarded, a provider hasn’t been officially selected.

McMillen hopes to have a contract in place within the next 30 to 60 days, or by July’s County Commissioners meeting.

On Monday, McMillen presented his budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year. He’s asking for $150,000 a year for the next four years to pay for broadband deployment.

If Open Broadband is the selected candidate, the state grant would likely reduce the overall cost to the county.

In February, The Daily Dispatch reported that Open Broadband only wanted the county’s help to line up financing, and had taken the initiative to secure financing from the state.

But N.C. Broadband may ask the county to help subsidize a starter fee of $2 million to $3.5 million.

Whichever service provider gets the contract, the project could begin as soon as early fall, though full deployment will take four years.

Vance County and the Kerr-Tarr Council of Governments are just one part of this statewide movement.

The state’s grant program could help in providing broadband access to 9,800 households statewide, and to nearly 600 businesses, including agricultural operations, libraries, schools and hospitals.

The 19 benefiting counties include: Bertie, Bladen, Caswell, Chowan, Clay, Columbus, Gates, Greene, Halifax, Hertford, Jackson, Jones, Lenoir, Macon, McDowell, Northampton, Person, Swain and Vance.

©2019 Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.