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Inside North Carolina’s Push to Close Rural Broadband Gaps

After success expanding broadband access to rural areas of the state with a $10 million grant program, the Broadband Infrastructure Office wants to broaden its efforts but must wait for a budget to be approved first.

Caught in the crossfire of continued budget negotiations between North Carolina’s General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper is the expansion of a program funding last-mile broadband infrastructure in the state. Cooper vetoed the budget passed by the Legislature in June. The grant program is one of many facets in the Broadband Infrastructure Office’s (BIO) mission to facilitate high-speed Internet access statewide by June 2021.

In March, Cooper signed an executive order to promote the expansion of Internet access and to remove barriers to broadband infrastructure installation. The order established the 2021 timetable and a broadband task force with members from the Department of Information Technology, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, and Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

State Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette said the task force has met multiple times since the signing of the executive order. Boyette said the first item that members are working to address is the Dig Once policy outlined by the governor, which aims to reduce the scale and number of excavations related to road projects for installation and maintenance of broadband infrastructure in rights-of-way.

“We’re trying to work to make government work smoother and work better,” Boyette said. “There are some barriers there [that we can remove internally that have no cost, that is] just common-sense government.”

He said the BIO’s greatest achievement, so far, has been the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program, which has made $10 million available for less affluent areas of the state. Of the 19 counties deemed Tier 1 by the Department of Commerce due to the area’s state of economic distress, 11 have penned contracts with companies to expand high-speed broadband.

The program, in its current form, will provide Internet access to 9,800 homes and about 600 businesses, which include agricultural operations, libraries, schools and hospitals.

“It’s not our service, so we’re just trying to make sure that we have a broadband presence across our state in the areas that are underserved right now,” Boyette said. “I guess you could say we’re the conduit to close that gap, but really that’s what our job is, to help close that gap and [determine] how we move forward with broadband in our state.”

Boyette and BIO Director Jeff Sural said their goal is to make Tier 2 counties eligible for funding from the GREAT Program — there are three tier levels in the Department of Commerce’s ranking. The planned expansion will create $30 million in funding for broadband, but it will be held in limbo until an agreement is reached between the Legislature and the governor’s office, Boyette said.

“The biggest challenge we’ve had is securing funding. If you look at our state, we have a large amount of our citizens and our residents who live in a rural area, so funding for our Internet service providers [is limited],” Boyette said. “We understand it’s a business. They’re in business for a reason and if they can’t have a return on their investment then it’s very difficult. I think that’s where our grant program is important. We’re glad to see [Tier 1] get funded and be able to hopefully fill that void for that last mile and to help with the adoption rate.”

Aside from the GREAT Program, Sural said his office is also working to create an accurate statewide depiction of broadband access and speeds through a map on the agency’s website.

“There’s some question around the current broadband coverage map that the FCC publishes and so we felt that to make sure that we’re using the taxpayer dollars prudently that we would need some better data around who has broadband coverage and who doesn’t,” he said. “We’ve had almost 6,000 data entries across the state and we’re currently in the process of upgrading that tool to make it a little more streamlined and user-friendly, but that’s great. It’s just another data point that we use to pinpoint the unserved areas in the state.”

Boyette said statewide broadband access will be instrumental in solving key issues in North Carolina outlined in the state broadband plan, such as the homework gap, telehealth and economic development.

“A lot of people don’t realize the disadvantages that they have because most citizens and residents we serve have broadband,” he said. “We look at commerce, obviously, is very important, education if you look at the homework gap and you also have health — telehealth is very important. Some of our rural areas have a two-hour ride to a local hospital, so telehealth is very important.

"If you look at the economy, how do you apply for jobs now? There are not many places that still accept paper applications, so you apply for a job online,” he continued.

Sural and Boyette said they are keeping a watchful eye on new and emerging technologies that may be more cost effective in delivering last-mile coverage than the installation of fiber-optic cables. Some items under consideration are white space technology, small wireless cells and low-orbit satellites, Sural said.

“What we’re struggling with — and what I think most states are struggling with — is that last-mile connectivity,” Sural said. “When you’re trying to go down a rural road that has only five to seven locations per linear mile, then you’re going to look at the most cost-effective way to reach all of those homes and that could be a fixed wireless solution. We’ve had a number of companies that have received funding from the GREAT Grant Program process, and we’ll provide a last-mile fixed wireless solution.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.