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North Carolina Offers ISPs Grant Funds to Lower Internet Costs

Service providers in Vance, Granville and Warren counties are getting millions in so-called Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grants from the state to offer more affordable service to some residents.

internet service providers
Shutterstock/Jakub Krechowicz
(TNS) — All three of the region's counties are benefitting from grants that will help underwrite discounted Internet service for some of their residents.

Service providers in Vance, Granville and Warren counties are each getting so-called GREAT grants — the GREAT being short for Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology. Gov. Roy Cooper announced the awards earlier this summer, and state administrators began elaborating on that announcement late in August.

A service provider that offers Internet in Warren County, Spectrum Southeast, is getting $4 million. Another that offers service in Vance and Granville counties, Connect Holdings II, is getting nearly $2.0 million for Vance and $4 million for Granville.

Connect Holdings is also known as Brightspeed, Vance County Manager Jordan McMillen said.

To be eligible for the grants, companies had to commit to providing high-speed Internet with a download speed of at least 100 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 20 megabits per second.

They also had to join the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers eligible low-income customers a $30 monthly discount on their service, or "provide access to a comparable low-cost program," state officials said.

Money for the program comes from the economic-stimulus bill Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed in the spring of 2021 to offset the drag the COVID-19 pandemic imposed on the economy.

State legislators subsequently earmarked $350 million for the program, and specified that it should go to Tier 1 and 2 counties like those in this region. Tier 1 is the state's 40 worst-off counties, economically and Tier 2 is the middle 40. Tier 3 is the top 20 economies and most includes urban areas like Wake and Durham County. Vance and Warren are in Tier 1, and Granville is in Tier 2.

Warren County officials said Spectrum Southeast's grant will support the build-out of a fiber-optic network in their jurisdiction that will cover about 2,000 homes.

"Details on a construction timeline and specific household addresses that will be served are in the works," they said in announcing the grant.

In Granville County, Connect Holdings is likewise deploying fiber to 3,252 locations, county spokesman Terry Hobgood said. And in Vance County, Connect Holdings is figuring on using the money to serve 664 households, McMillen said.

All of the applications presume additional contributions from the local governments and the companies involved.

Hobgood said the Granville project expected costs is about $10.1 million, with Connect Holdings on the hook for $4 million of that and the GREAT grant another $4 million. The remaining $2.1 million would come from the county, though officials there intend to cover that with other economic-stimulus proceeds.

The $4 million grants to the projects in Granville and Warren counties is the maximum the state could award at one time, though the law does allow allotments of up to $8 million in any one county during a fiscal year, officials in the N.C. Department of Information Technology said.

Vance County's $2 million is "reduced from what Connect initially applied to the state to complete," McMillen said.

Initially, the county was figuring on putting in a $750,000 local match from its share of federal stimulus money, but officials are "currently talking with the state and with Connect to determine the revised areas to be served and to determine what if any local funds will be necessary with the revised project scope," McMillen said.

The grant is nonetheless "very good news in Vance County as we continue to find ways to provide high speed broadband to the unserved and underserved areas of our county," he added.

Rural internet connectivity in the U.S. has lagged for years, and the pandemic highlighted the problem in 2020 and 2021 as school district here and elsewhere had to move to online classes for a while.

©2022 Henderson Daily Dispatch, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.