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North Carolina Anticipates Generational Broadband Funding

If a bipartisan infrastructure plan in Congress and a state budget get passed in the coming week, North Carolina could be on the receiving end of more than a billion dollars to expand broadband Internet access.

(TNS) — If a bipartisan infrastructure plan in Congress and a state budget get passed in the coming week, North Carolina could be on the receiving end of more than a billion dollars to expand broadband internet access.

And that could lead to some of the largest-ever investments in broadband in a state with a rural population larger than any other, except for Texas.

"We're getting a really unprecedented, generational opportunity to make those investments," said Nate Denny, the deputy secretary of broadband and digital equity at the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT). "High-speed internet is critical to every part of modern life."

President Joe Biden's roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan includes $65 billion for improving broadband access across the country. The money is earmarked to improve internet infrastructure in rural areas and to help low-income families pay for high-speed connections, according to the Associated Press. The bill could be signed into law next week, NPR reported.

And while a state budget has yet to be approved in North Carolina — with a final proposal expected in the coming week — it appears there is support on both sides of the aisle to make money available to expand broadband, The News & Observer previously reported.

The pandemic, in some ways, created a perfect storm for broadband investment. There's never been a situation when so much of daily life — from office work and remote schooling to shopping and doctor's visits — was reliant on a high-speed internet connection. Yet at least 1.1 million people in North Carolina lack access to high-speed internet, according to DIT.

"It's a moment in time that we've only ever dreamed of before," said Patrick Woodie, president of the N.C. Rural Center, an organization that has advocated for more spending on rural broadband.

Logistical challenges to expand broadband

While North Carolina's thriving urban centers have some of the best internet connections in the country, its geography has made it hard to extend high-speed internet to every corner of the state.

The mountainous western regions and the marshy coastline of Northeastern North Carolina particularly make it hard to lay fiber, especially when there are few large population centers.

"There's a lot of issues that are top of mind in rural communities," Woodie said, "but broadband is up there. And the thing about broadband is it underpins all the other things they're worried about, like health care (and) supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs."

As of June 2021, 81.1% of North Carolina households have subscribed to some form of broadband, according to DIT.

Just around a third of the state's population, however, has fiber-optic internet service (considered the gold standard of home internet service), according to Broadband Now, an advocacy group. That means many residents might reach the broadband definition of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. However those speeds aren't always enough to handle streaming video or a Zoom call, especially if multiple people are using the internet.

Under the new infrastructure plan, any project receiving funding must achieve internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits per second for uploads.

Currently, the state says that 95.5% of homes have access to broadband, but the number is overstated because of the way the FCC collects data.

For example, if just one home in a census block can get high-speed internet, the FCC considers every home in that block to be covered. Denny said the state budget could make more money available to create more accurate maps.

"We want to go from that fake 95% to a real 98%" accessibility, Denny said.

Costs of broadband service

Beyond the logistics of building up more broadband infrastructure, though, remains a fact that many can't afford broadband, even if it is available. Denny said around 1.1 million people in North Carolina are on the wrong side of the digital divide — and half of those are there because they can't afford it.

Some 276,000 North Carolinians are currently getting discounted internet via the Federal Communications Commission's temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Around $14 billion of the infrastructure bill is going to extend that program to provide a $30 monthly subsidy to help low-income people pay for internet.

"Extend(ing) that program, I think is going to be tremendously helpful in North Carolina for our efforts to get everybody connected," Denny said. "Because ... it's not enough for us to lay fiber by somebody's house if they can't afford the service, or they don't have a smartphone or device to connect."

Meanwhile, Charlotte recently announced a $250 million racial equity investment that will partially go toward helping 55,000 households in that city gain internet access, the Charlotte Observer reported.

How much will North Carolina get

It still remains to be seen exactly how much North Carolina will get from the federal infrastructure bill, as the money is being distributed in a formulaic approach among 50 states and territories.

The bill includes $42.5 billion for broadband infrastructure, of which each state will get at least $100 million at first.

The rest of the $42.5 billion will be doled out via a formula-based grant program.

Denny expects North Carolina's share to eventually come in the $800 million range for infrastructure alone. That's money that could be used to build out more fiber internet across the state, but could also include money for some other forms of fast internet, like fixed wireless or satellite internet.

Gov. Roy Cooper's budget proposal would add $1.2 billion to the state's efforts at making broadband more accessible, though it's unknown what the final amount will be in the budget lawmakers are expected to put out in the coming week or whether Cooper will approve that plan. The N.C. Senate's budget put infrastructure investments at around $330 million.

"Nothing has ever been invested at the federal, state or any other level compared to what President Biden's administration has with the infrastructure act," Denny said.

Woodie said if North Carolina uses this money well, it could lead to a "dramatically changed landscape" for rural internet access.

"If we can solve the infrastructure piece in the next few years, or make a tremendous dent in it," Woodie said, "we can shift even more resources toward digital literacy ... and making sure that people who can't afford it have a mechanism to help them pay for it."

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to

© 2021 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.